Lessons Learned at Genital Autonomy 2014

30 Jul

GA14bannerV3r1eThis past weekend, I was able to attend the 13th International Symposium on Genital Autonomy and Children’s Rights. The conference, sponsored and organized by the Sexpo Foundation, Intact America, the National Organization of Circumcision Resource Centers, and Genital Autonomy International, hosted speakers from the US, Canada, Liberia, Australia, Israel, Germany, Belgium, England, and Denmark. A mix of academic and activist presentations, with films and experiential sessions, the symposium focused on the importance of children’s right to bodily integrity. Though most of the presenters focused on male circumcision (in both its religious/ritual and medical instantiations), a few also connected to issues of female circumcision and intersex genital surgeries. Though the viewpoints of individual presenters varied somewhat, the take home message of the conference was that genital surgeries on infants and children—regardless of cultural, religious, aesthetic and hygienic justifications—contravene the rights of children and are therefore in violation of international human rights principles.

While I cannot include all of what was discussed over the three day conference, I’ll include a few highlights that will be of most interest and value to our readers.

Of particular interest to Masculinities 101 readers concerned with gender equality activism, several presentations highlighted effective activist strategies. From a practical standpoint, Glen Callendar, who advocates “foreskin pride,” spoke about the importance of crafting professional press releases for any activist events. Callendar writes detailed press releases, full of links to prior press coverage, guiding journalists to cover his intended message. He even incorporates humor to ensure that he catches the eye of overworked, overtired, jaded writers. Interestingly, Callendar even pushes for niche coverage—for example, a snippet of coverage on Late Night with Seth Meyers, a comedy talk show. I believe these tips are useful for any activist fighting for gender equality. Feminist messages are often misunderstood or caricatured by the public, so press releases that guide press coverage are invaluable. And, when useful, we can look outside mainstream news sources to nontraditional coverage which may reach younger audiences with more open minds.

Another interesting set of presentations came from a religious perspective, specifically how to work within a religious context to alter what activists see as a harmful traditional practice, the brit milah. Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald helped create an alternative ceremony to welcome baby boys into Judaism without circumcision: the brit shalom. Both practicing members of Reform Judaism, Moss and Wald recognize the importance of the bris ceremony, as a tradition and as part of a collective identity, but wanted to eliminate the actual cutting. So, they located Rabbis willing to perform alternative ceremonies, and have written a book that they are funding through Kickstarter. The take home message(s) for our readers? I believe there are two. First, a philosophical or theoretical message: critiquing any practice (or set of beliefs, or ideologies etc.) will be better received if you have insider status. Where many in the genital autonomy (or Intactivist) movement have been criticized as anti-Semitic, Moss and Wald are able to ground their critique of Jewish practice in a love and respect for that very religion. Second, a more practical message: open up your funding sources! Use social media to spread the word, and hopefully open wallets (along with hearts and minds, of course).

Finally, while most of the presentations focused on male circumcision, I’d like to spend a little time on the issue of intersex genital surgeries. Hida Viloria, chairperson of OII (the world’s largest intersex advocacy organization), spoke to the symposium audience about the problem of sex (re)assignment surgeries performed on intersex infants. As she explained, the reason that we allow these procedures to continue, in spite of overwhelming evidence that they are painful and often lead to severe problems of sexual function and pleasure, is that we do not consider intersex people to be fully human. That is, without fitting neatly into “M” or “F” boxes, intersex people are seen as incomplete. Thus, making them into little boys or girls is given priority over protecting their bodily integrity. Coming out publicly as an intersex person, Viloria challenges the binary view of sex/gender. She believes that as a society, we are fearful of the intersex social gender identity (as an alternative to existing social identities of “man” and “woman”). As feminists and gender equality activists, this is an area that we cannot ignore. Not only does it have real life consequences over the life course of intersex people, but there are also theoretical dimensions that are important as well; namely, that any challenge to the M/F binary necessarily advances our desire for equality. This binary is not a neutral one and the existence of intersex people (along with genderqueer, transgender, and gender nonconformers everywhere) exposes these categories for the socially constructed fictions that they are.

Other topics at the conference included: international human rights doctrines; medicalization of sexuality; blogging as activism; agenda vetting in international human rights organizations; health care reform (reducing the profit incentive for unnecessary surgeries); female circumcision (or “FGM”); and sexual counseling.

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