Over the last decade or so, medical professionals, writers and those who are vocally pro-circumcision have reported being subjected to abuse by a growing group of foreskin activists, or “intactivists” (a portmanteau of “intact” and “activist”) whenever they discuss the benefits of circumcision online. So, when the anonymous founders of the subreddit Debunking Intactivism set up their community in 2019, they knew exactly what they were in for. “We’ve had censorship attempts, violent, in-depth death threats (or instructions to “kill yourself”), doxing attempts and anti-Semitism, even though the vast majority of us aren’t even Jewish,” the group tells me. “Intactivists are very threatened by resistance, and respond with the animosity of cornered vermin.”
Though the group is small — it has just 439 members — it does seem to have riled up many anti-circumcision voices, who’ve even established their own subreddit, Debunking AntiIntact, which intends to “debunk anti-intactivism and pro-circumcision.” Undeterred, Debunking Intactivism says it’s determined to eradicate the idea that circumcised men aren’t “intact.” “We’re a modest community who represent the quiet majority view: that there’s nothing wrong with circumcised men,” the group explains.
Not all those who express anti-circumcision sentiment fall into this category, though. Many public figures, including Howard Stern, Cameron Diaz and Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang have spoken out against circumcision. But, as Dazed previously observed, although the intactivist movement does highlight some valid criticisms and conversations about circumcision — e.g., a child’s inability to consent — in recent years, it’s been seemingly “co-opted by the alt-right,” becoming “a breeding ground for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and misinformation.” One key cornerstone of their argument is that male circumcision is comparable to female genital mutilation (FGM) — something that has, sometimes contentiously, been dismissed by scientists. (Though, many circumcised men do feel they’ve been physically damaged by the procedure.)
Debunking Intactivism members often argue that intactivists peddle false and misleading information, like that circumcision reduces penis sensitivity, and therefore sexual pleasure — but this has also been disproven by a number of studies, which say medical male circumcision “has no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation or satisfaction.” Furthermore, intactivists frequently suggest that circumcision has no medical benefits, despite research suggesting that it’s a possible “component of HIV prevention,” as well as other STIs — though the difference in STI rates doesn’t seem to be significant, and many argue these findings have more to do with cultural imperialism than sound health policies.
Still, the Debunking Intactivism subreddit says its aim is to “remind people that “anti-circumcision activism bombards people with both medical misinformation and attempts at emotional manipulation. To do this, they address facts and share “more subjective, socially savvy and sometimes sassy” posts. Often, this comes across in the forms of memes or posts deriding uncircumcised men, many of which appear to make just as sweeping of statements as they accuse intactivists of.
This way of working arguably makes it easy for Debunking Intactivism to fall into similar traps as the intactivist movement. “We’ve definitely had criticism — both externally and internally — about arguments we’ve made on the subject side,” says the group. “One of our contributors in particular — the founder of the subreddit — is infamous for his extremely harsh tone and how he challenges unwilling people to use empathy. But he wouldn’t have anything to say at all if he wasn’t given the material.” The founder in question has also been banned from Reddit multiple times, though they argue this was in error.
With this in mind, it’s clear in both the group’s responses to my questions and their posts on Reddit and Twitter that the campaign isn’t simply about factually correcting intactivist claims. Debunking Intactivism has actually tweeted misleading, inaccurate and overly-emotional claims itself, including that “circumcised men are better” and live “happier, healthier lives,” that America has higher rates of circumcision than Europe because it has “standards instead of a smegma fetish,” that it’s “natural” for people to prefer circumcised men because they’re “cleaner,” “safer,” healthier and more “wanted” and that not sleeping with uncircumcised men will result in “less STDs, less cancer and less death.” It’s likely some of this is based on research — for example, this survey that says male circumcision improves sex for women — but there’s also research that says the opposite, so it’s near impossible to claim any of this as fact (particularly subjective statements like Europe having a “smegma fetish”).
It seems ironic, then, that Debunking Intactivism would tell me that anti-circumcision activism is “a kind of misinformation that’s meant to instill irrational feelings of insecurity, paranoia and general unrest in perfectly healthy people” and that “making intimate attacks on men for their penises in an organized manner could have a devastating psychological impact.” Is that not exactly what Debunking Intactivism’s tweets are doing? They, too, are suggesting that a person’s circumcision status makes them more or less attractive to sexual partners, more or less safe to have sex with and more or less happy.
In a way, then, neither side appears to care much about sharing a more nuanced argument — that is, acknowledging that there are pros and cons to circumcision, and that in many people’s experiences, one status isn’t inherently “better” than the other. What both sides have done, as Debunking Intactivism said of the intactivist movement, is “promoted division, damaged the self-image of many people and put misinformation in front of many audiences.”
Who would have thought we could be such dicks about people’s dicks?