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The Unkindest Cut: Altering Male Genitalia
MAN!, p. 25, Winter 1991
Since the birth of our second child in August, I had been thinking a lot about vasectomy. My wife and I were both clear that we wanted no more children, and we still had many fertile years ahead. I thought it would be nice not to have to deal with mechanical means of contraception all these years. I knew that tubal ligation is a more complicated surgery requiring general anesthesia and much more expense. I knew that vasectomy is quite a common, outpatient surgery. I have several friends who have had vasectomies. I had spoken with them and been reassured about ongoing virility. My only intellectual concern, really, stemmed from a basic distrust of medical intervention with whole body systems. I did need to know more about this. Although I later found out that no discernible side effects were known, I still cannot help wondering about the organismic function of involuntary seminal discharge.
The reactions of my emotional body constitute a much richer story. On a weekend in October, I went to Houston with my wife Susanna, our son Eric, and our baby Vanessa to visit Susanna's family and to introduce the baby to her grandmother, who doesn't travel much. On the car ride home I was reading Alice Miller's powerful new book, Banished Knowledge. I happened to read the chapter which includes a long quotation from Desmond Morris' Bodywatching on the history of circumcision and clitorectomy. While reading this in the back seat of our car returning from Houston, my body, especially my genitalia, became enervated with tension, tingling, fear and dread. I was most uncomfortable. All I could verbalize to Susanna was that I just did not know if I could go through with the vasectomy at this time. I felt shaky.
There are certain guiding
cultural beliefs that allow actions to be taken
that are oppressive to men.
I find thinking from the Re-Evaluation Counseling Community helpful in understanding some of the psychology motivating practices like circumcision and vasectomy, involving alteration of male genitalia. There are certain guiding cultural beliefs that allow actions to be taken that are oppressive to men.
One core belief at the heart of men's opposition is that we are expendable. From the moment of revelation that "It's a boy," the hooks are in place. Men are expendable. They are the stuff of which wars are made. A "good man" will proudly do his duty to kill or be killed. If he is not proud of this, he is unpatriotic. If he is afraid or full of grief, he is less than a man.
Particularly pertinent to the ubiquitous practice of circumcision is that "Boys don't feel pain the way girls do." This is a lie. Related to the belief that "If boys do feel pain, they will quickly get over it and forget." To justify this belief, people use studies indicating that within a day or two after circumcision, infants bodily homeostasis has returned to normal. The reality of our inherent nature is that each detail of experience is recorded in our body/psyche. We may consciously "forget" via psychological defense mechanisms of emotional denial and repression, but when the experience is hurtful it causes distress. We have a built-in mechanism called emotional discharge to release and heal the effects. When an individual is hurt physically or emotionally, distress is locked in the body/psyche. In safe and supportive conditions, we release this by crying or sweating or trembling or talking excitedly.
I believe that no man would allow his beloved
son to be circumcised
if he were in touch with the terror he experienced during his own!
Another belief in our culture is that men should not discharge emotion. We are blanketed with various expressions of the classic phrase that "Big boys don't cry." This may be meant in an apparently kind way ("such a good boy" or "such a big boy") or in a shaming way ("no son of mine is going to act like a sissy") or in a brutal way ("I'll give you something to cry about"). More often with infants, it takes the form of what Aletha Solter, in The Aware Baby, called a control pattern. This typically means using a technique that is often benevolent (such as nursing, jiggling, playing, or walking), to distract the baby and stop his or her crying. Ostensibly to make the baby feel better, the technique is really to control the baby because the parent has wrong information and is uncomfortable with emotional expression. The wrong information usually involves confusion of the hurt with expression or release of the hurt. Crying is not hurting; the hurt has already happened. Once basic needs are ruled out, crying can be seen as the release of the hurt. In any event, whatever the forms of conditioning against emotional discharge, boys get the message very early in their lives.
Our human psyche has an
incredible capacity to deny and repress experience,
especially painful trauma.
It is important to understand the mechanism by which we do "forget" early trauma. Simply put, our human psyche has an incredible capacity to deny and repress experience, especially painful trauma. These mechanisms of emotional denial and repression are especially potent in abusive childhood situations because it is incomprehensible to a child that those on whom his life depends would treat him in an undeservedly horrible way. The child takes the blame and the shame. It is too much to consciously bear. Alice Miller powerfully describes the inevitable consequence; a victim who is unaware of his victimization will unconsciously avenge himself on a smaller weaker victim. The original victim has, through denial and repression, split off the part of himself that felt shameful, wicked and full of rage. The victim compulsively projects this part onto someone around him (usually a child) and will perpetuate abuse similar to that which he himself has suffered.
Parents (who were victims) will
avenge themselves on their children,
and sincerely believe they are doing the right thing!
Because parents who were victims were made to believe their victimization was for their own good, and because it is too threatening to their own emotional denial to challenge their own perpetrators actions, parents will avenge themselves on their children, and sincerely believe they are doing the right thing! Fathers and mothers will stand by while their infant sons scream at having their penises mutilated. They may even be proud of themselves for not letting their squeamish emotions prevent a good decision, recommended perhaps by their doctor, for their son.
I scheduled an initial vasectomy consultation with a urologist who was a friend of mine. I wanted more information, and I trusted him. It just so happened that, on the same day as the consultation, I also had a personal psychotherapy session. Incredibly enough, I spent most of that 90 minute session in a psychotherapeutic regression, re-experiencing my own circumcision. It was horrific.
Intense rage also came up at times. I wanted to protect myself, but I couldnt.
I did not experience terrible physical pain in this session, though it hurt some and I was intensely activated in the genital area. The emotional experience, however, was horrible. I felt overwhelming fear, sweating and shaking for long periods. Intense rage also came up at times. I wanted to protect myself, but I couldnt.
In this kind of session, one experiences what I call a dual consciousness or simultaneous awareness. My observer-self watches as my body and my inner child (infant) experiences and discharges the trauma. The guilt was unbearable. Rationally, I was saying, "This doesnt make sense. I was just a baby. I should not feel guilty." Yet I felt overwhelming guilt. I kept apologizing over and over for not protecting myself. I felt so guilty and then terribly sad, engulfed in grief, despair and helplessness. I released emotionally for a well over an hour and was finally spent, sad.
I had a clear awareness that, already at one or two days old, I experienced a duality. In some way, there was a separation, at minimum a rudimentary split of mind and body, in which I desired, even felt obligated, to protect myself. That I could not, and would not be able to for many years, does not change the set-up. For me, it is a dramatic psychological highlight of how desperately human children need to be protected with complete and total care and respect. The damage otherwise is far greater than we might imagine.
It still amazes me that I could
so completely repress such an intense experience.
I am even more amazed as I look around at my fellow men...
Although I see similar processes everyday in my practice as a psychologist, it still amazes me that I could so completely repress such an intense experience. I am even more amazed as I look around at my fellow men, aware that most of them are circumcised and unaware of the powerful trauma repressed in their psyches. And this is just one experience, albeit a most powerful one.
One who is in touch with his own
wounded child within will not (indeed cannot!)
intentionally hurt another...
There is a way out of the unconscious avenging of repressed trauma. It is to make fully conscious the denied and repressed emotion. It is possible to feel and express the horror, release the irrational guilt and shame, and hold the perpetrators accountable. One who is in touch with his own wounded child within will not (indeed cannot!) intentionally hurt another, or stand passively by, oblivious to the pain felt by a child being hurt. I believe that no man would stand by and allow his beloved son to be circumcised if he were in touch with the terror he experienced during his own! I have indefinitely postponed my decision on vasectomy.
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