Lots of people have a penis, and even more people are in some kind of relationship with one whether it’s romantic or parental.
If you ask a man to list the things more important to him than his relationship with his penis, you’ll get a very short list. Yet, we don’t talk about what happens to most American penises. The fact that we never discuss a surgical procedure done to millions of American baby boys moments after their birth is, well, weird, to some. The fact that people become enraged and often hostile when the subject of circumcision is discussed is even weirder. We want viewers to meet the group of people who fight against circumcision, discover what motivates them, and understand why they feel the best penis is the one left intact. Help us tell their stories, and help us shed light on a practice.
Pigs Without Blankets: The Penis Documentary is in its final week of a Indiegogo fundraiser. Originally intended as a PSA, it evolved into a documentary that emphasized some broader aspects of the issues around circumcision.
The documentary features celebrity intactivist Alan Cuming, as well as Steven Svoboda, who is the head of the Attorney of the Rights of the Child and Eric Clopper, spokesman for Foregen a company that plans to use stem cell science to restore foreskins.
We interviewed producer Kenny Neal Shults and star Eric Clopper about their project.
Kenny Neal Shults is a stand-up comic, writer, actor, filmmaker, and public health consultancy owner living in Brooklyn. A self-described “intactivist,” he’s now creating two comical digital shorts exploring the American practice of secular circumcision. We chatted about his passion for fully, ahem, covering the issue.
Gaily Grind: So tell us, what the heck is an intactivist?
Kenny Neal Shults: When I lived in San Francisco from 1996 to 2002, I did quite a bit of anti-circumcision activism. I made a connection with a local gay guy who helped run one of the primary anti-circ efforts called NOHARMM, the National Organization to Halt the Routine Mutilation of Males, and met many of the major players in the anti-circ scene — an exclusive band of mostly older gay men whose lives essentially revolved around the discussion of, the fight against, and the recovery from circumcision. When they needed a break from circumcision, they discussed foreskin restoration. These guys called themselves intactivists. I heard some amazingly insightful perspectives and ideas about how to combat the practice, and was inspired by the number of smart, thoughtful, measured people who were a part of this movement.
As an HIV prevention specialist for 20 years I am deeply troubled by the notion that mass circumcisions in Africa or anywhere will contribute to a decrease in incidents. Many men in Africa for example are getting circumcised so they do not have to use condoms. And in America people have rationalized circumcision as a means for preventing HIV and STDs. We would so love to dispel this dangerous myth, and with Alan Cummings star power we have a real chance to create some norm-altering discourse.
Eric Clopper: When you grow up in a circumcising country, being circumcised is considered normal so naturally you make fun of uncircumcised kids. When you grow up in a non-circumcising country, having a foreskin is normal so naturally you make fun of circumcised kids. I grew up in the US, so I participated in the former. Going on rugby tours in the UK and studying abroad in Australia (non-circumcising countries) I suddenly found myself in the minority defending circumcision, which is really just a proxy for defending your own penis. But, I wasn’t vehement about the topic, but I was genuinely curious, so I decided to do my own research, being careful not to follow the path of most people’s “research”, i.e. finding “facts” to support one’s preconceived notions.The truth that I found was incredibly simple yet incredibly hard to understand, and that truth is: the circumcised penis does not exist. It is purely a social construct. There is no such thing as a penis without a foreskin, the foreskin is the penis just as much as fingers are your hand. This is simple to understand because, “yeah the penis invariably comes with a foreskin – no matter how many times you cut it off, it is always a part of the penis.” Yet, it is incredibly hard to understand because of the social context we find ourselves in. If you are circumcised as a child, then you grow up identifying as a boy so naturally you identify your penis as a penis from an early age. However, what you have is not a penis, it is simply part of your entire penis, the other part having been cut off and sold to biomedical companies when you were an infant. What makes this even harder to understand is that most if not all of your peers and likely your father is circumcised as well, which further reinforces your false belief that what you have is a penis and not part of one.Due to the psychological importance of this body part, it is far easier to escape reality and console ourselves in mass delusion to paraphrase one of my favorite physicists Carl Sagan. Hell, some of the most powerful institutions in the world are solely devoted to promoting anti-realities, but I digress.After understanding this simple yet hard truth, I did my research and found out the average foreskin is 12-15 square inches of the penis, contains most of the nerve endings, all the natural mobility, lubrication, and sensitivity preserving functions the penis has evolved to have and that effectively 0% of men willingly remove it because who wants a smaller, less pleasurable penis? Not good news as you can imagine.I sure as hell didn’t want to break the news, but I’ve always had a very weak grasp on social norms so I figured what the hell. I’m kidding; I actually was very uncomfortable, but particularly in this case the social norm was not an acceptable norm and if I – the kid who always pointed out the elephant in the room – didn’t want to do this, who would? That’s how I got into the intactivist world, by identifying as that guy who points out the unfortunate truths, no matter how ugly they are.
GG: Why is this intactivism so important to you? What is your biggest hope you think this movie will change?
Kenny: To be honest, I’m not 100% sure. It’s a stupid practice that causes harm, and the basic, common sense injustice of it is something I would naturally oppose the way I oppose clubbing seals, but I don’t know why its something about which I feel so passionately. I mean, I’m not out there jumping into freezing oceans to save baby seals, but I gladly embarrass myself, make myself and my perspectives the subject of ridicule, talk about my own eventful circumcision and penis — why? That’s part of what’s so awful about circumcision: It leaves men in the dark. Most men don’t even know it happened, don’t know they have a scar on their penis, don’t know their penis was supposed to look and feel differently, and don’t have access to feelings that their infant selves undoubtedly experienced and stored for later displacement. To add insult to injury, iterally, everyone makes you feel crazy if you suggest that perhaps weshouldn’t cut off the most sensitive part of a newborn baby’s body with a scalpel while he’s strapped to a table, screaming and turning purple in the face from the pain. It’s all so unthinkable and otherworldly when you really consider it. Since I was very young, I’ve always pointed out the elephant in the room — and then ridden it around like a rodeo bull, naked and screaming to everyone what the elephant said about them behind their back
Eric: Awareness of the issue. As much as people may not want to talk about this, the form and function of your genitalia is a pretty damn big deal so it needs to be discussed on a national scale. My biggest hope is that people will watch this film because 1) it’s funny, we’ll have some fun with the subject matter, but more importantly 2) because I know what I’m talking about, and I know that the average circumcised dude can identify with and understand me. These are not things that I wish were true, but we must deal with the realities we are dealt – someone has to be the messenger; I am that guy. As much as people may not want to talk about this, the form and function of your genitalia is a pretty damn big deal so it needs to be discussed on a national scale. My biggest hope is that people will watch this film because 1) it’s funny, we’ll have some fun with the subject matter, but more importantly 2) because I know what I’m talking about, and I know that the average circumcised dude can identify with and understand me. These are not things that I wish were true, but we must deal with the realities we are dealt – someone has to be the messenger; I am that guy.
GG: How does this differ from attempts to change perception in the past?
Eric: When I did my first round of research I didn’t know there was an entire sub-culture of people whom I am now very familiar with called intactivists. These intactivists are activists who believe in keeping babies intact, i.e. not circumcising them, and want to change the false perception that circumcision is harmless or even beneficial. To an outside observer not familiar with the topic some intactivists may appear crazy (I’m sure some are), with signs, “I LOVE FORESKIN” deifying the holy prepuce and effectively branding every intactivist with a particular love for the foreskin. How I see it, the foreskin is just a normal body part like any other, this particular part conveys sexual pleasure to its owner, just as eyes convey sight, noses convey small, tongues taste, etc. The only unique aspect of the foreskin is that it is the only part that has been cut off from 100s of millions of men, mostly for sexually repressive religious reasons. In the US it’s for profit.
Pigs Without Blankets is different because I am championing the cause. I’m an average dude who has spent a ridiculous amount of time studying genital cutting and how to convey that information effectively, and most importantly I have a real solution to this problem using existing regenerative techniques.When I first started pitching the idea to regenerate the foreskin, I was very nervous. I started with my girlfriend (at the time), then gave the pitch of “Clopper’s billion-dollar idea” to my fraternity brothers, then friends from home, and then co-workers at my old consulting company, Epic, and my current university, Harvard, and each in line knew me beforehand so they were willing to hear me out. Without fail, I’ve received the response, “Shit Clopper, that actually makes a lot of sense.” Having received validation from my closest social circles throughout life has emboldened me with the confidence to present this info to the world. Hell, I pitched Foregen to one of the largest stem cell gatherings in the world this month and got a standing ovation. People are ready for this; I know it in my bones.
GG: How did your upbringing inform your intactivism?
Kenny: I was a gay kid raised by very conservative southern Baptists, so I have always struggled with shame around sex and sexuality. Many gays do. I went into public health and gay rights activism to try and overcome the ignominy that still makes intimacy a challenge and informs my opinion of myself. So when I found out that circumcision was essentially introduced by John Kellogg — the corn flakes guy — as a means of preventing masturbation, well, the issue became a perfect medium. Guess what, John, if you want to stop a guy from masturbating you better take the whole fucking package, not just the wrapping, because we will always find a way.
GG: What’s your favorite part of an intact penis?
Kenny: The way it looks, honestly. When I was 15 I saw one of those crazy Benetton ads that was so controversial in the ’80s. This one was a poster with about a hundred different penises and vaginas depicted in rows and columns, an array of differently shaped, sized, and colored genitals. And I was so attracted to the intact ones. The look is so — well, sexy. I just think penises look better when they don’t have a big scar across the center. Something about being natural and the way it was intended makes it more appealing.
GG: What’s your favorite euphemism for an intact penis?
Kenny: Lately, turtle. Though that really just zaps the sexy right out of it.
Head on over to their indiegogo page to learn more about the film and how you can help them make it a reality!