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Jonathon Conte: Motivations of an Intactivist

My name is Jonathon Conte. I am a victim of male genital mutilation and I'm an intactivist.

I first learned of circumcision when I was about maybe 14 or 15 years old. I saw a picture of an intact penis on the internet. It puzzled me a bit, because it was something that I had never seen before. I didn't quite understand what I was looking at.

And it was through that experience that I began to realize that the body that up until that point that I had thought was the body that I was born with, was in fact not the body that i was born with, that part of it had been cut away from me.

I struggled with that for quite some time. I went through a period of denial where I understood that I had undergone a circumcision, but I felt that it hadn't impacted me. I felt that the effects of it were not significant. Once I began to look into the procedure further, and the ramifications of removing that part of the penis, it began to really take its toll on me.

I suffered some incredibly low periods during the next few years, where I struggled with a feeling of incompleteness, both physically and sexually. I struggled with trying to understand how something like this could have been done to me. How I could have been the victim of such a heinous thing when the people who allowed it to happen to me should have been the ones looking out for me.

So there was this period where there was a lot of internalized emotion: anger, depression, resentment, and a variety of other things that I was really struggling to deal with. I didn't have anyone to talk about this with. I felt very isolated. I felt hopeless. I felt that what had been done to me was so deeply impacting that it was an incredible burden for me to bear. And I didn't know how to deal with it, so I kept it bottled up for many years.

It took a lot of time for me to reach the point where I could publicly discuss both my circumcision as well as how I feel about the practice itself.

As I began to do more research about circumcision, I discovered the intactivist movement and began to understand that I was not alone, that in fact, many other men felt the same way that I had felt growing up as a child.

As I mentioned, when I was young I never even considered the fact that part of me had been cut off. No one ever sat down with me and said, "When you were a boy we cut off part of your penis." It was never a fact that crossed my mind, a possibility that crossed my mind.

As I began to learn more about the procedure and the side-effects of the procedure and the risks involved with it, I stumbled across the intactivist movement and learned about early efforts [to end circumcision by] Marilyn Milos and NOCIRC. I always considered the Bay Area to be the birthplace of the intactivist movement.

I moved out to San Francisco a little over a year ago. One of the things that I really looked forward to doing upon having moved out here was becoming more involved in stopping this practice of the forced genital cutting of boys.

The longer that I've been involved with the effort [to end circumcision], the easier it's been for me to take a public face and talk with people about it, because I think that talking about it is crucial. If we don't talk about it, it's never going to end. It's got to end. It has to end. It absolutely has to end.

The forced genital cutting of children is not a parental right. The forced genital cutting of children is not a religious right. Amputating healthy body parts from children is not a legitimate medical practice. If I as a victim and other victims don't speak out against this practice, it will continue. More men will continue to experience the painful emotions that I've had to deal with. I don't want that to happen.

I want people to continue to be completely educated about the wide-ranging impact, both physical and physiological, as well as the psychological ramifications, of what this procedure is doing to men.

Intactivism is a way for me to channel the negative emotions that I feel about what was done to me into something positive. Something that can help to make things better for men in the future. One of the reasons that I find myself so heavily involved in the movement is that I don't know how else to use these emotions that are inside of me and emotions that I'm going to be dealing with, I suspect, for the rest of my life.

So for me, intactivism is therapeutic, in a way, that it helps me to deal with my own emotions, but at the same time, it helps... others.

The first thing that I did as far as public activism was [that] I participated in the pride parade last year, the San Francisco Pride Parade, and I marched with the intactivist contingent. I was hesitant to do this at first, I was little nervous at first about being in public and holding a sign and making my stance so clear. At the end of the day, I felt that I had to, I had to be there. I had to take a stand. I had to do whatever I could to try to push the public dialog about what is happening to millions of men in this country.

That was the first thing that I did. After completing my first pride march, I felt a little more comfortable with it. I felt very energized after the march. I felt that I had  done the right thing, and I began to participate in other public events that were held by the Bay Area Intactivists, which is the local intactivist group.

In these last 12 months, I think I've grown a lot, and for a variety of reasons I've become more comfortable discussing this issue in depth with people. I was thrilled to participate with pride this past weekend, both in the booth and in the parade. I think we had a wonderful response. It was great. I was thrilled to be able to do it.

As I mentioned, during the past few months I've had a lot of opportunities to learn how to talk to people, particularly strangers, without feeling nervous.

I'm one of the people who's fairly heavily involved with the San Francisco Male genital Mutilation Bill, which is going to be on the ballot in November. I was one of the volunteers collecting signatures for the ballot initiative. I personally turned in over 300 signatures.

During the time that we were collecting signatures, I spoke with many, many, many people about this issue. Often people were already educated about it and completely supportive. Sometimes people had never given the issue much thought. After discussing it with them for a few minutes, they completely understood that it was a human rights issue. All children do deserve the right to be protected from physical violence and abuse.

Through that period I began to feel much more comfortable addressing this issue, particularly on a one-to-one, very personal basis with people.

No, I wasn't very nervous yesterday, I was excited, we had an amazing turnout at [San Francisco Pride], and I was just thrilled to be a part of it.

[Clip from San Francisco Pride]
"Circumcision is abuse! End the forced genital cutting of minors! All children, boys and girls, deserve the right to genital integrity! End the forced genital cutting of children! End circumcision! Circumcision is abuse! End forced genital cutting of minors! Genital Integrity for all! Boys and girls both deserve the right to intact bodies! Support Genital integrity for all!"

From time to time I do encounter people who are hesitant to really delve into the human rights aspect of the issue of circumcision and forcing it upon children who can't consent. I just try to stick to the facts. I try to address the issues of necessity. There is no necessity for the procedure. There is no national medical organization in the world that recommends [routine infant circumcision]. I try to talk about the risks involved with the procedure up to and including death. A lot of people aren't unaware that infants do die every year from circumcision in the united states. I discuss some of the impacts of the procedure, life-long, both physical and psychological.

I find that while a lot of people may be willing to defend the practice of circumcision, not a lot of them are very familiar with the functions of the foreskin. That really troubles me. Particularly doctors, some doctors who are strong proponents of the procedure, are sometimes extraordinarily ignorant about this part of the body and what the repercussions of amputating it are. They don't always understand the sexual functions of the foreskin, the protective functions, and the list of side-effects that are the result of taking it away from a man.

I try to educate people about that and do my best to address whatever concerns they bring up to me. There are so many opportunities that we get each day to help people to understand the severity of what is being done to baby boys in this country. I think that it's crucial that people take the opportunities that are presented to them to do whatever they can, to use whatever strengths they have, to help this practice end.

This doesn't just affect men who were circumcised. It affects their partners. It affects their families. It affects their friends. It affects people in the medical field who are dealing with the procedure, either the ones who are performing it, who are forced to perform it, who are perhaps not performing it themselves but who are subjected to being around the procedure being done on a daily basis.

This is something that I believe has a severe toll on people, and all of us are affected in one way or another, by what I see is a human rights violation, a blatant human rights violation, that is incredibly wide-spread and right under our noses, and yet people are sometimes unfortunately hesitant to address it with the respect and with the diligence that it deserves.

For a young person who wants to try to help to educate people about the harms of circumcision and wants to help stop the practice, they can get involved with their local intactivist group, they can help [with] public events, booths at community events to try to educate people. They can attend demonstrations, protests. They can write, they can do art. There are so many ways today, particularly with the internet, that people can use their own voice in their own way, to help to spread information about the harm of the practice of genital mutilation.

I would encourage anyone who feels affected by this, or compelled to help, to do it. Just do it. Whatever you can do, whatever strengths you have, pursue them. Together, you along with other intactivists, can make a difference. We are all in this together. It's not going to be one person that stops this practice. It's going to be an effort of thousands of people who pull together, and with their combined strengths, that is how we are going to finally end the genital mutilation of children in this world.


2010 SF Pride photos
courtesy of David Wilton