Writer/Director Brendon Marotta’s American Circumcision, airing on Netflix, may elicit mockery or disinterest from those who think they already know all they need to know or want to think about the topic. These attitudes can easily show up whenever creative and passionate minds work to take something so long established as to be considered an immutable truth, like circumcision, and threaten to upend it with new scientific data, hard evidence or simply evolving preferences.
But for viewers curious enough to watch all 101 minutes of the film, they may be utterly surprised to come away believing the emotional and factual claims presented are not melodramatic hysteria. They might even find their position has flipped, or their mind still not made up.
Making the case for a radical rethink of circumcision are brave hearts offering intimate experiences, opinions and intellectual and emotional insights gained the hard way. Right from the start positions that go against the normative grain are at the core of American Circumcision, but much time is also given to those advocating for the procedure. Respected physicians and public health professionals on both sides of the issue differ on their stance, and help reinforce the film’s aim to reexamine all aspects of this topic.
During a phone interview Marotta told me he hopes the film, six years in the making, that relied on a Kickstarter campaign for funding, is watched by men and expecting parents. The film is worthy of a wider audience than that, as the film discusses other important issues. More than just the standard debate over male circumcision, segments include the “intactivist” (intact plus activist) movement, those who are seeking corrective legislation, and interviews with restorationists who are passionate about the goal of re-growing the foreskin that was removed from them during circumcision.
“The restoration movement is helping a lot of men,” Marotta said, adding it first gained adherents in the ’70s but is still something happening in secret.
Say what? Who knew? This is what makes the film unique, as well as timely. It is a lengthy exploration of not only why it is common practice in the United States to cut the foreskin of males — either done to newborns or to males who are of legal age and can choose for themselves to undergo the procedure — but also about the legal rights of individuals everywhere to be able to keep intact the body parts they had at birth, regardless of what a parent or guardian adult prefers.
Men who bemoan the loss of their foreskin and still desire to have it back may be seen as weak, but Marotta sees it differently. With compassion, he speaks about his film in a gentle but determined tone. He has realized the fulfillment of what amounts to “a calling.” He wanted to be a filmmaker since he was 14 and this passion project reflects that desire and the heavy emotional lifting required to scrutinize so many deeply held emotions and beliefs.
“Men have not had their sexual revolution yet,” Marotta said. The impressive 100-plus hours of interviews and research he did for, what can easily be described as a labor of love, may have viewers considering this as good a time as any to go for it.
Many men are not as informed about circumcision as they think they are, Marotta explained, and even some of their body parts — one being the male’s frenulum and how it directly affects sexual pleasure — is given ample consideration in the film. I had not heard the word frenulum before, so that helps count toward the “learn something new every day.” A bonus is that the information viewers learn has practical, even satisfying applications.
American Circumcision also explores botched surgeries and doctors who specialize in repairing, when possible, the damage that resulted from those circumcisions. Several problems may not be discovered or treated until years after the circumcision, in part because some boys and men are uniformed about what is healthy, normal tissue and function, or else may feel vulnerable and embarrassed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states the health benefits are not great enough to recommend routine circumcision, thus infant circumcision in the United States in most situations is actually a personal choice made by parents for their newborn.
Except in rare medical circumstances circumcision is not considered a medically necessary procedure. Yet early in the film viewers learn that “no other industrialized country routinely practices non-religious infant circumcision other than America.” Also emphasized is that this decision parents are currently permitted to make ought to be reconsidered, and even legally restricted in the United States.
Multiple factors make for polarizing, political confrontations, from Washington, D.C., marches to San Francisco, where there was legislation put forward to ban circumcision at least within that city’s limits. Experts in the medical and research community who are on both sides of the debate, as well as individuals who were willing to reveal their personal suffering and journey to healing and advocacy, may inspire viewers of American Circumcision to become more informed and involved in the debate.
There are many competing agendas to consider, from the religious and cultural to the scientific. All voices in this film offer serious positions that involve ethical, legal, social, historic, financial considerations as well as the physical/emotional costs and tradeoffs of a surgery that, despite improvements to the protocol such as the use of anesthesia, inflicts pain during and after.
“Most Americans are intactivists when it comes to female bodies,” Marotta said. His film makes the case for rejecting all medically unnecessary cutting of male foreskin, and female genitalia, however “modest” the cut or prick may be that is now promoted in some circles as a compromise, when done without consent.
More recent media coverage about female genital mutilation (FGM) — which became illegal in the United States in 1996 — may be helping to fuel interest in circumcision. (That FGM law only applies to females under the age of 18.) People who readily find it abhorrent to subject young girls to painful and disfiguring cutting of their most private body parts, may be persuaded by spiritual wisdom and this revised adage: what is not good for the goose is not good for the gander.
During the interview Marotta referenced the Hippocratic oath of medicine that includes the pledge to “first do no harm.” Because there is no mandated reporting by doctors and hospitals of adverse outcomes with circumcision, full consideration of benefit-to-risk ratios remains debatable. There are also contradicting research studies, and important report conclusions formed from data that does not appear to follow ethical guidelines, adding another dimension of complexity for finding clarity and truth.
But the “do no harm” could not have been conveyed any clearer.
“This is a matter of ethics,” Marotta said. It is absolutely immoral, he explained, to perform a medically unnecessary, potentially crippling body modification on someone who has never consented to it. Despite tough resistance, Marotta and many intactivists feel a lot of hope. Marotta knows social change can happen through a small group of people. “The people who are seeing the film now are going to be a part of the social change.”