Shemuel Garber is an US-American intactivist, currently being a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Vienna, Austria.
In 2020 he spoke in a video message on WWDOGA:
|“||Hello, thanks for tuning in to the Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy. As you may know, under normal circumstances we would be holding this event live in public in Cologne. Of course, due to the ongoing pandemic, such an in-person gathering isn’t possible. We, like so many people around the world, are changing our practices right now in order to advance the very highest goal of human enterprise: to alleviate suffering. The willingness with which so many people have undertaken the difficult changes of the past months is a testament to the transformative the power of our human benevolence. This same power lies at the foundation of the genital autonomy movement.
Our theme this year is the history of education on genital autonomy. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share how my own education on genital autonomy emerged and evolved. I will tie this in with some thoughts on how the uncritical gendering of the human right to genital autonomy has created imperial and patriarchal harms. And finally, I will touch on why we are now in a better position than we ever have been to make genital integrity a universal human right.
My own enlightenment began in 2012, when I was entering my final year of college. I travelled to Berlin for an internship at a contemporary art museum, unaware of the discussions happening throughout Germany in the wake of the Cologne ruling in which the amputation of a boy’s foreskin was determined to constitute bodily harm. So, I was rather taken aback when a museum patron asked me for my opinion on circumcision. I was too guarded to admit it during the ensuing conversation, but despite being nominally aware that, like most Jewish American boys, I was circumcised, I didn’t really know what circumcision was. I simply thought of it as a benign, normal part of birth, like clipping the umbilical cord. When I subsequently began to research the matter, however, I realized that quite a lot of functional tissue had been removed from my body without my consent and for no apparent purpose. I felt shocked and harmed and I quickly discovered that many others do as well, and that some of them were actively fighting for the protection of children’s right to bodily autonomy. I, like many others, was drawn to this movement after recognizing the needless harm that was done to my own body. This recognition led naturally to a powerful drive to protect others from harm being done to them.
I decided to write my bachelors thesis on circumcision and thus spent many months researching its effects and history. While conducting this research, I also read extensively about female genital cutting. Interestingly, I found that these forms of cutting drew much more widespread condemnation than male circumcision did.
I grew to understand that this was in part due to differing assumptions about the people performing female genital cutting and the people performing male circumcision. Female genital cutting is generally imagined as fundamentally an expression of a non-Western culture that has failed to develop respect for the autonomy of women. Male cutting on the other hand, is imagined as a medico-religious practice that is chosen by Western parents doing their best to give their child the most advantages in life. While non-Western parents are seen as passive conduits either of backwards traditions or of imported Western feminist values saving them from those traditions, Western parents are seen as exercising their rights to raise their children as they see fit. Thus, gendering the issue of genital autonomy both lays bare and engenders a racist ideology of cultural exceptionalism.
However, this isn’t the only trouble with seeing genital cutting through a gender-binary lens. Focusing exclusively on male genital cutting brings its own pitfalls. Chief among them is conflating the real suffering of individual males who are deprived of their autonomy with the imagined structural oppression of men as a group. The latter narrative easily becomes openly misogynistic and is always on a collision course with any strand of feminist critique. It’s a false narrative, since the societies that practice male circumcision are also societies in which men are generally in a dominant social position. The attempted inversion of feminism is also self-defeating. Feminist critique is a powerful tool for understanding and overcoming patriarchal practices and all forms of genital cutting are patriarchal practices. We can’t lose sight of that critical fact.The final problem with gendering genital autonomy is that talking exclusively about harm to girls or harm to boys or even both of them together renders intersex people invisible. This is unacceptable considering how often intersex children suffer the most severe and persistent violations of their genital autonomy to surgically fit them into the societal illusion of a strict gender binary. In summary, gendering the discussion of genital autonomy only impedes progress. By advocating for the protection of all children, we can more effectively support each other’s work and find common ground and common purpose with people fighting for liberation from patriarchy and neo-colonialism. Thankfully, today we have a genital autonomy movement that has in large part embraced this approach. Let’s stick to it and remain open and responsive to honest critique. In this way, we can welcome more people into the movement. Imagine being able to look back and say that in the 20s the world finally came to recognize the universal right to genital autonomy.
– Shemuel Garber (WWDOGA 2020)
- WWDOGA 2019 Cologne, speech Shemuel Garber (German subtitles)
- WWDOGA 2016 Cologne, speech Shemuel Garber
- WWDOGA 2015 Cologne, speech Shemuel Garber
- Facebook profile
- For Genital Autonomy, Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany), May 7, 2015