Friday, July 22, 2011

Part 22, Shame

kurt_t with muscle car, 1977
Did I mention that the nerd table was all male?  I should have.

Girls would visit the nerd table from time to time, but the core group was all guys.  It was like "The View" but in reverse.

So naturally, the nerd table was a place where we all felt comfortable discussing matters of sexuality, such as they were for socially awkward teenagers who collected stamps and took Latin.

If there was anyplace I could have had a conversation about circumcision, it would have been the nerd table, especially after that episode in "Roots" with the circumcision ceremony and the Mandinka elder saying "You no doubt have noticed the porthos of a man does not resemble the porthos of a boy," as his sidekick held up something that looked like pruning shears stuck in the open position.

It was the sort of image that was made for in-depth review at nerd table.  That was one of our favorite pastimes, deliberating over dramatic moments from our favorite movies and TV shows, particularly scenes involving violent death or disfigurement.

"See, that's why Robert Mitchum used a grenade launcher instead of the M-16.  Did you see when he lit his cigar on the smoldering Panzer?  That seemed kind of fake.  Could you really do that without setting your hair on fire?"

So that was the way I tried to open up a discussion about circumcision.  I did it by talking about that scene in "Roots."  I forget what exactly I said, but I remember that I approached the subject very indirectly.  I never used the words "foreskin" or "circumcision" or even "penis" or "genitals."  I think the conversation went like this:

"Did you see the scene with the big knife?  And the big Mandinka guy?   And LeVar Burton and his buddies are all lined up?  That looked painful.  Do you suppose that's really what they did in those days?"

One or two nerds looked up from their cafeteria trays and shrugged, and that was it.  Nobody wanted to talk about it.  Somebody changed the subject right away, started talking about Dr. Demento or something.

Looking back on that time in my life, I wonder why I didn't try harder to talk to one of my peers about my feelings about being circumcised.  I can understand why I didn't talk to an adult about it.  Like all teenagers, I understood instinctively the futility of confronting adults with questions about cultural norms.

"Why can't women be topless at the beach?"

"Why are drugs that kill you legal and drugs that don't kill you are illegal?"

"Why can't we have pizza for Thanksgiving?"

"Why do people drink milk?  Isn't that stuff for baby cows?"

You couldn't expect an adult to give you an honest answer to those kinds of questions.  Adults expected you to accept your culture as a package deal.  They didn't want you picking at the absurd parts like they were cocktail onions in a chicken pot pie.

But your peers, that was a whole different story.  Everything was open for discussion.  The legal drinking age, the speed limit, the composition of NATO and the American League West, whether algebra had any basis in reality or was simply an elaborate educational hoax.

So why not circumcision?  Why didn't I make more of an effort to talk to my friends about that?  It wasn't like I only had the nerds to talk to.  Every summer, I'd go back to California to stay with my dad's side of the family, and I'd always spend a lot of time with John and Michael.  They were the guys who first noticed something different about my penis that afternoon when we were changing into our swimsuits.  Now we were older, and we knew why we looked different, and we still had no inhibitions about being naked around one another.  John and I used to skinny dip in the backyard when the grown ups weren't around, and once we even streaked the neighborhood.

It was the '70s.  Everybody was doing it.

So why did I feel like I couldn't talk to anybody about this issue, not even my partner in streaking?

I don't think there's any one answer to that question.  Or if there's one answer, it's an answer that has many parts.  Part of the answer is shame.  My youthful experimentation with streaking notwithstanding, I felt ashamed of what my penis looked like.  I was ashamed of what had happened to my body.

Now, I suppose that's not a logical reason to feel ashamed, is it?  I wasn’t the one responsible for what my penis looked like, right?

But how much of your shame when you're a teenager is based on logic?  How much that shame is based on things you have no control over?  Isn't that part of what you're ashamed of?  Not being in control?

Isn't that part of what you're ashamed of if you're a teenager with an alcoholic parent?  Or an abusive parent?  Isn't that part of what you're ashamed of if you've been sexually assaulted?  Not having control.  Not having any power to stop the problem from happening.  Not having any power to fix the problem.

And if you can't fix the problem, and you feel ashamed for having the problem in the first place, about all you can do is stay quiet and pretend the problem doesn't exist.


  1. Kurt, this particular blog post really hits home for me. Not having control, not having the power to stop the problem from happening, nor to fix it once it does. That shame for having a problem you don't/didn't have the power to stop which keeps you quiet and pretend like the problem didn't exist...

    That was me 6 years ago. I wasn't circumcised as a child, though sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I were. No, I was sexually molested when I was about 4 years old. And it wasn't just one time, somebody who was a church youth leader, a close family friend and now a pastor at a church used me as a sex toy whenever he pleased. Because he was a family friend, he had easy access to me.

    Now, growing up, I never really thought about what happened to me. Growing up, my parents never found out. Growing up, I didn't really grow up with the idea that what I had done was anything "wrong." Because I didn't know what was happening, I had no idea that it wasn't supposed to be happening. I did know instinctively, however, that I wasn't supposed to talk about it. It was always when nobody else was around, and it was always in secret. At times I did wonder when it would end though, because it wasn't too comfortable having an older man's penis in your mouth.

    Growing up, I thought I'd forget. I thought I could stick what happened to me at the back of my mind and forget it was ever there. But life has a way of eventually showing you when something was wrong. "Shit floats" as some might say.

    Growing up, I grew up in a church that was very conservative. Growing up, I had always heard the term "homosexuality" thrown around, and I had always heard that "homosexuals" were an abomination to god. I had always heard rumors that "so-and-so is a homosexual." But I never actually knew that a homosexual is somebody who has sex with the same sex. I didn't want to know. I didn't want to know because it was evil, and because maybe I'd be guilty of it myself. But when I found out exactly what that was I was devastated.

    It has a way of eating away at you inside to find out that when you were a child, you were forced to have homosexual relations. As someone who attended church regularly, I felt that I was going to burn in hell for all eternity. "I committed homosexuality, but it wasn't my fault!" I could hear myself saying.

    I wouldn't let myself get close to anybody. I had crushes on many girls, but I was "tainted goods" as far as I knew. I didn't want to get close to somebody because I felt that "this man had gay sex" was written all over my face. Who would want to be with me? I couldn't let anybody find out... I dated my first girl at 22 and lost my virginity that same year. "Gotta get over my fear" I thought. "Gotta see if I'm gay or straight, or what..."

  2. Continued...

    At about the same time I had started reading a very good book for abuse survivors called "Victims No Longer" by Mike Lew. Reading that book was a huge turning point in my life. If there is anything in that book that I have learned is that it is silence, silence that perpetuates abuse. Somehow, a pact, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, is struck between victim and abuser; nobody is to ever talk about this, EVER. If this should ever get out, something very bad can happen to you. If I have learned anything from this experience, it is that the best thing anyone can do to overcome their situation is to break the silence. To speak out. Perpetrators want nothing more than to have that power over you; that you keep quiet.

    That is why I started writing. That is why I started telling my family and friends about what had happened to me. That is why I speak out whenever I can.

    In my experience as an abuse survivor, I have learned that speaking out is something that men are expected not to do. Men are supposed to be strong. "Boys don't cry." Men are supposed to be stoic and let everything that happens to them roll off our backs. "Walk it off. Get over it." While there are countless women's crisis centers, there are no "men's crisis centers." Actually, I joined a men's survivor's group at none other than a women's center. Can you believe it?

    It pisses me off. It pisses me off that while it is acceptable for a woman to be a victim, while women have all of these centers and hotlines for support, men are expected to be silent. It is not acceptable for a man to be a victim. It is not accetpable for a man to resent having been given the shaft. It's not acceptable for a man to complain. And, it is not acceptable for a man to voice resentment over his circumcision.

    Nothing pisses me off more than knowing that what has happened to me might get sympathy from some, but while what happens to boys 3,000 times a day, 1.3 million times a year, that's OK. Molest a child, go to prison. Take an exacto knife and cut off part of his penis? It's your "god given right." How does that make any sense at all.

    Circumcision and child sexual abuse go hand in hand. They are both a kind of abuse. Taking advantage of a small child to do something to him that he may or may not want as an adult. Is that not the very definition of abuse?

    I consider myself lucky. With therapy, you can improve your life and eventually bounce back. I may been abused as a child. But at the very least, I still have all of my genitals.

    But why? Why is having your whole body something that has to be "luck?"

    The times have changed drastically. Whereas in the past, men couldn't get support for child sexual abuse, it is now available if you set out to find it. Psychologists will listen to you if you want to talk about your child sexual abuse. Sad to say this isn't always the case for men who resent their circumcisions.

    Perhaps this is it. Perhaps blogs are the new wave of therapy. The internet will become the medium of speaking out for men who resent this intrusion upon their bodies.

    Circumcision is abuse. It is abuse and perpetrators of it shame their victims into silence. Circumcision is a problem. It's permanent and irreversible. The majority of circumcised men didn't have control over what happened to them, parents don't have the control to undo what they have allowed, so nobody wants to talk about it.

    Thanks for speaking out, Kurt.

  3. "Rape? Rape?! This is not rape!!
    I'd far prefer rape!"
    ~Van Lewis (Rest in Peace)

  4. Joseph, I feel like I want to replace Post 22 with what you wrote here. I feel like you said everything I wanted to say but for some reason I couldn't quite synthesize my thoughts into a coherent whole as you did.

    I agree with you that circumcision is a form of sexual abuse, and I think that's one of the reasons I get so pissed off when I hear its defenders accuse people like you and me of making appeals to emotion.

    Would they say the same thing to somebody speaking out against molestation?

    "Oh, you're just appealing to emotion. Of course people have negative feelings about molestation. That doesn't prove anything."

    And I think the problem is compounded when you throw in that sexist point of view that tends to view victimization, and sexual battery in particular, as something that only happens to women.

  5. Thanks for speaking out about this. Shutting the conversation down is a common tactic used to keep the status quo, but it doesn't work if you keep talking. Forced circumcision is not going back in the medical or religious closets.