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Does Genital Mutilation Create A Hostile Work Environment?
How to win an unfair fight.
Several years ago, I heard a story about an Intactivist who was working at a corporate office job. A pregnant co-worker knew they opposed circumcision and asked for information. The Intactivist provided her with some educational materials. The woman filed an HR complaint against him, saying that she had been sexually harassed when he gave her educational pamphlets that contained illustrations of penises and a discussion of the sexual function of the foreskin. He was fired from his job.
What actually happened here? Laws and policies against sexual harassment or “unsafe workplaces” are meant to protect people, yet here they were used against a survivor of genital cutting trying to create safety for a child. It wasn’t the man who created an unsafe workplace, but the woman. She was Jewish and included in her complaint that circumcision was part of her culture, making his attempt to educate a form of religious discrimination as well. Her solicitation of educational materials was a deliberate strategy to remove a co-worker who triggered her fragility. She knew he was gay and there was no chance of him actually sexually harassing her. This was a political move.
The Intactivist was the one who was made unsafe. He was worried a child might be harmed. It brought up the grief and trauma he had around his own circumcision. He wanted to educate but knew he could get in trouble for bringing up the topic at his workplace. He was relieved when the woman asked for information because it created greater safety for him to express his feelings - or so he thought. He didn’t realize it was a deliberate political trap by someone who was complicit in the system he was trying to change. Because of her actions, he felt more unsafe than before.
One of the reasons I wrote Children’s Justice and shifted my thinking to a systemic approach is that I’ve heard many stories like this. The Intactivist movement has been so focused on ending circumcision that many activists have not stopped to explore the feelings and the social dynamics around their own activism.
While the woman in that story should have listened and kept her child intact, the man experienced cultural trauma. If we just focus on ending circumcision, that experience goes unaddressed. If we focus on ending the full system that made both the man and the child unsafe, both are protected.
This is an unfair fight. We are not having an open debate where both sides have an equal opportunity to present their case. One side is trying to present their case, while the other is using the system to crush the ability to present that case. If you want to win an unfair fight, you have to change your approach.
Any change requires first removing resistance to that change. While activists could keep banging their heads against a wall trying to persuade others to protect children in a system rigged against them, the path of least resistance might be to change the system first. This change will be challenging, but it will actually be much easier to end circumcision within a supportive system rather than a resistant one. The effort necessary to learn the system and then enact change is far less than the effort necessary to brute force a change through a resistant system.
In The Intactivist Guidebook, I suggest that activists need to know what game they are playing. In the story I told, the Intactivist was playing a persuasion game, but the woman was playing a political game. Is there a way he could have beaten her at her own game or changed the game they were playing?
I was reminded of this story of workplace abuse while reading the substack article “Lawsuits Are the Hitman of the State” which I reference in my own article “The Right To Sue.” The original article suggests that although it would be illegal for the federal government to pass a law saying no one can say anything sexist or racist at work because speech is protected by the first amendment, the government has effectively done that by allowing employees to sue for a “hostile work environment” if they hear offensive speech. This forces employers to enforce a rule the state could never pass to avoid liability.
Yet, what constitutes a “hostile work environment” is subjective. At one point, a gay person being open about their sexuality in the workplace might have gotten them fired. Now, major corporations, including the one the Intactivist from our earlier story worked at, have floats in pride parades. An employee expressing discomfort with a gay co-worker talking about their sexuality is more likely to be fired in today’s corporate environment than the person they are complaining about.
These laws can change. They can change without any new legislation being passed. To change hostile work environment rules to protect genital-cutting survivors one would only have to change the interpretation of these laws, which is something judges already do all the time. Much of Civil Rights law only exists as legal decisions, so if a plaintiff could convince a court to agree with them, they’d create a precedent that every employer would have to respect, lest they open the door to lawsuits.
In our earlier story, the woman who was planning to circumcise absolutely created a hostile work environment. The Intactivist who was trying to educate her just lacked the epistemic and hermeneutical justice necessary to articulate the ways she made him unsafe. Ironically, the book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing which defined the field of epistemic justice uses the coining of the term “sexual harassment” as an example of hermeneutical justice and someone creating the language necessary to communicate their experience. If we create the understanding necessary to communicate the experience of Intactivists, then that language could be used to show that genital cutting creates a hostile work environment, and the system flips from persecuting survivors to protecting them.
Suppose a Christian employee was to put a sign on his desk that said “GOD HATES GAYS.” This would be a sincere form of religious expression. It would also result in the Christian being immediately fired. While religious identity is protected, this form of religious expression creates a hostile work environment for others.
I would guess that a Muslim employee expressing his support of female genital cutting to a female survivor of genital cutting would also likely result in termination for creating a hostile work environment. Given both of those, there is an argument to be made that Jewish employees expressing support of male genital cutting to survivors of male genital cutting also creates a hostile work environment and that we should hold Jewish people to the same standards as Christians and Muslims.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are also protected classes under civil rights law. I’ve written before that I believe circumcision status is a form of identity. Circumcision intersects with sexuality and gender identity. If one’s opposition to genital cutting is a part of their gender identity, then it is protected.
Cutting off a part of someone’s sexuality certainly infringes on their sexual orientation and gender identity and talking about doing so could create a hostile work environment for those who have experienced this trauma. Statements in support of circumcision would be as hostile as “GOD HATES GAYS” signs, even if they come from genuine religious or cultural convictions.
Sexual harassment law would also apply. Joking about rape or advocating for rape to a rape survivor would result in termination from most jobs for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. Likewise, joking about or advocating for genital cutting to a survivor of genital cutting also creates a hostile work environment. It doesn’t matter if the speaker personally does not consider genital cutting rape, only that it makes the workplace hostile for the survivor.
If support of genital cutting creates a hostile work environment, then attempts to censor activists, fire them, or deny them jobs on the basis of their activism would open companies to lawsuits. At a minimum, each individual case would have to be litigated. To avoid this, companies would create blanket policies protecting those against circumcision and banning discussion that supports circumcision. This would effectively win the cultural issue without ever passing a single law or persuading anyone about the ethics of circumcision.
If this sounds like it would make it impossible for anyone to support circumcision and work in the corporate world, yes, that’s the point. In this scenario, promoting circumcision wouldn’t be illegal. Anyone who did it would just be fired or their employer would risk a lawsuit.
This would effectively end circumcision, the same way Civil Rights rulings effectively ended free speech in the workplace. It’s not illegal to be sexist and racist at work either, yet every employer forbids it. Promoters of genital cutting would be in the same position as someone trying to drop a racial slur at work.
“What about workplaces where discussion of circumcision is part of the job, like doctor’s offices or hospitals?” Great question. Are doctors creating a hostile workplace environment by advocating for or performing circumcisions? You’d have to litigate each potential person it might be hostile for. Is it hostile for men with circumcision trauma? Is it hostile for intact men to have people describe cutting parts of their bodies? Is it hostile for mothers of intact children? Potential mothers? These could each be separate legal questions.
Circumcision wouldn’t be banned. No laws would change. It would be as legal to circumcise as it would be to tell your co-workers you want to rape them. Genital cutting would just be canceled.
If this seems like an unfair way to fight to you, let me tell you what is actually unfair: holding down defenseless children and ripping off part of their genitals. This whole issue is unfair. The reason it continues is that one side is unfairness-maxxing while the other is trying to “persuade.” Only a change in strategy can protect children.
Furthermore, using the legal system like this is fair. This is the game. These are the rules. We didn’t set up the legal system or create these rules. The dominant powers did. We are just playing their game by the rules they set up. You are allowed to win.
If you want to win, you must shift your understanding. To this end, I’ve written two books that can help you: The Intactivist Guidebook and Children’s Justice. These books will teach you a new way of looking at the world. Don’t get them unless you’re prepared to change your mind.