One Woman, One Cause: Marilyn Milos and Genital Autonomy
“To see part of a baby’s penis being cut off—without anesthesia—was shocking.
Even more shocking was the doctor’s comment, barely audible under the piercing
screams of the infant: ‘There’s no medical reason for doing this.'” —Marilyn Milos, R.N.
By Cat Saunders
In 1985, Marilyn Milos, R.N., founded the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC). In 2016, NOCIRC became Genital Autonomy America. Marilyn is also the mother of one daughter and three sons, all three of whom she regrets were circumcised.
In this interview, Marilyn talks about the devastating experience that opened her eyes to the brutality of circumcision. This experience led her to dedicate her life to eradicating circumcision worldwide.
She also speaks frankly about psychological, political, and religious issues related to circumcision. She explains the harmful effects of circumcision on sexual relations and the sources of denial that allow circumcision to continue. Finally, Marilyn discusses some of the fear-based myths that still persist with regard to male genital cutting.
Cat: Would you talk about why you had your sons circumcised?
Marilyn: Amazingly, my first husband and the father of my first two sons was intact. When my sons were born, the circumcision rate was still high in this country. My husband had been self-conscious about being intact, so I think that helped sway him. Also, the doctor told us that circumcision didn’t hurt, took only a moment, and was necessary for health. Why I didn’t think about my husband’s good health, I don’t know.
Cat: What changed your mind about circumcision?
Marilyn: As a nursing student, when my youngest son was ten, I saw a circumcision for the first time. I haven’t gotten over that experience. I never will.
It was May of 1979. We students filed into the hospital nursery to find a baby boy strapped spread-eagle to a plastic board on a counter top. He was struggling against his restraints—tugging, whimpering, and crying helplessly.
When the doctor began the operation, the baby let out a piercing scream. He screamed when his foreskin was pinched and crushed as the doctor attached a clamp to his tiny penis. The infant’s shriek intensified when the doctor inserted an instrument between the foreskin and the head of the penis, tearing them apart.
Then the baby started shaking his head back and forth. It was the only part of his body he could move. He started shaking his head when the doctor used another clamp to (lengthwise) crush the foreskin, which he then cut. This made the foreskin opening large enough to insert a circumcision instrument designed to prevent the head of the penis from being severed during the surgery.
During the last stage of the operation, the doctor crushed the foreskin against the circumcision instrument. Then, finally, he amputated it. By that time, the baby was limp, exhausted, spent.
To see part of a baby’s penis being cut off—without anesthesia—was shocking. Even more shocking was the doctor’s comment, barely audible under the piercing screams of the infant. “There’s no medical reason for doing this.”
Cat: What do you think is the biggest personal block that prevents people from realizing the truth about circumcision?
Marilyn: If there was just one personal block, it would have been easy to stop circumcision. But there are many fears that allow the denial to continue.
For example, what man wants to hear that he was strapped down as a helpless infant? And then, without any anesthetic, the best part of his organ of pleasure and procreation was cut off and thrown in the trash.
What mother wants to learn that her precious baby suffered needlessly? That his first developmental task—establishing trust—was undermined by a violent act that he can only perceive as a betrayal by her?
What doctor wants to admit that he has blood on his hands?
Cat: What do you think is the biggest political block that prevents the outlawing of circumcision?
Cat: I understand that Congress outlawed female genital mutilation in this country several years ago. But this law is now being challenged in federal courts because of its gender bias.
Marilyn: Yes. Our Constitution is supposed to safeguard human rights for everyone. But so far, this protection includes everyone except baby boys. Baby boys are still subjected to genital cutting against their will.
Cat: What are the three main arguments you give expectant parents when you advise against circumcision?
Marilyn: The foreskin is normal, protective, sexual tissue. Circumcision is painful, has serious risks, and leaves physical and psychological scars. Every baby has an inherent right to the integrity of his own body.
Cat: How do you approach expectant parents who want to circumcise their sons for religious reasons?
Marilyn: I tell them that Jews and Muslims have themselves begun to question the practice. I refer them to what has already been written by people of their own faith. For example, Ronald Goldman’s book, Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective. Jewish women have also written powerful articles on the subject.
It’s interesting to note that in the Jewish Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides said, “As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate.”
Do parents today really want this?
Cat: As a nurse, would you talk about the effects of circumcision on sexual relations between men and women?
Marilyn: The foreskin of an intact penis has a ridged band just inside and encircling its opening. This ridged band contains Meissner’s corpuscles, which are like nerve receptors in the fingertips.
During sexual stimulation of the penis, the foreskin’s exquisitely sensitive interior band of nerve receptors glides back and forth across the corona of the glans (the head of the penis). Also, the glans itself has a high concentration of neurovascular end organs.
Thus, the foreskin and the glans stimulate each other. The loss of this foreskin-glans stimulation is probably why men who are circumcised as adults say the difference is like seeing in black and white, rather than seeing in color.
During heterosexual sex, the intact penis is stimulated both by the vagina and this foreskin-glans action. Therefore, the movements an intact man needs for stimulation are small.
Circumcised men, however, must stimulate whatever is left of the frenulum (diagram information follows) in order to reach orgasm. The long strokes necessary to stimulate the remaining frenulum take the man’s body away from the woman’s mons pubis (pubic mound). So her clitoris isn’t stimulated.
Thus, the movement necessary for a circumcised man to reach orgasm is not compatible with the movement a woman needs to reach orgasm. No one talks about this potential cause for deep tension in relationships. However, it’s important to understand that the natural mechanics of sex are disturbed when men are circumcised.
Cat: Would you give a brief historical “tour” of the common myths that have been used to perpetuate infant male circumcision?
Marilyn: As early as 1860, when only .001 percent of the urban American male population was circumcised, articles about circumcision began to show up in medical literature. Circumcision was touted as an extremely painful operation purposely done without anesthesia. The operation was intended as a preventative to masturbation, because masturbation was believed to cause disease. Of course, this didn’t work.
By the turn of the century, the microscope had been developed and the germ theory of disease became the new medical model. Fear of bacteria and lack of hygiene, then, became the next excuses to circumcise.
During the 1930s, fear of penile cancer kept circumcisers in business. That idea persists today, even though we know that the penile cancer rate in circumcising America is the same as that in non-circumcising Denmark or Finland.
The fear of cervical cancer increased in the 1950s. But now we know that cervical cancer is caused by the HP virus, not by foreskins. The sexual revolution of the sixties brought the fear of sexually transmitted diseases, which we quickly learned were not prevented by circumcision.
During the 1970s, people began to challenge medical practices such as routine tonsillectomies, radical mastectomies, routine episiotomies, and routine infant circumcision. When medical excuses for circumcision proved invalid, the next fabricated excuse was an emotional one. “You don’t want your son to look different than the other boys, do you?”
The latest fear—one that Western pro-circumcision advocates are trying to promote in Africa—is the alleged role of the foreskin in the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, this preposterous notion is easily debunked by the fact that the U.S.A. has one of the highest rates of both circumcision and HIV/AIDS. Obviously, if circumcision prevented the spread of AIDS, our country would not have such a high rate of HIV infection.
Cat: What keeps you going when the going gets tough?
Marilyn: The babies! If I stop for one moment, I have time to think of my own babies strapped down, struggling helplessly against restraints, and screaming. It’s too much for me to bear. It was too much for my babies to bear. And I don’t want other babies or their mothers to experience what we have experienced. It’s that simple.
This interview was originally published in Verve (March 2002) and updated in July 2017.
Marilyn Milos, R.N., is the founder of NOCIRC and the organizer for the Seventh International Symposium on Genital Integrity, held in Washington, D.C., in April (Child Abuse Prevention Month) of 2002. In 2016, NOCIRC became Genital Autonomy America.
For detailed descriptions, diagrams, and photographs of foreskins, including a moving picture of a real foreskin in action, please visit http://www.noharmm.org/anatomy.htm.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).