Locker Room Rules

Warning: This post contains strong, colorful euphemisms for penis in the quoted excerpts. I have not hidden any letters within the words because the words are legitimate and within context.

Chris Jones, a writer for Esquire magazine, has an interesting post – THE LOCKER ROOM RULES – identifying a few key rules for reporters to remember when venturing into the locker room of a professional sports team. The most obvious point about being in a locker room after a sporting event is that there will likely be naked athletes. That makes it an easy comparison to the commonly used excuse that infant circumcision is reasonable to prevent boys from being teased in the locker room. The argument is silly, since an assumption about teasing and peer pressure are not good reasons for non-therapeutic circumcision. But it’s also flawed because it’s an inaccurate assumption of what actually occurs within a locker room. From Mr. Jones’ list:

4. Okay, let’s get this out of the way: Don’t cock peek. When I was a beat guy, there was one poor reporter who got labeled as a cock peeker. (He claimed that he was just staring into space when he was tabbed, which, knowing the guy, I actually believe; unfortunately, that space happened to be occupied by a middle infielder’s wiener.) Whatever happened that terrible afternoon, the guy’s lot was pretty miserable after. (To steal an old line, You peek at one cock, and you’re a cock peeker for the rest of your life.) …

That is the unwritten-yet-understood code of the locker room. Don’t look. If you accidentally see, stop looking immediately. It’s a separate discussion for analysis, but the fear of being labeled as gay is much stronger than the temptation to mock someone for having a penis that’s different in any way from what’s “normal”.

It’s simple:

“Hahaha, you have an anteater!”
“Why are you looking at my [penis]?”

The locker room code commands the teased to respond this way and to continue until the point is made that the problem rests with the teaser, not the teased. There are exceptions, of course, but this is what really happens in locker rooms. Or would happen, if boys actually commented on another boy’s penis. Or if most boys got naked in locker rooms during school.

Mr. Jones continues his rule, which counters my point here a bit. However, the comparison and perspective are worth confronting.

… Now, if we’re all being honest here for a moment, sometimes it’s really hard not to notice that a guy has an enormous schlong, because it will fill your field of view, and it’s one of the dirty little secrets of the profession that reporters will make jokes about our coverage area’s more distinctive members. (Ever wonder why […ed. note¹…] nickname was Snuffy? Ask Snuffleupagus.) But even if some guy’s dick taps you on the shoulder and asks for a peanut, you should probably look at the ceiling and sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” until it goes away.

The same would be said of an individual who still has his foreskin. That may even be primarily what Mr. Jones refers to here. But in a professional sports locker room where the team has athletes from different parts of the world, such as baseball and hockey, the odds of encountering a uniformity of circumcised men is unlikely. The same is also starting to be true in American grade school locker rooms, to the extent that any male is likely to get naked in one.

As Mr. Jones states, some amount of talking is inevitable. This, I suspect, is what parents really fear when they claim the locker room excuse. The “why were you looking at my penis” defense still works here. However, it’s also clear that kids will tease each other for any difference. Unless parents are surgically altering for all visible physical differences, and accounting for other differences like economic class, kids will be teased. Too short? Teased. Too tall? Teased. Too fat? Teased. Too thin? Teased. And so on, with any possible difference.

Kids want to fit in because they’re scared. They haven’t learned that all the other kids are scared, too. The proper response is to teach them that they have value because they’re who they are, not in spite of it. Parents must teach them to not be afraid. Kids can overcome being scared because of the locker room. They can’t overcome being scarred because of the locker room.

¹ I removed the player’s name. You can find it in Mr. Jones’ original blog entry.

International FGM Zero Tolerance Day

Today is International FGM Zero Tolerance Day. As its name suggests, Choose Intact aims to help end non-therapeutic genital cutting on any non-consenting individual, which is when genital cutting becomes genital mutilation. Our primary focus is from an American view against male circumcision, but gender is irrelevant in this struggle. Even though I disagree with typical refusal to accept the moral equivalence, I support this day as a way to make the daily effort better known.

Before going further, I’ll reiterate one standard point. Non-therapeutic genital cutting (i.e. mutilation) is ethically wrong, whether it’s forced on girls or boys. There is no distinction in the analysis of whether or not it is a violation of the child’s bodily integrity and autonomy, since mutilation is mutilation. However, it’s also clear that the common forms of FGM are more severe than the common form of male circumcision. Often, the cutting is significantly more severe. This distinction is valid. Fighting against both is not an attempt to ignore this or pretend that facts are different. The core issue, regardless of the damage inflicted, involves human rights. These rights aren’t conditional based on the extent of damage or the intent behind its imposition.

To promote International FGM Zero Tolerance Day, I want to focus on this brief interview with Sister Fa (Fatou Diatta), a musician from Senegal who is a victim of genital mutilation. Her unfortunate story is instructive because it highlights the complexity in how mutilation is practiced and the common misconceptions that lead to erroneous distinctions in genital mutilation based on gender. From the interview:

Rebellion is in the words. You are dealing with issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation. How important is this for you?
“It’s more than important. But my struggle is not against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM, ed.). Me, I do not even use the word “mutilation,” because mutilate means cutting with the intention to hurt. I say ‘cutting’. I’m campaigning so that people would know that it is important that we can educate a child without going through certain practices that may harm his/her health. I’ve been a victim of this practice and I know its effect. It hurts.”

The word mutilation has problems because it carries a perception that the outcome was the intent. I prefer accuracy in words, and mutilation is accurate, but there’s a level of deference to marketing necessary surrounding this issue. The common misunderstanding when the topic is male circumcision and mutilation is used is that the boy’s parents intended to mutilate him, or that they forced circumcision on him maliciously. That is not the case, obviously. Parents don’t have that intent, but intent isn’t tied to outcome for genital cutting. We need to find a way to communicate that. Ms. Diatta’s approach may not satisfy our (unproductive) need to feel righteous. That’s okay because moral victories don’t stop unnecessary genital cutting.

But how big is the issue of female circumcision and forced marriage in Senegal?
“In my village, 89 percent of girls are circumcised. If you are not, you’re marginalized. You cannot get married, you cannot cook for anyone. It is a criterion for a good marriage. You have to be circumcised. Even if your mother does not like it, she has to do it. To protect yourself against what? Against your own society.”

“There are people who confuse things, especially Westerners. They think it’s a barbaric act. That it is a mutilation. That it is terrible for a mother to mutilate her own child. It is not the case! It is one of the reasons for the failure of this communication to really try to erase this practice in my country.”

I think it’s useful to recognize here that some of the societal perceptions she cites are similar in logic to the cultural rationales given for male circumcision. It’s about inclusion more than anything. We recognize the fallacy of cutting girls for this type of reason. There’s no reason to exempt cutting of boys for the same type of reason(s).

The second paragraph is the key here. It took me a few reads to grasp her meaning. She’s saying the culture doesn’t need to change, that ideals and values can still be instilled. The only change would be to drop the cutting. It’s the same concept as transitioning from a brit milah to a brit shalom. Respect for tradition is good and can be altered just enough to maintain a cultural connection while respecting the child’s rights. Again, even though it feels good to denounce as strongly as possible, Ms. Diatta is on the right path.

This movie starring Sister Fa is powerful in showing her resolve and methods. It also instructs on the complexity of FGM and how and why it’s carried out.

The movie is worth your time. A few quotes from Sister Fa from the movie:

  • It was my mother who did it to me. Even today I don’t understand why.
  • Mothers don’t do it because they are malicious. It’s a contradiction.
  • They want to protect their children against a society which could marginalise them.

From Ibrahima Diatta, Sister Fa’s father:

“You know in our African societies and especially in the Diola Ethnie, the woman has her affairs where she doesn’t have to consult her husband. So when it was the matter to cut Fatou I didn’t know about it. I was just informed that she got cut.”

Yes, males impose FGM on girls. Yes, it’s done to affect/destroy sexual pleasure. But these aren’t exclusive. Again, the issue is more complicated. As these (anecdotal) quotes suggest, women also impose FGM on girls. It is also done to conform rather than destroy, even if the latter is likely or inevitable. There are important, undeniable similarities between female and male genital cutting that must be recognized, even when these facts challenge what society wants to believe. Western values have (mostly) settled the moral question of female genital cutting. We err when we endorse extraneous aspects of male genital cutting and imagine that these are somehow different, despite sufficient evidence to the contrary.

The cultural, “medical”, and religious considerations granted to parents for boys are rejected for girls, as they should be. Today, I hope we can begin to cease imagining differences that don’t exist. Today is about respecting the rights of girls. That is a noble cause. It will be articulated better as we begin recognizing an equal human right to be free from unnecessary genital cutting.

The Ethics of Pronouns

Consider this quote about genital cutting:

… I want her to have the freedom to come to her own conclusions about life’s major issues like religion, politics, and her own body. The reality, however, is until she can speak for herself, Nicole and I are calling the shots. Mistakes will be made. This is a parent’s burden. I can only hope she will learn to forgive us.

That’s offensive, right? Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting female is wrong. Neither parental intent nor perceived benefits changes that fundamental concept. Mistakes can’t be justified when they’re obvious and avoidable. That’s why laws exist in the United States against any form of non-therapeutic genital cutting, whether severe or minor.

I modified the original quote. Below, here is the the actual quote:

… I want him to have the freedom to come to his own conclusions about life’s major issues like religion, politics, and his own body. The reality, however, is until he can speak for himself, Nicole and I are calling the shots. Mistakes will be made. This is a parent’s burden. I can only hope he will learn to forgive us.

This mistake will get you jail time if it involves your daughter, regardless of whether she ends up angry about it. But make this mistake on your son and you get a culturally sympathetic nod to a “parent’s burden”, perhaps especially if your son ends up angry about it? That’s unacceptable nonsense. The ethical flaw doesn’t change to make the scenario any less offensive when it involves non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting male. Both are wrong for the same reason, and should be against the law.

The above quote is from Cole Gamble’s essay on his son’s circumcision, originally printed at The Daily Beast two years ago and reprinted here today.