Amazon.com reviews of Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin, PhD, are the subject of a flawed essay by Joya Banerjee, titled “How an anti-circumcision fringe group waged an ideological attack against AIDS scholarship”. I doubt Ms. Banerjee wrote the headline, although it doesn’t much matter because she ues the same silly accusation in her article. After an introduction describing Tinderbox, she writes:
One of the preventive measures discussed in the book, male circumcision, has become an unexpected source of controversy. Anti-circumcision activists have hijacked Amazon.com’s “peer review” comments section, which allows readers to vote on which book reviews are helpful. This system has morphed into a vicious game of character assassination by conspiracy theorists who reject decades’ worth of scientific evidence, showing how easy it is for a concerted crusade to squelch good science.
My first response is to ask if Ms. Banerjee has ever been on the Internet before researching this piece. I mean that only partially in jest. This is how every comments section works, with few exceptions. The primary focus for blame here is probably in the design of Amazon’s peer review system, or at least in anyone placing any significant value on its worth in 2012 as the criterion for buying a book with a controversial topic.
She seems to understand this later in her article, which makes her unfocused back-and-forth attack on opposition to circumcision feel more like an agenda than a critique.
Where does all of this leave us? Two diligent and dedicated authors spent years researching the origin, spread, and potential prevention of AIDS in Africa. Two minutes and a few clicks were all that was required for a passionate extremist group to obfuscate and delegitimize their findings in front of one of their most important and public audiences. Having failed to prove their beliefs through scientific evidence, the intactivists decided to have circumcision, and this entire book, judged in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately for the public, this jury was rigged.
If all it takes is “two minutes and a few clicks”, that’s a flawed system, however inappropriate the action motivation’s may be.
She’s ignorantly inflammatory in her article because she does not appear to understand opposition to circumcision. It is not “extremist” to argue that potential benefits learned through adult volunteers do not negate concern for the ethics of applying that science to healthy, non-consenting individuals (i.e. minors). For some reason she never addresses this aspect of the debate. If she were interested enough to become informed, she could’ve challenged this behavior without misstating the facts about opposition to circumcision.
That said, there is a legitimate problem with this strategy. It’s inappropriate. We can do better. The full set of facts are on our side, and we should always act like it.
But, as problematic as this is, it isn’t as widespread as she declares with her bizarre, broad attack. Most who are against non-therapeutic child circumcision do not engage in this behavior or condone it from those who do. The title states that an “anti-circumcision fringe group” participated in this without naming any group. The group is somehow all “intactivists”. That’s irresponsible, bordering on the same type of unfair maligning she criticizes. She writes later in her article:
Although male circumcision occupies less than 10 percent of the book’s pages, it was enough to spark outrage among a tiny but passionately vocal fringe group, many of whom call themselves “intactivists.” They argue that the procedure is a grave human rights violation and are lobbying to ban the procedure in many countries.
Let me be clear: I do not support what happened on the Amazon page for Tinderbox. I didn’t participate. I don’t recall seeing anything resembling an attempt at an organized tactic. I recognize a couple names among those attached to 1-star reviews, and at least one name attached to a 5-star review, but that’s it. The correct way to state the facts here is that a small group of individuals have done this. It is incorrect, and defies common sense, to suggest that those who engaged in this constitute the entire group of people who oppose circumcision (of healthy children), as Ms. Banerjee’s sloppy accusation does.
Look at the numbers, which are no doubt now influenced further (in both directions) by Ms. Banerjee’s article. Consider this sample of the helpful ratings for one star reviews:
- 91 of 232
- 83 of 215
- 81 of 212
- 124 of 342
- 76 of 277
- 52 of 221
- 33 of 197
Now consider this sample of the helpful ratings for five star reviews:
- 114 of 129
- 104 of 133
- 111 of 151
- 131 of 186
- 73 of 135
- 76 of 165
- 101 of 153
They look similar¹, right? That’s not to minimize or dismiss (or legitimize) the gaming of the system. And voting down many of the 1-star reviews is probably appropriate. But it can work both ways. Amazon’s review system allows those who support the book to vote down a 1-star review on the basis of it being a 1-star review, without regard for its content. One seems more likely than the other, of course. Reasonable analysis and criticism must still start with the system, not its users. Where the users are wrong, the problem should be identified without hyperbole.
That last rating is also interesting because it’s the rating on the review left by Ms. Banerjee in June.
It’s really too bad that the reviews here have been taken over by an ideological group that shuns science and hard fact. This group has mobilized hundreds of people to write bad reviews and then rate their friend’s bad reviews as helpful.
The reviews (by people who obviously haven’t read the book) are really about their opposition to male circumcision, not about the content of the book at all. Which is pretty nonsensical, seeing as how the majority of legitimate public health institutions (including the World Health Organization and UNAIDS) have accepted that voluntary medical male circumcision prevents HIV by over 60%, and long term data shows it protects by 76%! That’s better than even the flu vaccine- so it’s surprising that these ideological quacks would rather let Africans die from a preventable disease than admit they don’t understand science.
Anyway, READ THE BOOK! There were (sic) always be quacks and naysayers out there (akin to those who still oppose the measles vaccine because they think it causes autism). The racist attacks on the author in these reviews do nothing to bolster their credibility!
I haven’t rated Tinderbox because I haven’t read it. I’ve skimmed it to get a feel for its treatment of circumcision. I have an unfavorable opinion about it based on that, but skimming isn’t enough to rate it.
She has read it. That doesn’t excuse that she engaged in nonsense in her review, as she also does now in her current article. It’s odd to suggest that “hundreds” of people are rating the book down when the number that could be attributed to opponents is obviously under 100. Exactly one 5-star review has more than 100 “unhelpful” ratings, and that one belongs to Professor Brian Morris, who engaged in the same sort of unhelpful ad hominem evidenced in Ms. Banerjee’s article. The math doesn’t add up to this being widespread among all intactivists, unless she honestly believes opposition to circumcision consists of fewer than one hundred people. The population who would do this probably is that small, but she painted opposition with the broadest brush possible, as she inexcusably does in her current Slate article.
It’s also silly to assume one has to shun science and hard fact to oppose non-therapeutic child circumcision. I don’t shun either science or hard fact. My position is that there are probably flaws in the methodology, but I don’t worry about them in my position because the correct position starts with present health and the ethics involved in consent. I assume every potential benefit is real, including reduced female-to-male HIV transmission in high-risk populations with low circumcision rates. But I am not a utilitarian who ignores individual rights, including the rights to bodily integrity/autonomy and self-determination. The right to be free from unwanted – and critically in this case, unnecessary – harm supersedes every potential benefit until the individual can weigh in with his personal preference on which he values more, the benefits or his foreskin. Where public policy or Tinderbox limits itself to voluntary, adult circumcision, I have no issues. The former rarely does, to its great discredit. The latter appears to follow the same pattern. For example, in Note 18 on page 352, Timberg and Halperin write:
… There has also been some confusion caused by mistaken comparisons with “female genital mutilation,” which is a very different type of procedure and can have serious negative medical consequences. …
This ignores the science and hard facts of male circumcision. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical whether it’s forced on a girl or a boy. Gender doesn’t matter here because all people, including male minors, possess the same basic human rights equally. That’s the ethical principle being ignored. That must stop.
Timberg and Halperin mistakenly imply that male circumcision is innocuous. All non-therapeutic genital surgeries have negative medical consequences for the individual that he or she may not want. (e.g. loss of foreskin, severed nerve endings, damage to/loss of frenulum) And some number of males have serious negative medical consequences, including partial or full amputation, as well as death. Perhaps they discuss this in the book. From my review of the indexed circumcision segments, I’m not convinced they take this into account. (During my prior reviews of Halperin’s work, most notably in this two part series on an awful paper to which he attached his name, I’ve seen no evidence that he assigns any weight to these facts.)
Continuing with Note 18 on page 352:
… Further confusing the issue of male circumcision are the protests of a small but vocal community of activists who often call themselves “intactivists” because of their belief that the male genitalia should remain entirely intact. This constituency has launched aggressive campaigns, including one that resulted in getting an initiative on the ballot in San Francisco to ban the performance of any circumcisions on minors in the city. California officials later ruled that cities had no authority over medical proceduress (sic). …
Neither I nor anyone I know believes that the male genitalia should remain entirely intact. That’s too simplistic and unconcerned with hard fact. I believe my gentials should have remained intact because I was healthy and my foreskin belonged to me. I believe every other male child’s healthy penis and foreskin should also remain intact until he may choose for himself, even if he ultimately chooses circumcision. The issue is bodily integrity and autonomy, not opposition to circumcision full stop. The San Francisco ballot initiative would’ve prohibited the performance of any circumcision on healthy, non-consenting minors in the city, not “any circumcisions on minors”. Omitting key words incorrectly frames the discussion and dismisses valid ethical (and scientific) concerns.
It’s also indefensible to engage in ad hominem (i.e. “ideological quacks” who “would rather let Africans die from a preventable disease than admit they don’t understand science”), as Ms. Banerjee does, without understanding the necessary qualifiers. Personally, I think everyone should use condoms because they prevent the transmission of HIV. If the adult male is so inclined, he may also volunteer to undergo circumcision. I don’t want anyone to die from HIV, but I don’t want anyone’s rights violated in a condescending good faith effort to force on him what someone else thinks he should want. If Ms. Banerjee wants to limit the discussion to voluntary adult male circumcision, that’s fine. She fails to explicitly limit the application of the science to the bodies of adult volunteers. From what I’ve read of Tinderbox, Timberg and Halperin fail to do so, as well. They should all recognize that they’re ignoring the ethical distinction between voluntary adult circumcision and non-therapeutic child circumcision.
Since this is indirectly a critique of Tinderbox, consider another footnote, note 18 on page 385.
… Meanwhile, some critics have suggested that male circumcision is similar to “female genital mutilation’ because it allegedly also reduces sexual functioning and pleasure. Unlike male circumcision, however, these practices-particularly the most extreme forms such as infibulation-can pose significant health risks for women. …
They’re repeating their error, treating male circumcision as if it carries an irrelevant risk of serious complications. But circumcision also changes the form of the penis, which changes the function. The mechanics are different. Maybe that’s better, maybe it isn’t. It’s unique to the individual, contrary to the majoritarian argument they’re about to make.
… In the rigorous studies that have investigated male circumcision’s effect on sexual pleasure, (115-28) nearly all men and their female partners report that after men become circumcised sexual pleasure is the same or enhanced, for both partners. During the 2005-2006 Swaziland pilot circumcision program mentioned in chapter 26, many women began saying that after getting circumcised their partners could have sex longer before reaching orgasm. Some of the clinic nurses reported that women would use metaphors such as, “He used to go from here [Mbabane] to Manzini [a city half an hour’s drive away], now he can go all the way to the border.”
Source 123, “Sensation and sexual arousal in circumcised and uncircumcised men”, states:
It is possible that the uncircumcised penis is more sensitive due to the presence of additional sensory receptors on the prepuce and frenulum, but this cannot be compared with the absence of such structures in the circumcised penis.
They (unintentionally?) demonstrate as much in their footnote, if only they were interested in the issue. The conclusion is that (voluntary, adult) circumcision doesn’t damage sexual pleasure because it is the same or enhanced for nearly all men and their female partners. So? This dismisses the diminished sexual pleasure for those outside the “nearly all” group. Those individuals matter, and no one should expect them to be mollified because another male is happy with his circumcision.
This approach is also based on “heads I win, tails you lose”. Circumcision is the same or better, and men can have sex longer. What logical reason can we think of that might explain lasting longer? Maybe this is good, but sexual pleasure involves a degree of individual preference. Not all males (or females) will want or need sex to last longer to enjoy it to the maximum extent for themselves.
Ms. Banerjee endorses this flawed argument in her article:
Although tens of thousands of men who were circumcised as adults and were studied in several large-scale clinical trials (and in a Slate series) reported no loss—and in many cases an increase—in sexual pleasure and function, the intactivists claim that male circumcision is equivalent to female genital mutilation, a practice whose purpose is to constrain a woman’s sexuality and impair sexual function. In one of its worst forms, a pre-teen girl’s clitoris and entire external genitalia are cut, scraped, or burned out, which can cause severe pain, infection, life-long incontinence, obstructed labor and delivery, and even death. To be truly equivalent, one would have to cut off a man’s entire penis in order to produce the same effect, rather than a small flap of skin.
First, that Slate series was ridiculous. I refuted it here and here.
Second, the possibility that one person might not like being circumcised as a healthy child exposes the ethical problem that she fails to address. Male circumcision involves control, and can be intended to directly impair sexual function. (It definitively alters sexual function.) Most forms of FGM result in far more harm than a typical circumcision, but civil law recognizes no level of acceptable harm from non-therapeutic female genital cutting, including forms less harmful than male circumcision. One does not have to remove the entire penis to produce the same effect that is legally prohibited for female minors. Male circumcision is not acceptable because FGM is usually worse. Even if the foreskin should be viewed as a “small flap of skin”, it is the male’s small flap of skin. Self-ownership rights do not disappear because possible benefits exist from a non-therapeutic surgical intervention.
Where she challenges the appropriateness of the comments attached to Tinderbox’s Amazon page, Ms. Banerjee is correct. Where she expands that into an indictment of any position against circumcision, she stumbles. There is more to the application of science to healthy individuals, whether adults or minors, than just a limited subset of science and hard fact. No male’s healthy body is a platform for expressing another’s personal preferences and fears, whether those of parents or technocratic public health officials.
¹ Sampled on September 26, 2012, except for the rating on Ms. Banerjee’s review. I updated that today because I kept the link.