SGI spreads to more campuses

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Sunday, March 9, 2003San Francisco Chronicle

A different kind of penis envy: Students fight to save foreskinsChristopher Heredia, Chronicle Staff Writer

Like many American boys, Greg Dervin was circumcised as an infant. Now, the 24-year-old San Francisco State student is fighting mad.

Not only does he want his foreskin back, but he’s also part of a growing student movement seeking to end male circumcision as well as other forms of what he and other “intactivists” term genital mutilation in the United States and abroad.

Last year, Dervin formed the first college group in the United States with the mission of ending the cutting of children’s genitalia, Students for Genital Integrity. The group has spawned two similar organizations in Florida and Iowa. Two other chapters are starting, one in Washington, D.C., another in Phoenix, Ariz.

Dervin’s group’s platform includes educating people about the practices of female genital mutilation as well as the surgical altering of the genitals of intersex children, infants born with both male and female genitalia orambiguous genitalia.

“We’re not just anti-circumcision,” Dervin said. “We’re against any forced cutting of a child’s genitalia. It’s a human rights violation. There’s no ethically responsible reason to continue to amputate healthy erogenoustissue.”

Dervin took an interest in male circumcision two years ago after coming across information about the procedure on the Internet. “An intellectual curiosity became a passion,” he said. He majored in sociology at New YorkUniversity and is pursuing his master’s in human sexuality studies at San Francisco State. Dervin is Jewish, and his foreskin was removed as part of his bris, a religious ceremony, on the eighth day of his life.

Dervin and other members of his group are campaigning to educate parents, doctors and lawmakers about what they perceive as obsolete beliefs and cultural practices that lead parents and others to alter the sex organs ofchildren and women.

During a male circumcision, doctors remove the foreskin of the penis, a mobile sheath with thousands of nerve endings, reducing sensitivity and production of natural lubricants. In some African countries, girls and women have their clitoris removed as a rite of passage, for reasons including hygiene and preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Dervin’s group estimates that 3,000 American boys are circumcised daily (about two-thirds of male babies born daily) and that worldwide 6,000 females daily are at risk for female genital mutilation. According to the Intersex Society of North America, 1 or 2 out of every 1,000 children born have surgery to “normalize” genital appearance.

Monthly meetings attract only a few people, Dervin said, but many more show up at the group’s weekly table in the San Francisco State student quad. Some heckle, but others express appreciation for the work the group is doing. The group’s e-mail list contains 130 people nationwide, 50 of whom live in the Bay Area.

Dervin learned how in the late 1800s in English-speaking countries circumcision became popular as a way of reducing men’s libidos and as a deterrent to masturbation. He read about devices created to keep boys frommasturbating, including a ring with spikes meant to be attached to a boy’s genitals.

“It’s not just about masturbation. It changes your sexual experience,” Dervin said. “Yes, I’m pissed. I was denied a whole sexual experience. I was robbed. The experience should be my birthright.”

Mahndisa Rigmaiden, a 26-year-old physics major, joined Students for Genital Integrity to raise awareness about female genital mutilation as well as support the effort to end male circumcision.

“None of these infants have a choice,” she said. “When you look at it at a deeper level, it all has to do with the rights of the child being taken away. It has deep psychological implications. I think once people get educated, they’ll be appalled.”

Health experts have been divided on the issue of male circumcision. Experts in impoverished African countries have recommended circumcision as a means of reducing HIV infection. In the United States, some studies have shown that uncircumcised men are more likely to develop penile cancer and urinary tract infections.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement saying the value of circumcision wasn’t sufficient to warrant its use as part of routine medical care.

At Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco, neonatologist Carlos Botas, who oversees circumcision procedures at the hospital, leaves it up to the parents, as most doctors do today. About half of the 1,200 boys born annually at Kaiser are circumcised, Botas said.

Parents must sign a consent form allowing the doctor to remove the foreskin,

after being told about the procedure and possible complications such as bleeding and infections, which Botas said are rare.

“I find most parents have decided what they want to do before they walk in the door,” said Botas, who like the academy believes there is no medical necessity for circumcision. “Usually the biggest predictor is the dad, whether he is circumcised or not. They want the son being the same as the dad. Moms are more reluctant to have their sons circumcised.”

Botas said the number of parents choosing to have their sons circumcised has declined over the past 20 years, which he attributes to changing cultural and societal beliefs.

E-mail Christopher Heredia at [email protected]