Below is the full transcript of the Lauren Vinopal did with Brendon Marotta for Fatherly.com.
- Original recording of interview: https://youtu.be/nR3hDskDIt0
- Fatherly.com’s account of the interview archived here.
- Interview transcribed by Rev.com from this recording.
- Microsoft Word comparison of the two transcripts here.
- Listen to the interview in sync with the transcript here. (Archive link here.)
Lauren Vinopal: 00:00 Hey is this Brendon?
Brendon Marotta: 00:00 Yes.
Lauren Vinopal: 00:01 Hey this is Lauren calling from Fatherly. How are you?
Brendon Marotta: 00:07 I’m alright. How you doing?
Lauren Vinopal: 00:09 I’m good. Is now still a good time?
Brendon Marotta: 00:11 Yes, it is.
Lauren Vinopal: 00:12 Thank you so much. Well I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I’m going to watch it over the weekend so, I want to just like … I did some reporting on this topic a while ago and I found it like super interesting, and I’m just kind of interested in like what your experience was like making the movie, and what that whole journey was like. But, just sort of what kind of brought you to the topic, what made you decide to make a movie about it, how did sort of find yourself interested in that?
Brendon Marotta: 00:47 So, I’ve been doing film making all my life, and when I ran across this topic, it struck me that this affects every man, every partner of a man, every parent and child in the most personal way possible, and yet we don’t talk about it. It hits all our cultural taboos around sex, and religion, and politics and it’s in the most personal way possible. So I felt like based on the information I was learning about it, that I had a duty to share that information with the world. And like I said, I’ve been making films since I was 14. I went to film school. It’s what I love doing. It’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life and so that seemed like the natural way to approach the topic.
Lauren Vinopal: 01:36 And how did come up with it? How did you come across like the information? Was it just from like word of mouth from being like a man or … ’cause I mean, I guess as a woman I didn’t really realize how emotional of a thing it was.
Brendon Marotta: 01:53 It’s hugely emotional. I mean that is something that I have found with myself and with everyone I’ve talked to about it. And it’s almost … it’s not just how do you find out about it, but how do you not find out about it. Looking back across my life, there’s been times this topic has come up and I always thought, well there’s nothing I can do about that now, so why think about it. And it made me uncomfortable because every other area of my life … you know, I went through a period where I was letting go of a lot of old patterns that didn’t serve me. I was changing a lot of my beliefs. I was changing the way that I ate and the way that I treated other people. When I ran across this topic, you know it felt like there was nothing I could do about it, and so I just really thought out of sight out of mind.
Brendon Marotta: 02:42 And later I ran across … when I actually did take the time to search and look things up about it, one of the first things I found was something called foreskin restoration which is where men stretch the remaining skin of the foreskin and over time get a covering of that part of the body again. And so I thought, well there is something that you can do about it. It’s not a complete reversal, but it’s something. I’d always been told you know, there’s nothing you can do about it, so then that raised the question, what else have I been told that’s incorrect?
Lauren Vinopal: 03:19 I guess … I know you went through … like I mean, most people go through their whole lives like knowing that some people or circumcised and some people are not circumcised. So nobody totally talks about it that much culturally, but was there a point where it just sort of like clicked for you like this doesn’t seem fair. This seems like an injustice that you can remember or was it something that was always on your mind?
Brendon Marotta: 03:44 The piece of information that really struck me was when I learned that up until the mid-1980s, doctors believed that newborn infants did not feel pain and would do the procedure without any anesthesia. And I’m very familiar with how early life trauma impacts people later in life and so that was really shocking. And many activists have told me that seeing the procedure for the first time is what made them become activists. You know, seeing a child screaming in pain.
Lauren Vinopal: 04:19 Yeah, definitely. When did that like happen? Do you consider yourself an activist and when did that sort of happen for you?
Brendon Marotta: 04:30 So I just consider myself a filmmaker. I feel like my role on this issue is to create dialogue, not be an ideologue in any way. And I think that that happened in my early twenties, so it took six years to make the film which has been a bit of a process, but that’s when it began.
Lauren Vinopal: 04:55 [inaudible 00:04:55] Let’s talk about the film. So what has that been … what has the process been like and how have things changed over the past three … or six years in making it around the issue?
Brendon Marotta: 05:09 So we interviewed every major expert on both sides of the debate in the film. We have people from the intactivist movement. We also have people from the American Academy of Pediatrics. We have people who were involved in the HIV studies done in Africa. One of the things that I have noticed over the course of making the film is just how much the debate has shifted. When I began working on the film, I would tell people I was working on this film, that would say, oh isn’t that cleaner or something. And now when I talk to people about the issue of circumcision, they say, oh that’s really controversial. I’ve seen a lot of people protesting that. So just in the course of making the film, I think the debate has shifted from a frame of sort of the … what now even the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges is myths, to a question of, who’s body? Who’s rights? Who has the right to make decisions about men’s bodies?
Brendon Marotta: 06:09 Does the man have the right to make his own decisions about his body or do parents have the rights to make decisions for them?
Lauren Vinopal: 06:18 I’m sorry. That just broke up. What did you say that the American Academy of Pediatrics has acknowledged?
Brendon Marotta: 06:23 So when I interviewed a Jewish member of the American Academy of Pediatrics … latest policy statement on circumcision, what he told me on camera, and it’s in the film, was that intactivists are now at the center of this debate. But that ethical question of who has the right to make decisions about mems bodies, is the center of this debate. And that’s shifted, ’cause if you look at the AAP policy statements from the 80’s, they are glowingly positive about circumcision. And now there are members of the committee who acknowledge that these ethical questions are legitimate and worth discussing.
Lauren Vinopal: 07:07 So it makes sense that it’s not so much like the AAP necessarily [inaudible 00:07:11] but instead of it being like is this cleaner or not, and is it ethical or not is the conversation.
Brendon Marotta: 07:19 Yes.
Lauren Vinopal: 07:21 That totally makes sense. I agree with that totally. It’s definitely a note of fact. Have you noticed like extremism on both sides or is there like … I guess … I feel like at least the intactivist movement there’s you know, there’s moderate people I’ve talked to, I mean but there are a lot of others like … I at least heard a lot about just like death threats. You know like nurses and doctors and that sort of thing. Did you run into any of that?
Brendon Marotta: 07:55 I haven’t seen anything from the intactivist movement that I haven’t seen from other major social justice movements. I think when people feel wronged, they often respond to that with anger. And whether or not you think that anger is justified depends on your perspective on circumcision.
Lauren Vinopal: 08:18 That makes sense. Other than the interviews and like the research and stuff, what did you find out like the public health side of the argument from your interviews and what sort of came out of that?
Brendon Marotta: 08:33 Again, the member of the American Academy of Pediatrics I spoke to acknowledges that the health claims are not compelling. That it is largely a cultural or religious practice. In terms of the specific health claims, it would take at least a two hour documentary to go through them all one by one. That’s part of the challenge with this issue, is that to actually delve into the studies around a particular claim requires a lot of time and scientific knowledge and isn’t really relevant if you’re asking the question, Who’s body? Who’s rights?
Brendon Marotta: 09:15 When we talk about female circumcision and women’s bodies, we don’t ask well what are the health benefits and risks. We acknowledge that women have the right to their own bodies, and that even if there were benefits, the harm of violating that woman’s bodily autonomy would trump those.
Lauren Vinopal: 09:32 And then so, I guess, it is accurate and so my other feeling is … the argument is in fact, that there’s no health benefit … it’s just that it’s not significant enough. If that’s true?
Brendon Marotta: 09:59 So the focus of activists is on the human rights aspect and on the bodily autonomy aspect. However, they would argue that the studies that have been done on this are often really poor. For example, the largest claim right now is around circumcision and HIV. That circumcision reduces the rate of HIV. When I interviewed the authors of one of those studies, one of the things that they acknowledge, is that circumcised men use condoms at a higher rate that the intact men in their studies. Which means that those studies aren’t really HIV studies or circumcision studies, they’re condom studies. And when you get into the research of almost all of these claims, they fall apart under similar scrutiny.
Lauren Vinopal: 10:51 True. And I don’t see doing [inaudible 00:10:55] why circumcised men don’t wear condoms as much or is that just like a whole nother thing in itself?
Brendon Marotta: 11:02 So, those studies were in the context of Sub Saharan Africa. So I couldn’t speak to that ’cause I don’t know enough about that culture.
Lauren Vinopal: 11:15 But they didn’t control for condom use in that study?
Brendon Marotta: 11:17 No.
Lauren Vinopal: 11:21 Interesting.
Brendon Marotta: 11:27 No. You can go ahead.
Lauren Vinopal: 11:31 So like you’re saying that there are no risks, but the movement isn’t trying to really … they’re not impressed by the studies, but they’re not necessarily trying to debunk them. They’re more … not trying to confuse or make the issue about the human right violation. Correct?
Brendon Marotta: 11:50 Right. I mean, there are studies suggesting that female circumcision reduces the rate of HIV, but no one on any side of the debate thinks those claims are worth even exploring.
Lauren Vinopal: 12:02 Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Brendon Marotta: 12:00 … thinks those claims are worth even exploring.
Lauren Vinopal: 12:03 Mm-hmm (affirmative). No, and that’s fair. I guess this is another sort of I think, [inaudible 00:12:19] part of the intactivist movement, but the sort of…Are there differences between male circumcision and female circumcision in your opinion?
Brendon Marotta: 12:27 That is hard to quantify because there are different types of female circumcision. But I will say that the circumcised women I interviewed for the film say there is no difference.
Lauren Vinopal: 12:43 Because I’ve heard the argument that there’s different types of female circumcision. And there’s even like a nick to the clitoris could be considered circumcision as opposed to fully removing it. But in terms of just, apples to apples, do you think that fully removing a clitoris is the same as removing foreskin? Cause I feel like that’s a hard part of the argument that not everyone agrees on.
Brendon Marotta: 13:11 Not everyone agrees on that because not everyone agrees on the value of the foreskin. So, I think when people push back on that claim, they’re assuming that the foreskin isn’t 15 square inches of skin or the most erogenous part of a man’s body. Or that it contains thousands of nerve endings. Their assumption is that it’s quote, just a flap of skin. So, it’s hard to have that discussion without first having discussion about the value of the foreskin and what that part of anatomy actually is.
Lauren Vinopal: 13:41 Tell me more about that. Is that the core of this? Is that men are being sort of robbed of this sexual experience later in life as babies? Is it about pain? Is it about both?
Brendon Marotta: 14:01 I think the intactivist movement arguments are primarily three things. One, it’s a violation of someone’s humans rights to remove a part of their body without their consent. Two, the foreskin, the part being removed, has value in sexuality and that is an experience that many men want and should be allowed to have. And three, the procedure itself is traumatic and painful and harms the infant in the moment it occurs, and it harms the man he becomes and in terms of what emotions he might have about that experience.
Lauren Vinopal: 14:39 I guess I’m wondering like, how do you guys through the… the third thing. Because I feel like there are men who are circumcised who feel that way but there are plenty of men who don’t feel that way. So, I guess I’m curious as to what the proof is that they’ve been robbed of… that their sex lives are that much worse off. Or that every man that is uncircumcised is… or every man that’s circumcised is this way?
Brendon Marotta: 15:21 So, there are circumcised women who say that they’re perfectly happy with their experience and they get just as much pleasure as an intact woman would. And we actually interviewed one of those women in the film. And if you were to go to cultures that practice female circumcision, the majority of women there would say the same thing. People tend to have a biased towards what their experience is and don’t want to consider the possibility that there might have been more. And so, there are studies that suggest that men who know more about circumcision are more likely to be dissatisfied with it. And I think if you were to interview men who say, I’m fine, I didn’t lose anything. They probably don’t know a lot about the subject.
Lauren Vinopal: 16:13 Yeah. So, it’s more of an ignorance is bliss thing. That it not being an actual problem.
Brendon Marotta: 16:23 Yes. I mean, Americans don’t get a lot of sexual education in general and even less on this subject.
Lauren Vinopal: 16:35 Yeah, and I guess that’s a good transition into why, it’s like, if this is so wrong, why hasn’t it changed from what you can tell? From just all the interviews you’ve done. It’s not like everyone has… Less people are circumcising their kids, so it seems like what the activism is working. Is the end goal to make it illegal or…? Cause right now it is the parent’s choice. So, I guess what’s the goal of the intactivist movement if no one’s being forced to circumcise their kids?
Brendon Marotta: 17:21 I think different people in the intactivist movement would answer that differently. There are certainly people who are working towards age restricting the practice to adults, for example in Iceland and Denmark. And there are others who simply want to change the way that America thinks about circumcision. And the cultures that practice female circumcision are still having the same problems. Even that practice, which in the west we all agree is terrible and should stop, there’s still a challenge in changing people’s minds and overcoming the dissidence of the bias that this is what happened to my body, or this is what I did to my kids, and all of those things.
Brendon Marotta: 18:06 I think that the change that is happening is largely due to greater access to information and greater willingness of people to question their culture and think for themselves.
Lauren Vinopal: 18:24 There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t think circumcision going… I don’t see it becoming illegal. So, it’s like, if parents can decide then… Education [inaudible 00:18:42] that’s like fine, but…I don’t know. I think the argument in my opinion that male circumcision and female circumcision are the same kind of hurts but the movement in some ways. Because I do think that’s a pretty far leap. But I mean that’s just a matter of personal opinion. Because a lot of the things that you’re saying, I’ve heard from activists in the movement, and I understand what you’re saying but it does seem like an oversimplification of what female circumcision is.
Brendon Marotta: 19:15 I mean, the circumcised women who appear in my film, who’ve I’ve interviewed, would disagree with you. They would say that pain is pain regardless of the gender.
Lauren Vinopal: 19:24 Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you think, just based on your work with the documentary, that men who are circumcised as babies, what does that look like emotionally as adults? Cause I’ve also heard the argument that circumcision makes men more violent, which I can’t get behind that either.
Brendon Marotta: 19:52 So among the men who I’ve interviewed for my film, what I hear from them is a lot of grief. It is the grief that anyone would have if they learned that they had lost a part of their body. If you were to remove any other part of someone’s body, they would have a grieving process around that. And I think that for the men in the intactivist movement that grief is amplified by the larger cultures unwillingness to acknowledge their emotions and see them as valid. Because if you don’t want to question circumcision then you have to invalidate the emotions of people who are.
Lauren Vinopal: 20:38 I mean, but doesn’t that invalidate the feelings of everyone who doesn’t feel that way? Is is possible that it is a case by case feeling, you know? Or do you think… or is that too easy?
Brendon Marotta: 20:58 So, I don’t know that I would ever want to tell someone else how they should feel. And again, you’re asking me about the movement. There’s a range of perspectives within the movement. I’ll say that the goal with my film is to simply present people with information and allow them to come to their own conclusions. So, in the film, we don’t make any statements to what the audience should believe. We simply present interviews of a range of perspectives and let them come to their own conclusions. And I think that there are even people in the intactivist movement who would say, however you want to feel about it is fine. Your feelings are your feelings. But you have to acknowledge that some men are going to feel grief around this. And that we should spare them that by respecting their human rights when they’re a child.
Lauren Vinopal: 21:55 Does that mean that the sort of grief that men who have already been circumcised, who are adults, that that generally the way they’re choosing to deal with that is to speak out and to make sure that other children have a choice that they didn’t have. Is that their defense?
Brendon Marotta: 22:18 There’s a lot of that, yeah. I think when people suffer something they feel is traumatic, they want to make sure that others don’t go through the same experience. It’s a very compassionate and healthy response.
Lauren Vinopal: 22:30 Is it not enough to just decide that they’re just not going to circumcise their kids?
Brendon Marotta: 22:41 That’s not really how people respond to human rights violations. To just say, well I won’t commit human rights violations. I think if someone sees something as a human rights violation then they want to deal with it like the way they would any other human rights violation.
Lauren Vinopal: 22:59 And do you believe that this is a human rights violation personally?
Brendon Marotta: 23:09 I’m not really interested in telling people what to think. I think that before you can even have a conversation about that you have to understand the issue, understand what circumcision is, understand what the foreskin is, and hear the perspectives that are currently speaking on it. So, the goal with my film is just to allow people to hear those perspectives and come to their own conclusion. And I feel like if I was to tell people this is what the truth is, or this is the perspective you should hold, that would end the conversation rather than start one.
Lauren Vinopal: 23:48 Mm-hmm (affirmative). I have all to like my personal views, I am not pro-circumcision. I don’t think I know it… I don’t have a son, but if I had one, I don’t think I would do it. But I’m not totally convinced it’s a human rights violation. But-
Lauren Vinopal: 24:00 … not totally convinced it’s [inaudible 00:24:03] violation but I’m not sure. You know, I’m trying to keep an open mind on that. But I guess, I want to ask, because you said it took six years, were there any challenges that came up along the way, while I still have you, that you can speak to? Was there anything that made this topic particularly difficult?
Brendon Marotta: 24:32 I feel like the biggest challenge was just how to compile all the information there is around this topic into one film. So I had 100 hours of footage, and a lot of different topics within this. And I think the biggest challenge was just figuring out how to put that all into one film. And I think we managed to do that. This is a film that covers the sexuality, the medical claims, the history, the modern debate, everything aspect about circumcision you might have wanted to know but been afraid to ask.
Lauren Vinopal: 25:12 And just before we wrap things up, I mean, when it’s all said and done, I think the core of this argument is, like, is this a human rights issue. Is this, you know, on the level like racism or any sort of social movement. And I guess the impression I’m getting from talking to you is that it is. At least from the information that you’re presenting in your documentary. Is that accurate?
Brendon Marotta: 25:45 I would say that that’s where the debate around circumcision is right now. Not just in my film, but in the wider culture and in the world.
Lauren Vinopal: 25:57 Because it’s not about whether or not just can just do it to your kid. It’s whether, is this right or wrong, on a human level.
Brendon Marotta: 26:04 Yes. And one thing I want to add to that point is that if you make a decision on this issue, your child might come back to you later and have a different perspective on it. And I think when people think about this as a parenting decision, they don’t realize that it’s something that could impact their relationship with their child, like any other parenting decision would. And so, the culture is moving towards that question and that debate. And one thing I think people should think about is where this issue and this discussion is going to be 18 years from now. When … I mean, just in the six years I’ve been working on the film, it has moved from a topic that most people have not heard about to one that they are considering banning in countries like Iceland and Denmark. So, this is something that is only going to grow in the coming years.
Lauren Vinopal: 27:07 But don’t you think … Is banning it a human rights issue [inaudible 00:27:11] because it’s a religious thing? I mean, it feels like it’s just like, one thing or the other. Like it’s just … You know what I mean? Like … And that’s why it’s a choice. Because, like, some people, it is a matter of … a religious preference. So, wouldn’t outlawing that be a violation of their rights?
Brendon Marotta: 27:30 The Jewish activists I’ve spoken to have all said that they had the right to their own bodies, regardless of what their parents’ beliefs were. And that their religious freedom was violated when someone carved a religious symbol into their body without their consent. And I think that the argument that people who are pushing for an age restriction on circumcision in Iceland and Denmark would make is that they have laws against female genital cutting, and yet we don’t ask are those laws Islamophobic. And going against people who feel that their religious practice involved cutting women. We understand that the rights of the child trump the parents’ religious belief. And that they would make the same argument towards people who say that they have a religious right to cut their sons’ genitals.
Lauren Vinopal: 28:20 Mm-hmm (affirmative). And then I want to, just real quick, because I don’t want it to get glossed over, but the idea that circumcising a boy when he’s an infant will make him more violent as an adult. I know you were talking about [Greece 00:28:37] before. But I feel like that … Have you heard that argument, specifically?
Brendon Marotta: 28:45 It doesn’t really come up in our documentary. And it is not something that most of the activists I’ve talked to have brought up.
Lauren Vinopal: 28:55 But has it come up? Is what I’m asking.
Brendon Marotta: 28:58 I have heard it from some people. And there is research that early life trauma affects people later in life. But it’s also very hard to draw a one-to-one correlation between something is early life and later in life. So, I can’t really speak to that, because it’s not really a focus in our film.
Lauren Vinopal: 29:24 Yeah. Because like, I do think that there’s definitely a part of [inaudible 00:29:30] of this movement that is sort of trying to connect circumcision to violence and sexual assault. And I think that really hurts the movement. In my opinion. And I’ve heard it come up several times in reporting other stories. So, I was curious if you heard that. Because again, you’re trying to [inaudible 00:29:51] and you said you didn’t include it in the movie, which is your choice. But you’re trying to present … like, you guys are, both sides here. And I’m wondering what that side is sort of about.
Brendon Marotta: 30:05 So, what I have heard is that many activists say that circumcision, touching a child’s genitals without his consent, fits existing legal definitions for sexual assault. Because in order to do circumcision, you have to forcibly penetrate the space between the glans and the foreskin. And that that actually fits existing legal definitions for sexual assault.
Lauren Vinopal: 30:39 And like, so, theoretically, do you think that that’s maybe where people are getting the idea that boys who are assaulted in that way might be more prone to assaulting people later when they grow up, without realizing it? I’m not asking if you agree, but is that maybe where that comes from?
Brendon Marotta: 31:02 What you’re describing is the idea that early childhood trauma or early abuse makes people more likely to be abusers later.
Lauren Vinopal: 31:11 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brendon Marotta: 31:11 And that’s not really something we cover in the film. But it is something that a lot of mainstream psychologists would suggest is the case. Now, does that apply to circumcision? I don’t know. I don’t have research on that in particular. But I believe that’s what you’re referencing.
Lauren Vinopal: 31:31 Okay. Yeah. No, I mean, I think that’s, like an … Because yeah, there … Again, I’m not especially pro-circumcision, and I don’t think that, like … But I do think that the number of [inaudible 00:31:39] I’ve encountered [inaudible 00:31:40] with, that I think definitely hurt their cause. And that’s one of them. I guess just to sort of wrap things up, I guess for someone … What’s been … Just your opinion, someone who’s sort of on the fence about this as a parent. Or maybe even they’re divided in sort of their relationship, just the mother and father, about what to decide to do with their son. Based on just every, all the information you’ve gathered over this six years, what would be your, maybe not advice, but is there a way for them to sort of navigate this issue better than it’s been in the past.
Brendon Marotta: 32:38 I think they should watch my film before they make a decision.
Lauren Vinopal: 32:42 That’s a good point. Cool. Well, [inaudible 00:32:48] to you if there’s anything you’d like to add. And thank you for your time either way. But yeah, if there’s anything you’d like to add. That covers really everything I asked.
Brendon Marotta: 32:56 Great. Well, thank you. And let me know if there’s something written later.
Lauren Vinopal: 33:01 Great. I look forward to watching the movie.
Brendon Marotta: 33:04 Enjoy. Thank you again.
Lauren Vinopal published her own version of this conversation on Fatherly.com with significant changes, which you can find archived here.