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Is there an intactivist tipping point?

Published November 2, 2019 Updated June 10, 2020 Earlier this year Brendon Marotta, the producer of the anti-circumcision documentary American Circumcision, suggested that an expression of support by U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang was an indication that the intactivist movement had reached a "tipping point" with the expectation that support for the movement will begin "to landslide through the rest of the population." [1] What did he mean? What is a tipping point?

"Dramatic shift in public acceptance"

Intact America strategy advisor Dan Bollinger first proposed a tipping point strategy in a 2013 paper. Bollinger cited several writers who analyzed American social change movements, such as abolition, women's suffrage, and civil rights. Others have cited same-sex marriage. This theory assumes that new social movements are viewed initially as "extreme" and "out of mainstream public opinions."

The challenge is how to transition from being viewed by the general public as a fringe moment to being accepted as a mainstream movement. According to the theory, a social movement doesn't need to achieve a majority acceptance to be considered mainstream. Rather, once a movement reaches a certain percentage of societal acceptance, this percentage - a tipping point - "signals a dramatic shift in public acceptance of the [social] movement’s alternative proposition." [2]

There seems to be a slight disagreement as to the precise percentage that constitutes a tipping point. While Marotta put the tipping point at 15% of the population, Bollinger wrote that 20-25% is required for imminent social change. [3]

According to the tipping point theory, once a social movement - specifically the intactivist movement - reaches 20-25% acceptance, then public acceptance will quickly skyrocket, and success - although not necessarily imminent - is assured.

Why not abortion? [4]

A conundrum for proponents of this theory is that a rising support for a social change movement does not always make widespread acceptance inevitable. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement initially was accepted by a strong majority of Americans. [5] Within a year, however, support had dropped to just 26%. [6]

Intactivists might point to the Black Lives Matter movement, whose support has risen dramatically - to a 53% majority two weeks after the death of George Floyd in police custody. [7] However this example does not seem to support the tipping point theory. Broad public support and action did not occur as a result of certain level of approval, which hovered around 40% for the past few years. Rather, the sudden rise in broad public support coincided with the viral video of Floyd's death and the ensuing large-scale protests that spread across the United States and around the world. [8]

To understand why a tipping point is not automatic, we'll consider abortion. [4] The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade prohibited states from banning abortion. In 1975 - the first year that Gallup conducted a survey on the issue, 75% of Americans supported legal abortion under some or all circumstances. Among supporters, 21% said that abortion should always be legal. [9] Based on Bollinger's explanation of the tipping point theory, once support for legal abortion had reached 20-25% of the population, there should have been "a sudden upward turn of the curve [representing] the tipping point that [signaled] a dramatic shift in public acceptance of the [abortion rights] movement’s proposition." [2]

But Gallup polls in the ensuing decades have shown otherwise. Support for legal abortion under any circumstances rose to a high of 33% during the early 1990's, but then declined to a low of 21% in 2009. Gallup's 2019 poll showed 26% support.

Indeed, the issue is far from settled, as both sides in the debate have adopted positions that appear further apart compared to previous decades. The expectation that Brett Kavanaugh may provide a decisive vote to overturn Roe v Wade was a significant reason for the contentious fight over his 2018 Supreme Court nomination. [10]

If the tipping point signals a broad societal consensus, why hasn't that been the case with abortion? There are a couple of significant differences between abortion and the other social movements. First, in the other movements, one side was trying to gain rights and the other side was trying to deny rights. Slaves were denied freedom. Women were denied the right to vote. Blacks were denied equal rights. Gays and lesbians were denied the right to marry the person they loved. In these situations, all of the momentum was on the side being denied a civil right. In the case of the most recent social change success, opponents of same-sex marriage could not convincingly identify a group of people who would be harmed if gay and lesbian marriages were granted legal status.

By contrast in the abortion debate, both sides legitimately argue that they are fighting for human rights. Abortion rights supporters say that they're fighting for a woman's right to control her body. Abortion opponents say that they're fighting for the life of her unborn child - the fetus. Unlike the case with the other movements, neither side in the abortion debate has momentum. With a balanced scale of competing rights, the abortion debate has resembled a stalemate. Momentum has shifted only slightly over several decades as one side or the other has achieved small victories.

A second difference is that in the other movements, the people whom the movement considers victims whose rights were denied almost universally supported the goals of the movement. Slaves overwhelmingly desired to be free. A majority of women wanted the right to vote. Blacks supported equal rights, and the LGBT community overwhelmingly wanted the legalization of same-sex marriage.

If the same held true for abortion, the population directly affected by abortion restrictions - women - should almost universally support a pro choice position. But surveys show otherwise. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the topic: 24% of women (and 25% of men) support legal abortion in all circumstances. But 50% of women (and 56% of men) favor some restrictions. And 18% of women (and 24% of men) oppose legal abortion in all circumstances. [11] A significant number of American women don't consider abortion to be a fundamental human right. [12]

Circumcision scale comparable to abortion

Circumcision more closely resembles the debate over abortion than the anti-slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, and same-sex marriage movements. The circumcision debate takes place on a balanced scale - for several key reasons. Circumcision involves bodily autonomy. A circumcised man who wishes that he weren't circumcised cannot completely reverse the procedure. However autonomy is not an absolute right; it must be weighed against the benefits to the child. Unlike slavery and several other social causes, circumcision is performed for the benefit of the affected person. [13] A circumcised boy has a lower risk of phimosis, balanitis, and UTIs. When he grows up, circumcision will lower his risk of suffering from STDs and penile cancer. And unlike the other social causes, the circumcision procedure rarely causes harm. The views of those most directly affected by circumcision are quite pronounced. A 2015 survey of American men found that 86% of circumcised men were happy or unconcerned about being circumcised, while just 10% wished that they weren't circumcised. By comparison 67% of uncircumcised men were happy or indifferent to their genital status, and 29% wished that they had been circumcised. [14] In other words, an uncircumcised man is three times more likely than a circumcised man to regret the decision that his parents made. And just as a circumcised man cannot undo his circumcision, an uncircumcised man cannot go back in time and receive the benefits of newborn circumcision.

A fundamental problem for circumcision opponents is that the actual experiences of parents and sons directly contradicts the inaccurate and hysterical "intactofacts". Parents who hold their newborn sons during the procedure see with their own eyes that anesthesia is effective at managing neonatal pain. Many circumcised men report an extraordinary level of sensation and pleasure during intercourse. They experience an intense level of pleasure during oral sex, an activity that women are less likely to perform for an uncircumcised partner. [15] Millions of people have personal experiences that contradict the intactivist message. Parents are not going to reject the opinions of medical authorities all of a sudden. A majority of circumcised men won't suddenly reject their own experiences and believe intactivist hysteria. There is no tipping point that will generate immediate social change. Indeed, several opponents have expressed anger and frustration that most circumcised men are happy or unconcerned and reject the notion that they were harmed.

"It is unacceptable that there are people who are circumcised and happy that they are circumcised, and appreciate it. It is important that every circumcised man feels like we do so that progress can be made into banning routine neonatal male circumcision."

- Colton Harrelson, intactivist

Conclusion Dan Bollinger and Brendon Marotta have miscalculated. While a tipping point to acceptance and success is possible for some movements, it is not inevitable. In the case of circumcision, factors such as proven medical benefits, lack of significant harm, and overall acceptance by those directly affected weigh in favor of the status quo.


[1] Brendon Marotta; "Is This The Tipping Point For Intactivism?";; March 21, 2019

[2] Dan Bollinger; "A Tipping-Point Strategy for Intactivism";; November 23, 2013

[3] Several weeks after this post was published, Marotta wrote in a comment on his Facebook page that he had underestimated the percentage needed for a tipping point. Intact America replied, "When there is a committed competing group the tipping point is 20–25% according to the Sreenivasan et al. 2013 study." Brendon Marotta, Facebook post and comments; December 28, 2019.

[4] We discuss attitudes on abortion for the specific purpose of disputing the tipping point theory. Circumcision Choice admins have differing views on the subject and Circumcision Choice does not take a position on legal or ethical aspects of abortion, which is outside the scope of our mission.

[5] Matthew Cooper; "Poll: Most Americans Support Occupy Wall Street"; The Atlantic; October 19, 2011

[6] Chris Cillizza; "What Occupy Wall Street meant (or didn’t) to politics"; Washington Post; September 17, 2013. "While little polling has been done on Occupy as of late - a sign of its relative irrelevance to politics - an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in July 2012 showed that just 26% of people had a positive view of the movement, 40% had a negative one and roughly one in three either were neutral or didn't have an opinion."

[7] Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy; "How Public Opinion Has Moved on Black Lives Matter"; New York Times; June 10, 2020

[9] Lydia Saad;"Majority in U.S. Still Want Abortion Legal, With Limits"; Gallup; June 11, 2018

[10] Joan Frawley Desmond; "How Roe v. Wade Has Shaped Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Battle"; National Catholic Register; September 27, 2018

[12] The voices of another group directly affected by abortion aren't heard. Those are the voices of the fetuses that - if abortion were not an option - would be born and grow up. Gianna Jessen is an abortion survivor, born in 1977 during a failed abortion at 30 weeks of pregnancy. See Lindsey Beaver; "The only reason I am alive is the fact that the abortionist had not yet arrived at work"; Washington Post; September 30, 2016. Newborn boys are analogous fetuses in that they cannot express an opinion on the question of circumcision. However unlike aborted fetuses, most newborn boys do grow up to be able to express an opinion. See footnote #14.

[13] Joseph Mazor; "The child's interests and the case for the permissibility of male infant circumcision"; BMJ Journal of Medical Ethics; July 2013 [14] YouGov survey; January 31-February 1, 2015

[15] Jennifer A Bossio et al; “You either have it or you don’t: The impact of male circumcision status on sexual partners”; Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality; 2015. ""Women in the present sample demonstrated a preference for a circumcised penis when engaging in vaginal intercourse and fellatio."


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