Cynthia Maloney’s first public opposition to infant circumcision was unexpected and visceral. In her early 30s, she sat in a bar with a friend in Waltham, chatting with two guys. When talk turned to circumcision, Maloney could not stay quiet, according to a report from Intact America.
“I popped up off of the barstool and onto my soapbox,” she recalls. Back then, in 1999, she didn’t know the facts behind her position. But she felt it was wrong.
In the years since, she learned more and became ever more fervent. Now 50 years old and a grandmother, she’s launched widespread social media campaigns, marched and protested, and wears a Foreskin Pride T-shirt as she drives her motorcycle around Boston and Watertown, where she lives. She became a doula who counsels parents against subjecting their babies to something that is painful, and something that she believes is medically unnecessary and will affect their sons’ future sexual health.
“I did the research and realized how much babies are traumatized by the operation,” Maloney says. “The more I learned, the more I have tried to educate parents about the procedure, and the more discouraged I become when a mother wants to circumcise her son anyway.”
For her devotion to the cause, Maloney has been named the September Intactivist of the Month by Intact America, the largest national organization advocating against involuntary circumcision of baby boys and for a healthy sexual future for all people.
“Cynthia Maloney combines single-minded dedication to intactivism with a warm, intelligent and accessible personality,” says Georganne Chapin, Intact America’s Executive Director. “I had the honor of being with her in this year’s New York City Pride march, as she floated down Fifth Avenue wearing her angel wings with the message ‘His Body His Choice’ on them.”
It Began With ‘Saturday Night Live’
Maloney’s first thoughts about circumcision came early. She was 11 years old when she saw a “Saturday Night Live” skit spoofing an ad demonstrating a luxury car’s smooth ride by showing a mohel (a ritual circumciser) in the backseat flawlessly performing a bris. When she asked about it, her mother told her that, as Catholics, her family’s men did not get circumcised. And when Maloney’s own son was born in 1988, her only thought about circumcision was “Why would I do that?”
Before her activism took off, Maloney held several jobs, including spending 11 years as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company. But her interest in peaceful childbirth and protecting children grew, and in 2004, she became a doula. “Even though I talked a lot of people out of cutting,” she says, “I still thought it was a parent’s choice.”
That changed in 2008, when an expectant father asked her about studies from Africa claiming that circumcision prevents HIV. Having some knowledge of immunology, she found the studies’ conclusions impossible to believe. “I knew the claims from Africa were B.S.,” she says, and remembers telling the couple; “You can’t avoid a virus by cutting off a body part.”
‘The Light Goes Out in Their Eyes’
Not satisfied with information she had, and seeking to answer questions from another mother-to-be, she dove into research on circumcision. That was when she discovered the Intact America website. There she found data and analysis debunking the African HIV claims, plus an informational video and the organization’s Foreskin Facts flyer.
Armed with the new information, she went back to the parents to address their questions. “Neither couple cut their sons,” she says. But her research didn’t stop there. Having begun her quest, she “hit that ‘obsessive epiphany’ where you just keep reading and you can’t stop. And the more I still read about it, the more I think, ‘How can people still be doing this?’”
Over time, it became more difficult for her to accept when parents, guided by hard-to-fight tradition and custom, decide to go ahead with the operation. She says a baby boy who is circumcised “loses the light in his eyes.”
“When babies are born, they are very wide-eyed, especially in natural delivery,” she says. “They’re making eye contact with their mothers, they’re very alert. After they’re cut, they have this blank look on their face. It’s a lights-out look. That wide-eyed wonder is gone.”
A Wide Reach on Social Media
In 2010, Maloney began identifying as an intactivist and speaking out more systematically. One of her first intactivist posts on Facebook began, “If I could save one boy…” Within days, a dozen people wrote to tell her she’d saved their sons.
Another success came in 2014 when she adapted a social media stream from the news site Elite Daily, which asked its women staff members what they would do differently if they were male. Among the responses was one saying, “#IfIWereABoy, I’d be able to make choices about my own body.”
Maloney thought the statement was absurd in a country where more than a million baby boys are circumcision without their consent every year. She galvanized her fellow intactivists to take action, and the site was soon overwhelmed with photos of women holding signs denouncing male circumcision. The online activity attracted the attention of the British publication Inside Man, which featured Maloney in an article.
That was also the year she sold her house in Waltham and moved to an apartment in nearby Watertown to free up resources to travel and devote her time to the cause. This year, Maloney started the “50 States” page on Facebook to show the groundswell of intactivist support throughout the United States; she organized the intactivist presence in the Boston Pride march, and walked in both the Boston and New York City events; produced a video called ABCs of Intactivism; and toured with the BloodStained Men—the first woman to have “suited up” in their signature outfits of pure white with a red stain over the crotch.
Newly certified by the Association for Perinatal Psychology and Health, Cynthia plans to supplement her work as a doula by teaching parent support groups and others who question circumcision. She plans to start presenting sex-positive workshops in November.
“Everything I’ve ever done, everything in my life, has led me to intactivism,” she says. Adding that she is mystified how circumcision is still practiced, she adds; “I don’t understand how people don’t see it. I really just don’t.”