On the main pedestrian mall of Denver, 16th street, it's a typical day: business folks line up at a Thai food stand, mall buses cruise by and tourists buy trinkets. But, today, there are about 20 protesters with signs, banners, and peculiar outfits — all white, except for red paint splotches on their crotches — called the Bloodstained Men — and they are protesting a very personal, very private thing.
"No more penis cutting!" a woman shouts into a bullhorn. "Half of our boys are having their genitals mutilated!"
Families stroll by with children. Old ladies who look dressed for church shake their heads. A Mormon missionary picks up his pace.
Says a woman from Minneapolis: "I've never seen a protest like this before."
Says a dude from North Carolina: "This is the weirdest state I've ever been to."
Says a 19-year-old Denverite: "Blood on their crotches. They look stupid."
To these Intactivists — as they call themselves — it's worth the fuss. Circumcision is not just wrong, it's a cosmic injustice up there with slavery, a "clinical insanity," a "mental disease" and a "cultural blind spot."
The Bloodstained Men call themselves "shock troops" out to wake up the country, and there are no lengths they won't go to. While the online hate against circumcision has been bubbling to the top of Facebook algorithms for a while — a similar group called Mutilation Watch combs social media and harasses parents who post about circumcising their sons — the Bloodstained Men want the debate on the street and in your face, and are touring the Mountain West from Pueblo to Laramie to Montana.
The Bloodstained Men harass the crowd: to a woman who says she's glad she circumcised her son, a Bloodstained Man yells, "I hope your son hates you for the rest of your life, you vampire!"
In return, the crowd gets mad: the Bloodstained Men like to call parents who circumcise their sons "pedophiles," and some men who hear that threaten to fight them. A dude in a hat steps out into traffic to scream, "They disrespecting children! Ain't no black man holding up no sign talking bout 'Less Penis!'" The Bloodstained Men call the cops.
The crowd gets confused. One dad walking with his kids tells the Bloodstained Men, "I made the best choice for my son." And the son, maybe 13, agrees with his dad, saying "I'm glad my dad made that choice. My dad knows what's best for me." So his sister (?) asks him, wickedly, "So you're not mad they cut off half your penis?" And the son says, "No…" — but he walks away hesitantly, with a look in his eyes like, "Wait, am I?"
(As one of the protesters' sign says: "No one wants less penis.")
Mostly, the crowd on the 16th Street Mall just laughs. A frat-ish dude howls, "I got so much dick I never missed it!" A dude in a mohawk jokes, "I like my head the way it is!" (To the laughter, a Bloodstained Man replies, "What's funny about my pain!? I want my foreskin back! What's funny about my pain?!")
The issue often boils down to: they're mad at their parents. For not asking them if they wanted to be circumcised. For not standing up for them. For wanting their kid to look like them, vainly.
Many Bloodstained Men say circumcision royally dicked up their lives. A 28-year-old Denver dude whose name I won't print says his botched circumcision made it hard to pee and gave him erectile disfunction. So it's hard to bone, and therefore hard to love. "This is the main source of my issues," the dude says. His is a true Denver story: one day the dude ate a bunch of magic mushrooms — a strain called Penis Envy — and a blue energy came through the ceiling and told him, "To heal from your circumcision you need to do something about this, to keep other boys from suffering."
Several Bloodstained Men are restoring foreskin by stretching their skin. One offers to show me.
What is the deal with circumcision anyway? Every mammal has a foreskin. Yet circumcision is the human mammal's most popular surgery. About a third of men worldwide have been circumcised.
Data shows circumcision lowers rates of infections and STDs. But circumcision is basically religious and cultural: just as some cultures stick plates in their lips and others scar their backs to look like crocodiles to signify membership in the tribe, so nearly all Muslims and Jews circumcise their boys. In a few Islamic African countries, they circumcise most girls, too.
Most Western countries don't do it very much. America is an exception. Here, about half of newborn boys are being cut. But it depends on where. States steeped in old traditions, such as in the Bible Belt, East Coast and Midwest, have high rates. Out West, including Colorado, where old customs are more easily thrown off, rates are below 30 percent, according to a report.
In about 17 states, Medicaid stopped paying, since it's not a surgery any kid needs. The Intactivists would like to outlaw circumcision altogether. A while back, a group got a measure on the ballot in San Francisco to ban it. But a judge said said you can't outlaw surgeries by vote.
It's working. Circumcision rates have been falling for about two decades in America.
Will circumcision continue to fade? It may depend on the anger of groups like the Bloodstained Men.
And the guile.
Maybe the most effective members of the Bloodstained Men are Bloodstained Women. Dani Alexander, 32, is a vision in a translucent white dress and a pair of bolted-ons. Even though her crotch is red-stained, men stop in their tracks when she purrs, "There are 20,000 nerve endings in the foreskin." Men stop and notice that Britta Bakke, 29, has bright eyes that shine when she teases, "I'm always on the prowl for that intact D." And, "Men would get their tips wet more if they had more tip."
(There is solid evidence that sex feels better for intact men.)
Does the protest have an impact? I listen to passersby joke about the red crotches, or scoff and mutter about the rudeness of the protest, but I also overhear a few saying, "You know, I don't dig this protest, but they're right." "It really is genital mutilation." "No way I'm doing that to my kid."