Reverse the Approach

We’ve all encountered the steadfast refusal to consider that male and female genital cutting are comparable and can both be mutilation. The standard closed reaction consists of something along the lines of “the entire penis would be removed” if male and female genital cutting were really the same thing. For example, in response to a brilliant piece by Catherine Bennett in The Guardian, this:

FGM is NOT the equivalent of male circumcision, as an examination of the etymology of the latter word would make clea: O tempora, O mores! An appropriate synonym for FGM might be ‘excision’ or indeed ‘amputation’, were it not for the fact that infibulation is often carried out as well.

The male equivalent of FGM would be a penectomy, followed by a deliberate attempt to make the wound heal with an unnatural form and function.

Bennett might well have a strong personal belief that male circumcision should be left to the particular male to decide, once he is old enough to make an informed choice, and I might well agree; but she has erred grievously in introducing any mention of FGM in her article, thus making it possible for others to draw a preposterous parallel.

Apart from the ludicrous belief that circumcision doesn’t automatically make the penis heal with “an unnatural form and function”, which is not improved by the commenter’s flawed attempt to distinguish deliberate on parental intent, this commenter assumes his answer that there is no valid comparison. He’s wrong, of course. But the explanation for why never occurred to me before. I now think it’s clear.

Opponents of both forms compare male genital cutting to female genital cutting (i.e. mutilation). Opponents of that comparison perceive that we’re comparing female genital cutting to male genital cutting. We start with a different source and target for the comparison. We don’t start with the same gender, so opponents of the comparison think our claim is larger than it is.

We start with male circumcision. Even setting aside the obvious principle (non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong), removing the male prepuce (i.e. foreskin) is anatomically the same as removing the female prepuce (i.e. clitoral hood). There is a comparison to be made. Society rejects all non-therapeutic genital cutting on female minors, including cutting analogous to male circumcision (and that which is unarguably less damaging). That’s the physical comparison to pair with the principled rights discussion. It is correct.

Instead, notice the approach within the commenter’s words. He starts with female genital cutting/mutilation to then make the comparison to male genital cutting. When doing that, it’s very easy – and understandable – to focus on the more extreme versions of female genital mutilation. When doing that, the commenter’s dismay is easier to understand, and perhaps, to counter. If you start with the worst, yes, the physical comparison does not work, even though the principled comparison always will. But this perpetuates an ignorance to what male circumcision is and how it compares physically to an outlawed form of female genital cutting.

As Ms. Bennett shows in her essay, based on the WHO’s FGM fact sheet (c.f. my genital mutilation fact sheet):

The extent of this cutting, which “has no health benefits”, involves removal of “healthy and normal female genital tissue” and is associated with ideas about “unclean” sexual parts, is immaterial. “It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”

That applies equally to male genital cutting. The rights involved are human rights, not female rights. Violates the rights to health, security, and physical integrity? That’s the Cologne ruling. The right to life when the procedure results in death? Unless someone wants to argue that male genital cutting never results in death, it’s inexcusable to pretend this doesn’t apply to males in the way that it obviously applies to females.

The commenter includes one more paragraph that further demonstrates my point here, and also cements my belief that opponents of the comparison believe the comparison legitimizes female genital cutting in the way they seem to believe everyone accepts – or should accept – male circumcision as innocuous, at worst. People who get frothy at the comparison think we’re trying to state that FGM is acceptable. That makes no sense, but there’s no other way to interpret this:

Shame on Bennett, for the barbarous torture and irredeemable loss of function she has helped to continue to be inflicted on young girls.

If you argue against female genital cutting, but also argue against male genital cutting for the same reasons, you encourage (and possibly support) the mutilation of females? That makes no sense. Everyone making the comparison, at least in the West, states that all non-therapeutic female genital cutting on non-consenting individuals is an unethical mutilation, including those forms that are physically analogous to – or less damaging than – male circumcision. To be clearer: FGM is evil. That point shouldn’t be in doubt. Anyone who reads the comparison otherwise should take a moment to question their conclusion and what they’re implying. The temptation is to see it as a cynical, dishonest ploy to discredit opposition to male circumcision, but it more logically flows from the misguided approach to the comparison I explained above.

The key is to figure out how to improve communication. Those with differing viewpoints on the comparison are talking past each other rather than to each other. As much as the burden of proof should be on those defending non-therapeutic interventions, reality doesn’t work that way. The onus is on us to demonstrate that our view is correct. If we figure out how to make the comparison clear, we have a chance to be more effective.

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