Evaluating the Genital Cutting Analogy

Catarina Dutilh Novaes has an excellent post on the comparison between male and female genital cutting.

 A heated discussion ensued from my post on circumcision last week, which in turn was essentially a plug to a thought-provoking post by Brian D. Earp at the Oxford Practical Ethics blog. The controversial point was whether circumcision is or is not to be compared to female genital cutting.

I’ve learned a lot from the different perspectives presented during the discussion; among other things, I’ve learned the terms ‘genital alteration’ and ‘genital cutting’, which now seem to me to be more adequate than either ‘circumcision’ or ‘genital mutilation’ to formulate the issue in a non-question-begging way (as argued here). And yet, I am now even more convinced that the analogy between male genital alteration and female genital alteration is a legitimate one – which (and let me say this again!) does not mean that there are no crucial differences to be kept in mind. That’s what an analogy is, after all.

I agree with this, and the bulk of the post. I recommend it with only a minor quibble and an additional piece of modern evidence.

My quibble:

It is well known that female genital cutting is practiced with different levels of severity, going from pricking and piercing to infibulation. …

I do not believe this is well known beyond academic knowledge. In my experience the average person hearing this comparison believes that female genital cutting is always a) the most severe form, b) performed to eliminate all sexual pleasure, and c) imposed at the insistence of males. Facts rarely correct that misunderstanding when presented. Most often the avoidance rests on imagined parental intent, as if that alone can dictate the outcome.

Modern evidence:

– Female genital cutting is embedded in a long history of oppression of female sexuality, and has as its main goal to diminish women’s sexual enjoyment. Male genital cutting in the form of circumcision has no such goal.

She is citing an objection from the comments of her original post rather than her opinion. She supports the challenge to the claim with the 19th century history of male circumcision in America. That is relevant, but there’s modern evidence that circumcision seeks to control male sexuality. Last year Rabbi Mark Glickman wrote (my post):

… Unlike female genital mutilation, Jewish circumcision is not a way to limit or control the child, and it does not destroy sexual desire.

Many find the practice troubling, I believe, because it so dramatically distinguishes religious values from commonly accepted modern American ones. America idealizes nature; Judaism and other religions try to control it and improve it. …

There are other examples. Religion still seeks to control the child and his sexuality through circumcision. A lack of ill intent does not negate the control from circumcision or its intentionality.

In a cultural rather than ritual context, circumcision is still about control. Parents circumcise so the boy will “look like his father”, regardless of what the child wants. Parents circumcise so that his sexual partners will not be repulsed. (This is an indirect form of control of his future sexual partners.) Parents circumcise to avoid STDs, even though condoms are still necessary. All of this controls the child and his sexuality. The control of males through non-therapeutic genital cutting is rarely as extreme as it is for females, but it is real and occurs now. There is no need to rely on history. The analogy holds up here.

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