In Reverse the Approach, I had in mind the numerous blog posts like this I’ve encountered:
In this installment of things that should not be compared as equal, we’ll discuss how female circumcision is not the same as male circumcision. …
There’s the subtle difference I discussed. When I make the comparison, it’s to compare male circumcision to female genital cutting. That method allows for the relevant comparison, as well as the opportunity to discuss how the comparison is limited. Trying to compare FGC/M to male circumcision hinders the goal, which should be an accurate analysis of male circumcision. Society has already assessed the ethics against FGC/M. No one wants to re-open or challenge that when using the valid, limited comparison of the two interventions.
The blogger, Lindsay Marie, finishes her introduction with more fence-sitting than her post demonstrates before moving into the comparison:
How they’re similar:
For one, they’re both called circumcision (this isn’t entirely accurate… I’ll get to that in a bit). For another, both involve cutting off a part of the person’s genitals.
Basically, yes. I wouldn’t start with the name, though. It’s semantically inaccurate for females, but it’s hardly a point to compare the two acts. They can both be mutilation while calling one mutilation and the other anything else. A consensus on nomenclature tells us something without proving anything on its own.
I would start with the principle, which she gets almost complete. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is more accurate for what we’re describing. That applies to both females and males. There is no reasonable way to make a gendered distinction on that principle. The distinctions, which exist in practice, are relevant to punishment rather than prohibition.
She incorrectly moves on to differences at this point. As I argued, I think this results from comparing female genital cutting to male circumcision. It’s too easy to start with the most common forms, which are unfortunately also the more extreme forms. Again, that matters, but for the comparison, the validity of state intervention on male circumcision is the question for the comparison. Is there a comparison to be made between male circumcision and what the state prohibits with respect to female genital cutting? There is.
(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years …
Any cutting, even that equal to (i.e. hoodectomy) or less destructive than male circumcision, is illegal. Those forms exist, although they are not the common forms. They are illegal. The comparison works on that limited scale, and points to other legal questions about the right to physical integrity and equal protection.
There’s also the comparison based on the WHO fact sheet for FGM (emphasis added):
Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
… 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.
There is no reason to exclude males from that protection of rights, even though FGC/M is almost always more physically damaging, and to a significant degree. Males suffer injury in every case, and worse in some cases, including extremes such as amputation and death. The implicated rights are the same.
There are differences, of course. I’ve acknowledged them here, to some extent, but I’ll reiterate that most female genital cutting is more extensive, with more extreme and lasting consequences. It is evil and should be eradicated as much as possible.
With that stated, she continues (language warning):
How they’re different:
In every other fucking way. Male circumcision is practiced widely in developed countries as a way of preventing specific health issues in both men and women. Male circumcision is usually performed by a trained professional (almost always a doctor, but some religious parents ask a trained Rabbi to perform the procedure) in a sterile medical setting with the latest tools and effective healing techniques to eliminate infections and reduce pain. Male circumcision is performed on days-old infants who will not remember or even realize what happened and almost always with anesthetics to reduce pain. Pardon the comparison, but breeders clip dog tails at the same age and in a similar way, and zoo keepers clip bird wings at the same age and in a similar way. I don’t agree with clipping dog tails, but if it’s going to happen it might as well happen when they’re too young to realize.
First, I don’t want to put too much emphasis on widely, but it’s confusing. If it should be attached to “as a way of”, which is how I read it upon a second pass, I disagree because most circumcision is cultural. The science is a pretty way of making people feel better about doing something indefensible they wish to do for their own subjective reasons. If widely is meant to describe “in developed countries”, that’s inaccurate. It’s widely practiced in the United States and Israel. It’s been widely practiced at some point in the past in the UK, Australia, and Canada.
To the point, where it is intended as a prophylactic, it is practiced as an attempt to prevent specific, unlikely health issues. Statistics show that most circumcisions in the developed world prevent nothing for most males because most males will not develop a foreskin-related problem. When they do, it’s usually associated with some other corresponding behavior. (e.g. Does he get HIV because he has a foreskin or because he didn’t wear a condom?) People get incorrectly impressed by the relative risk differences between intact and circumcised when the absolute risk of foreskin-related issues is small. Even the most dedicated propagandist, Prof. Brian Morris, only claims that the risk of a foreskin-related issue requiring some form of medical attention (i.e. not just circumcision) within the male’s lifetime is 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, depending on where he’s writing. (I will not provide links to his propaganda. Use Google.) Imposing the most invasive solution on a healthy individual is unethical.
As for the sterile operating theater with modern techniques and equipment, I’m unconvinced. As her post makes clear later, she wouldn’t support female genital cutting conducted in a similar setting. That’s the correct stance, but if it’s not support for one, it isn’t support for the other. As the WHO’s fact sheet states, “more than 18% of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and this trend is increasing.” Defending it for male circumcision will likely lead to further justification from proponents of female genital cutting because they’ve modernized a cultural ritual.
The “he won’t remember it” defense is also not compelling. We wouldn’t be any more convinced that a little female genital cutting would be okay if inflicted on girls too young to remember it. We must judge the act on its own. Would we excuse a punch to the face of a child who won’t remember it? It is unlikely to leave a permanent alteration. Corporal punishment for children even has a biblical basis. At some point, the rights of the individual must matter more than peripheral arguments.
With male circumcision, it’s not “going to happen”, as her defense of “too young to remember” implies, unless we take the validity of parental choice as a given. I don’t. There is a risk, as with all normal body parts, male or female. But the chance of needing circumcision are very low. Most males left with their choice never need or choose circumcision. The “he won’t remember it” defense requires an assumption that he will either need or choose circumcision eventually. If it merely assumes he wants circumcision but will be too afraid of the pain, then he values not experiencing pain more than he values being circumcised. There is no reason to assume an infant thinks differently. This is related to female genital cutting more than it may seem. Like father, like son, so like mother, like daughter?
Next, she links to a comment on Reddit that discusses the issue of intent.
… One of the best explanations for the difference between male circumcision and female genital mutilation comes from a user called superdillin:
I think the intent and damage differences between male and female genital mutilation does need to be pointed out. What we do to our baby boys, often with no medical reason, is bad. Very bad and we should stop. BUT, what was done to OP’s girlfriend was done to take away her sexuality, and to control her. It has put her life at risk at worst, and at best has taken away her most sexual pleasure organ, and it was done with the intention of her becoming a breeding cow to be used for a man’s needs for the rest of her life.
What we do to our boys is due to misinformation about health and hygiene, combined with unhealthy aesthetic expectations and tradition. What some cultures do to their girls is deliberate, controlling, life-threatening and inherently sexist. [Her emphases.]
I agree with that, which differs somewhat from the blogger’s post. And I’ve already acknowledged the damage differences in the most common forms. Beyond that experience of the mutilated women described in the Reddit thread, there is evidence that some mutilated females retain some ability to orgasm, which just suggests that the issues and how they relate are more complicated than the idea that male circumcision somehow isn’t bad because female genital cutting is usually worse. (That evidence changes nothing on the ethical question. FGC/M remains evil.)
It is not clear that the intent for each exist as polar opposites. The motivations can have certain similarities. For FGC/M a (possibly overwhelming) majority of the cutting seems to be motivated in the way the West perceives. Sometimes it’s more complicated. But even with the best intentions, which apply to almost every male circumcision, they still aren’t enough. The act matters first. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong. We can’t get past that, ethically, so everything else is important but irrelevant to the validity of prohibiting unnecessary surgery on a child, regardless of gender.
The first key fact in the WHO’s fact sheet states that FGM “includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” (See footnoteÂ¹.) The intent that matters is the intent to act, not the intent to act for good or bad reasons. “Good” and “bad” are subjective, to some extent, anyway. Do the parents intend to alter the child’s normal, healthy genitals? Yes. It’s about the act and the objective harm that results.
Back to the word circumcision: I’ve noticed an increase in groups publicly opposed to male circumcision (part of this was seen during our recent Gay Pride parade), and some argue that male circumcision should be called male genital mutilation, to more closely align itself with female genital mutilation. Although circumcision in both sexes involves the cutting of the genitals, and both procedures can be unnecessary at best, only female circumcision can actually be called butchering because of how it’s performed and what its purpose is. It’s called “circumcision” to make it seem more acceptable and to hide what it really is. (Hell, even the Wikipedia page for female circumcision is titled “female genital mutilation.”)
I don’t believe use of the term male genital mutilation is primarily meant to more closely align the two. It does that, but the intent is to stop pretending that circumcision is so innocuous that it should remain a parental choice for the parents’ subjective, preferred reasons. Some forms of female genital cutting don’t reasonably constitute “butchering”, yet we still outlaw those forms. When does the individual who will live with the modified genitals get to offer input on whether it constitutes mutilation?
From this brief interview with Sister Fa (Fatou Diatta), a musician from Senegal who is a victim of genital mutilation.
Rebellion is in the words. You are dealing with issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation. How important is this for you?
â€œItâ€™s more than important. But my struggle is not against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM, ed.). Me, I do not even use the word â€œmutilation,â€ because mutilate means cutting with the intention to hurt. I say â€˜cuttingâ€™. Iâ€™m campaigning so that people would know that it is important that we can educate a child without going through certain practices that may harm his/her health. Iâ€™ve been a victim of this practice and I know its effect. It hurts.â€
Again, this is so much more complicated than the world so many imagine we live in. The word mutilation is definitionally accurate for both genders, tied to outcome, regardless of parental intent. Whether to use the term or not is a marketing question, not an applicability question.
I wouldn’t publicly advocate one way or the other for male circumcision because there are benefits and consequences of the procedure that must be taken into consideration. I can, however, speak from the only experience I have, which is as a woman who has had sex with both circumcised and uncircumcised men. My experience taught me that male sexual pleasure has absolutely nothing to do with having been circumcised as an infant and that my own sexual pleasure had nothing to do with whether or not my partner was circumcised. However, if asked my opinion I might point out that even the cleanest of males can be less hygienic and more likely to spread a disease or infection with their foreskin intact, which from a female standpoint is a huge concern since an infection inside the vagina can be much worse than a topical penile infection. It seems to me like male circumcision has more benefits for a male’s sexual partner than for the male himself.
Perhaps, but that isn’t a defense for circumcising children. It’s a defense for encouraging and empowering women to stand up for themselves in sexual relationships and to choose their sexual partners and practices consciously. Ask the male to shower. Refuse to have sex if he won’t wear a condom. It’s also a defense for voluntary adult male circumcision.
I truly believe, when performed by a surgeon or urologist in a hospital with the proper tools, that male circumcision should be an option and that parents of sons should educate themselves on whether or not to do the procedure. But I also believe that even if female circumcision were to be performed in the exact same situations as male circumcision (on infants, by medical professionals in a sterile setting) that it would be genital mutilation. The intent automatically makes it wrong and the way a female’s body is designed opens the poor girl up to dozens of complications, many of which are life threatening. Male circumcision and female genital mutilation are not the same thing.
She’s wrong. Intent matters, but outcome matters first and most. An individual’s healthy body is permanently altered without the individual’s consent. The invasive act violates the individual’s right to physical integrity (and right to self-determination). In that core analysis, female genital cutting/mutilation and male circumcision are the same. They are both indefensible.
Â¹ Non-therapeutic â€œmedicalâ€ male circumcision is a misnomer. Itâ€™s medicalized circumcision, which merely indicates that itâ€™s performed in a modern, sterile operating theater. That is condemnable in its limited focus, but it is not enough to render the non-therapeutic surgery ethical. The patient’s consent is also necessary. The pursuit of possible benefits (i.e. reduce risk of UTIs or female-to-male HIV transmission in high risk populations) is speculative and may not be necessary for – or desired by – the individual himself. There are all sorts of interventions we could perform that might reduce the risk of some future malady. Society does not open those up to parental choice because they’re also harmful. They’re ethically wrong. Circumcision is the same.