Many have heaped scorn on Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Salon piece that criticized Alan Cumming for calling male circumcision genital mutilation and comparing it to female genital mutilation. This scorn is deserved.
Alan Cumming wants to tell you about his penis. He wants it to be a shining example to the world. In a candid interview with Drew Grant this week in the New York Observer, the 49-year-old Scottish actor reveals his strong opinions on “Girls,” naughty cellphone pictures, and, most controversially, circumcision. Or as he puts it, “genital mutilation.”
“There’s a double-standard, which is that we condemn the people who cut off girls’ clitorises, but when it happens to boys,” Cumming says. “I mean, it is the most sensitive part of their bodies, it has loads of nerve endings, and it can go horribly wrong. I’m speaking out against it … I’m just so suspicious of the medical industry, which just flings pills at people to ensure everyone is reliant on things. ‘Here are some pills, Mommy. Take them, and we’ll take your baby away and hack its thing off, and then we’ll bill you for that too.’”
I don’t share Mr. Cumming’s view of the medical industry. Its complicity strikes me as cultural inertia and cowardice. My experience suggests that profit-driven focus on circumcision is limited, although it motivates some. But that’s a distraction. The key is that he is correct about the comparison.
Circumcision of a healthy male minor is mutilation of that male’s genitals. To be valid, it must involve his consent prior to the surgery, not assumed to be later granted retroactively. This is the standard inherent in 18 USCS § 116, which criminalizes all non-therapeutic genital cutting on female minors without regard for parental justifications or potential benefits. The difference we imagine is an accident in the history of Western child genital cutting.
Later in the essay:
… And earlier this week, protesters threatened to disrupt Bill and Melinda Gates’ TED Vancouver talk because of their organization’s efforts to increase the practice in Africa as a means of “limiting the spread of HIV in the parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.”
There is good reason to find the work of the Gates Foundation repugnant, as it pertains to male circumcision. It speaks in the euphemism of voluntary medical male circumcision, when it also means infant circumcision. This is unethical because it violates the principles of bodily integrity and consent. And this study, commissioned and funded by the Gates Foundation, hardly provides reassurance when examining the context of WHO and UNAIDS, who think violating this human right of male children can be legitimized through question begging. Mental gymnastics like that are not admirable.
Cumming’s equation of circumcision with female genital mutilation is an insultingly inaccurate one — boys are not circumcised as a ritualized means of suppressing their future sexual enjoyment,
Although it’s easy to find similar defenses of male circumcision, ritual or not, this implies that the critical issue is intent rather than outcome. Female genital mutilation, in all its forms, is wrong because the female is mutilated, not because she is mutilated for “bad” reasons. Some reasons given are the same as those for male circumcision. And not all females who were mutilated reject or condemn it. Yet all reasons for surgically altering the healthy genitals of a female minor are still bad. This focuses on the principles and facts involved, not our feelings.
Notice, too, how often erroneous claims like “[t]here is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that it affects function, sensation or satisfaction” are made about male circumcision, as it’s made with that quote from Williams’ link to reader comments on an article. The statement is wrong on its face because circumcision changes the function. If you change the form, you change the function. The function of the penis, including its structure, should not be lazily defined as “to have sex” or something similarly ridiculous. The foreskin is normal anatomy with functions for the penis and belongs to its owner.
The quote is disputable on sensation, considering the (anecdotal) arguments in favor of male circumcision stating that males can “last longer“. Consider the heads I win/tails you lose efforts of Brian Morris here, as all outcomes are assumed to be favorable to overall satisfaction, even when the studies cited do not involve anything near 100% on the subjective evaluation of satisfaction.
nor does a clean male circumcision compare with the often crude, blunt and unsanitary practice of female genital mutilation.
Those qualifiers obfuscate. What about clean female genital cutting compared with crude, blunt, and unsanitary male circumcision? A sterile surgical environment does not grant legitimacy to a rights violation. Again, the act is what matters. There are degrees of harm possible, but the inevitability of harm requires first priority, whatever the degree.
The World Health Organization calls FGM “a violation of the human rights of girls and women” with consequences that include “severe pain, shock, hemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue,” while it in contrast notes, “There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”
WHO also explains that female genital mutilation “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.” There is no unethical caveat for “but if we find some benefits to female health, or even male health, we’d have to weigh mutilating injury against potential benefits.” That unethical caveat is always applied to male genital mutilation, as Williams does here. An adult male volunteering is not the same as an infant male being volunteered. Consent is the issue, not how horrible female genital mutilation usually is or how innocuous and/or beneficial male circumcision appears to be. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a healthy individual who does not consent is unethical. It involves harm. Gender is irrelevant to the principle.
One can argue, quite persuasively, about whether the practice of circumcision still has validity here in the West, especially among those who don’t have a religious directive. What’s needed, however, is education and enlightenment, so families can make the healthiest choices for their children. …
I reject the premise. This is a not a decision parents should be allowed to make for their children. The argument that parents may decide this for their healthy children requires this decision to be a parental right. If it’s a parental right, then the prohibition of non-therapeutic genital cutting on daughters is indefensible. The basis for thinking about genital cutting can’t be girls and the parents of boys. That’s absurd.
… It’s not helpful to make far-fetched comparisons, and it certainly isn’t constructive to imply that men and boys who are circumcised are somehow damaged, “mutilated” goods. That’s a shaming technique that serves no one, one that turns having a foreskin into a bragging point. …
Why are we only worried about shaming men and boys by using the term “mutilation”? Isn’t there the possibility or likelihood that women and girls will feel shamed if we describe their genitals as mutilated? Are the psyches of females more able to handle facts?
There is a difference in stating a fact and demanding a value judgment from that fact. The bodies of males who were circumcised as children were mutilated. Their rights were violated. Circumcised males are not obligated to think this is bad or shameful. The obligation (for everyone) rests in understanding that it is unacceptable to perpetuate this violation on their children or to permit its continued practice in society.
Or to put it in terms of individual autonomy, circumcision mutilated me through the deprivation of an essential¹ part of my body. Where I had a normal human foreskin, I now have only scars. My penis is mutilated. No one gets to reject that fact for me. But I do not feel shame. This sense that males might feel shame is what encourages parents to circumcise their sons for conformity. We have to stop being afraid of shame. We’ll achieve that only when we are no longer afraid to state that shame belongs with those who circumcise, not those who are circumcised.
… And it’s an unfair judgment coming from a man who admits, “I myself don’t have kids. I just have managers, assistants, agents and publicists.”
I feel second-hand embarrassment, so that at least someone feels what her statement deserves.
¹ Quibble with essential as something other than an obvious stand-in for normal, and I’ll roll my eyes and ask if normal parts of female genitalia are essential.