It’s no longer surprising to see the hyperbole concocted to make circumcision appear legitimate. The latest example comes from the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Regional Exchange, which summarized a survey with the following:
New study in Kenya reveals the majority of women prefer circumcised partners
To summarize the study – Women’s Beliefs about Male Circumcision, HIV Prevention, and Sexual Behaviors in Kisumu, Kenya, by Thomas H. Riess, Maryline M. Achieng, and Robert C. Bailey – the way SHARE does is presposterous. The study involved 30 women, with 23 of them saying they preferred circumcised men. The proper way to summarize it is the second line from the abstract:
Women’s beliefs about MC and sexual behaviour will likely influence the scale-up and uptake of medical MC.
Counter to SHARE’s summary, the authors note (emphasis added):
There are limitations to this study. Since we relied on self-reports it is possible that some respondents could have fabricated answers or not fully disclosed information based on what is socially acceptable, particularly on sensitive topics such as sex and HIV. We did attempt to select respondents who were representative of sexually active women ages 18-35 but given the small sample size and geographic location of our research, our data might not be generalizable to other populations, particularly those where MC is not being promoted as HIV prevention. Our intention has been to gain insights into female perceptions and sexual behaviors related to MC in western Kenya in order to inform and improve programs scaling up MMC for HIV prevention in the region.
It’s misleading to report the study as revealing what the majority of women prefer.
Of course, it’s irrelevant what the majority of women prefer. The ethics center on what the male prefers for himself. In what ways could we rewrite this paragraph to allegedly demonstrate something about what women should do – or have done to them – to conform to the preferences of men?
Respondent: Actually, me personally, I hate uncircumcised men.
R: I just feel they are dirty and, … this last time, some other guy seduced me, … I didn’t know he was uncircumcised. So when we went out a bit for around four months, so it’s this day was he was telling me like we go to bed, after finding out that the guy is uncircumcised I just told him it can’t work. He should go get circumcised first and come back.
I: So how did he react?
R: Well actually he felt bad, but later he came to understand. That is when he went and got circumcised and we are together now. (25 year-old Luo woman)
Body shaming is body shaming, whoever its target may be. Repeatedly the excerpts emphasize a belief that circumcised men are “clean” and intact men are “dirty”. While the authors note this, and are perhaps genuine, in saying:
… While some women support MC based on their personal experience and beliefs, there may also be the potential for discrimination against uncircumcised men as circumcision programs scale up in sub-Saharan Africa. …
I find no reason to believe public health officials cared or will care. Discrimination is a strategy of these campaigns, as in this awful propaganda ad from Uganda. And the tactic is already paying the expected dividends. The interview excerpts in this study are evidence of that:
I: Do you desire circumcised men?
R: Of course a circumcised one (laughs).
I: Why not the uncircumcised one?
R: I don’t want diseases. (22 year-old Luo woman)
I: And say you get some man who is not circumcised, what will you do?
R: You tell him that circumcision is good, a circumcised person has less chances of getting infected with these diseases, these minor diseases.
I: And if he still refuses?
R: If he refuses you just leave him. (27 year-old Luo woman)
The excerpts also reveal the well-tested “heads, circumcision wins / tails, foreskin loses” approach to sexual satisfaction.
… no matter how the lubrication is, that foreskin will, I don’t know, it moves … and then let me say they don’t stay long. … Yeah they didn’t stay long when you guys are the uncircumcised. Out of curiosity I did ask how come you don’t take long. They say like if that skin is moving it makes them crazy and they release so fast, and I said, okay. And then unlike the circumcised people maybe it’s to our advantage, the ladies, maybe it could be not to them but I think to our advantage they’ll take long. Like they might make you reach a peak faster than the uncircumcised. (23 year-old Luo woman)
The authors state that circumcision campaigns “should ensure that MMC promotion campaigns and counselling are clear that studies have shown that MC does not affect male time to ejaculation.” But campaigns like this count on individuals to sell the message, however well they grasp or fail to grasp that message. Intentionally engaging people to market on behalf of public officials involves spreading anecdotal evidence. There is no comfort or absolution in “the studies show” once they’ve started the game of telephone.
There also remains the possibility that the sources for the claim that circumcision does not affect male time to ejaculation are inaccurate. Note, too, that whether or not the male considers this change good is nowhere to be found. The ethical issue remains absent in this push for networked propaganda.