Tuesday, June 5, 2012


This is one very controversial topic. So I offer the following disclaimer. All forms of non-therapeutic circumcision / genital cutting is wrong and violates the bodily integrity of the victim. I do support genital integrity for everyone. Now, obvious female genital mutilation (FGM) and non-therapeutic circumcision (NTC) done one male minors have some things in common and there also are differences. Both are a violation of bodily integrity and often both differ in terms of severity. This post is more about the similarities between the too as well as similarities in the discussion around these two issues. We start with the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) that has a good summary for this post

Position of the KNMG with regard to non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors - 2010

FGM vs NTC (Page 10)

FGM and NTC are generally seen as two separate practices, which need to be evaluated differently. For example, doctors’ organisations often devote different statements to the two practices. In the literature, little attention is given to legitimating the different treatment given to the two practices: apparently the difference is regarded as self-evident.45 FGM is generally viewed as a serious violation of the rights of the child, while NTC is seen as something which parents may decide on for themselves. In the literature that exists, a number of arguments are made which are intended to justify a different evaluation of FGM and NTC.

At first they cover the argument about severity. That MGM heavily impairs the victims...

FGM takes many forms. There is the most severe form, infibulation, in which the inner and outer labia are stitched together and the clitoris is removed. However, there are also much milder forms of FGM, in which only the foreskin of the clitoris is removed. However, sunna light, as proposed by Mulder and previously proposed by Bartels, in which no tissue is removed, is also universally rejected. The WHO also rejects all forms of FGM: ‘Female genital mutilation of any type has been recognized as a harmful practice and a violation of the human rights of girls and women’. The WHO explicitly includes in this the mild forms of FGM, in which no tissue is removed. So the argument for rejecting FGM is not that FGM interferes with female sexuality, but that it is a violation of the rights of the woman.

‘The guiding principles for considering genital practices as female genital mutilation should be those of human rights, including the right to health, the rights of children and the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sex’. (Eliminating Female genital mutilation: an interagency statement, WHO, 2008)

and that NTC has little to no effect on male sexuality.

The foreskin is regarded as a part of the body that has no function at all in male sexuality. Many sexologists contradict this idea: in their view, the foreskin is a complex, erotogenic structure that plays an important role ‘in the mechanical function of the penis during sexual acts, such as penetrative intercourse and masturbation’. The many attempts by men to restore their foreskins by mechanical or surgical means also contradict the idea that the foreskin is a useless part of the body.

NTC is sometimes compared to interventions such as tattoos and piercings. On this view, Jews and Muslims see NTC not as an infringement of physical integrity, but as an innocent perfectioning of the body, comparable to tattoos and piercings. However, an important legal distinction between NTC in children and piercings and tattoos is that it is prohibited to tattoo or pierce children under the age of 16. In other words, tattoos and piercings can only be done if a child is old enough to ask for them itself.

Next comes the feminist argument that FGM is a form of oppression and that therefor FGM is worse, as men are not oppressed.

[T]he historical background of NTC is extremely complex, and is in any case rooted in the desire to control male sexuality. Thus NTC was deployed in the past to combat excessive onanism, and it was also used to ‘brand’ slaves. So the background to NTC is not as unambiguous as is often thought. There is another reason why the argument does not hold. The reason why FGM is condemned is not because it comes forth from a theory of female oppression but because it is harmful to them and represents a violation of their physical integrity. FGM would also be condemned if it were done out of aesthetic considerations or as a way of ‘venerating’ women. Even if women were to want FGM themselves at a later age, doctors would probably not be permitted to meet their request.

The right to physical integrity is an inalienable human right, like the right to life and the right to personal freedom. These are inalienable rights, which is to say that the patient’s permission does not offer sufficient justification to be allowed to perform the intervention. Besides permission, there must also always be an additional reason, such as a medical interest. From this it follows that even if women did not regret the intervention, doctors would not be permitted to commit serious infringements of the integrity of the body, such as FGM.

And finally the cultural/religious argument:

[B]oth NTC and FGM have been practised for centuries by many different peoples and for many different reasons. And FGM also has an important ritual, religious and identifying significance for many peoples. So it cannot be said with certainty that NTC is older than FGM. Even if it were, it is still questionable whether this argument is morally relevant. It is not the history of a practice which is of decisive importance, but whether a particular practice is a violation of the rights of the child.

A good summary. Now, as someone on reddit did point out, the supporters of FGM argument similarly to the supporters of NTC (which sounds like another good reason to ditch that custom):

Disputing the myth of the sexual dysfunction of circumcised women - An interview with Fuambai S. Ahmadu by Richard A. Shweder - ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY VOL 25 NO 6, DECEMBER 2009

[Speaking about a Documentary about the Kono in Sierra Leone]

So, contrary to much of the rhetoric of the anti-FGM campaigns, the female sex and female sexuality are not oppressed in, through or by these ritual practices. On the contrary, female sexuality and reproductive powers are celebrated and reified in the masquerades, as the origins of creation, of nature and of culture, and feared as potent weapons of death and destruction. This cultural and symbolic context of female initiation and excision explains how it could be that Kono girls and women in the film were speaking in positive, almost reverential terms, about the practice, their bodies and the experience of womanhood. There are different types of female genital cutting practices that are performed for many different reasons, and these practices prevail in diverse sociocultural contexts, so not all women who are affected necessarily support these practices or view them as empowering to girls and women.

She goes on to cite studies (Obermeyer 1999, Linda Morison et. al. 2001, Johnsdotter and Essen 2004, Birgitta Essen et al. 2002, 2005) that show that the health hazards of FGM have been exaggerated and that circumcised women have sexual pleasure (Ahmadu 2000 & 2007, Lightfoot-Klein 1989, Catania et al. 2007). From what she says, the society of the Kono does not seem to be a society that dominates women. A critic of the western view on FGM is brought forward, also in regard to NTC:

Circumcised African women, according to this view, are in a permanent condition of ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ from which, Goldberg would argue, only other enlightened African women (with the indirect but certain guidance of Western women) can provide escape. Of course, I find this view patronizing and infantilizing of adult African women who, like Western women who opt for cosmetic genital surgeries, should be free to decide for themselves what to do with their own bodies.

Another point I made that Goldberg overlooked is that supporters of female circumcision justify the practice on much of the same grounds that they support male circumcision. The uncircumcised clitoris and penis are considered homologous aesthetically and hygienically. Just as the male foreskin covers the head of the penis, the female foreskin covers the clitoral glans. Both, they argue, lead to build-up of smegma and bacteria in the layers of skin between the hood and glans. This accumulation is thought of as odorous, susceptible to infection and a nuisance to keep clean on a daily basis. Further, circumcised women point to the risks of painful clitoral adhesions that occur in girls and women who do not cleanse properly, and to the requirement of excision as a treatment for these extreme cases. Supporters of female circumcision also point to the risk of clitoral hypertrophy or an enlarged clitoris that resembles a small penis. For these reasons many circumcised women view the decision to circumcise their daughters as something as obvious as the decision to circumcise sons: why, one woman asked, would any reasonable mother want to burden her daughter with excess clitoral and labial tissue that is unhygienic, unsightly and interferes with sexual penetration, especially if the same mother would choose circumcision to ensure healthy and aesthetically appealing genitalia for her son?

She closes with:

I write and teach about different cultural perspectives on female circumcision with regard to pleasure, hygiene and genital aesthetics, not to insist that uncircumcised Western women opponents have it wrong and circumcised African women proponents are right (such stereotypical categorizations are never quite so neat anyway) but to point out that there are different and contested views and experiences and that no one is more right than the other. So it is my opinion that we need to remove the stigma of mutilation and let all girls know they are beautiful and accepted, no matter what the appearance of their genitalia or their cultural background, lest the myth of sexual dysfunction in circumcised women become a true self-fulfilling prophecy, as Catania and others are increasingly witnessing in their care of circumcised African girls and women.

Now apparently, things are not that easy, still the right to bodily authority would mean everybody needs to be able to make informed decisions about modifying their genitals. What is also apparent after reading the above is that Ahmadu points out the hypocrisy of the approach towards FGM while tolerating NTC. Again, I am opposed to both forms of genital cutting and can offer no opinion on the studies brought forward by Ahmadu, but of course one can view every issue from more than one side. But still, bodily integrity, people, tops everything.

The discussion on Reddit was interesting as well, pointing out that many women can only have clitoral orgasms and also still enjoy intercourse. It is similar to the NTC argument, how can you know if you miss something out if you can not compare?

basically, the clit isn't the only way for a woman to orgasm. it's just that in an intact woman, it's the most sensitive area, so intact women learn to rely on it. but in women with clitorectomy, it's gone, so they learn to rely on orgasm from other areas. g-spot, cervix, vaginal, etc. For women especially, reaching orgasm has a strong psychological component, which is why a number of studies show a woman who'sin an unhappy relationship often has trouble, while a man in such a relationship is less likely to have difficulty.

just like in men: in an intact man, the foreskin moves over the head during masturbation and sex, stimulating his glans and foreskin, this being his major source of pleasure. (look at a jerk off video on xtube or something if you're curious) If a man's foreskin is amputated, this normal stimulation is impossible, so he learns to reach orgasm by stimulating in other ways, mainly by squeezing tighter and moving skin along the shaft, or by using lube to rub the head.

The following sums it up pretty well:

Again, I'm opposed to FGC and MGC (Male Genital Cutting); my point in this post is to show how they are both human rights violations. essentially what I'm saying is, some activists against FGC have exaggerated some of it's negatives in order to make sure Americans won't look at male circumcision and say, "well we are doing this, so I should support both." [..]

It IS a big hypocrisy for us to get riled up over FGM in some other country that we have no authority over yet allow MGM (Male Genital Mutilation) to go on in our own. That doesn't make the two procedures analogous though. There are clear distinctions between the two.

1 comment:

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