I knew pitching this article would bring chaos.
Yet, with that in mind last Thursday, I texted, "I want to do a piece discussing how anyone against female circumcision should also be against it for males because of how similar the arguments for them mirror each other," and pressed the paper airplane "send" button.
Then it began. One Odyssey colleague in our GroupMe Chat immediately took umbrage with my word usage: "It is NOT female circumcision. It is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Using the term 'circumcision' diminishes its severity."
From another colleague: "I'm sorry but that is just not the same thing at all. They're two very different things."
I was already in it before the first sentence. And that wasn't the end of it. I understand their position. Female Genital Mutilation has a dark history on this planet. A history wrought with control, violence, and death.
But their disagreements reaffirmed what I knew. More than ever, I had to write this article. Too many misconceptions and too little information lurk in this discussion.
The fight against FGM should not continue without including infant male circumcision - or what I like to call "Male Genital Mutilation" - as an adversary. We need to see both as one unified struggle.
Before I cover each reason, I'll address the emotional block most reading this are having now. Those who say that you cannot compare FGM to infant male circumcision aren't necessarily incorrect. Rather, they're bringing up the horrific infibulation process and comparing it to the in-hospital procedure most American boys experience.
Ethicist Brian D. Earp explains:
"The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as any ‘non-medical’ alteration of the genitalia of women and girls. What this is likely to bring to mind is the most extreme version of such ‘alteration’, which is the excision of the external part of the clitoris followed by a narrowing of the vaginal opening, sometimes using stitches or thorns. It is rarely understood that this notorious form of FGM is comparatively rare: it occurs in a subset of the practising communities and makes up about 10 per cent of cases worldwide. More prevalent, but much less frequently discussed in the media, is a range of less extensive alterations, sometimes performed under anaesthesia by medical professionals and with sterile surgical equipment. These include, among other interventions, so-called ritual ‘nicking’ of the clitoral hood (common in Malaysia), as well as non-medically-indicated labiaplasty and even piercings that might be done for perceived cosmetic enhancement."
That means under the WHO's definition, even this more common instance of cutting, where doctors removed a part of an infant girl's clitoris barely the size of a rice grain, is mutilation. Yet infant male circumcision, which is NOT a small snip and does cause pain, has never received that designation.
Even activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an FGM victim, has stated that FGM's least invasive form is less damaging than infant male circumcision.
With that context provided, I'll get into some of the more common justifications given for male circumcision, and relay why they can be adapted to FGM.
Oftentimes, American men defending circumcision will retort, "I don't see the big deal. I'm circumcised and I'm totally fine. I don't think it's mutilation."
The problem is, that indifference extends across gender aisles.
Per anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, who has expertise in female sexuality, "As an anthropologist who has studied female mutilation rituals in West Africa for many, many years and have written about it extensively, most women do not experience it as mutilation and would never refer to themselves as mutilated."
Just as many men in America, they do not see themselves as victims. So if many mutilated women don't feel like they've been mutilated, does that validate the practice? It's the same logic circumcised guys here invoke to justify circumcising male babies, after all.
Another common sticking argument for people dismissing comparisons between FGM and male circumcision is the idea that, “Female genital mutilation completely removes a woman's ability to orgasm and enjoy sex; male circumcision does not.”
This misconception is rooted in ignorance of how structures in both the male and female genitalia operate, and is one of the more complicated aspects of my argument for me to cover.
FGM's effects are well documented, But even with the risks, it is simply untrue that all cut women cannot enjoy intercourse. A 2007 study of FGM victims found many still capable of achieving pleasure, even with the practice's most extreme form:
Removal of the clitoris, despite widespread belief, does not always stop all sexual stimulation. As the study's curators noted, “In mutilated/cut women, some fundamental structures for orgasm have not been excised.”
The findings match those of European researchers at the World Congress For Sexual Health:
“When Professor Sara Johnsdotter started studying Somali women living in Sweden, she didn't think sex would be one of their favourite topics. After all, they had no clitoris. They'd all experienced the most severe form of female genital cutting-or mutilation, as some prefer to call it. But to her surprise she found they had a very positive view of sex. They had lots of sexual pleasure, including orgasms.”
“After all, the little bump we think of as the clitoris is actually only the tip, she points out. In fact the clitoris carries on deep inside the body. So even if the tip is cut off, there's plenty left for stimulation”
This pleasure argument is flipped when it comes to male circumcision. While experts claim genital mutilation keeps women from enjoying sex, they emphatically deny its effects on males. Such individuals may refer to the male foreskin as a “piece of skin,” therefore easily disposable from a newborn infant.
U.S. media happily trumpeted out a December 2015 Queen's University study arguing male circumcision does not reduce sensitivity (Earp's sharp takedown of that study was recently published at Trends in Urology And Men's Health.)
Other findings, however, suggest the opposite. A 2013 study from Belgium's Ghent University Hospital found circumcised men had “less intense sexual pleasure and orgasm than uncircumcised counterparts.”
That study also found “circumcised men were more likely to report more pain and numbness during arousal than uncircumcised men.”
In 1999, the British Journal Of Urology found that “the tip of the foreskin, and some or all of the frenulum, are routinely removed as part of circumcision. This tissue contains a high concentration of the nerve endings that sense fine touch. After circumcision, the surface of the glans thickens like a callus. The glans is innervated by free nerve endings that can only sense deep pressure and pain.”
This 1998 research paper delves even further into the foreskin's sexual and immunological functions.
Circumcision removes the penis's mucosal membrane, gliding function for smoother movement during PIV (Penis-in- Vagina) intercourse, Langerhans Cells that help combat HIV and thousands of fine touch receptors.
That's a useless flap of skin?
And before proceeding, let's be clear. Can circumcised men have mind-blowing sex lives? Of course. But the same can apply for circumcised women.
While cultural factors may compensate for lack of equipment, so to speak, removing it prevents humans from enjoying a specific intercourse biology designed for them. So why use the pleasure argument as a wedge between FGM and circumcision to denounce the former and defend the latter?
Considering the average foreskin-male or female-has no pathology, is that not more justification to allow children to grow up with their genitals intact? So that one day, upon reaching sexual maturity, they can decide upon any genital modification procedures?
Religion is a heavy driving force behind male circumcision. Jews and Muslims choose the procedure for their young because of Abraham's edict in Genesis 17:13. And when Europe tried banning circumcision a few years ago, members from both religions united to oppose the effort, arguing it was discriminatory.
Therefore, many argue we should respect infant male circumcision on religious grounds. But if that's the case, then why should we interfere with the Dawoodi Bohra and Shaff'i Islamic sects, both of which have interpreted Islam to mean FGM is mandatory?
All religions are essentially interpretations and reinterpretations of older texts. They have never stayed stagnant and have changed with time. So with that in mind, why couldn't these religions develop new customs over millennia as well?
I'm going off on a small tangent here, but that's the idea behind Brit Shalom, a Jewish naming ceremony for boys that doesn't involve circumcision.
As Jews Against Circumcision puts it, "The argument that Jewish babies have a right to have part of their penises cut off before they are old enough to give or withhold consent, because to do otherwise would deprive them of their heritage, is irrational. Heritage here means doing what we have done. It may seem, at first, to insult one’s ancestors to do other than what they did, but it is equally an insult to our own and our descendent’s intelligence, to cling blindly to customs of the past."
Though Jews who follow Brit Shalom are few today, its development shows that even the most stringent customs can transform.
A major sticking point for those who don't believe FGM and male circumcision can be compared is the idea the latter brings "benefits" while the former only brings suffering. It's been stated that infant male circumcision brings better hygiene, decreased UTI risk, decreased penile cancer risk and prevents penile problems.
So the argument goes that male circumcision is justifiable on medical grounds while FGM isn't because it lacks that foundation. There are two major problems with this argument.
Not to mention, the U.S., which circumcises the most infants of any First World nation, also leads its peers in HIV numbers. By contrast, Europe rarely performs infant male circumcision, and their HIV numbers are much lower than ours.
(Also, we can trust boys to wipe their behinds after defecating, but not to clean their foreskins after urinating?)
Secondly, as countries that regularly circumcise male infants promote "benefits" backing the practice, so do countries that perform FGM.
One site I found quoted a doctor on the subject as claiming that "The secretions of the labia minora accumulate in uncircumcised women and turn rancid, so they develop an unpleasant odour which may lead to infections of the vagina or urethra. I have seen many cases of sickness caused by the lack of circumcision."
In that same article, a female gynecologist claims further "benefits," including:
-"It prevents unpleasant odours which result from foul secretions beneath the prepuce."
-"It reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections."
-"It reduces the incidence of infections of the reproductive system."
Given that these "pros" are interspersed with praise for Allah, chances are, they're more driven by religious motives than scientific fact. But it shows my point. As American doctors conjure up "benefits" for the multi-billion dollar circumcision industry, so do some doctors in areas where FGM is common.
Some parents who circumcise their male babies defend it by stating that it's their child, so it's their choice. Since, you know, the individual who actually owns the penis doesn't deserve a say in what happens to it.
But using these ownership terms, could we not argue the same for parents who choose FGM? It's their daughter's in the end, right?
Above these reasons though, the most important reason the fight to end FGM should also include infant and forced male circumcision is simple.
Every single nation that cuts its women also cuts its men. They make little distinction between the two. In both cases, ideological structures uphold the procedures. And in both cases, young boys and girls are subjected to something they were too young to give consent for.
If grown men or women wish the procedure done on them in a healthy and safe environment, more power to them. But when it comes to kids and infants who can't refuse, that's where the line should be drawn. Regardless of what lies between their legs.