01 October 2013

Extenuating Circum Stances, Pt. 5: Cutting to the Chase

Genital cutting is deeply gendered. While the long histories of both practices revolve around ideas of perceived sexual purity, morality, and cleanliness, males across cultures are generally considered to be sexual while women are not held with esteem to their sexuality, or rather, their solo sexuality. In other words, women are considered sexual in light of their husbands. As a result, MGC is often talked about for its social benefits of reducing embarrassment, reducing instances of masturbation, increasing sexual potency and longevity, reducing the risk of sexually transmitted infections, and other sexual benefits. In only two cases, that of reducing the risk of cervical cancer in women and of women preferring the attractiveness of a circumcised penis (an argument that does not seem to have any scientific merit), do women factor into the “benefits” of MGC. Most of the perceived benefits of MGC are male-only.

On the flip side, males factor heavily into the practice of FGC. From the Western perspective, the practice is considered to be the result of a male-dominated society: FGC is social “proof” of purity for the husband; total infibulation results in a smaller vaginal opening, which increases pleasure for the male; vaginal aesthetics are improved through the removal of labia; and clitoridectomy removes the male portion of the female genitals, to name a few. With Muslim sunnat, women are not required to but may be expected to undergo the procedure to match the suffering of Mohammed and the Muslim men who undergo MGC. Additionally, sunnat is seen as a blessing that would improve a woman (Gollaher 47).

Considering only the male-female dichotomy on the surface of both practices does not allow for a complete understanding of other gender related factors. Undeniably, gender differences permeate into other spheres of influence, and these spheres, in turn, influence both MGC and FGC. Looking specifically at the public-private spheres, one can quickly discern a difference in the ways in which genital cutting practices are carried out. The public-private sphere theory asserts that, across a wide spectrum of cultures, women are confined primarily to the private, or home sphere, while men, and any associated “male” activities, exist very much in the public sphere. When women are in public, they must be pure and clean, covered up, modest, and be in the company of other women or children. In Islamic society, when a woman is no longer sexually active or able to procreate, she is allowed to mix with men in public or social settings. If a woman is seen as a sexual being in public, there is a loss of sexual purity in the matrimonial relationship. As Rodriguez states, “healthy women were not thought of as sexual beings—or rather, not sexual beings on their own, without the promptings of their husbands” (2008:332). Thus, in an effort to reduce the risk of female sexual infidelity, female sexuality, and the root of female sexuality, must be removed, or at the very least, cut. In this sense, the fear of female sexuality and an emphasis on patrilineal purity, resulting from the need for a woman to be the representation of sexual modesty and honor for her family, namely her father and brothers, may have driven the development or continuation of some practices of FGC worldwide. This same sense of purity of the patrilineal line does not exist in Western society, where smaller, nuclear families are the model.

Additionally, MGC is often compared to other common medical practices, such as tonsillectomies and wisdom tooth removal (“The Doctors” 2012; Gollaher). While this is often not how FGC is described in Western medical and social literature or media, one opinion piece written in 2001 by a male medical doctor from Nigeria living in South Carolina does contain comparisons to other forms of body cutting:

We “mutilate” the umbilical cord by cutting it off at birth and arbitrarily deciding how long the navel should be. We “mutilate” our bodies with ear rings, tongue rings, tattoos [sic], nose jobs etc... We "keep" biologically excretory products like nails and hair - and use them for beautification - and do so differently, I might add, depending on the cultural environment. Some western women (in the US) begin to shave their leg hair at age 10. Has anyone else in the world attacked them for mutilating what God put there for a reason? We use traditional marks for medicinal and symbolic purposes.... Why is that not 'mutilation' of the skin? Why not ban it? (Omoigui 2001)

Comparing the cutting of an umbilical cord, which does not contain nerve endings, and which dies upon detaching from the mother’s body, to the removal of a body part containing more nerve endings than the fingertips is hardly copasetic. Comparing either MGC or FGC to any other non-medical surgery, cutting, or piercing practice which is done with the consent of the individual also leads to problems. Consent is an important part of the social and cultural idea of personal freedom. Opponents of genital cutting, particularly FGC, take issue with the lack of personal freedom in the decision to undergo the surgery.

In some cultures, it may be customary for younger children to get tattoos, have their teeth chiseled, or get piercings in their ears, lips, noses, genitals, etc. In the West, these practices are not common in children; while ear piercings are common among youth, stretching of piercings, piercings in other parts of the body, and tattoos require individuals to be of a certain age before they can be performed legally. Opponents of genital cutting would likely oppose other forms of skin cutting, piercing, or tattooing, in cases where children or women are forced, either physically or socially, to perform the body changing activities.

Comparison of either practice to surgeries that are deemed necessary for medical reasons presents additional problems. Neither tonsillectomy nor wisdom tooth extraction are quite as prevalent in the U.S. as MGC. Furthermore, tonsillectomy may be a preventative surgery in many cases, but it is also performed in response to tonsillitis. Even as a preventative surgery, the medical history of the patient and the patient’s family is weighed against current medical research on the risks of tonsillitis and options are discussed with the individual. In other words, the patient consents to a practice upon gaining information; tonsillectomies, for example, are not performed routinely on infants, nor are surgeries for actual birth defects that may or may not cause complications later in life, such as heart murmurs.

While proponents of male circumcision in the West tend to deny similarities between MGC and FGC, opponents of both practices often draw connections between the two and argue that "the cultural explanations and justifications for male and female surgeries are similar" (Bell 2007). As was discussed earlier, masturbation, sexuality purity, and personal and moral hygiene factor into both processes. In both cases, the cutting occurs primarily on children and infants, who do not have the capacity to give consent, even if they are old enough to communicate. Social pressures, including teasing and embarrassment, may also increase the likelihood that parents or children will feel obligated to have the practice performed.

Interestingly, there are differences between FGC and MGC having to do with informed consent. Western views place more emphasis on lack of consent with regard to FGC, stating that girls are forced to go through with the violent practice without being fully informed of the options or risks. Perhaps because, at least in Africa, FGC is generally carried out on girls who are no longer infants, some even in their pre-teens or teen years, the idea that long-term psychological and health problems arise from FGC that are not seen in MGC. Some forms of FGC are conducted on infants and may be less intrusive. There is often no distinction made. MGC, on the other hand, is often discussed with regard to the rights of the parents and not the rights of the infant, with the major exception being from the perspective of intactivists. It stands to reason that, considering the majority of arguments for both MGC and anti-abortion legislation come from religious groups, many of the same people who fight for the right to life of a fetus over the rights of a mother’s choice draw a line at birth and argue for the rights of the parents over the rights of the infant with regard to the infant’s genitals.[1]

Male and female genital tissue has different significance based on cultural perspectives as well. Modern Western medicine’s view of the foreskin for most of the 20th Century has held that it is a relatively worthless leftover from man’s early days. As a result, after being removed from a penis, the foreskin is tossed away. At least, that is until recently when foreskin tissue has been used by cancer and other disease researchers for a variety of practices, including testing, growing cells, and more (Gollaher 65; 165). “Ritual [MGC], in contrast, in Madagascar and many other places, holds the foreskin in talismanic esteem,” – indeed, women across many cultures exhibit unique practices regarding the use of the forskin upon removal, including storing the foreskin in jars, burying the foreskin in sand, and even swallowing them to promote fertility (Gollaher 65-66). I could uncover no information on the uses of labial, sheath, or clitoral tissue upon removal from the female; should it be discovered that the tissue be used for ritual or scientific purpose, Western opponents of the practices would react with an intensity anew.

Perhaps the least talked about example of gender division in genital cutting is the way in which the West deals with humor surrounding the practice. FGC is talked about with grave solemnity sans any humoristic tone. MGC, on the other hand, is the source is several jokes and can be discussed in social settings through the use of humor. In a 2012 episode of medical talk show The Doctors, a Pediatrician joked, “Well, you couldn’t walk for a year!” after a Plastic Surgeon jokingly stated, “I’m sure it hurt, but I don’t remember” (“The Doctors” 2012). Additionally, jokes involving over-circumcision, foreskins, and penises in general are in no short supply. A common example of such a joke is one I have heard repeated from several individuals in various forms throughout my life: “I was circumcised and they threw the wrong part away.” Indeed, humor surrounds a number of unfortunate MGC acts, including the now infamous Lorena and John Bobbitt penile castration story. If jokes exist regarding FGC, they are not known to me or Google. This is not to say that factors that play into or influence FGC, including cultural and religious traditions, male dominance, and misogyny, do not get ridiculed or become the focus for jokes. Certainly, there is no shortage of misogynistic jests and the content of such jokes may even reference female genitalia. However, the physical act of FGC, in any form, is not common in humor, at least in the West.

Lastly, one view, that of psychotherapist Bruno Bettelheim, stands out as relatively unique amongst most other. Bettelheim puts a large emphasis on the female influence of MGC, claiming that “circumcision developed as a result both of man’s desire to participate in the female power of procreation, and of woman’s desire, if not to rob the male of the penis, at least to make him bleed from his genital as women do” (Gollaher 69). Of course, this view present problems in application: MGC, generally speaking, does not have any effect on procreation and certainly does not allow a male to become pregnant or give birth; MGC typically does not result in extended periods of bleeding, and in no documented cases has it led to bleeding on a monthly cycle for the majority of a male’s adult life. Conversely, FGC can lead to complications in childbirth or in sexual intercourse prior to pregnancy. If it is true, at least on a social level, that MGC allows men to “procreate” in the sense that they produce more men through the act, then certainly the same argument could be made for women and FGC, as FGC is a marker for the passage into womanhood for some cultures. This, consequently, removes the uniqueness of MGC for procreation, for if MGC is truly to mimic female genitals, we would expect to see only MGC practiced. Yet, both practices are observed occurring in the same cultural groups many times over. Furthermore, if MGC represented a deep-seated need for men to bleed from the genitals as women do, we would also expect to see universal application. This, however, is not the case. Additionally, this notion does not account for notions of duality, as is found in various cultures in Africa, such as the Dogon, the Bambara, and the Lobi of Mali. In these groups, the prepuce is considered to be the female portion of the penis, just as the labia and clitoris might be considered male.

As a result of the long history of MGC in the West, combined with the cultural, social, and other factors that have influenced opinions on MGC, attitudes differ strongly in terms of MGC and FGC. It is difficult for many to see a connection between the two, with even those who are educated in medical science refusing to allow comparisons across gender lines. As Bell put it so succinctly, “all forms of female genital cutting are seen to constitute a sexual mutilation and violation of bodily integrity, and male genital operations are dismissed as benign” (Bell 131). Opinions are subjective, based upon the religious views on MGC one was taught since birth, social factors that include the circumcision status of the parents, and ideas or assumptions about male and female sexuality. For some, if a man can get an erection, there is no harm done (Bell 127). No consideration is made for risk, scarring, sexual dysfunction later in life, or personal preference of the individual whose genitals were cut. Conversely, FGC is only considered in light of its negative consequences, with little or no consideration for the social and cultural benefits. In other words, there is a tendency to downplay the risks associated with MGC while exaggerating those associated with FGC, and at the same time emphasizing benefits to MGC that may not actually exist. When broken down, the two practices can be reduced to only two primary differences: legal status in the West; and the likelihood for severe damage is somewhat higher for FGC. Until both practices can be seen wholly in light of their gendered statuses, regardless of the other factors that affect acceptance or disapproval of either, there will continue to exist a colossal chasm of gender which impedes thoughtful analysis by the public at large.

[1] Note that this is mere speculation based on arguments in popular news media in the absence of legitimate research into pro-MGC groups, their relationships to Right to Life groups, and their religious affiliations.


Scholarly Books and Articles

Bell, Kirsten. “Genital Cutting and Western Discourses on Sexuality.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol. 19, Issues 2, pp. 125-148.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Trends in In-Hospital Newborn Male Circumcision, United States, 1999-2010.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Last updated 2 Sep. 2012. Visited 4 May 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6034a4.htm?s_cid=mm6034a4_w

Gollaher, David L. Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery. Basic Books: New York, 2000.

Sarah W. Rodriguez “Rethinking the History of Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy: American Medicine and Female Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 63, Number 3, July 2008, pp. 323-347

Shoen, Edgar. “Circumcision Updated-Implicated?” Pediatrics 92 (1993), pp. 388-391.

World Health Organization. “Female Genital Mutilation.” WHO Fact Sheets. Last updated Feb. 2013. Visited 6 Apr. 2013. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/index.html

World Health Organization. Female Genital Mutilation: A Joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA Statement. Geneva: WHO, 1997.

Sources from Popular Media

American Academy of Pediatricians. Where We Stand: Circumcision. Last updated 28 Jan. 2013. Visited 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/prenatal/decisions-to-make/pages/Where-We-Stand-Circumcision.aspx

Brady, Brittany. “Babies’ herpes linked to circumcision practice.” CNN Health. Last updated 8 Apr. 2013. Visited 6 May 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/07/health/new-york-neonatal-herpes

Connolly, Kate. “Circumcision ruling condemned by Germany’s Muslim and Jewish Leaders.” The Guardian. Published 27 Jun. 2012. Visited 6 Apr. 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/27/circumcision-ruling-germany-muslim-jewish

D’Arcy, Janice. “’Intactivists’ furious at new AAP circumcision policy.” Washington Post. Published 30 Aug. 2012. Visited 9 May 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-parenting/post/intactivists-furious-at-new-aap-circumcision-policy/2012/08/29/67ccd6d0-f235-11e1-adc6-87dfa8eff430_blog.html

Goldman, A.J., Donald Snyder, and Nathan Jeffay. “Circumcision Controversy Endangers Fight To Keep Rite Legal in Germany.” The Jewish Daily Forward. Published 6 May 2013. Visited 9 May 2013. http://forward.com/articles/175915/circumcision-controversy-endangers-fight-to-keep-r/

Halperin, Mordechai. “Metzitzah B’peh Controversy: The View from Israel.” Jewish Action Online. Last updated 6 Mar. 2012. Visited 9 May 2013. http://web.archive.org/web/20120306221308/http://www.ou.org/jewish_action/article/8987

The Huffington Post. “Circumcision Controversy Brings Yona Metzger, Israel Chief Rabbi, to Germany.” Published 21 Aug. 2012. Visited 9 May 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/21/israel-chief-rabbi-in-ger_0_n_1816735.html

Omoigui, Nowa. “OPINION.” Vanguard Daily (Lagos). Visited 12 Apr. 2013. Available at http://www.circumstitions.com/FGM-defended.html

Rosenblum, Emma. “Jewish But Don’t Want to Circumcise?” New York Magazine. Published 18 Oct. 2009. Visited 10 May 2013. http://nymag.com/health/features/60149/

Schwartzman, Richard. “The Emotional Consequences of Circumcision.” Beyond the Bris: Questioning Jewish Circumcision. Published 20 Feb. 2013. Visited 9 May 2013. http://www.beyondthebris.com/2013/02/the-emotional-consequences-of.html