A heated discussion ensued from my post on circumcision last week, which in turn was essentially a plug to a thought-provoking post by Brian D. Earp at the Oxford Practical Ethics blog. The controversial point was whether circumcision is or is not to be compared to female genital cutting.
I’ve learned a lot from the different perspectives presented during the discussion; among other things, I’ve learned the terms ‘genital alteration’ and ‘genital cutting’, which now seem to me to be more adequate than either ‘circumcision’ or ‘genital mutilation’ to formulate the issue in a non-question-begging way (as argued here). And yet, I am now even more convinced that the analogy between male genital alteration and female genital alteration is a legitimate one – which (and let me say this again!) does not mean that there are no crucial differences to be kept in mind. That's what an analogy is, after all.
But let us consider again the presumed points of disanalogy:
- Female genital alteration, as it is actually practiced, severely interferes with the functionality of a woman’s sexual organs, making it practically impossible for her to experience sexual pleasure. The form of male genital alteration known as circumcision, on the other hand, has no such effect.
The question of whether circumcision does or does not affect negatively a man’s sexual enjoyment is at the very least an open question. There are many physiological reasons to think that it does, given that it corresponds to the removal of highly ennerved tissue and possibly interferes with the mechanism of expansion and retraction of the penis. In the absence of systematic, comparative studies with circumcised-as-infants males and intact males on their penile sensitivity (I have not been able to locate any such studies), at the very least we cannot conclude anything definitively. Some anecdotal evidence (as provided by several commenters in the previous post) suggests that there might be important differences in sensitivity between the two cases.
It is well known that female genital cutting is practiced with different levels of severity, going from pricking and piercing to infibulation. But a polemic theme which emerged in several of the comments in the post is the idea that female genital alteration/cutting has been seriously misconceptualized in the so-called ‘civilized’ countries of North-America, Europe etc. In particular, the work of Richard Shweder has been brought up as sheding a different light on the phenomenon. It is claimed for example that many women who undergo genital cutting are happy with the alteration, and that they can have an equally fulfilling sex life (see here and here for sources).
Now, I am of course not an anthropologist, and thus in no position to judge on the anthropological merits of such studies. What strikes me though is that the reasons given by the women who are self-reportedly content with their genital alterations all smack of good old oppression of women’s sexuality: they feel cleaner, their genitals are thus more beautiful etc. In this interview with Fuambai S. Ahmadu, it is explained how female genital alteration among the Kono in Sierra Leone is conceptualized in terms of ‘maturation’ of a woman’s sexuality, shifting the focus from the clitoris to the vagina. Now, the similarities with the good old Freudian theory of ‘mature vaginal orgasm’, which has been shredded to pieces by generations of researchers, are striking. Ultimately, such approaches amount to reducing a woman’s sexuality to the reproductive function of intercourse.
Moreover, a considerable number of women who have undergone genital cutting (as children or later in life) then undergo reconstructive surgery, which at the very least suggests that they are not happy with the functionality of their altered genitals (see this Lancet article for example). It is also worth emphasizing that some of the most vocal advocates against female genital alteration have themselves undergone genital cutting as children or young adults (such as the Dutch-Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali), so at least some of these people report not being happy with the current shape of their genitals (same for some men who have undergone genital cutting as infants).
At any rate, just as many circumcised men report being happy with the functionality of their penises, it appears that at least some women who underwent genital cutting also report being satisfied with their sexuality. So the question of the value of these self-reports would have to be raised in both cases.
- Female genital cutting is embedded in a long history of oppression of female sexuality, and has as its main goal to diminish women’s sexual enjoyment. Male genital cutting in the form of circumcision has no such goal.
In a comment at my original post, Michael Kremer directs our attention to an important book, Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery by David Gollaher. Among other things, the book documents how, in the 19th century and possibly much before as well, male genital cutting was promoted in terms of curbing men’s sexual desire and enjoyment, in particular with the goal of decreasing the occurrence of masturbation (which was thought to be the cause of all kinds of diseases). So although there are significant differences in terms of history, forms of oppression and the level of severity between the male and the female cases, it is important to remember that, certainly in the 19th century, non-religious circumcision was promoted in certain countries as a form of control of a man's sexuality.
- Male circumcision brings with it some protective benefits against STDs, while female genital alterations have no such effect, much to the contrary.
As pointed out in Brian Earp's post, the data on the presumed protective effect of male genital cutting against HIV contamination is inconclusive at best; there is considerable room for different interpretations, and at any rate the absolute effect found was of 1,3 % only. Again, an analogy may apply (apologies for its gruesomeness): systematic removal of women's breasts would severely decrease the incidence of breast cancer, and yet the very idea seems appalling to most of us. But this is arguably because we value breasts more than we value the male foreskin, which is often (though arguably erroneously) seen as having no particular function (Ryan McAllister comments on this comparison in his lecture available on youtube).
What I conclude from these considerations is that it remains difficult to maintain coherently that male genital alteration is acceptable while female genital alteration is not, in particular in the case of infants and children. The two theoretically more plausible positions seem to be either to argue for the acceptability of different forms of genital alteration, both in the male and the female cases (perhaps based on considerations of moral relativism), or to reject the idea that it is permissible for infants, children and non-consenting humans more generally to be submitted to such irreversible forms of alteration which are not motivated by direct medical concerns. Consenting adults engage in all kinds of genital alteration (piercing, tattoos, cosmetic plastic surgery) in different societies, and this is not what is at issue. The issue is the right that people -- male and female -- have to make their own choices concerning such matters when they are able to actually make such choices -- that is, as consenting adults.