A cut too far…

Revisiting some older articles…this is an uncomfortable one…

When I commented on Twitter some years ago about an article on female genital mutilation (FGM) being different to and worse than, male circumcision, I did not expect the response I got, which included a couple of papers to read from Brian Earp, an ethics research fellow at the University of Oxford. This is based around one of those papers. 

According to Brian, I hadn’t really thought closely enough about the subject at all. So, I started reading more…

FGM comes and goes in the news, but in reality, it is ever-present. The British Government has described it as child abuse, and its practitioners as ‘perpetrators’.

Now, there is the issue of whether male circumcision should be treated in the same way.

Earp (2014) asks the very question about whether FGM and male circumcision should be procedures which are considered separately.  Surely, he suggests (in a much more educated and detailed way than I can here; read his papers) children, female and male (or intersex) “should be free from having parts of their genitals removed unless there is a pressing medical indication”.  I must admit I had never really thought about male circumcision. It is not part of my culture, nor something that has impacted upon my life. I’d never really thought about it as ‘mutilation’ for example, in the way that FGM has horrified me since I first heard of it.

So, how does the removal of male foreskin equate with the mutilation of female genitalia?

Well, Earp suggests the claims commonly made that FGM is equivalent to castration/total penectomy, and that male circumcision is just ‘a minor intervention that may confer health benefits’ are misleading, or plain wrong.

My thinking was more along the terms of rationale rather than pain.  I assume (d) that male circumcision has nothing to do with controlling male sexuality, whereas FGM eliminates any sexual enjoyment. Wrong. 

So, yes, I was one of those who felt that all FGM was unacceptable and that male circumcision, while not something I chose – or even thought about – for my sons, is nothing like as catastrophic. Reality is, I hadn’t really thought about circumcision for men at all. The Xhosa in South Africa still practise this rite of passage.


First, I learned that the World Health Organization  (WHO) defines no less than 4 types of FGM. The list, for ease (mine), comes from Earp’s paper:

  • Partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy). I’m wincing as I type.
  • Clitoridectomy as above and partial or total labia minora. Wincing more.
  • Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with the creation of a covering seal by cutting and repositioning the labia minor and major, without incision of the clitoris. Labiaplasty. Feeling slightly sick now.
  • All other harmful procedures for non-medial purposes: pricking, piercing, scraping and cauterization.

So, there are lots of ways of mutilating females. This video about female genital mutilation among the Afar tribe may be distressing but is also informative. 

It is the ‘minor’ types which are more common; rarely, however, some FGM involves excising the clitoris with a shard of glass and stitching the labia together with thorns, as apparently first performed in ancient Rome. The severest form is infibulation, where the vaginal opening is sewn up, leaving only a small hole for menstrual blood and urine. It is frankly abhorrent. 

Africa has the greatest amount of FGM, which is believed to ensure chastity before marriage, fidelity during marriage, increased male sexual pleasure (presumably due to ‘tightness’). It introduces a girl to womanhood (some party!) while also keeping her ‘clean’.

The tools are often unsanitary (increasing the risk of HIV and other infections) with the surgery often performed without anaesthesia. Blood loss can lead to infection and death (reports suggest that a third of Sudanese girls who experience FGM do not survive, a horrific figure).

The woman feels pain at the time of the procedure (I hesitate to call it an operation), again on the night of her marriage when her vagina is “reopened” and again when she gives birth. Things which, for most women in the west (though FGM is practised here, too) are associated with pleasure (or at least satisfaction in the case of childbirth) are painful in parts of Africa. All are linked to marriage and reproductive processes.

In the west, such operations tend, at least, to be carried out in more sanitary conditions with the permission of the parents. This does not make them right. 

What I didn’t realise was that in Africa, genital cutting around puberty is done to girls and boys alike, as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.  The Abakwetha tribe, for example, uses male circumcision among its boys; indeed, they are not men unless circumcised.  Increasingly, according to Earp, in many countries, the procedure is being carried out on infants, following the model of male circumcision in the US.

My view remains that female genital mutilation is never right unless there are very, very strong health reasons for it (as in a life-saving procedure, though it is hard to imagine how this could be the case). At least the world is waking up to the process, though I first read of it many, many years ago;  there are moves towards its eradication.

No such luck when it comes to male circumcision, it seems. My view on this has changed. I previously never thought of it or assumed it was OK; now it seems equally as wrong, with aforementioned health exceptions.

Male Circumcision


Again, there are different types. My thinking was probably of the old Jewish form which involved cutting off the overhanging tip of the foreskin (not pleasant, but comparatively less invasive). 

Modern forms apparently remove a third to a half of sensitive skin from the penis (about 50 square centimetres is mentioned, which seems a hell of a lot). This eliminates the gliding function of the foreskin, thus exposing the head of the penis to external irritation.

Traditional Moslem circumcisions happen between the ages of 5-8 (without anaesthetic). American ones are done soon after birth, with or without anaesthetic. Obviously, the same risks of infection (and death) mentioned for FGM apply, and other procedures in some cultures, which involve slicing the urethral passage can lead to urination problems. Testicular crushing is also an initiation rite in some areas of the world. I’m not wincing in quite the same way, as, guys, I cannot pretend to feel your pain, but it does not sound good.

The point Earp makes is that when we compare, as I did, FGM to male circumcision, we normally think of the most severe form of FGM and the mildest form of circumcision. He takes issue, therefore, with the suggestion that male circumcision is somehow harmless or minor.  Bearing in mind he is interested in ethics, it raises some interesting questions, such as: how does FGM or male circumcision on children square with principles of personal autonomy and the right to an unmutilated future?

Controlling Sexuality?

Along with many others, I still believe that female circumcision is an attempt to control female sexuality; it is patriarchal, and an expression of male domination. I did not see male circumcision as performing the same role, so now interesting questions arise. Earp makes the point that in almost every country where FGM is performed, it is carried out by women who see it as hygienic, ‘even beautifying’. The cultural value of it makes it ’empowering’. Male circumcision is often carried out by men, often as part of a similar rite of passage experience. Both may well have elements of sexual control attached, but certain cultures see it as a positive.

While it may be the women who perform FGM, I cannot quite accept that their complicity in the process suggests they are somehow outside the influence of male cultural domination affecting women worldwide, that it was all their idea in the first place. Would women really initiate the idea of mutilating themselves? They may accept it, but where did it come from?  Female virginity, purity, and fidelity are male concerns. Women may well accept the cultural norms they have grown up with, but, ultimately, a pure and faithful wife is something men worry about, not women. The implication is that women are not to be trusted, so if one physically impairs them for life, they can be.

I can accept Earp’s suggestion that there is no universal empirical association between patriarchy and genital surgery, because of cultural differences/variation in attitudes towards female sexuality. Put simply, there is no one universally accepted reason for FGM or circumcision. 

In some cases, as he points out, the women defend FGM, while the men wish to see it wiped out. I can understand this. Would most men really want a wife they can only trust because she can derive no sexual pleasure from their relationship? In some ways, it raises more questions about marriage than about sexuality; if women are prepared to impose FGM upon their daughters, then the cultural value of women only as marriage objects is a serious question.

There is also the issue of whether other cultural practices should be condemned as barbaric and harmful when we cannot begin to understand the belief system which has developed over many years. I get that ethnocentrism debate, but the impact of FGM on women matters to me more.

Why Circumcise?

So, what about male circumcision? Is that about reducing sexual enjoyment in men? Well, in contemporary America, probably not. Yet in Jewish philosophy (and I bow to Earp on this point, as it is not my specialism) male genital cutting was done for precisely that reason, to reduce lust by diminishing sexual sensitivity.

In western Victorian medicine, it was used to combat masturbation; more globally, forced circumcision within some tribal groups is used as a form of humiliation. So, yes, there are elements of controlling masculinity in the process.

However, women did not wholly escape in Victorian England, something we tend to forget. Yes, clitoridectomies were thankfully not the norm, but they were performed on some unfortunate women in Victorian England, presumably those deemed unsuitable to reproduce. Nineteenth-century gynaecologists, such as Isaac Baker Brown,  although vilified, performed clitoridectomies to treat various female psychological and physical symptoms including insanity, epilepsy, catalepsy and hysteria, alongside ‘masturbation’ and ‘nymphomania’.

So, Earp has a point. If male and female forms of genital cutting reflect different cultural norms and vary in type and rationale, how do we compare one to the other?

How can we say that male circumcision is “just a snip” and “not something men complain about?”

Male circumcision, he suggests, can be equally as barbaric as female genital mutilation (and I guess the very word, circumcision sanitises the process, rather in the way that processed meat in a supermarket stops people thinking about how it got there).

Male circumcision, he asserts, is often traumatic and painful. Earp mentions Nelson Mandela’s own account from “Long Walk to Freedom” where circumcision is a very definite test of masculinity, where flinching or crying out is a sign of weakness and thereby stigmatising. So, definite links to masculinity and proving one’s worthiness as a man by tolerating pain.


The big ethical issue is consent. Should children be mutilated, thereby impacting upon their entire lives, without their consent? The answer is, of course, no. If someone, as an adult chooses it for themselves, when not under duress to so do, who am I to complain?

Many people who undergo FGM or male circumcision may not complain; they may even go on to do it to their own children. But some do complain. That, in itself, is enough to make the process highly undesirable/questionable. A good number of people are being mutilated as children without their consent.

Sexism? Ethnocentrism?

So, why do we often perceive male and female circumcision differently? I guess male circumcision, in western culture, is more common and has therefore perhaps become more accepted or, to use the term in the paper, “normalized”. FGM is still very much the exception, and most of it does not happen on our doorsteps, so it becomes a cultural problem “out there”. Earp suggests sexism and ethnocentrism have key parts to play.

Male bodies are seen as powerful, resistant to harm and open to testing. Female bodies are seen as vulnerable, in need of protection. There is thus a “gendered vulnerability” which, yes, might be deemed to be sexist because we see FGM as more of an issue than male circumcision when, in fact, we should condemn both practices for non-medical reasons (and that opens up a whole new debate) among children.

Me? I think I was just ignorant of the facts. I still am; there is much more reading – and thinking – to be done, but hopefully, this opens up a debate in people’s minds (or even on the site) which is a small start.


Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: