Circumcision: Human Rights Make No Anatomical Distinctions – By Maria Bangs
The last time I wrote a post for Martin, I focused on the psychosexual factors that contribute to the cycle of child genital cutting in the developed world. As an intactivist, I’m continually amazed at the lack of knowledge surrounding male genital cutting, among people who vehemently defend it, and the intense aversion and refusal to recognise the uncanny similarities to female genital cutting. Even suggesting FGM & male circumcision have comparable attributes, history, and psychosexual repercussions can get one called a heretic from behind a computer screen.
I invite you to read this post with an open mind, to discard your latent xenophobia & Islamaphobia at the top of this screen, and enter this article with the understanding that child genital cutting isn’t about penises or vulvas or potential yet unknown health benefits. It is about gender, sex, power, control, and children. Mostly it’s about children.
I start with this chart so we can see where foreskin excision falls on the ranking of severity. This chart is gleaned from the work of Dr. Sami Aldeeb, the only professional who has ever attempted to rank male genital mutilation, and using the World Health Organisation’s ranking system of severity for female genital cutting. Note what forms of female genital cutting fall below foreskin amputation. Hoodectomy and labiaplasty being the most notable and both widely practised forms of female cutting.
At the bottom we have the most mild form, a ritual nick. In 2010 the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report suggesting doctors be able to cut baby girls to appease parents who would otherwise leave the country to have their daughters’ circumcised. Embedded in that report, is this statement:
“The ritual nick suggested by some pediatricians is not medically harmful and is much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting.”
It was and still is difficult for doctors to explain to parents why they may cut their sons, but not their daughters. After all, cutting children is a cultural mandate and a social surgery when done to both boys and girls. Every medical authority who has a statement on infant circumcision recognises it is a social surgery, not a medical necessity. The potential medical benefits do not warrant prophylactic amputation of healthy erogenous tissue from minors.
While most of these policy statements strongly recommend against male circumcision, the AAP’s statement is relatively neutral. However, the AAP’s position of neutrality of child circumcision & attempting to appear multi cultural is what prompted the suggestion of a ritual nick. Concerning our baby girls, even the most mild forms of genital cutting is seen as a gross violation of human rights, in the developed world, regardless of its cultural significance.
Myth: Female circumcision doesn’t have any health benefits. Male circumcision has PROVEN health benefits.
Actually there ARE studies (here & here) that show health benefits from female circumcision, namely a reduction in HIV infection among circumcised, and studies that show cut women still orgasm. Even as recent as the 1950′s in the United States, there were studies being published showing the health benefits of cutting girls. There are white, middle class, non Muslim women in the U.S. who are circumcised, and who were cut in childhood on recommendations of their paediatricians.
We could sit here and toss medical studies back and forth all day long, and the conclusion we would come to is the same as every medical authority in the world. The potential, yet unknown health benefits of prophylactic surgery removing healthy erogenous tissue is not compelling enough to recommend for minors. The difference is the studies showing health benefits of cutting girls is met with a caveat about human rights. For some reason this same caveat isn’t attached to research studies showing potential health benefits of male cutting.
Myth: female genital cutting is a vehicle to oppress female sexuality, male circumcision doesn’t oppress sexuality.
In the United States alone, circumcision has been used as a means of sexual repression, classism, racism, and reinforcing the patriarchy.
Male cutting wormed its way into medical culture in the late 1800′s through mass hysteria campaigns to vilify sex and cutting penises was a means to promote chastity and curb masturbation. Very well-known and respected doctors throughout the past 150 years (for example Alan Guttmacher), doctors who led the field in medical research and breakthroughs, promoted circumcision as a cure for insanity, paralysis, epilepsy, and various mental illness. Like all cosmetic surgery, only the well-off could afford to cut their sons’ penises, so the bald penis quickly became a symbol of class. Stigma was attached to the intact genitals as an indicator of immigrant, lower class social status.
Like circumcision news today, if a doctor made a claim about the benefits of circumcision, every medical journal published it as irrefutable fact. Dr. Remondino was a huge proponent of circumcision. He criticised anti-circumcision activists in the early 1900’s as ‘ignoring science’ (sound familiar?) while claiming circumcision prevented blindness, hip and bone disease and was the solution to the ‘Negro rape problem.’ Because, you know, people of colour and their insatiable and uncontrollable sex drives.
Sexual repression, classism, racism, and oh yes, the patriarchy.
Miriam Pollack has an excellent paper on how circumcision defines and perpetuates the patriarchal power structure, and I have to completely agree with her analysis.
In brief, the mother is denied her primal maternal instincts to protect her young, indeed they are ever minimalised, by handing her male child over for ritual harm. The male child is then severed, literally, from his bond with his mother, and initiated into the community of men. It is a physical mark in the flesh which defines his place within the male community, separate and severed from his mother and women.
Although this dynamic of sexual identity is played out just beneath the conscious surface, these invisible needs are being expressed in the language of the circumcision decision.
All the men in my family are circumcised.
A son should match his father.
I’m circumcised and I’m fine.
His wife will thank us for circumcising him, no woman will sleep with an uncut man.
The boys at school will all be circumcised, he will be made fun of if he’s not cut.
Our genitals are central to sexual self-identity, and the need to reaffirm that sexual identity is manifested in the father’s role in circumcision. It is the father’s sexual identity, as well as the sexual identity of the circumcised male community in general, that is being reaffirmed in the cutting of a son’s penis. The complex psycho-sexual factors unconsciously drive this cutting of children, especially boys, because of the significance we as a society place on the penis and male sexual performance.
Myth: It’s just not the same, cutting girls is mutilation.
Well, actually by definition cutting off foreskin is also mutilation, according to the dictionary, if we are being technical. By removing a mobile sleeve of nerve-rich erogenous tissue, we are cutting off both external and internal sexual tissue and often the frenulum, therefore changing the form of the penis. This is genital mutilation.
For our girls, even the most mild, and relatively (physically) benign ritual nick, is seen as heinous act of sexual assault, which it is. However it is no more damaging than episiotomy, and in many cases less damaging than episiotomy. Still, when this is performed on healthy children it is a violation of bodily autonomy.
When any genital cutting is performed on healthy children, it violates their right to bodily autonomy. Human Rights trump all other rights, beliefs, religious mandates, and unspoken needs to complete a bubble of denial about genital cutting. Human Rights of vulnerable children must be fiercely protected because, by nature, children cannot protect themselves. And also by nature, childhood is incidental, so victims become perpetrators.
We cannot, without a healthy dose of denial and cognitive dissonance, accept with complicity the cutting of boy children while abhorring the cutting of girl children. That is the crux. Children are autonomous people with their own rights to healthy, whole, intact, genitals, feet, ears, nipples, and any other body part culture has mandated we modify throughout the course of human history.
We have determined that healthy intact genitals do not pose an imminent risk to the health of a child, or person in general, and therefore excising healthy body parts of non-consenting minors cannot be justified.
Humanism and much of western society has collectively reached this consensus concerning bodily autonomy, and there continues to be shifts away from harmful religious, cultural belief systems, even among believers and the deeply devout. As the world secularises, we will continue to see the gender binary and rigid definitions of sexuality blend into more egalitarian attitudes. Ending child genital cutting is paramount to this shift, as it deconstructs gender hierarchy, and honours the healthy bodies of the smallest and most vulnerable among us.
Given the current trend, the children being cut today will outlive this practise in the developed world. They will carry a physical marking in their flesh, on their most private parts, a reminder of this painful and ugly chapter in human history. A reminder that we used to cut penises.
Which side of history will you be on?
Be sure to check Maria’s blog at http://barreloforanges.com/