Just as with male circumcision, there’s a lot of myth and misinformation about female circumcision (also called female genital mutilation, female genital cutting, etc.). Intactivists know that cutting the healthy genitals of ANY child is wrong. But even some intactivists feel pressured to “admit” that cutting a girl’s genitals is worse than cutting a boy’s. Here, we’d like to give some history and facts that will help you refute the argument that male and female genital cutting are totally different, and that cutting a boy is somehow less bad than cutting a girl.
Both female and male genital cutting are customs that go back thousands of years. Both are carried out for a host of stated reasons, including religious mandate, “hygiene,” aesthetics, and “health.”
Those who condemn female genital cutting (FGM) often distinguish it from male circumcision (MGM), citing MOTIVE, EXTENT OF PSYCHOLOGICAL/PHYSICAL HARM, ANATOMICAL NON-EQUIVALENCE, RELIGIOUS FREEDOM vs CULTURE, and HEALTH. They also claim that FGM discriminates against girls.
Some people argue that FGM is worse than MGM because FGM is done to control women’s sexuality, while MGM is carried out for health benefits. What most Americans do NOT know is that male circumcision also has roots in the desire to suppress male sexual pleasure.
In the 12th Century, Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides said the real purpose of (male) circumcision was to cause “bodily pain to the organ in question,” and to weaken pleasure and sexual excitement. In late 19th century England and America, Victorians believed that masturbation threatened a person’s health and social wellbeing. Some doctors promoted circumcision (and clitorectomy) to keep boys (and girls) from pleasuring themselves. (The remedy didn’t work.)
Whatever the supposed motive of the culture, of parents, or of circumcisers, the child who experiences forced and painful removal of his or her private parts can neither comprehend nor appreciate the adults’ justifications. Shock, pain, feelings of betrayal and humiliation, depression and rage are common responses — and are reported by female, male and intersex victims of genital mutilation.
Extent of psychological and physical harm
Another common defense of male circumcision goes like this: “Men who have been circumcised can still have orgasms; women who’ve been cut cannot.” The truth is that cutting the genitals of any person takes away from their full potential for sexual pleasure. FGM practices vary a lot, from a slight “nick” with a needle or scalpel (intended to draw a bit of blood), to the removal of some tissue (such as the tip of the clitoris, the prepuce or clitoral hood, or part/all of the inner labia), to the most extreme type (infibulation), which involves removal of the clitoris and labia, and sewing the remaining tissue together (leaving just a small opening to pass urine and menstrual blood). The latter is horribly debilitating and, fortunately, relatively rare.
Just as many circumcised men report pleasurable and satisfying sex lives, many women who have undergone milder forms of FGM say that they do feel sexual pleasure and have orgasms, and that it doesn’t interfere with pregnancy or childbirth. (Of course, neither women nor men who are forcibly circumcised as children will ever know what they are missing.)
People anxious to distinguish male from female genital cutting often say things like, “It’s not the same; for it to be the same, the whole penis would have to be cut off.” Or “the foreskin is just a tiny flap of skin; in FGM, they remove everything.” These arguments are silly (would you ever say, “It’s ok to cut off a baby’s forefinger, but not his thumb”?) and also imply a lack of understanding about (1) the wide range of FGM techniques, and (2) the fact that the amount of tissue removed from a baby boy when he is circumcised amounts to 12-15 square inches of nerve- and blood vessel-laden skin in an adult man.
“Religion,” “culture,” and “health”
Male circumcision is often defended as a religious practice protected under our constitutional right to religious freedom, while female circumcision, is said to be “cultural.” The distinction is meaningless, for several reasons. First, American courts have regularly held that freedom of religion does not give me the right to harm somebody else (circumcision is harmful) or to deprive that person of his or her own religious freedom (we can never know what, if any, religion a child will choose once s/he becomes an adult). Second, all but a few thousand of the one million circumcisions carried out on boys in the U.S. each year take place in hospitals, and have absolutely no religious significance. Third, if under U.S. law, culture is no excuse for FGM, it should be no excuse for MGM.
As for “health,” the fact that doctors carry out the procedure does not give it medical or ethical legitimacy. Nearly all infant and child male circumcisions in the United States are performed by physicians, but virtually none of them treat any pathology, and other western countries where MGM is rare have similar or better health indicators (including rates of STDs) than we do.
In a Michigan case , it was a female American-trained doctor who allegedly removed parts of the little girls’ private parts. That doesn’t make it medical treatment.
Federal and state laws prohibiting FGM are seen by their supporters as addressing discrimination against girls. One might ask how a law that fails to protect the one million baby boys who are circumcised in the United States each year can be characterized as fair, just, or even constitutional.