Female and Male Genital Mutilation: A Hard Problem

It’s been pointed out to me that it’s a weird anomaly that the United States practices circumcision of male infants but abhors female genital mutilation, since on a certain account the two practices are similar.  Both are the deliberate excision of an erogenous area.  I wonder why the US practices male genital mutilation and not female genital mutilation.  At one time clitoridectomy was practiced by US physicians for the same reason circumcision was: to reduce masturbation which, it was believed, led to insanity and delinquence.

A possible difference between the two practices is that circumcision is less deleterious to male sexual pleasure than clitoridectomy is to female sexual pleasure.  That’s possible.  Does anybody know?  I have no personal experience of non-circumcised male sexual pleasure, but did read a scene in “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty” in which the main character, Beauty,  is able to bring a clitoridectomied harem girl to orgasm, although it takes a lot of work.  On the other hand if you have read the books Beauty is not pressed for time, or perhaps, thinks that having a series of erotic encounters is the most worthwhile use of the time she has.  (I honestly don’t remember if she has a job.)

Anti-circumcision advocates, or intact foreskin proponents, have argued that this decision should be left up the individual when he or she reaches the age of 18.   A problem with this approach is that as a matter of logic the state of having been circumcised as an infant is one that it is impossible to achieve past infancy.  This points to a deeper issue which is that sexuality is a means by which we connect with wholes larger than the individual.  It is not something we use to maximize our preferences but is a means by which we come to have preferences.  So as a consequence, it’s hard to make much sense of a situation in which individual actors choose their sexuality, the way they choose other things.

Imagine a world in which through the right manipulation of hormones everybody reaches the age of 18 genderless and then picks.  How would you pick?  I might think “I’d like to be a Mommy so girl sounds good” but also “that 78% cap on my earning power sucks, I’d like to be a man.”  How would a neutral being make that choice?  How would a sexless being decide whether to prefer vanilla sex or BDSM?

As an analogy: another system that transcends individuality and helps to form preferences is language.  If I raise my baby speaking only French I have done him harm.  He will speak English with a French accent and think Frenchified thoughts.  He will prefer Jerry Lewis to Monty Python  (Obviously that’s true if I raise him speaking English too.)   But it’s hard to imagine thought without a language and therefore hard to imagine what it would be like to be a languageless being choosing a language.

Language and bodily identity intertwine too.  This comes up in discussions of the ethics of deaf parents refusing cochlear implants for their deaf children.

This is not to say that just because something is a choice that transcends the individual that it cannot be part and parcel of a horrible social practice.   For example working class deference is a practice that has a social logic to it, forms identities obviously, and yet seems (to me) horrible.

Female genital mutilation seems to be such a practice, and arguably so is circumcision.  It just suggests we need better ways of arguing for the horribleness (or wonderfulness) of these practices than appealing to how good they are at maximizing the preferences of autonomous individuals.  Just what such a way would be or even what it would look like I don’t know.  Perhaps it would require a robust vision of what a society of flourishing human beings would look like.


5 thoughts on “Female and Male Genital Mutilation: A Hard Problem

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    One reason it’s a hard problem is that “FGM” covers a range of practices, from clitoridectomy to merely symbolic FGM. It’s done over a range of ages, from infancy to puberty. Sometimes, there’s anesthesia and sometimes not. Those things make a difference.

    Regardless, the practice seems appalling and barbaric, but those are my emotional and moral reactions, not factual ones.

    On a more factual level, as you pointed out, it is not comparable to infant male circumcision in the amount of tissue destruction or its aftereffects. I don’t know of any scientific studies that show long-term harm from male circumcision, but it’s not an area where I am well informed. Absent evidence of harm, I’m inclined to support it as a traditional Jewish practice. We can’t wait until the age of 18 to start deciding on our identities, and some things should not be left up to children to decide. I recall hiding under my parents’ bed when they (both MDs) wanted to vaccinate me, but they insisted, and rightly so.

  2. Male genital alteration also covers a wide range of practices. Some FGA is less harmful than some MGA. It is incorrect to say that MGA as practiced in the US carries no harm — it reduces penile sensitivity and runs the risk of long-term more serious damage.

  3. Mikey says:

    I have a fantasy that when politicians have finished doing their speeches about how some foreign bunch of people are barbaric and inhuman and that we must never rest till this evil is rid from the world etc, they go into a room where no one can hear them talking. In the room, in my fantasy, they sit down and soberly discuss what their enemies want, why they are doing what they do and how best to find a route to mutual satisfaction. They they laugh to each other about how nice it would be if they could share these thoughts with the nation, shrug and go on their way. I don’t think that’s relevant to your post though.

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