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MRAs Are Probably Wrong, Except When They're Right

I understand why "men's rights activists" give some people heartburn. In too many areas it's warranted. I've written about examples before, and sided against arguments associated with the MRA argument. I prefer to have facts incorporated into my theories on how the world should be.

Male circumcision is one of the (possibly few) areas where the men's rights movement has truth¹ nailed down on its side. Male circumcision, as it's commonly practiced on healthy minors, violates the male's rights. Where anyone, including an MRA, shoe-horns it into a discussion of female genital mutilation, rather than discussing it if it evolves in a discussion, I understand and agree with the criticism. That's bad marketing, at least. I've probably done it, although I think I've learned where raising the comparison makes sense. I strive for better awareness. But the more common argument seems to be that the comparison is wrong, and men's rights activists shouldn't try to make it.

For example, Rational Alice started a series of posts on "the most common raisons d'être of the men's rights movement". The series starts with male circumcision:

This first topic should be quite an easy one. I'm taken to believe that it's not even very popular with the men's rights movement itself, though it is definitely present therein.

I'll argue here that male circumcision is "quite an easy one", but that Alice misunderstands the direction in which it is easy. My caveat is that I don't consider myself a men's rights activist. (Note: Links removed, unless necessary. Emphasis in original.)

Those MRAs who take circumcision as one of their issues of choice assert that "male" circumcision — that is, the removal of the foreskin of the penis — is on par with "female" circumcision, or "female" genital mutilation, and is not being adequately addressed as a problem by those who campaign against it. I.e., they decry the fact that male genital mutilation is not seen as a problem by the public, while female genital mutilation (or genital cutting, FGC) faces enormous opposition; i.e., society cares more for the treatment of women's genitalia than men's.

First, I'm going to acknowledge my ignorance. I have no idea why male and female are in quotes. I assume it involves cis- in some form. If so, it's odd to debate this from identity when it's better resolved through basic anatomy intersecting with human rights. The world is more complicated than "boys have a penis, girls have a vagina," but the principle incorporates women who have a penis, men who have a vagina, or men and women who have both.

That principle is easy to state. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. Or, to put it in narrower words for the comparison: removing the healthy prepuce of a non-consenting individual is unethical. There are more complex issues within this topic, but that gets to the direct anatomical comparison within a framework that views all people as possessing equal rights. Any view that veers from that to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable non-therapeutic genital cutting without consent is wrong.

As for the charge that opponents of female genital mutilation don't adequately address male circumcision, I don't expect anyone to expend energy on subsets of a topic that don't interest them. Focus on female genital mutilation. All I expect is that a person not defend contradictions. If someone is an activist against female genital mutilation, that's great. The world needs dedicated people to help end FGC/M. If that person also defends male circumcision as commonly practiced on minors, that person is a hypocrite. Don't be a hypocrite. That's my only demand.

After a paragraph on tradition:

The universal standard advocated by MRAs is not so different from what is advocated by a great number of progressives: that no infant's genitalia should be altered without their consent, which they obviously cannot give, except for immediate medical concerns (and the topic of intersex genital assignment is one for another post). What makes it MRA-specific, then? Well, simply the fact that they believe the activism surrounding FGC demonstrates social discrimination against men, and not, as many would have you believe, the facts about the actual procedures of FGC compared to that of "male" circumcision.

I disagree with this assessment. Perhaps men's rights activists perceive the problem as "the activism surrounding FGC demonstrates social discrimination against men". I doubt it, and Alice provides no example. (The reason is in the post's introduction.) I suspect men's rights activists do not like having their valid concerns over male circumcision dismissed, not what that dismissal symbolizes. Reality demonstrates how society, through law, treats genital cutting unequally based in gender. Disregard for the obvious similarities between female and male genital cutting is the problem that helps allow inequality to continue.

A campaign against (forced) female genital mutilation is not unfair or discriminatory if it doesn't address (forced) male circumcision (i.e. genital mutilation). A campaign against forced female genital mutilation is unfair and discriminatory where it addresses forced male circumcision and dismisses it or deems it acceptable, for whatever cultural, religious, or prophylactic reasons might be cited.

Again, the principle is universal. It isn't male versus female, or "male" versus "female". All human beings have the right to their own healthy, intact genitals, in whatever form that might take, until they may decide to alter them. If a basic human right does not apply to all humans equally from birth, then rights are a worthless concept that serve no purpose beyond being an ideological tool. No.

To that point, let's talk about FGC. There are four types: Type I involves removal of the clitoral hood and the clitoris; Type II involves removal of the clitoris and the inner labia; Type III involves removal of the inner labia, the outer labia and the clitoris, followed by fusion of the wound — which is only opened for intercourse and childbirth; and Type IV covers various less-severe practices like widening the vagina and piercing the clitoris. Think about all that for a while. ...

I agree with Alice's summary here, although I'll add that Type IV is generally considered to be "all other harmful procedures". That's broader and more useful. (The four types are described in the WHO fact sheet on female genital mutilation.)

The U.S. Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 (18 USCS § 116) criminalizes all non-therapeutic genital cutting on female minors without regard for parental justifications "as a matter of custom or ritual". That includes any genital cutting equal to or less harmful than male circumcision. There is no defense to be made for genital cutting on male minors if equal human rights are to matter, barring one's support for repealing 18 USCS § 116 and all similar laws. That would be inexcusable, but it would at least be consistent.

... What does the foreskin do for the penis? Homologous to the clitoral hood, the foreskin evolved to protect the end of the penis. Recent studies have revealed no significant difference in sexual sensation between circumcised and non-circumcised penises. ...

That study is from January 2004. This study, which "confirms the importance of the foreskin for penile sensitivity, overall sexual satisfaction, and penile functioning", is from February 2013. It's illogical to assume that removing part of the penis would have no effect on sexual sensation. But, if only the study Alice presents is correct, so what? Sensitivity is an issue, and I'd argue that changing the functioning (e.g. removing the foreskin's gliding motion) of the penis is enough to argue against forced circumcision. What does the individual want? The issue is self-ownership and bodily autonomy. Do we own our bodies (i.e. our genitals)? The accepted position here is that females too often don't but always should, while males don't and that isn't an issue. That distinction is absurd. Calling it out for criticism and change is appropriate.

... (As a matter of fact, circumcision is recommended by the WHO as part of its program on preventing HIV infections, as risk of acquiring HIV through heterosexual intercourse goes down significantly after circumcision.)

The studies found a reduced risk of female-to-male HIV transmission in high-risk populations from voluntary, adult circumcision. None of that describes the United States or Europe, and the key in that specific scenario — voluntary, adult — doesn't apply to infants in Africa. Male circumcision in the context of Alice's post is a different ethical issue than what's in the parenthetical. This is often the problem. Mixing it all into one simplistic idea leads to mistaken conclusions.

Removal of the foreskin is not so different from reduction or removal of the clitoral hood, which is a component of Type I FGC. But consider the homology of the labia majora and the scrotum, and of the clitoris and the penis. These are essential components of "male" sexual physiology. Not only is FGC exceptionally cruel, ...

It's inappropriate for one person to tell others what is an inessential component of their bodies in the context of what is - and isn't, allegedly - cruel to permanently force on them without need or consent.

... "male" circumcision cannot even come close to the cruelty inflicted by removal of the clitoris and/or the labia. ...

That's the "heads I win, tails you lose" approach to the comparison. The homology of the female and male prepuce is the consideration, the "not so different" Alice used to start the paragraph. Removing the former by force is illegal. Removing the latter by force is encouraged. That's the flawed disparity. Criticizing MRAs is often appropriate, but here the facts are on their side, if not always their methods.

In the larger argument, removal of the clitoris and/or the labia is worse than removal of the male prepuce. That isn't much of an insight. It's easy to acknowledge that FGM is evil, because it is. It's possible to accept that FGC/M is almost always worse than male genital cutting (dare I say, mutilation) in outcome, as commonly practiced. Neither of those excuse forced male circumcision. A knife to the gut is worse than a punch to the face. Should we permit the latter because it's less damaging? Are we indifferent to any assault worse than another? Will we establish a tournament to find the one form of assault that's bad because it's the worst? it's a preposterous argument. Real differences exist in the practices. That should inform criminal punishment, for example, without providing legal or cultural cover for lesser forms of forced genital cutting.

... It is a blatantly misogynist — and also, quite plainly, wrong — argument to say that the two are even remotely comparable, or that the campaign against female genital mutilation is unfair and discriminatory because it doesn't address male circumcision.

Comparing the two isn't misogyny. There is no hatred of females or belief that women are less than males. Someone's strategy could involve misogyny, or confuse silence with discrimination, but that's not the comparison, which is rooted in principle and facts. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on non-consenting females must end where it occurs. At the same time, non-therapeutic genital cutting on non-consenting males must end where it occurs. The comparison exists without lessening females or what is done to them. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. That's the core.

¹ Consider something like conscription. Should women be forced into conscription to be equal with males, or is this an area where the rights of males are violated? (Or the requirement to register for possible conscription that also only applies to males?)

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