A post at denialism blog claims that male and female genital mutilation are not morally equivalent. After some buildup, the gist of the entry:
Independent of how you may feel about male circumcision, it does not normally, or even more than very rarely, lead to long-term medical consequences. FGM nearly always does. FGM is not usually as “simple” as a pinprick. And who performs it is irrelevant. If women are co-opted into torturing each other by the dominant male culture, that is most emphatically not a mitigating factor, but a sign of how deeply disturbed gender relations in the culture are.
There are many long-term medical consequences that are discounted or ignored. Scarring is a long-term (permanent) consequence. An asymmetrical incision is a long-term consequence. But those are not what the author implies, so I’ll consider it on his strict terms that those should be ignored. Would the removal of too much skin constitute a long-term medical consequence, since it leads to painful erections? Or are we just considering a negative result such as loss of the glans and other extreme outcomes?
Regardless of the answer, the ethical question looms larger. Who decides which medical consequences matter? Risk aversion and personal preferences are subjective to the individual. If the decision-maker is someone other than the individual whose body is altered, the intervention must be medically necessary. Otherwise, the surgery is immoral. Gender is irrelevant.
Notice, too, how the margins are ignored. Some male genital modification results in devastating consequences. Some female genital modification is physically insignificant. Those cannot be tossed aside as irrelevant. They inform the discussion. Why is it that the latter is legally prohibited under all non-medical circumstances, yet the former is considered an acceptable risk in the same non-medical circumstances? We do not get to dismiss inconvenient details.
The last part about who performs the mutilation flows into the author’s next paragraph, which I’ll break into segments:
Male circ is not a method of controlling males and their sexuality.
This is incorrect. Genital mutilation – of males and females – began in America as a method to prevent masturbation, among many grand claims by its advocates. Today we have the constant defense of the practice for males¹ based on a reduced risk of female-to-male transmission of HIV. What is the justification for modifying the genitals of infant males if it is not an attempt to control their sexuality? The undeniable assumption is that they will not be competent enough to practice safe sex. Remember that the studies from Africa involved only voluntary, adult circumcision. Transferring such findings to infants requires assumptions.
Also consider two very common defenses given for mutilating infant boys in America. Proponents claim that circumcised men take longer to orgasm than intact men. First, consider what that suggests about the long-term consequences on male sensation from the foreskin and the loss of the foreskin. Although I am not making the claim here that this is true, advocates of circumcision always deny this logical conclusion. But it is very clearly meant as the preferred expression of male sexuality. And it is most often imposed on infants. Second, the assumption is that he wouldn’t last long enough, however long that might be, without the removal of his foreskin. Another decides for him. I refuse to redefine the concept of control.
The other common claim is that women prefer the circumcised penis. A male’s future partner’s assumed preference matters exclusively, even though he may prefer to be intact and might choose to reject any woman who would reject him for having the body he was born with. Think of the corrollary. If men prefer large breasts and we forced breast implants on females, would we view that as an attempt to control female sexuality? What is this, if not control?
In nearly every culture that has ever existed (and one might argue that this is even more true of cultures that circumcise), males are dominant. FGM is always—always—a method of controlling women and their sexuality.
If we’re establishing that societal attempts to control an individual’s sexuality through surgical alteration is immoral, and we are, then we’re done. We can wrap potential benefits around the procedure for males, but it is not the least invasive option for any of its claimed benefits. The conclusion is the same. The surgical alteration of a healthy, non-consenting individual’s genitals is immoral. Gender is irrelevant to the fundamental moral claim. The extent of the damage is irrelevant to the fundamental moral claim. We may decide that legal punishment should differ based on actual results (including the uncommon extremes for each, which means minimal punishment for lesser forms of FGM), but the act itself is immoral. Every victim – female or male – is a victim.
For a similar analysis applied to religious male genital mutilation, see this entry from my archives.