Two recent blog posts have inspired me to write about circumcision: Angela Castellano’s “Colombia Confronts Female Genital Mutilation” and Le Loup-garou’s “Part II of children are not just tiny adults: newborn pain.” I’m going to put it right out on the table: I am opposed to all forms of circumcision for all children, male or female (I don’t care if adults get circumcised or not). It is the biggest point of philosophical contention with my Jewish partner, who opposed FGM but believes in male circumcision. And I’m fascinated as to why my position on male circumcision is so unpopular – why I’m criticized for disrespecting Jewish cultural beliefs (my partner has never said this to me, for the record), but speaking out against FGM makes me a feminist. I’m interested in the discrepancy of acceptance between female and male circumcision.
On the one hand, I understand why there is a greater outcry against female circumcision: it’s more invasive, more likely to lead to illness or permanent damage, and, whether intention or not, has a negative effect on female sexuality by making sex painful. Male circumcision, on the other hand, experiences a significantly greater degree of tolerance. And I can see why: it’s not particularly invasive, we rarely see reports of infections due to circumcision, and it does not pose a major threat to a male’s sexuality.
There are two major sides to the circumcision debate for both males and females. There are those who argue that circumcision is wrong, and the practice should be abolished. The other side notes that cultures who practice circumcision should be left alone, because we need to respect their beliefs. In the case of female circumcision, there seems to be more opposition than support. In the case of male circumcision, the opposition is in the minority.
I’m not suggesting that male circumcision is equal to or worse than female circumcision. Between the two, female circumcision is far more dangerous, as well as far more controlling of sexuality. But there are a few common features of both female and male circumcision that I want to point out:
- The procedure is commonly done on babies, who are not able to consent to the procedure. I know that in some cultures, FGM is performed on teenagers. While it’s still problematic, I don’t consider it quite as bad as circumcising infants who do not have any idea what is going on, do not understand the cultural/religious symbolism of the procedure, and do not have any beliefs of their own because they lack reflective awareness.
- Circumcision hurts. Le Loup-garou’s post reminds us that infants feel pain. It frustrates me that any culture thinks it’s okay to put an infant through a painful procedure that is not necessary. My partner said that circumcising infants is okay because they don’t remember the pain. Well, Le Loup-garou’s post indicates otherwise. And furthermore, why is it okay to put an infants through pain just because they won’t remember?
- The supposed benefits of male circumcision are negligible. While some research demonstrates that circumcision prevents HIV, there are plenty of other things that prevent HIV, like using condoms, having access to comprehensive sexual education, etc. If grown men want to get circumcised to reduce their risk of HIV, I’m fine with that. But I think we need to work on bringing comprehensive protection to countries with high instances of HIV rather than advocating circumcision as some sort of silver bullet. Furthermore, the research that demonstrates the circumcision/HIV connection may be flawed. Further, hygenic arguments for circumcision are tenuous as well. While a circumcised penis may be easier to care for, if you actually teach your male child how to wash his foreskin and keep himself clean, he’s not going to run into any problems. (I realize that I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who lives in a first-world nation where I could teach my hypothetical son how to keep himself clean. But then I think the answer to the problem is making sure that people around the world have access to proper sanitation, rather than circumcising.) And, from what I can tell, there are no benefits to female circumcision. Unless you consider pain or control over sexuality a benefit. Which I sure don’t.
My view is that adults who want to be circumcised should have that right. But we should not circumcise any children, regardless whether the procedure is non-invasive or has low risk for infection. It’s a painful, unnecessary procedure that the child cannot give consent for. My partner one argued (we argue about this pretty often): “If we made boys wait until they were old enough to consent, they wouldn’t want to do it, and then nobody would get circumcised.” So . . . adult males would not want to get circumcised, presumably due to pain or the fact that they just wouldn’t want their foreskin removed. At the age of consent, they might not want to give consent. But it’s okay to perform such a procedure on infants? It’s okay to do something to a child who is incapable of giving consent, becuase when they reached an appropriate age they would not want to be circumcised?
While I by and large attempt to respect the rights of different cultures, circumcision is one of the areas where I draw the line. I believe that all forms of circumcision, whether dangerous or not, are unfair to children. I don’t think adults should be allowed to circumcise their children; that’s something that the individual should decide when they are old enough to do so.