Why male circumcision and female genital mutilation are not morally equivalent

NB: Believe it or not, I actually had to close comments, the first time I’ve ever had to do it. They had become so offensive without any useful content that it’s no longer worthwhile to keep it going. Sorry.

I have repeatedly vowed to stay away from this topic, but in defense of my colleague, I must speak out. Harriet Hall, from sciencebasedmedicine.com wrote a brief piece examining the medical literature regarding male circumcision. As part of the discussion, she mentioned having performed many of these procedures during an earlier part of her career. In response to her interesting post, she received comments such as this one:

Dr. Hall needs to confess her guilt for the intentional injury of scores of infant males and reexamine her motives in writing this document.

In response to one of my comments:

Peter Lipson, its no surprise that you don’t care about the feelings of adult men who wish their parents has chosen differently. The American medical establishment has been belittling intact men and men like me for decades.

A frequently made point:

I wonder, do people here who consider themselves pro male circumcision also support female circumcision in Africa in its various forms? Why or why not? Do they support all acts of genital modification of babies for religious or cultural reasons? Or are some okay and some not?

OK, here’s the deal. For whatever reason, male circumcision seems to get people pretty fired up. From my reading of this post and many others, there are basically those who don’t feel very strongly about it, and those who think it is the equivalent of female genital mutilation, or worse. I don’t think it’s necessary to rehash all the arguments for and against the practice; you can go read Harriet’s piece. The first comment, treating circumcision as some sort of crime against humanity, is insane.

There is a strange thread of phallus-worship running through this discussion. I’m not sure how “the…medical establishment has been belittling intact men…” but this visceral and emotional “attachment” to the prepuce predominates many of these discussions. When female genital mutilation (FGM) is brought up, it is usually minimized:

In countries where FGM occurs it is usually the women who perpetuated it onto their daughters, they often don’t feel it was a violation. Heck in Indonesia it’s done on neonates, just like males here. So how do they know what is missing? What reason would they have to stop it, they’re fine. It’s the same dance just a different tune.


Many cultures that practice FGM only perform either a type I Ritual circumcision:
The clitoris is wounded by pricking it with a needle or by pinching it so as to make a few drops of blood run. In Somalia even this way is called “sunna” or a type II Sunna: The covering of the clitoris is removed, not the clitoris itself.

In many places it is performed, such as Indonesia or Egypt, it is done by medical professionals. So the question is a good one. Why are we vehemently opposed to one, in even it’s mildest form, and not the other.

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.

Male circ is not a method of controlling males and their sexuality. 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 alwaysalways—a method of controlling women and their sexuality. It is almost always mutilitory (rather than symbolic) and leads to widespread female urogenital problems. Despite what the foreskin-worshipers may say, male circumcision and FGM are in no way equivalent.

Go ahead and argue the ethics of male circ on their merits. There is a reasonable discussion to be had. But leave FGM out of it.