Three members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam were recently indicted on charges of “female genital mutilation” (FGM) in the U.S. state of Michigan. In Norway, meanwhile, one of the major political parties has backed a measure to ban childhood male circumcision.
By Rebecca Steinfeld & Brian D Earp
Fearing that objections to female forms of genital cutting will be applied to male forms, some commentators have rushed to draw a “clear distinction” between them. Others, however, have highlighted the similarities.
In fact, childhood genital cutting is usually divided not just into two, but three separate categories: “FGM” for females; “circumcision” for males; and “genital normalisation” surgery for intersex children – those born with ambiguous genitals or mixed sex characteristics.
In Western countries, popular attitudes towards these procedures differ sharply depending on the child’s sex. In females, any medically unnecessary genital cutting, no matter how minor or sterilised, is seen as an intolerable violation of her bodily integrity and human rights. Most Westerners believe that such cutting must be legally prohibited.
In intersex children, while it is still common for doctors to surgically modify their genitals without a strict medical justification, there is growing opposition to non-essential “cosmetic” surgeries, designed to mould ambiguous genitalia into a “binary” male or female appearance.
Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele, for example, has spoken openly about the negative impact of the “irreversible, unconsented and unnecessary” intersex surgeries she was subjected to growing up.
In male children, by contrast, the dominant view is that boys are not significantly harmed by being circumcised, despite the loss of sensitive tissue. Some even point to potential health benefits, although most doctors agree that these benefits are not enough to outweigh the risks and harms. Even so, many people believe that parents should be allowed to choose circumcision for their sons, whether for cultural or religious reasons.
But these attitudes are starting to change. Over the past few decades, and even more strongly in recent years, scholars of genital cutting have argued that there is too much overlap in the physical effects, motivations, and symbolic meanings of these three practices – when their full range across societies is considered – for categorical distinctions based on sex or gender to hold up.