Is it rational to compare male circumcision and female genital mutilation and come to the conclusion that one is worse than the other, asks Glen Poole?
If I asked you what’s worse, damaging your arm or damaging your leg what would you say? If you had the most rudimentary skills of rationalization, you’d probably say well that depends what type of damage you’re taking about?
Clearly it’s worse to die of a gangrenous leg wound than to get a small bruise on your arm that disappears after a couple of days. Whereas grazing your knees is not as bad as getting your arm trapped under a rock on a remote mountainside and having to saw it off with a penknife to stay alive.
So which is worse, injuring a leg or injuring an arm?
Well there are so many variables that you can’t simply say that one is worse than the other. It is, however, perfectly reasonable and rational to say that damaging one of your upper limbs is different and sometimes worse than damaging one of your lower limbs—and vice versa. No-one with a sane mind would say otherwise.
And so to ritual circumcision, a practice that’s often viewed as benign and even beneficial, but in reality is a medically unnecessary practice that is both painful and dangerous and can cause discomfort, disease, deformity, disability and sometimes death.
We know that routine circumcision is medically unnecessary because the majority of men and boys all over the world live happily and healthily with their foreskins intact. We know, from research, that it’s painful; that even when performed in a “safe” medical setting that there’s a risk of complications and that in worst case scenarios baby boys and young men die from unnecessary male circumcision every year. We also know that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is painful and causes many problems and complications including death.
So which is worse male circumcision or FGM?
Many people argue that FGM is worse. Tanya Gold, in the Guardian, for example referred to “the revolting juxtaposition of female genital mutilation, which is always torture, and often murder, with ritual male circumcision, which is neither” (despite the fact that it kills people).
Then there’s Lynne Featherstone who, as the UK’s Junior Minister for International Development, spoke about FGM in way that suggested she was unaware of the practice of male circumcision saying: “Quite frankly if it was boys’ willies that were being cut off without anaesthetic it wouldn’t have lasted four minutes, let alone 4,000 years”.
But aren’t Gold and Featherstone, who both come from communities that cut boys but not girls, simply voicing a view that we all instinctively know to be true—that it’s worse to do it to girls?
It depends what criteria we use to compare
If you look at the scale of the problem, WHO estimates that 125 million women and girls are affected , compared with around one billion men and boys. If you look at the severity of the problem, there seems to be more deaths around the world from male circumcision than FGM, even in a country like the UK where the practices are relatively rare.
If you look at the seriousness with which we, in the West, take the issue, we ban one practice but permit the other. This means that any man who considers himself to be a victim of unnecessary male circumcision, spends a lifetime of secondary victimisation being told that what happened to him wasn’t a crime and he should get over it and move on.
Imagine if the same were true of arms and leg. Imagine if there were many, many more arm injuries in the world; that more people died from arm injuries and that, unlike leg injuries, there was no serious recognition that arm injuries were a problem that deserved equitable attention to leg injuries. If all of these things were true, then it would be rational to argue that arm injuries are worse than leg injuries.
So is the same true of unnecessary male circumcision?
Is it reasonable and rational to argue that it’s worse than FGM? I think that a rational person who cares passionately about the subject could validly make that argument at a superficial level. Taking a deeper perspective, I think, like arms and legs, the rational way to compare the unnecessary removal of healthy tissue from people’s genitals is this:
FGM is different and sometimes worse than unnecessary male circumcision and unnecessary male circumcision is different and sometimes worse than FGM.
If you find this a difficult concept to understand then this 5 minute video explains how the different scales of severity of the two practices overlap with each other—and how one practice is sometimes worse than the other (and vice versa).
Right now, this rational and obvious truth is considered not only a radical view, but often a “revolting” view. I’m sure, in centuries to come, we’ll look back and wonder how rational and intelligent human beings could ever have believed that the practice of FGM was always worse than unnecessary male circumcision, when the practice kills and injures people.
Why is this? I am convinced that the overriding reason why Westerners believe that FGM is always worse than male circumcision is sexism, because when it comes to helping people of different sexes in the West, we remain collectively more tolerant of any harm that happens to men and boys.
So what do you think? Is one practice worse than the other or are they simply different (and sometimes worse) than each other?
—Photo credit: Flickr/Keoni Cabral
- Help! How can I stop my wife chopping off our son’s foreskin?
- NHS midwife referred baby for circumcision against mum’s wishes
- Half a million boys killed and hospitalised by tribal circumcision
- Why the UK has no moral right to tell Africans to stop genital mutilation
- Woman’s equality campaign turned into social media movement against male circumcision
- Being anti-circumcision does not make you anti-semitic
- Learning from the Chinese will help us stop Muslims, Jews, Africans and Americans circumcising men and boys