Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On circumcision...

In almost every conversation about FGM I've ever seen, someone brings up circumcision, and draws a comparison pointing out that women don't seem bothered by it, and that everyone is silent on the issue. This is one of those issues that drives me a little crazy; here's an opportunity for men to campaign for an issue that they care about, and where an argument can almost certainly be made that people routinely inflict an unnecesary and potentially harmful (well, they'd probably argue *always harmful) procedure on children too young to consent, and it usually gets brought up as a "gotcha" instead. It seems like a waste.

And it's not like there isn't a point to be made. We're talking about permanently removing part of a boy's body for pure reasons that have no actual basis in medical health. The reasons given for circumcision are primarily religious, cosmetic, or based on myths and tradition. That certainly makes the conversation difficult, since people who support it are sometimes going to do so for reasons that can't easily be logiced away. There's real room for men to promote a change that could benefit future children, if the conversation is taken seriously and made on its own ground, but when it gets brought up as a "men suffer too!" argument, it breeds ill will and distracts from the also valid conversation about FGM.

And it ends up feeling very disingenuous, to me. Certainly there are men who resent being circumcised, but the evidence of lasting harm is hardly conclusive. There are men on both sides of the conversation. And equating a normal circumcision with FGM is a false comparison, anyway; what is done to men in a standard circumcision is to FGM what an ear piercing is to a lobotomy (well... perhaps not quite, but the hyperbole is slight).

And, of course, the motivations for each bear questionable resemblance. The purpose of circumcising men isn't to remove sexual pleasure or ensure "sexual purity" for future spouses; even if you don't accept the validity of the arguments--and, clearly, there are many who don't--it just isn't the case that they're the same. The arguments against each are certainly similar, but why each happens is not.

Ultimately, there's nothing wrong, I think, with advocating an end to both. I just wish it didn't feel like every time I saw male circumcision brought up was antagonisticly on feminist blogs.

(uploaded on the T)


MrBBQ said...

"but the evidence of lasting harm is hardly conclusive."
You've got to be kidding. You cut off half the skin and 50-75% of the most sensitive nerve endings of the penis, and you say harm is "inconclusive"? Give me a break. Plus, you lose the mechanical lubricating/pleasuring action of a gliding foreskin.
Evidence of harm:

"And, of course, the motivations for each bear questionable resemblance."
The motivations are irrelevant. The harm and violation is. The reasons for circumcising vary from culture to culture, anyway. In some, it is indeed to make a man suitable for marriage-the foreskin is "feminine" and the clitoris is "masculine" and both must be removed to make them suitable for future marriage.
And of course it's absurd to say that the reason most other countries perform FGM is to remove pleasure; this is actually just an assumption we make in the west, that they are misogynist barbarians. They don't actually say this. Really, what man wants his wife to not experience pleasure, too? It doesn't make sense and it's simply not true.

"but when it gets brought up as a "men suffer too!" argument, it breeds ill will"
Some view bringing up MGM as "railroading" a conversation about FGM. I understand. But there is a legitimate reason to bring it up--namely to draw attention to our own cultural hypocrisy, and to the fact that we completely ignore it. And the fact that we don't "get" why people keep bringing it up is a symptom of our own cultural blindness to the harm we do, and tendency to ignore men's pain to some extent. Imagine if all women had their clitoral hoods removed in our culture but men kept their foreskins; do you think this would be a "women's issue" that women would be highly sensitive to? And imagine if we criticized circumcision in other cultures but ignored our own routine hoodectomies, do you think women might chime in on our hypocrisy whenever we brought the issue up?


Roy said...

I'm not kidding. There are still tremendous debates happening about the level of harm that male circumcision causes. For every journal or group that comes out against male circumcision, another group comes out for it. The Center for Disease Control is pro circumcision, citing the health benefits of circumcision regarding prostate cancer and AIDs trasmission (namely, that being circumcised reduces the risks), and the American Academy of Pediatrics reports similar advantages and says there's arguments on both sides. The fact is that studies on sexual sensation before/after circumcision are inconclusive right now. While some studies have shown some decrease in sensation, other studies have shown no change, and some have actually shown an increase in sexual sensation (see: "Adult male circumcision outcomes: experience in a developing country setting" Urol Int. 2007, "Effects of circumcision on male sexual function: debunking a myth" J Urol, "Circumcision in adults: effect on sexual function" Urology. 2004). Whichever side of the debate one falls on, the fact of the matter is that there are arguments on both sides in the medical field; it's hardly a settled question. But, like I said in my post, certainly men who have strong feelings on the issue can make strong arguments. There's certainly room for voices on this issue.

The motivations are irrelevant. The harm and violation is...

I don't agree. I think that it's important to understand the motivations behind actions in order to understand how best to fight them. Knowing why something is happening is an important step to figuring out how to end it if it's wrong. Knowing that someone is being harmed is certainly important, but if you don't know why a particular behavior is happening, it can be hard to find a lasting solution.

And of course it's absurd to say that the reason most other countries perform FGM is to remove pleasure; this is actually just an assumption we make in the west, that they are misogynist barbarians. They don't actually say this. Really, what man wants his wife to not experience pleasure, too? It doesn't make sense and it's simply not true.

I never called anyone "barbarians," and I don't believe that's true. But, I also don't think that it's right to take it for granted that everyone cares whether women enjoy sex. That argument is flawed from the start, considering things like spousal abuse and rape. I'm not suggesting that men wanting to control women is somehow limited to other countries or cultures--there are plenty of men in my own culture who also try to control women's sexualities. The studies I've read on the subject show that some of the reasons cited for supporting FGM include lowering women's libidos, ensuring marital fidelity, reducing premarital sex, etc (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/ for an overview of some of the reasons cited). If you have sources that show that this is not the case, I'd certainly be interested to see them.

Roy said...

As far as bringing it up on feminist spaces--the problem is that lots of feminists do get it. There are actually lots of women who agree that male circumcision is unnecessary and harmful and should be stopped. Barging into other people's spaces and telling them "my issue is important too!" isn't a great strategy--it tends to be viewed, as you say, like railroading. It also tends to be viewed as trying to center men's issues when it's done in feminist spaces, which is viewed... unfavorably.

I don't think that there's anything wrong with advocating for change. I know lots of feminists who would happily sign on. But if you approach it by trying to draw a conversation on FGM over to male circumcision on a feminist space, it's almost always going to be met with hostility. Likewise, if there were a blog about trying to end male circumcision, and a woman showed up trying to shift the conversation to centering a woman's issue, it would probably not be met with open arms.

MrBBQ said...

Re: pleasure debate in male circumcision
I know there are studies that show differences. Keep in mind that certain doctors (with names like Wiswell, Morris, Waskett, Schoen) are dedicated pro-circumcision advocates for life who are incredibly biased, some of whom are circumcision fetishists (go to circleaks.org for their bios); I typically ignore what they say.
The bottom line is, (I hope you viewed the youtube video... it seems quite conclusive) that there is no way it doesn't affect male sexuality, and it's guaranteed to be a negative effect. (For men with problems with their foreskin who get it done later in life, the result will be different of course). But generally speaking, cutting off the most sensitive parts of your body will be harmful. What's also known is that the mechanism of the foreskin gliding over the glans and corona is lost to circumcision. How is it possible this doesn't affect enjoyment? How is losing the frenulum not going to hurt enjoyment? It is really mind-boggling to suppose there wouldn't be harm to this amputation of the most erogenous parts. So really there is no debate; the only debate is how much damage it does to how many and why. Those who think that it is harmless are wishful thinkers. I urge you to look at the links I provided if you haven't. Also these diagrams which show the most sensitive parts of the penis are removed to circumcision:
Whether or not there are "health benefits" for circumcision (I doubt it), it is not relevant to the question of harm. And it is unethical to subject a non-consenting patient to unnecessary surgery. Imagine if we were to remove breasts from girls to prevent breast cancer (would have a huge impact on cancer rates), to determine if it were ethical we would not simply look at whether the disease rates went down after mastectomy; we would also look at the patient's inherent right to their own body and to be free from unnecessary mutilation without consent, as well as the inherent functional value of the tissue to be removed. Orgs like the AAP do not look at the value of the foreskin at all in their calculations, and we overlook the rights of children as well. The reasons they avoid these questions are political, because they know if they conclude circumcision should not be done and is unethical, there will be a huge outcry from doctors who perform it and from parents who are attached to circumcision.

Hugh7 said...

I agree that "me(nz) too" is not a good strategy or a good look, but it's very common that opponents of FGC gratuitiously say how much worse it is than MGC ("don't call it circumcision!"), implying or even saying that MGC is not an issue.

This has been very vivid in the last week, when a lot of people have been exercising themselves about a white woman in Sweden cutting and eating the "genitals" of a cake in the form of black woman, whose head was that of the black male artist. Much outrage has been expressed how this belittles the experience of black women. Few have noticed how similar the whole event was to the ceremony commonplace in the western world, where a baby boy really does have his genitals cut and really does scream while his family and their friends chat and laugh and eat cake.

Hugh7 said...

The reasons given for doing MGC and the reasons given for doing FGC are both wildly varied and irrational.

Your first study claiming no sexual harm from circmcision was on volunteers for circumcision. Unsurprisingly, men who enjoy having their foreskins don't volunteer to have them cut off. The second study is of 15 men. It's hard to say what the third one proves, except that a questionnnaire showed no difference in sexual function in a group of men who mainly chose to be circumcised for religious reasons. Increased feelings of holiness could compensate for a lot.