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Cultural Blindness and Circumcision

August 15, 2013

I can’t count the times I’ve heard people say that female genital mutilation (FGM) is “much worse” than routine infant male circumcision. And frankly, I’m tired of it. Cutting the genitals of children – female or male – is a gross violation of their basic human rights. Period.

Which is why a recent New York Times article, “Genital Cutting Found in Decline in Many Nations,” really galled me. While it’s indeed encouraging that the incidence of FGM is declining in some African countries, the article failed to note that in the United States, more than a million newborn boys are subjected to circumcision each year.

As Americans self-righteously decry FGM, the American government and funders such as the Gates  and Clinton foundations are pushing male circumcision on misinformed and disadvantaged adult men and, increasingly, on male infants who cannot consent. Removing normal genitalia is not a legitimate public health intervention, yet they continue to relentlessly promote it. Whole ranks of international health specialists are building their academic and foundation careers on this worthless, unethical surgery carried out on third-world men, and American doctors continue to rake in the cash for inflicting it on American baby boys. And all of them are willfully, conveniently ignoring any discussion of the ethical disconnects and cultural biases that prevent honest comparison of FGM and MGM.

complications from circumcision

Complete excision of penile skin as a complication to newborn male circumcision. (DMJ)

A recent study published in the Danish Medical Journal documents significant complications from circumcision in more than 5% of boys. The photo at right – which accompanies the report – generated disgust even among intactivists when we posted it on our Facebook page. Many asked us to remove it. We didn’t, because this photo of an infant’s mutilated, forcibly stimulated penis speaks volumes about our culture’s refusal to see circumcision for what it is: the unnecessary and unethical damaging of a perfectly healthy part of the body resulting in a spectrum of outcomes that no one has the right to dismiss. Why can’t we call that male genital mutilation? Will the DMJ report be picked up by American mainstream media? Of course not.

The hypocrisy and cultural blindness are mind-boggling.

Georganne Chapin

30 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2016 2:59 pm

    Have you noted the wonderful shell games Hillary and Melinda Gates and their respective foundations are playing. Gates has already endorsed Clinton and even pushes MSNBC on the Windows browsers. Money as in a shell game has traveled from Gates to Clinton foundations. Why has media not noticed? To circumcise black males and even babies on such quack studies is a scandal. Further its racial experimentation with poor and unaware Africans.

  2. September 8, 2015 7:27 pm

    Err, but FGM is worse as it removes the ability to a female to have sexual stimulation via the clitoris. It’s basically to control female sexuality (in the minds of the people who do it to the women). Circumcision, although it shouldn’t be done either and does have it’s risks, is not done in a way to cause long term harm to the male. Many circumcised males go through life with no change to sexual intercourse/pleasure. Now, I don’t agree any mutilation should occur against a person’s will, let alone a child. But let’s now try and compare two genital ‘mutilation’ with different outcomes and done for completely different reasons – particularly when the former is done with malicious intent.

    • September 9, 2015 8:10 am

      And male genital mutilation removes the ability of a male to have sexual stimulation via the foreskin. Medicalized circumcision began in the 1800s in Victorian England and America PRECISELY with the motivation of keeping boys from masturbating, because doctors knew it would be less pleasurable to masturbate without the foreskin. Maimonides, the Jewish physician and philosopher, wrote about circumcision dulling sexual pleasure:

      THE GUIDE TO THE PERPLEXED, translated by Shlomo Pines. (University of Chicago, 1963)

      Part III, Chapter 49, Page 609:

      “Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible. …
      The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.”

      You have stated: “Many circumcised males go through life with no change to sexual intercourse/pleasure.” How on earth can you know that? If you lost your clitoris at birth, or if your inner labia were removed, how would you know what you are missing, or whether it changed your sexual intercourse/pleasure from what it would have been were you still in possession of your entire, natural vulva? Again, LISTEN to the voices of men who have become aware that they are INDEED missing something. The fact that they can still have an orgasm, or get a woman pregnant, doesn’t mean that they are experiencing sex as nature intended. Women who are missing their labia or part or all of their clitorises also can feel sexual pleasure (again, read the literature, both anthropological AND anecdotal) and have children.

      The stated motive of the person(s) carrying out or endorsing a cultural practice are actually never the whole story (or even the real story). It used to be acceptable for parents beat their children “for their own good.” Some religions still not only permit, but indeed mandate that children not be “spared the rod.” Women were denied the vote on the grounds that it would be too taxing for them to think about politics. Rich people tell the poor that “suffering is noble.”

      Doctors who surgically remove newborn baby boys’ foreskins are not consciously thinking that they’re reducing those boys’ future sexual pleasure (or the sexual pleasure of their partners), but just listen to the grieving and angry voices of the men whose penises were damaged, and who know that they are not experiencing the full range of sexual sensation. It’s not the professed motive we need to examine when talking about human rights violations — it’s the result.

      As for FGM being carried out “with malicious intent,” read the anthropological literature! In almost every culture, female genital modification is carried out by women — often by midwives. The stated intent varies (as does the stated intent for male genital modification): to make the girl more marriageable; to make her more attractive; so that others won’t make fun of her; and — yes — to keep her from being promiscuous, just as Maimonides thought circumcision would make boys study more and keep their wives from enjoying sex too much. Just as loving (and misguided or misinformed) American parents have their sons circumcised, loving African and Muslim parents have their daughters circumcised — sincerely believing “it’s for their own good.”

      Georganne Chapin

    • September 9, 2015 9:01 am



  3. August 5, 2014 9:27 pm

    Anyone that dares to mutilate a child sexually needs to be executed, no if ands or buts about it ! The great evil Abrahamic “God” has requred this sacrifice from Humanity as proof of some covenant between himself & Humanity.

    If your “God” requires you to harm small children as a sacrifice to him or her, that’s proof you’re serving the wrong damned one, and it’s definitely NOT our creator either ! Then again this is the same sick fuck that killed the firstborn of every Egyptian household to prove a point to them.

    If you are a GOOD & LOVING parent, do NOT allow anyone to touch your baby’s genitals. It’s NOT your body after all, you don’t have to live in it. SO LEAVE IT THE FUCK ALONE !!!
    I swear if I could ever get my hands on the “Dr.” that mutilated me as a child I would take great pleasure in torturing him to death, and I’d GLADLY go to prison for this fight !
    Not to mention even facing my own execution to put and end to this great wicked people’s evil games done to others.

  4. Karen Lambie permalink
    January 2, 2014 7:56 pm

    Hello, everyone. I based my comments on what I have available to me to read. I have read books written by women who have undergone FGM. I am also in touch with women throughout the world who have had this forced on them.

    I have been aware of MGM for a very long time as it is performed in the United States. I have been told–apparently incorrectly–that MGM actually enhances a male’s sexual pleasure. One statistic that I have read concerning MGM is that, at least in the USA, one in 500,000 baby boys die from the procedure which is, of course, one too many. So my question is, Why haven’t men stood up to protest MGM in the same way that FGM is being protested??? I had absolutely no idea that this occurs in other countries under the same conditions with the same “instruments” as FGM. I had no idea that men have lost their penises and have the same physical and emotional problems that women do. Perhaps one possible explanation may be the fact that many infants and mothers have died during childbirth as a consequence of FGM…..don’t really know, just trying to make sense of all of this.

    I have read that many women still experience sexual pleasure and that there are different forms of FGM. And, if any woman, who knows the health risks involved, chooses to have this done, then it should be her CHOICE.

    How could I have lived for 62 years without learning about the horrible consequences of MGM??? I have known about FGM for many, many years and have only recently taken a much closer look at it and was shaken to my core by what I was reading. Let me say that all of the men that I have known who had MGM performed on them as an infant (not that there have been that many!!!) have never expressed to me nor have I been aware of any kind of problem they had with the procedure. This is something that has NOT been brought to light.

    I am glad now to have acquired the knowledge that I have concerning MGM. But, let me remind everyone please, that I am against both procedures. The problems with MGM need to get out to the public in the same way that FGM has, so I encourage all the men out there to continue speaking out and I will join you.

    • Gianluca permalink
      February 11, 2014 2:26 am

      Just like FGM in Africa, MGM in the United States is taboo. This is why it has never been brought to light. Once some of the victims have the courage to speak out against it others will join.

  5. Let's_Kill_the_Messenger permalink
    September 23, 2013 12:16 am

    “Many of these women develop … keloid scars”

    @Karen Lambie–

    That particular line really stood out to me.

    I’m going to guess you didn’t count on one of the male readers of your post to have a keloid-scarred penis.

    Well that is in fact what I have- a 2 inch length keloid scar, (in addition of course to the “usual” scarring) the result of my otherwise ‘routine’ infant circumcision.

    For many years I had ignorantly assumed this to be a natural formation of the human male body.

    Can you imagine my shock, disgust and feeling of being violated the day I discovered just a few years ago that it was a result of someone having taken a knife to my penis without my awareness or consent?

    My question to all those who assert male circumcision is “totally different than female mutilation!!!” (assuming that was the implication of your lengthy enumeration- forgive me if it wasn’t):

    I’ve got the keloid scarring—check. How many more items do I need from the list before it can be acknowledged my body was MUTILATED against my will and I was VIOLATED in one of the most fundamentally egregious ways?

    (Which I think you may have conceded – if so, thank you)

  6. Howard Smith permalink
    August 21, 2013 10:56 pm

    Georgeanne, thank you once again for a most thought provoking blog.

    I, too, get extremely irked by the general perception that there is a difference between FGM and MGM. Most people have no clue that FGM occurs with varying severity, and only think of the (more uncommon) form involving total excision of clitoris and labia.

    My favourite response to those in support of circumcising male babies is “So, what parts is it a parent’s right to cut off baby girls?” Usualy met with a blank look and silence, or else a statement that “they are not the same”

    Something that does confound me is the mainstream media’s support for circumcision while ignoring the hypocrisy of condemning FGM. I really do not understand the disconnect. Surely there must be reporters and editors who possess a modicum of logic. Why are they silent?

    • Gianluca permalink
      August 22, 2013 12:14 am

      “Why are they silent?”

      Because mass media in the United States is commercial. They write what most people want to read and unfortunately what most people want to read in the US is that FGM is bad and MGM is no big deal and has benefits. If you present a different view you risk losing readers. Ever read “Fahrenheit 451”? They burnt all books and the mass media was very sensational. This is what’s happening today in America: the mass media has moved to be sensational and cannot present almost anything where the reader needs to turn on their brain. Or it cannot be too provocative if it runs against mainstream American values.

      I read every Sunday the New York Times magazine. They sometimes have interesting articles like one a while ago where they described how useless preventative mastectomies are. I am still waiting for a good article in the New York Times magazine about circumcision that tells the truth. I guess it’s not going to happen for a long time.

  7. Karen Lambie permalink
    August 16, 2013 6:31 pm

    Female genital mutilation is generally done without anesthesia by untrained personnel who use razor blades, scissors, broken glass, knives and even tops from tin cans. Conditions are usually unsanitary. Depending on the culture, it is performed on infants, preteens, teens and adult women.There are several forms. The most severe form involves the cutting off of the clitoris, the labia minora and the labia majora. In many cases, the labia majora is stitched together leaving a small passage for urine and menstrual blood. Neighboring organs and tissues are also usually damaged. Many girls go into shock; they pass out; they convulse; they contract infections and some bleed to death. Survivors often have a lifetime of problems. Some of these women are unable to control their bladders and/or bowels. Sex and childbirth are excruciatingly painful. The vagina looses its elasticity causing prolonged and obstructed labor. Some infants born to these women are born with brain damage and some die. Many of these women develop dermoid cysts and keloid scars. Many experience nightmares and flashbacks. Many are unable to experience sexual pleasure. I could go on with more information, but I will conclude with just one last note: the clitoris is an organ that is about 4 inches long–only a small portion is visible. Some cultures remove the entire clitoris by digging it out of the body cavity….keep in mind that in most cases, these girls are NOT anesthetized. I must admit that I am ignorant about the problems associated with male circumcision, but I believe that FGM and male circumcision are violations of human rights and MUST be stopped.

    • Gianluca permalink
      August 16, 2013 9:08 pm

      Add to this that often male circumcision is also performed in unsanitary conditions without anesthesia by untrained personnel who use razor blades, scissors, broken glass, knives etc. This is the case with traditional circumcisions performed in South Africa. The result is serious injury and often death and the victims (just like FGM) are not allowed to complain and/or seek medical assistance either. Both, FGM and MGM are barbaric.

    • August 19, 2013 11:40 pm

      Karen, the problem with your description of female circumcision is that it is incomplete. It is an incomplete description that seems to exaggerate female circumcision, while trivializing male circumcision. Let’s go bit by bit in your description and fill in the blanks that are not being talked about.

      “Female genital mutilation is generally done without anesthesia by untrained personnel who use razor blades, scissors, broken glass, knives and even tops from tin cans.
      Conditions are usually unsanitary.”

      Generally WHERE? Perhaps in some parts of the African bush, yes. But “generally,” as in everywhere? Is this the way it is performed in Egypt, for example? Indonesia? Malaysia?

      No, it is not. We need to include the instances where female circumcision is performed with anesthesia, with trained personnel, under pristine conditions of a clinic or hospital, using sterile utensils, because when we do, we realize that not using anesthesia, trained personnel, under sanitary conditions etc. are not the issue.

      Males in these cultures are circumcised under the very same conditions described here, by amateurs, in the bush, using raw materials like glass shards, rusty blades etc., but they are not being talked about here. Why?

      “Depending on the culture, it is performed on infants, preteens, teens and adult women.”

      The same is true for male circumcision. Again, what is the reason that is not being talked about here?

      “There are several forms. The most severe form involves the cutting off of the clitoris, the labia minora and the labia majora. In many cases, the labia majora is stitched together leaving a small passage for urine and menstrual blood. Neighboring organs and tissues are also usually damaged.”

      There are also several forms of male genital mutilation, for example, subincision, as performed by Australian Aboriginal tribes. Subincision involves splitting the penile shaft down the underside to reveal the urethra, like a boiled frankfurter. Why isn’t subincision talked about? The answer is because it is actually a rare type of male genital mutilation.

      Which brings us to the question of how common are the most severe forms of female genital cutting? According to the New York Times in their article “A Cutting Tradition, ” the most severe form of female genital cutting, otherwise known as “infibulation,” or “Pharaonic circumcision,” comprises of only 15% yearly. But this is the kind of female genital cutting that readers are supposed to believes happens in every case. Why?

      “Many girls go into shock; they pass out; they convulse; they contract infections and some bleed to death. Survivors often have a lifetime of problems. Some of these women are unable to control their bladders and/or bowels. Sex and childbirth are excruciatingly painful. The vagina looses its elasticity causing prolonged and obstructed labor. Some infants born to these women are born with brain damage and some die. Many of these women develop dermoid cysts and keloid scars. Many experience nightmares and flashbacks. Many are unable to experience sexual pleasure.”

      How many, precisely? How many go into shock? Pass out? Convulse? Contract infections? Bleed to death etc.? What percentage of survivors have a lifetime of problems? How many develop scars? Experience nightmares? Flashbacks? Unable to experience sexual pleasure?

      And why don’t we talk about this when it happens to men? Why aren’t we interested in how many men, boys, children etc. go into shock? Pass out? Convulse? Contract infections? Bleed to death? Experience lifetime problems? Scars? Trauma? Flashbacks? Loss of sexual pleasure? Why are these only recognized problems in women?

      Are we going to talk about, for example, the number of men who have died this year as a result of tribal initiation? Are we going to talk about how many others developed gangrene and lost their entire penises for life? Are we going to talk about how many of them will never be able to experience sexual pleasure?

      Why aren’t we talking about how many women DON’T experience these side effects? Is it because talking about it weakens the argument that FGM is wrong?

      You know, it’s funny how when we talk about male circumcision, all we talk about is how many men are “happy” with it. All we talk about is how men are still able to enjoy sex and orgasm.

      According to research by Sarah Johnsdotter, the great majority of women who have undergone some kind of FGM all still enjoy sex, and guess what, still experience orgasm. Most women don’t experience all of the negative side-effects that you talk about. WHY aren’t people interested in this?

      Is this really about pain management? The sanitary condition in which a procedure is performed? The side effects? “Potential medical benefits?”

      If it could be proven through “research” that “female medical circumcision” performed at a hospital by trained professionals could “reduce the likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV,” that female circumcision could be performed in a way that didn’t cause any negative side effects, would forced female genital cutting be justified?

      As it all a matter of whether or not “research” for it is favorable or not?

      I welcome readers to please question this notion that a deliberate violation of basic human rights can be justified with just the right number of “studies.” It doesn’t work for girls and women. It does not work for men.

      Forced genital cutting needs to be addressed and stopped in BOTH sexes, not just one.

      If we’re going to talk about all the “problems” that FGM brings about, let’s not be hesitant to describe the same in MGM.

      Thank you.

    • Petit Poulet permalink
      August 21, 2013 9:18 pm

      Opponents of female genital cutting in developed nations have completely controlled the debate to the point where Karen and most others believe that most circumcised women have the most severe forms of the procedure. Most of the claims made by the opponents of female genital cutting are hyperbolic exaggerations. This is not to say that female genital cutting is acceptable, it is not. The hyperbole surrounding female genital cutting has made it difficult for the average American to recognize the similarities between male and female genital cutting. Nearly all of what Karen said about FGM is also true of male circumcision, especially when performed in a similar setting. For a different perspective on female genital cutting I would recommend reading: Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa. Seven things to know about female genital surgeries in Africa. Hastings Cent Rep 2012; 42(6): 19-27. While I disagree with the panel’s recommendation against “zero-tolerance” policies, a more scientific look at female genital cutting shows how much it is like male circumcision.

    • Bettie Malofie permalink
      August 22, 2013 4:17 pm

      Joseph, that is an excellent reply to Karen Lambie.

  8. August 16, 2013 9:39 am

    There is a wide range of what is called female genital mutilation, and there is a wide range of what is called male genital mutilation. Apparently, humans are very creative when it comes to torturing our own. What is important is that there is a huge overlap in severity between FGM and MGM. And right there in the middle is the most common form for both: circumcision, i.e. the removal of the prepuce. In the male it is called the foreskin, in the female it is called the clitoral hood. I think this ends the “it’s not the same” argument.

    For the sixteen years I’ve been involved in this issue I’ve forecasted that, eventually, these issues will meld into the Human Genital Mutilation (HGM) issue. They must, because as long as one gender is mutilated the other remains at risk.

    PS: the term for what happened to the baby in the picture is “degloving.” That’s where the skin is pulled completely off a penis or finger.

    • Gianluca permalink
      August 16, 2013 3:18 pm

      The distinction between “foreskin” and “clitoral hood” is made only in the English language. In other European languages they are called with exactly the same word. For example, in Italian you use the word “prepuzio” (prepuce) for both male and female genitals. See for example the Italian wikipedia article:

      In German, it’s simply called “Vorhaut” (foreskin). Sometimes the words “prepuzio clitoride” or “Klitorisvorhaut” are used in the respective languages to distinguish the female anatomy. However, it’s just a matter of semantics: different words that mean the exact same thing. “Prepuce” is the correct medical word that encompasses both.

      Removing part of the genitals is genital mutilation. Any distinction between male and female is scientifically inaccurate and biased by our culture that tends to denounce the female form and condone the male form of it.

  9. Laura permalink
    August 16, 2013 5:46 am

    Why don’t we just designate all routine child genital cutting as FGM (for ‘forced genital mutilation’) and admit that the gender of the person being violated is not the issue?

  10. Ali permalink
    August 16, 2013 12:03 am

    Hi, do you have links to the Gates and Clinton foundations’ support of male circumcision in Africa? Before I loudly denounce either, I’d like a link to evidence of the two groups support for this..

  11. Gianluca permalink
    August 15, 2013 9:07 pm

    Thanks Georganne for keeping posting blogs about this topic. I simply cannot stand it when people say “it’s a parents decision”. It makes me soooo angry! It’s such an American hypocrisy. Unfortunately, the mass media in the United States is strongly biased pro-circumcision. And when Europeans speak against circumcision they are called anti-semitic. Of course, because Americans are the ONLY people in the world who know what is right and what is wrong. Europeans know nothing about political correctness and need to be constantly educated by fellow Americans. I guess arrogance makes you blind.

  12. margaret permalink
    August 15, 2013 5:30 pm

    I intend to never use the word “circumcision” ever again. from now on, I will always refer to this barbarism as “male genital mutilation”.

  13. August 15, 2013 5:20 pm

    Kudos for your not taking the picture down and maybe more “explicit” photos should be on view to show just what can and does happen to innocent babies all for NO GOOD reason but do to some doctor wanting to line his pocket. I once questioned a doctor about why he did circumcisions and he said – well if I don’t someone else will. DUH! Again thank you for standing up for baby boys.

  14. August 15, 2013 4:55 pm

    Complete excision of penile skin is not a rare occurrence. I see it all the time in my practice. I don’t understand how any parent can subject their son to this sort of common malpractice.

  15. August 15, 2013 3:40 pm

    Thank you for being brave enough to take this stand. In the future, we will look back on circumcision as the gross human rights violation it is and you are to be commended for being a courageous forward thinker. I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to see the parallels between MGM and FGM is because circumcised men do feel pleasure and achieve orgasm and they have no frame of reference to understand that they only have 25% or less of the sexual feeling they evolved to have naturally. Rarely is it mentioned that the rise of internet pornography also contributes to the continuation of this violation because most men in porn are circumcised, visually normalizing a circumcised penis. There is a national problem of American circumcised men engaging in elongated thrusting during intercourse to achieve orgasm, which does not facilitate female orgasm. So American women are not being satisfied sexually and now the pharmaceutical companies are racing to finding the “female viagra” to medicate women’s “problem” in not achieving orgasm during intercourse, when the culprit is really…yep…you guess it…circumcision. And when women don’t fully enjoy sex, men don’t either. So circumcision ruins sex for men AND women.

    • August 15, 2013 7:19 pm

      Thank you for giving us some idea of the sexual dysfunction caused by this, Amy. It’s plain that removing functioning parts of genitalia would have a negative result; but, it’s hard to pin-down what it might be exactly, since there’s not a lot of literature that I’ve found on it.

  16. August 15, 2013 3:37 pm

    They fail to recognize Male Genital Cutting in the US and other places as the ‘mutilation’ they are concerned about, and report about, and that’s cultural blindness for you. But what blows me away is that in THOSE places where there is active opposition to FGM, MGM IS occurring! How much more difficult must their job be when they separate their children in half, and try to argue that ONE HALF should be protected from GM, while the other is ignored? I can’t imagine how they can ague against a challenge to their integrity. Surely it would be most effective to try to end GM for ALL children as a human rights issue, than it is to pretend that women deserve better treatment than the men, or to rely solely on an argument of “worst damage”.

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