Anyway…topic of the hour is genital mutilation. As with so many topics that I don’ttypically discuss here (even with respect to sex education), this topic comes to us by way of a very interesting facebook conversation. The original post had to do with a television show in the UK that has brought FGM into the one of the plotlines in the show. If you are new to the topic of FGM, it stands for Female Genital Mutilation, and the reason the topic is so very (and understandably) controversial has to do with cultural normatives that are steeped in patriarchy and control of women’s bodies and sexual pleasure. Do I understand that? Yes. Do I object to patriarchal notions related to controlling women’s bodies (even in the name of “cultural identification”)? Yes. I certainly do.
I understand the controversy, and I know my feelings about the cultural and religiousassociations with FGM. However, let’s look at the WHO’s definition for a moment before moving forward with today’s topic:
“Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
All procedures. Meaning, FGM includes more than the bullet point of: “violation of the human rights of girls and women.” Can FGM be a violation of human rights of girls and women? Yes, absolutely…and that is a topic worth getting fully steamed up about. Now…pause and step back for a moment.
The definition says all procedures…and the original conversational thread in which this topic came up had to do with the poster’s concern about Western values and influence in other cultures. Now, I won’t speak for all Western cultural values…I am simply going to home in on American “values” in this instance. I find some of the hysterical outrage over FGM in “those other ‘backwards’ parts of the world” (*cough*name-the-African-country-and-that*cough*) just a tad hypocritical in the face of one of the latest trends in cosmetic surgery here: vaginoplasty. No, I’m not talking about M-F sex change surgical modification. I’m talking about prettification of woman bits because of “body image” bullshit and youth idealization. I agree with authentic outrage over patriarchal practices…but you do not get to scream and stomp and yell about girls and women “over there somewhere” in the name of human rights while ignoring the very same patriarchal bullshit HERE that causes women to alter their bodies for some image of youth and male-dominant idea of (infantilized) desirability. Furthermore, so long as clitoral hood piercing is a common body art trend in the United States (and elsewhere), you don’t get to claim that all FGM practices result in loss of sexual pleasure in women. I suspect that many of the women who have had their clits pierced might just argue with you over their ownsexual pleasure. Lest we forget: clit piercing and labia piercing are both forms of genital modification.
I hear you, I hear you…choice. Yes. This brings the other half of the conversation to the chopping block: Male infant circumcision.
Here in the United States, male infant circumcision is extremely common, and strangely…not only do many women here not even know what an uncircumcised penis looks like (or find an uncut penis “gross” to look at, but more on the “gross” thing later), but many do not even know that circumcision is not historically traditional in the United States at all. In fact, male infant circumcision became “trendy” during approximately the same time the Social Hygiene Movement became popular…in the early 1900s, following our involvement in WWI, and is directly connected with our 20th century American military history. Unfortunately, not many people actually know that history, so to them, it’s simply “always been that way.” Seriously, if you truly believe that American boys have always been circumcised, then I would encourage you to click through the above link.
These days, there is a huge brouhaha surrounding the AAP’s endorsement of “all” male infants being circumcised, and rightly so in the face of questionable “reasons” for circumcision being “the best” available choice for penile health. The eight reasons listed in the above linkety link are questionable, at best, in the face of otherdeveloped countries’ practices and comparative statistics.
Stepping away from what is or isn’t longer-standing or “more natural” — let’s have a look from a simply neutral, human perspective (and yeah, right about here, we’re getting back to that “gross” thing). The human body, even aside from genital health, has some rather grotesque functions. Lacrimal drainage (eye boogers…and don’t get me started on pink eye), regular ol’ nose boogers & snot, ear wax, phlegm, belly button lint, all that shit that gets under our fingernails, dandruff and skin flakiness elsewhere, and whatever the other gunk that oozes out of our pores from pimples and blackheads and insect bites and what-have-you. Any and all of those things can be pretty disgusting. So what, then…? With a newborn baby, regardless of gender, we’re going to say “eww gross” to all of that and start cutting out/off or plugging up body parts?
No, you say? So what is the difference with the genitals? Okay, yes…urine and feces are both smelly, unsanitary, and potentially infectious. And that is why weclean babies’ asses and crotches when they piss and shit…especially girls with diarrhea…because whether a female is 3 months or 30 years old…shit in the vaginal area can lead to some seriously funky infections. So…we teach little girls the importance of hygiene (and not the way the Social Hygiene Movement of the early 20th century did, I might add) and cleaning thoroughly, regularly.
It is hygiene that is most often used as an excuse for male infant circumcision…because, you know, down the road when they’re either athletic and sweaty, masturbating like fiends, or sexually active with a partner…OH NO! THE SMEGMA!
Pulllllleeeeeeeeaaaasssse….spare me that nonsense for a moment. If we know that genital hygiene is important for girls with all their little folds and whatnot, why on earth would we assume that boys shouldn’t learn the very same importance of genital hygiene with foreskin?! And when we’re talking about STI reduction, we are talking specifically about medically accurate sex education and the importance of correct, consistent use of condoms.
In terms of what is visually appealing and…well, what feels good…that much is often dependent on where you are in the world and when. Lest you think that circumcision is the only form of male genital mutilation, allow me to dispel you of that false notion, too. In other parts of the world (and there is an American trend toward this as well), there is also penile subincision…(with a NSFW warning on that one!!) ~ so yeah…both males and females have different cultural “normatives” in terms of what is gross and what is not.
Ultimately, my personal feeling is that, short of immediate health concern or medical risk, no child -male or female- should undergo genital mutilation at all. That ismy feeling on the topic. If there is a medical risk involved that presents an immediate need for intervention, then the most minimally invasive procedure that will resolve the risk or concern should be implemented…for the best of the patient. What any person decides to do with their own body upon age of understanding and ability to give informed consent…that is on them.
With that being said, even as a (private) intactivist…I do not believe that demonizing parents who have had their children circumcised or otherwise altered is appropriate either. My eldest child was circumcised, and while I feel a type of personal guilt over having allowed that to be done, the truth is that I knew no better at the time. Many parents are told that the “minor surgery” is in their child’s best interests, using scare tactics (at best) to convince them. When I gave birth to my younger son, the hospital staff attempted that with me to no avail, because 17 years after the birth of my eldest child, I had learned a little more and made a different decision for my younger son than for my older one. So no…I don’t think that telling parents who made that choice for their sons that they “damaged” their sons is a good thing either. In fact, I think it’s cruel to do that, because chances are, they thought they were doing what was right for their child. Even if it meant permanent removal of something like foreskin.
Then again…maybe not so permanent…?
Finally, getting back to the topic that started it all, I am opposed to cultural FGM that is propagated by religiously-rooted patriarchy…no doubt about that. However, I have misgivings about applying Western values to cultures based on some sort of archaic notion about what we believe is “best for them” — particularly when, in those countries, there are often far worse problems on an endemic level that are of greater priority…and that is for those countries to decide — not us (or the “Western world”). None of us can boil the ocean.
With that, I bid you all a VERY Happy Fried Day…and will close with a bit of rainy weather haiku:
Wind-carried pollen dust
followed by torrential rain
makes happy flowers.