Taking it seriously, doing it right. Photo by dbking

First things first, and I know some people are going to get upset about this because I’ve already upset some of them.

It is wrong to make changes to another person’s body without their consent.

A baby cannot understand what’s going on and therefore cannot consent to anything.

From this it should be fairly clear that circumcising babies for cosmetic reasons is wrong.

End of story? Not if you’re a particular type of “men’s rights activist” (MRA).

The issue is that this type of MRA desperately wants circumcision to be seen as something which is exactly as harmful as female genital mutilation (FGM). To this end, some of them are pushing for the term “male genital mutilation” (MGM) to be used instead of “circumcision”. The idea is clearly to try to get male circumcision taken more seriously and to be seen as more harmful. It’s a good idea in isolation.

Unfortunately it’s more likely to make FGM seem more trivial.

There are two reasons for this.

  1. Male circumcision is common and widely thought of as something that is OK
  2. Similar sentences have similar meanings

The fact that “circumcision” as a word is usually understood as something fairly innocuous is a pretty clear motivation for using FGM rather than the less sinister/more clinical sounding “female circumcision”. This also seems to be the primary motivation for proposing the replacement of “circumcision” with MGM. This would be entirely appropriate if the two procedures were generally similar in terms of their severity.

They are not.

If you read the word “mutilation”, you know that it means something has been disfigured or damaged in a significant way. If you read the words “facial mutilation” you might expect something quite horrific, certainly more extensive than a broken nose, cauliflower ears or a couple of scars. These might be a bit ugly and unfortunate, but they’re not extensive enough to count as “mutilation”. Something along the lines of extensive burns or a missing nose is more likely to fit the bill. The idea of extensive damage will remain whether we say “male facial mutilation” or “female facial mutilation”. So, why should we expect very different levels of damage for the male and female versions of “genital mutilation”?

My answer is that we shouldn’t.

If someone tells you that MGM is wrong and needs to be stopped, you’ll obviously agree and you should! If they go on to explain that MGM is actually the same thing as circumcision, which you’ve always thought is fine, you’ll start to think of “genital mutilation” as something that isn’t particularly severe. If MGM isn’t particularly severe and we usually expect similar sentences to have similar meanings then you’ll start to think of FGM as typically having a similar level of severity to male circumcision.

If MGM and FGM are of similar levels of severity and you think MGM is OK, then what hope is there of convincing you that FGM is wrong?

Male circumcision only refers to the removal of the foreskin.

FGM comes in various forms classified by the WHO into 4 types, one form, which the WHO describes as being performed “in very rare cases” (type IA discussed on page 25), is sometimes brought up as being of a similar severity to male circumcision as it refers to removing the clitoral hood only. Type IV (discussed on page 26) is a catch all term for everything that isn’t contained within types I-III and is also sometimes used to support the claim that MGM is an appropriate term.

Even if we ignore the WHO’s warning that the practices mentioned in type IV (pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing) are often used to cover up procedures which really fall under the other types (removal of the clitoris, removal of the clitoris and the labia, cutting and stitching to create a seal that narrows the vaginal opening) it should be clear that FGM covers a range of procedures which at their very least severe may be equivalent to circumcision. It doesn’t make sense to use this as the standard characterisation of FGM. We don’t characterise birds as flightless, even though penguins and ostriches exist, so why should we characterise a harmful act based on a version which is “very rare”?

If the correct characterisation of FGM is with its more common forms, which involve removal of the clitoris, then we should consider the male equivalent to be a procedure which removes the glans. (Despite some claims to the contrary, removal of the glans still allows a man to have sex).

While some circumcisions do go horribly wrong, the removal of the glans is certainly not the normal outcome of a circumcision and so should not be used to characterise the severity of harm done. In fact, most people really do regard male circumcision as harmless and changing this perception is going to be difficult even without trying to equate it with the significantly greater harm which characterises FGM.

The fact that the characteristic severity of each is so different, and male circumcision is already so widely accepted, means that using the same description for each is wildly inappropriate.

Doing so diminishes the impact of the term FGM rather than raises the impact of male circumcision. This is especially true when you rely on using the least severe, and least common, version of FGM to justify the comparison.

If you realise this and continue to push for the use of the term MGM then you have gone beyond promoting one worthwhile cause and started working to prevent another from being taken seriously.

Take both seriously.

More about FGM

More about unnecessary circumcision (note that they do not refer to MGM). Sign the petition (US).

(This post was inspired by a conversation with a twitter user)


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