The Problem With The FGM-Male Circumcision Comparison


Disclaimer: This article discusses the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision to some depth. I am aware that both these practices are based in deep cultural roots where they are practiced, and I acknowledge that I’m taking a largely Western perspective in my discussion of them. I really don’t mean to undermine the beliefs and rituals of any ethnic group.

Last week, The New York Times published an article called Fighting Female Genital Mutilation, which outlined the nightmarish barbarity of the practice still rampant in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. It was well-researched and hard-hitting; then I looked at the comments section (a mistake I tend to make now and then).

Now, I’m not one to judge the human race by looking at Facebook comments, but the sheer ignorance I saw was shocking. I knew what people were saying about the issue was wrong, but worse, I didn’t know how to correct them. That is, when it comes to the topic of the comparison of female gential mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision, I knew what they both are not – but I didn’t know what they really are.

Honestly, that’s another kind of ignorance that isn’t really much better than that of the people I was balking at; to combat any issue, you need to first be informed about it.

Here’s the situation: female genital mutilation and male circumcision are both things that exist and are practiced. Male circumcision has both proponents and denouncers – and rightly so. FGM is more widely condemned – and rightly so. But when more people protest against FGM, people point fingers and ask why they aren’t also protesting against male circumcision. Why do they do this?

Now, most times it’s just a case of attention-seeking men’s rights activists  (MRAs). But many other times, it’s people who are just depressingly uninformed and somehow feel it’s okay to compare the two practices. Here’s a quick breakdown:

FGM has many variations and levels of severity to which it is carried out, but essentially, it’s a process that alters the female genitalia. It dates as far back as Graeco-Roman Egypt and one of the reasons why it was done was to prevent sexual violation. No religion condones it specifically, although it has come to be associated with certain religions due to its associations with female chastity. It could mean the removal of the entire external organ, or parts of it, such as the clitoris and labia, or narrowing/closing entirely the vaginal opening. Girls are made to undergo this process between infancy and the age of 15. It is carried out with rudimentary tools, usually razors, and most often without any form of anesthesia. The WHO has declared that it has no health benefits and is harmful in varying degrees: cysts, urinary tract infection, fatal bleeding, PTSD, and septicemia, to name just a few. Basic bodily processes like urination and menstruation are painful.

On the other hand, male circumcision is a process which involves the cutting of the foreskin of the penis and is traditionally done in infancy and sometimes on adult males. In more developed countries, there are specialized circumcision devices and the operation can be performed surgically, with anesthesia.

The WHO recommends male circumcision in parts of Africa where the incidence of HIV is high, as a preventive measure (it reduces contraction rates by 60%). Male circumcision is also associated with lowered rates of syphilis and herpes. However, there is research out there that shows that circumcision leads to lowered sensitivity in the penis and other complications such as bleeding and infections, the rate of occurrence of which ranges from 2 to 8 percent. Circumcision is also an unnecessarily traumatic experience for a child that young to undergo, and could have negative effects on the mental health of the child.

So now you have the facts.

Both procedures seem to be an unnecessary violation of human rights and privacy, but the difference between them lies in the reasons why they are carried out. FGM is based on deeply-rooted gender inequality – where it is practiced, a woman who has been cut is considered “pure” and more “feminine,” her virginity “preserved” until the day she is brutally ripped open again by her husband.

Worst of all, FGM is also done to increase male sexual pleasure during intercourse, because of the confined space and added friction. FGM’s main purpose is to keep women “controlled”, and to diminish their identity as sexual beings. Male circumcision does not imply the end of a healthy sex life for a man, and, in places like Africa, helps to combat the HIV epidemic. The purpose of circumcision varies in different communities, but it has roots in many religious beliefs that base the practice in cleanliness of self and purification.

If you oppose male circumcision, I respect that. There is plenty of biological evidence to indicate that it is, overall, harmful to those who undergo it.

However, you simply cannot put it on the same level as FGM and say they’re the same thing, because they are not.

Oppose both, but understand how radically different they are. Understand that FGM is literal oppression, that girls are held down till their bones break, that women who’ve suffered through it are called survivors, not patients.

Stop saying “FGM is bad, but male circumcision is bad too!” There is a spectrum of “bad”, and these two things fall on radically separate parts of that spectrum. Male circumcision is still an encroachment on bodily autonomy. It is still a practice done without the consent of the person receiving it. However, people need to understand that denouncing one of the two does not mean undermining the gravity of the other.

They are different.

Both wrong, but both different.

Show More


  1. FGC is already illegal in most of the developed world. It is a Federal crime in the USA, and in several states even an adult woman’s informed consent will not permit it. Even so, in 2010 the AAP proposed to allow a token ritual nick to girls “much less extensive than neonatal male genital cutting” (their own words), but the public backlash, led by Intact America, made them back down within a month. Surgical, minimal female genital cutting was legal in the USA until 1996, covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield until 1977, and done with a device invented by a US doctor that had a shield to protect the clitoris after 1959 ( NSFW). This was done to prevent “irritation” (a euphemism for arousal). Something similar – or even more minimal – is done in Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore to baby girls in the name of Islam.

    Meanwhile, scores of boys die every year in one province of South Africa alone (the only place anyone keeps count) from tribal male cutting, and more and more men are coming for to complain that their infant cutting HAS adversely affected their sex lives. When you compare apples with apples, tribal with tribal and surgical with surgical, they are not so different. The motivations of the cutters are almost irrelevant. For both genders they are widely varied and irrational. ( ,

    Stallings et al. found that women in Tanzania who had suffered FGC were less likely to have HIV. Instead of mounting continent-wide FGC campaigns, commenters struggled to explain the “anomaly”. The WHO recommends only voluntary adult male cutting, yet their claims have been used to justify infant cutting, ethically a very different matter. The double standard is obvious.

    Genital cutting is an intervention in search of an excuse. When done on non-consenting people, it is an ethical outrage. The organisations Intact America and Genital Autonomy (international) work to end it all, including sex-assignment surgery of non-consenting (infant) intersexed people. (And if you can’t tell the sex of the person, is it FGC and damnable, or MGC and commendable?)

  2. Every country that practices FGM also cuts boys in the same conditions. Regardless of severity, it is sexual assault at the very least (and potentially fatal) and more attention should be paid to its effects and to eradicating it than to upholding the ideological purity and cultural narcissism of Western activists. There are still far too many in the West who refuse to even acknowledge circumcision as an act of violence or as being rooted in harmful gender roles.

    Because FGM is worse, male circumcision is treated as a non-issue and it is considered inherently misogynistic for men to even talk about any problems they may be having from it. Men are not obligated to be silent about this issue while things far more trivial than either FGM or circumcision are still prioritized over ending the cutting of boys. Some Western feminists who are not subject to any of these practices believe they have the right to control the narrative around men’s health and the concept of mutilation based on sharing a gender with other women who have been cut. Simply because the victims are male and this culture condones cutting boys, the entire concept of human rights is simply being ignored.

    The widely debunked studies claiming HIV reduction do not reflect what is going on in the population, and even if circumcision had the benefits that are claimed it would still be unethical to consider them. Repeating the claims about HIV reduction is a direct endorsement of the practice, and it is being forced on infants who may or may not even grow into heterosexual men.

    With or without a comparison to any other practice, circumcising children is aggravated sexual assault. The vast majority of cutting is done in unsanitary ritual conditions, and even in settings where nominal anesthetics are used they are extremely ineffective – and cause harmful side effects even at dosages too low to be effective.

    You are using feminism as an excuse to present circumcision is a light that would immediately be recognized as apologetics if applied to the slightest offense against a woman, and effectively telling men that feminists will rationalize any degree of sexual violence against men. That is not the case, and you are at odds with a number of prominent feminists, women in general and most of the first world’s medical community when you do so. There is no such thing as an excuse for sexual assault on children, and to even give credence to the idea of circumcision as a medical procedure is a direct endorsement of it.

    Germaine Greer (excerpt from p. 102 of “The Whole Woman” New York: A.A. Knopf, 1999)

    “Silence on the question of male circumcision is evidence of the political power both of the communities where a circumcised penis is considered an essential identifying mark and of the practitioners who continue to do it for no good reason. Silence about male mutilation in our own countries combines nicely with noisiness on female mutilation in other countries to reinforce our notions of cultural superiority.”

    Soraya Mire (Somali filmmaker, Fire Eyes) in her endorsement of the video Whose Body, Whose Rights?

    “The painful cries of little boys being circumcised remind me of my own painful experience of female genital mutilation. It is the norm in my culture to mutilate girls, as it is in the U.S. for boys. It really terrifies me to know this. Hopefully this film will educate Americans about the harmful effects of male genital mutilation.”

    UN International NGO Council’s report to the SRSG for Violence Against Children:

    Until recently, male circumcision has generally been
    challenged only when carried out by non-medical
    personal in unhygienic settings without pain relief. But a
    children’s rights analysis suggests that non-consensual,
    non-therapeutic circumcision of boys, whatever the
    circumstances, constitutes a gross violation of their rights,
    including the right to physical integrity, to freedom of
    thought and religion and to protection from physical
    and mental violence. When extreme complications
    arise, it may violate the right to life. It is reported that
    male circumcision can result in numerous physical,
    psychological, and sexual health problems during the
    surgery, afterwards, and throughout adulthood, including
    haemorrhage, panic attacks, erectile dysfunction,
    infection (in severe forms leading to partial or complete
    loss of the penis), urinary infections, necrosis, permanent
    injury or loss of the glans, excessive penile skin loss,
    external deformity, and in some cases even death…

    …The WHO review quoted three randomized controlled
    trials suggesting that circumcision reduces the risk
    of acquiring HIV infection in males. But this potential
    health benefit does not over-ride a child’s right to
    give informed consent to the practice. The decision
    to undertake circumcision for these reasons can be
    deferred to a time where the risk is relevant and the
    child is old enough to choose and consent for himself.”


    “But genital cutting isn’t a pissing contest, because it doesn’t matter how much or how little genital tissue is removed, or under what conditions and by whom, since genital cutting of non-consenting, otherwise healthy patients is unethical. Otherwise it would be fine to cut girls in the western world, removing analogous parts under sterile conditions, right?”

  4. The problem is that we want to be able to point to the other side and say “FGM is bad and evil,” but continue to do what we do with male children here at home.

    Here at home, we’ve convinced ourselves that we can justify male infant genital mutilation if we write enough “studies” that say it’s OK, and yet we will condemn any “research” that puts female genital mutilation in any sort of positive light.

    We will defend male infant circumcision for a plethora of reasons, but we will not allow a single one of these reasons to be used to defend female circumcision.

    I posit that every single rationale used to defend male circumcision is true of female circumcision.

    Male circumcision is an age-old tradition seen as a divine commandment. For better or for worse, female circumcision is just as old, and many of those who practice it believe that they do it because it is a religious obligation.

    Male circumcision is “cleaner.” Those who push female circumcision can be quoted saying the same.

    Male circumcision is linked to a reduced incidence in STDs; current data actually shows that HIV transmission is less prevalent in many countries where the women are circumcised.

    Circumcised males are still able to enjoy sex and climax. This is not a very popular fact, but research actually shows that even females who have undergone the worst form of FGM, which is infibulation, are actually still quite able to enjoy sex and orgasm. (See Johnsdotter who is female and opposed to FGM.)

    Female circumcision is conducted in the bush with unclean utensils. In those same cultures where female circumcision is conducted in the bush with unclean utensils, the boys and men are also.

    Male circumcision is quick, clean, and performed by medical professionals in pristine conditions. Well, if you go to countries where medical professionals perform female circumcision, those procedures are quick and performed in sanitary environments also.

    Women have died as a result of being circumcised. The men have too. (See the initiation ceremonies of South Africa.)

    The list goes on for longer than this, but ask this:

    What number of “studies” would ever justify female genital cutting?

    FGM falls on a spectrum, and there are varieties that are worse than male circumcision, those who are equivalent, and those who are not as “severe.” So what the varieties of female genital cutting that are equal to or less severe than male circumcision could be shown to “reduce the incidence of disease?” Would we change our minds?

    No, we wouldn’t.

    We have self-serving double-standards. Those who defend male circumcision, but condemn female circumcision, want to have their cake and eat it too.

    But in the end, why is it that female circumcision is condemned? Is it really about the increase or decrease of sexual pleasure? Pain and/or whether it can be remembered or not? The cleanliness and sterility of the environment where it is performed? The professional credentials of the person performing it? The degree to which those who practice it see it as a divine commandment? The lack of medical benefits?

    This is why intactivists, those who oppose the forced genital cutting of healthy, non-consenting individuals, condemn the forced genital cutting of healthy, non-consenting individuals of any sex, regardless of race, culture, religious creed or what have you:

    The right to our body, bodily integrity, is the most basic of human rights. If anything is sacred, the body is sacred. If we do not own our bodies, precisely what in this world do we own?

    The foreskin is not a birth defect. Neither is it a congenital deformity or genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. Neither is it a medical condition like a ruptured appendix or diseased gall bladder. Neither is it a dead part of the body, like the umbilical cord, hair, or fingernails.

    The foreskin is not “extra skin.” The foreskin is normal, natural, healthy, functioning tissue, with which all boys are born; it is as intrinsic to male genitalia as labia are to female genitalia.

    Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, the circumcision of a healthy, non-consenting individual is a deliberate wound; it is the destruction of normal, healthy tissue, the permanent disfigurement of normal, healthy organs, and by very definition, infant genital mutilation, and a violation of the most basic of human rights.

    Without medical or clinical indication, doctors have absolutely no business performing surgery in healthy, non-consenting individual, much less be eliciting any kind of “decision” from parents.

    Genital integrity, autonomy and self-determination are inalienable human rights. We are against the forced circumcision of healthy, non-consenting minors because it violates these rights.

    Genital mutilation, whether it be wrapped in culture, religion or “research” is still genital mutilation.

    It is mistaken, the belief that the right amount of “science” can be used to legitimize the deliberate violation of basic human rights.

  5. You’re missing the fact that in many cases circumcision is done because the sexual preferences of the mother and the vanity of the father. The mother wants the son to reproduce and give her grandchildren, and doesn’t believe that anyone would prefer an intact penis, so she has his son circumcised because she and other women believe that it is more pleasurable for women for him to be mutilated and sexually tortured at birth. The father cannot possibly fathom his parents or his doctor having done something to harm him, nor the notion that he has less penis than another male, so he dismisses any claim of harm and cements his beliefs by carving his insecurities into his own child.

    FGC victims often give perspective dauntingly similar to that of circumcised males when confronted with the idea that they are victims of anything. That’s how deeply ingrained genital mutilation is in our, and their cultures.

  6. “It could mean the removal of the entire external organ, or parts of it, such as the clitoris and labia, or narrowing/closing entirely the vaginal opening.”

    Or, it could mean the removal of the clitorral hood (prepuce) under sterile hospital conditions. Which is entirely analogous to the removal of the male prepuce (foreskin), and also one of the most commonly practiced forms of FGM in many parts of the world.

    As someone else said in these comments, it’s not a pissing contest. ANY form of forced genital cutting/mutilation should rightfully be considered repugnant, irrespective of gender.

  7. “Silence about male mutilation in our own countries combines nicely with noisiness on female mutilation in other countries to reinforce our notions of cultural superiority.” — Germaine Greer

Back to top button