Editor’s note: This post contains discussion of genital mutilation. Readers’ discretion is advised.
When discussing a subject such as bodily integrity, the most commonly associated social, political and human rights issue is female genital mutilation (FGM) – also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision. Bodily integrity means your body is your own to do with as you please; absolutely no one has the right to make any decisions for you or violate your autonomy.
Any violations are thought of as infringement upon your personal liberty, intrusive and even criminal. Though this concept may be considered a no brainer to Americans, we are privileged to be raised outside of communities and cultures where this is not only normal – it is expected.
What is Female Genital Mutilation?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four categories;
- Type I— Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce, which can include a) removal of the clitoral hood or prepuce only or b) removal of the clitoris with the prepuce.
- Type II— Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora. This can include a) the removal of the labia minora only, b) the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora or c) partial or total removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and the labia majora.
- Type III— Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and repositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without the removal of the clitoris. This can involve either the removal and apposition of the labia minora or the removal and apposition of the labia majora.
- Type IV— All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.
This procedure is typically performed with little to no anesthetics, and often without access to a medical facility. It is typically religiously or culturally motivated, and in many places it is performed in preparation for marriage. This summer, as part of the fight against FGM, Nigeria banned the practice. This is such a huge step, making summer safer for the girls who are afraid given that this is the most “opportune time” to perform this violation as it gives them time to rest up and heal before the new school year. To date, the WHO estimates that over 125 million women and children worldwide have been victims of FGM.
The long-term effects of these procedures, performed for no medically necessary reason, are devastating. It has been the cause of lifelong pain and complications, emotional and physical, for its victims. The build-up of scar tissue can be terribly painful, and many women experience complications in pregnancy and childbirth, especially with the third type of FGM, where the wounds are reopened for intercourse as well as childbirth.
Bodily Integrity in the U.S. – A Double Standard?
Circumcision is commonplace here in America; healthcare professionals hand out pamphlets in hospitals and parents bicker on the matter constantly.
When I was a child I never had to fear that my parents would choose to make me a victim of a cruel and archaic tradition, but are others as fortunate? I feel as if we have grown accustomed to such a tradition of our own; why as females are we protected by law against genital mutilation but males do not have the same courtesy? We are even protected against being taken from the U.S. with the intention of having genital mutilation performed elsewhere. Let me state, I am by no means lessening the agony and pain of those who have endured and survived FGM, and I am absolutely not ignoring their scars. I simply ask this – what about the men?
To my horror, this is too often laughed off as a non-issue. Because of the devastation and horror of FGM, the mutilation occurring to young boys is seen as laughable in comparison when this is simply not the case. Regarding male circumcision (more specifically the removal of the foreskin) it has been reported that more than 50% of the normal skin and mucosa is removed from the penis. This is what allows for the expansion of the penis during erection. Therefore, there may not be enough residual foreskin and mucosal tissue after circumcision to allow the penis to expand fully during erection. This has been known to result in painful erection, or tearing at the scar site as residual skin is stretched.
Circumcision, male or female, is a practice that seems to be rooted in the idea that sex is dirty and wrong. Just as women are circumcised to prevent pleasure, male circumcision (beyond religious reasons) in the late 1800’s was seen as a means to prevent masturbation. They believed at this time that masturbation was the cause of illness such as blindness, mental illness (such as masturbatory insanity – yes this is a real term), alcoholism and epilepsy. A Swiss doctor by the name of Samuel Tissot even wrote in his work, published in 1758 (and reprinted as recently as 1905), “…unnatural loss of semen weakens the mind and body.” It was obvious even at that time, that the removal of a man’s foreskin (as the only moveable part of the organ) would effectively reduce sexual sensitivity and movement of the penile shaft; successfully preventing masturbation or “self-abuse” as it was then referred to.
The next publicized reason to continue the unnecessary tradition of male circumcision was that of cancer prevention (because apparently the foreskin can hide carcinogenic smegma). Following this time, it seems that circumcision continued specifically because it was believed to be cleaner, the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the CDC have bounced back and forth on their stance on circumcision, most commonly citing cleanliness and future health as the reason to perform a medically unnecessary procedure. However, genitals, whether they be male or female, are self-cleaning and the potential risk for developing an infection in the years to come is not a good enough reason to forever alter an otherwise healthy, functioning part of a child’s anatomy with an irreversible surgery.
Why Should We Have This Discussion?
This idea that genitals are innately dirty and therefore need to be clean seems to be the fallout from a previous generation in which sex was taboo. We are living in a time where sex positivity is a concept that is widely discussed with interest. Women are becoming advocates for their own sexual health and interests, therefore men have the right to do so as well.
The cutting and mutilation of genitalia on those who cannot (or are not allowed) to speak for themselves needs to stop. It is my opinion that this is no longer a gender issue, but a human rights issue. It may make a parent uncomfortable to think of an infant’s future sexual desires but this is exactly what must happen. Sexual experiences are part of what makes us human, and to deny a child that (male or female) is unjust and immoral.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.