Last month in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan’s interview with anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan on common misconceptions of female circumcision—also called female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC)—attracted a ton of commentary from readers. We compiled and edited the best ones, which in turn attracted more comments. Slātlantican’s takeaway is difficult to disagree with:
The question is not whether or not circumcision should be allowed, but rather, whether it should be done on children too young to participate in the decision. To be sure, like all Westerners, I find FGM to be a horrifying practice. But how often have we caused more damage than done good when we go in to places and try to force our own values? We should limit our efforts to factual educational assistance, nothing more.
Ardea highlights one of those efforts:
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky featured Tostan, a local organization in The Gambia and other West African nations that is educating people about female genital mutilation and forced child marriage. What this organization does is convince pairs of villages to stop the practice of FGM together, so that each village will have partners who regard girls and women in the other village as marriageable. The desire for social acceptance and ensuring that your children are considered worthy of marriage by potential partners is one of the drivers of FGM. They have convinced over 7,200 villages to give up this practice.
Left aside in our coverage so far are the ubiquitous comments on male circumcision. The two kinds of cutting—on men and women—are different enough to address separately, but scores of readers see them inextricably linked. One of them is Aubrey Terron:
I'm so glad that there is finally some reality being shared when it comes to FGC. But what is NOT in Khazan’s article is the attending attitudes about the MALE genital cutting that these people in Africa and the Middle East also practice, and how the hypocrisy of only attempting to end ONE form of genital cutting invalidates their efforts. If anyone hopes to end genital cutting, they need to get these facts straight and stop approaching the issue as if women are the only ones being harmed.
Lilymanx sees a double standard as well:
Africans who cut their children's genitals are seen as more backward than Westerners who cut their children's genitals. Maybe that is not conscious hypocrisy, but it certainly shows a cultural bias. The effects of cutting on the children do seem to me much worse for the girls than for the boys, but the reason for cutting seems to me to be equally custom-bound and irrational in the two cases.
Circumcised males are a minority in the world; it's only popular in the United States and a few places (like where FGC is popular).
It's popular in South Korea because it was introduced by the US during the Korean War. But if you go across the ocean to UK or any European country, being a circumcised man will probably not get you many favors.
Tyfereth, however, strongly opposes the idea of comparing male circumcision and FGM:
Male circumcision does no harm. FGM does. Male circumcision cuts the foreskin, FGM cuts the clitoris—the two things cut are not even remotely the same. For male circumcision to be equivalent to FGM, the entire tip of the male’s penis would need to be cut off.
Jim Eubanks also cries “false equivalency”:
You can stand against both practices, but constantly trying to claim they are equivalent practices when they are not takes away from the unique seriousness of female "circumcision/mutilation,” as most cases are performed during a traumatic developmental period and remove most sexual sensation, which is not true with male circumcision.
A retort from Tritiumx:
It is a false equivalence in terms of degree, but to say it is not about male sexuality is inaccurate. Male circumcision (as popularized in the United States) was originally proscribed by advocates specifically as a method to prevent male masturbation.
Indeed, according to this short history of circumcision, “To Victorian minds, many mental health issues [in the U.S.] originated with the sexual organs and masturbation”:
Sylvester Graham associated any pleasure with immorality. He was a preacher, health reformer, and creator of the graham cracker. Masturbation turned one into “a confirmed and degraded idiot,” he declared in 1834. Men and women suffering from otherwise unlabeled psychiatric issues were diagnosed with masturbatory insanity; treatments included clitoridectomies for women, circumcision for men.
Graham’s views were later taken up by another eccentric but prominent thinker on health matters: John Harvey Kellogg, who promoted abstinence and advocated foreskin removal as a cure. (He also worked with his brother to invent the cornflake.) “The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering anesthetic,” instructed Kellogg, “as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment.”
Abstaining from “self abuse” may have been the goal of Victorians, but circumcision today obviously doesn't stop masturbation. As Tyfereth dryly puts it:
If my teen years are any indication, male circumcision doesn't prevent masturbation. At all.
Commenter ml66uk, on the other hand, points to how male circumcisions often go horribly wrong in parts of Africa:
The worst forms of female genital cutting are unquestionably worse than the usual form of Western male circumcision, but the worst forms of male circumcision are also far worse than the lesser forms of female cutting. Over 100 males died of circumcision in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa last year, and there were at least two penile amputations and one castration. This site shows gruesome photos of the results.
Compare that with this [account of a Muslim infant getting circumcised in a hospital]. Why would that procedure be illegal in most Western countries, yet this [video of an American baby circumcised in a hospital] is legal.
Several of the most outspoken opponents of FGM also oppose male circumcision. Here’s a video statement from Soraya Miré, the FGM memoirist and activist who appeared in our comments section:
And here’s the famed author Alice Walker, who created both a film and book against FGM:
I think [male circumcision] is a mutilation. In working with FGM we often find that the battle is such an uphill one that we hope that the men who are working on this issue of male circumcision will carry that.
Gloria Steinem had this to say during a panel discussion of FGM:
These patriarchal controls limit men’s sexuality too, but to a much, much lesser degree. That’s why men are asked symbolically to submit the sexual part of themselves and their sons to patriarchal authority, which seems to be the origin of male circumcision, a practice that, even as advocates admit, is medically unnecessary 90% of the time. Speaking for myself, I stand with many brothers in eliminating that practice too.
And here’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, perhaps the most well-known FGM survivor, who recently warned in The Atlantic about the custom increasing within the U.S.:
One particularly passionate reader is Lawrence Newman, who was “cut at age 14 without my informed consent and it destroyed my sexual pleasure”:
Male circumcision is more sexually damaging [than FGM]. More tissue is excised, more nerves are lost, more functionality is lost. The foreskin has been PROVEN to be the primary sexual tissue with almost all pleasurable properties because the glans has virtually no fine touch reception, mostly protopathic sensitivity [i.e. pressure]. By a simple process of elimination, we can deduce that the foreskin is the hub of pleasure.
Anonymous Coward counters with statistics:
Plenty of men as adults have been circumcised and did not see a reduction in their enjoyment of sex. In fact, more say that sex is better than say it is worse:
Of the 79 men who'd experienced sex snipped and unsnipped, 43 said sex improved (55 percent) after their circumcisions, 23 said it went downhill (29 percent), and 13 said there was no change or a mix of pros and cons (16 percent). Click here to read women and gay men compare sex with snipped and unsnipped partners.
My [unscientific] numbers don't differ much from the latest research: Based on a sample of 84 men who'd been circumcised as adults for medical reasons, a 2005 article in Urologia Internationalis found a 61 percent satisfaction rate, with 38 percent saying that penile sensation improved after the procedure, 18 percent saying it got worse, and the rest reporting no change. "No consensus exists regarding the role of the foreskin in sexual performance and satisfaction," the article's urologist authors wrote.
The rest of that piece by Emily Bazelon is worth reading for its various anecdotes of how circumcision either improved or worsened men’s sex lives. Lawrence Newman dismisses Bazelon’s work:
Men who get cut as adults are more likely to do so for religious or circumfetishist reasons and so will be biased toward circumcision. It's impossible to cut off the foreskin and not cause a drastic reduction in sexual pleasure. The average circumcision removes the ridged band and frenular delta, utterly ruining the penis. Try speaking to adult men who've been duped into getting it done for things like phimosis [when the foreskin cannot fully retract]. I had it done for this and it destroyed my sexual pleasure entirely.
Men circumcised at birth don’t understand what I’m saying, because they never got to experience their primary sexual organ. It would be too painful for them to accept the truth.
Anonymous Coward backs Bazelon with a paper from the CDC stating that “several studies conducted among men after adult circumcision suggest that few men report their sexual functioning is worse after circumcision; most report either improvement or no change.” Another study: "Circumcision does not appear to have adverse, clinically important effects on male sexual function in sexually active adults who undergo the procedure." Another study:
Adult circumcision does not adversely affect sexual function. The increase in the ejaculatory latency time can be considered an advantage rather than a complication.
Or as ProudPharisee puts it, “I bet it would help with premature ejaculation,” suggesting that the prolonged sex of a circumcised man would benefit his partner. That’s Ladydonnaland’s view: “Common sense says that an uncircumcised man has issues with stamina and thus a circumcised man can last long enough for the woman to get hers, first.” But Kathryn Warner prefers the uncut:
My partner is uncircumcised and quite frankly is a much better, gentler lover than any I was with before him. He doesn't need to pound to feel sensation, and the foreskin allows smooth gliding. It's easier on a woman’s body when a male is not circumcised.
It’s all subjective, says Guest:
Having a lot of tactile resolution on your penis isn't bad, I suppose, but it doesn't do much good for you, either, unless you plan on reading braille with it.
There's nothing special about the nerve endings in your genitals that's different from nerve endings anywhere else. It's the socket in your spinal cord they plug into that seems to be more instrumental, so stimulation of pretty much anything that plugs into those pelvic sockets, such as the prostate, works just fine to generate pleasure, as long as you're in an aroused state. The intensity of the sensation is also modulated in the central nervous system, which is why sexual sensitivity proceeds through several well-defined stages that have nothing to do with the degree of peripheral innervation.
Better sex is, both psychologically and physiologically, much more about arousal, trust, and state of mind than it is about the presence of absence of the foreskin. Male circumcision in the developed world has neither significant utility nor significant risk; this is a non-issue.
What about aesthetics? A lot of readers jumped on Ladydonnalands for these comments:
I think uncircumcised penises look like anteaters. So circumcision of man makes an ugly-looking penis look more handsome.
Elaine had a similar reaction: