How Similar Is FGM to Male Circumcision? Your Thoughts

Readers debate the merits and ethics of male circumcision in light of a recent Atlantic interview about female genital mutilation.

Surgeons circumcise a boy at Beni Messous Hospital in Algiers, Algeria. Circumcision is compulsory for Muslim boys under the Sharia law (Islamic Law). (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters)

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.

Or as Thea Larson puts it, “Until America stops cutting the genitals of its males, we need to stop criticizing countries that cut their females.” Caedis zooms out for some global perspective:

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).

Map via Wikipedia: “Male circumcision rate by country according to the World Health Organization's 2007 review of the global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety, and acceptability of circumcision [9].” Red countries show >80% prevalence, orange 20-80%, and yellow <20%.  

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:

Bora Bosna’s firm rebuttal:

Stop cutting people's genitals based on your aesthetics. It's that simple.

Far more of a concern are the health factors associated with foreskin. The CDC in December released a “draft of long-awaited federal guidelines on circumcision, saying medical evidence supports having the procedure done and health insurers should pay for it”:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines stop short of telling parent to get their newborn sons circumcised. That is a personal decision that may involve religious or cultural preferences, said the CDC's Dr. Jonathan Mermin. But "the scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks," added Mermin, who oversees the agency's programs on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

These are the first federal guidelines on circumcision, a brief medical procedure that involves cutting away the foreskin around the tip of the penis. Germs can grow underneath the foreskin, and CDC officials say the procedure can lower a male's risk of sexually-transmitted diseases, penile cancer and even urinary tract infections. The CDC started working on the guidelines about seven years ago, when a cluster of influential studies in Africa indicated circumcision might help stop spread of the AIDS virus.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association hold the same position. But commenter wgp2 isn’t swayed:

The AMA's pushing of “health benefits” is specious at best when relying on out-dated studies taken from Africa to claim circumcision reduces your chances of getting HIV or penile cancer or urinary tract infections. Your chances of contracting sexually transmitted infections has nothing to do with being circumcised or not. It has to do with being educated and practicing safe sex.

The cancer reduction rate arguments are also speciously made considering the actual rate of cancer is less than 1% and so statistically rare in the U.S. that it barely registers. Why not advocate for the removal of entire body parts? Cut your sons arms off because the chances of him breaking them or maiming them in an accident are far higher than his getting penile cancer in the U.S.

Andrew Seymour is on the same page: “The health benefits revolve around preventing STDs and therefore are of no benefit to infants.” Tyfereth fires back:

Hundreds of millions of parents exercise informed consent for medical procedures that their children undergo. For consent purposes, removing the foreskin is somewhat analogous to ear piercings, which millions of parents have done to their children. Parents should be the primary decision makers.

But even the CDC suggests that maybe parents should wait:

The CDC's newly proposed recommendations hint at some of these human rights concerns. "Circumcision is simpler, safer, and less expensive for newborns and infants than for adult males," the guidelines say. "However, delaying circumcision until adolescence or adulthood enables the male to participate in—or make—the decision."

Delaying the procedure, however, is very problematic for millions of Muslims and Jews, whose religious identities rely on circumcision at a very young age. A strong argument along those lines comes from Sarah McCulloch, a Jewish woman who will “likely be circumcising my sons when the time comes as part of my religious tradition”:

A lot of people these days tend to think of religious and cultural traditions as optional, to be dipped into and set aside as one pleases. This is not how it works. If you live within a religious or cultural framework, then you are heir to practices and rituals that have held your religious or cultural people together, binding them with shared memories and heritage, and it is your responsibility to continue them.

Wikipedia: “"Isaac's Circumcision", Regensburg Pentateuch, c1300”

If you are a religious Jew who believes in halacha (Jewish law), then you cannot escape the fact that one of the most significant commandments as a practicing male Jew is to be circumcised. The only way you can nullify that commandment is by making the commandments in their entirety optional. That's why the Jews who do not circumcise their children are usually Reform Jews, because they don't believe in the binding nature of halacha.

One argument that many people make when this is explained to them is "why not wait until the child is old enough to make the decision themselves?" Besides the fact that the Bible very clearly says that circumcision is to take place on the eighth day of life, people who make this argument are basically saying, "Why don't you raise your child with my values instead of your own, and then see if when they grow up, they agree with you or me?"

I find the same with interfaith couples facing the decision whether to raise their kids in one faith or none. You cannot raise your children with no values whatsoever. They will learn from you regardless, and if you refrain from teaching your children Judaism or practicing it yourself, they will see that you do not value Judaism, and that will be the value they grow up with and take into account when you ask them as an adult if they want to be Jewish. Circumcising your son is not only a formal induction into the Jewish people, but an act of faith that your son will want to carry on the religious tradition that you have handed down to him and which means so much to you.

Relatives look at a baby after his circumcision in Jerusalem on September 24, 2012. (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

Fundamentally if you want to win any argument you have to start off seeing the issue from the other person's perspective. No-one who circumcises their children ever sees it as mutilation, especially if they've had it done by a doctor in a hospital with the support of their local authority figures. Telling a mother she is barbaric for having circumcised her sons is hardly going to convince her that she was wrong to do so. Any conversation with parents considering potentially harmful religious or cultural practices has to start from the perspective of that parent—that performing it is the best thing for that child. Only when you appreciate that, instead of thinking that we're all inexplicably insane and brainwashed by our ministers, can you really understand why things you think should be self-evidently abhorrent continue to endure.

Another Jewish reader, Adam Black, has a long back-and-forth with Sarah McCulloch. His most persuasive point:

The Torah is filled with commandments that are nullified by Halacha. That is why today we don’t put people to death for starting fires on Saturday. That is why we don't insist that women marry their rapists. Both are commanded by the Torah. Jewish Law always includes the wider knowledge of the Greater Good.

A Bulgarian boy reacts as he receives local anesthesia prior to his circumcision in the village of Draginovo in the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria on May 4, 2014. Some 100 Bulgarian Muslim boys and their relatives took part on Sunday in a mass circumcision ceremony. (Pierre Marsaut / Reuters)

Dina Lucas Relles wrote a great piece for The Atlantic about the “bris guilt” that she and other Jewish mothers struggled through. A commenter called uncut lady bits asks, “Have you ever explored the possibility of a brit shalom?”

Brit shalom (Hebrew: ברית שלום‎ ("covenant of peace") is a naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys that does not involve circumcision. It is intended to replace the traditional brit milah, and is promoted by groups such as Beyond the Bris and Jews Against Circumcision. (The term is generally not used for girls, since their naming ceremony does not involve genital cutting.)

But even the former Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan, one of the fiercest critics of what he calls MGM (male genital mutilation), makes a strong exception for religion:

My position on this is based on a very simple principle that people's bodies should not be permanently altered without their consent. But I would still include a religious exception to this law, that would protect the rights of Muslims and Jews to retain this barbaric act because they sincerely believe it is integral to their faith, and is not as drastic or as hideous as female genital mutilation, where sexual feeling is removed, rather than merely blunted by scar tissue.

A father salutes his son, who just underwent circumcision, outside a house in Kenya's western region of Bungoma on August 9, 2014. Circumcision rituals, which take place in August, are celebrated amongst some Kenyan tribes as an annual rite of passage into adulthood. The Bukusu group, a sub-tribe of the Luhya tribe that is one of the largest in Kenya, is one community to continue the tradition. The day before the ceremony, the boy's uncle slaughters a cow and dresses him in a chunk of the meat as a personal gift and as permission for him to proceed with the circumcision. The boys, aged 16 and under, bathe in the river to numb their bodies before the ritual, which they must undergo without flinching. (Noor Khamis / Reuters)

The final word, on what could be a never-ending debate, goes to commenter Brian Earp:

Because every group that practices female genital alteration also practices male genital alteration (but not vice versa), usually under similar conditions and for similar reasons, the two forms of cutting are, as the anthropologist Zachary Androus notes, closely linked in the practitioner's minds. Therefore many scholars think that it will be impossible to get rid of FGM without also addressing male circumcision at the same time, since to eliminate exactly one half of a community's initiation rites is perplexing to those who see the customs as mirror images of each other. (I go into that last point in great detail here.)

The upshot is that, even from a purely strategic perspective, there is good reason to think that treating this as a child's rights issue (where the undeniable power imbalance can be discerned, i.e., between adults and children) rather than as a sex-based issue (because the diversity of these practices and their close affiliation in the minds of practitioners makes that a fundamentally problematic approach) will be more successful in the long run in eliminating both.