And I thought it was hard for me to watch

If anyone coming to this post from Shakesville is interested, I have a new post up about intersectionality and not diminishing other victims’ identifications. But, in the meantime, please continue reading this older post on FGM first.

*Trigger warning* This is a post with some rough stuff in it.

I went to a presentation of female circumcision, aka female cutting or female genital mutilation (FGM, as I will be using for the rest of the post) this past Thursday. I think I made the right decision to go, even though I had a test in two days that I was not well prepared for yet, and it was not a required lecture. I am one of very few medical students who go to lectures that are not required, but that is a whole ‘nother post.

The presentation was done by a woman who is a graduate student in our public health program who is from an area where FGM is performed. She did a wonderful job. She chose to include video of the procedure, including one instance of a three year old girl being held down by females of her community, one of whom I am assuming was the victim’s mother, to be cut as she screamed in terror. She also showed a montage at the end of her presentation with many shots of faces of young women screaming during the procedure, also held down.

I was struck by a list of the reasons why FGM is performed and by a series of interviews with women in Egypt who are circumcised about their support of the procedure. The list of reasons given is identical to the list of reasons given to support male circumcision. It’s seen as cleaner, healthier, the children will be more accepted by peers and by their future sexual partner, it is tradition, etc. The only difference, and this applies to the more severe forms of FGM that include stitching up what is left of the external genitalia at the end of the procedure, is that the woman cannot have sex or deliver a baby until some part of the procedure is reversed by cutting open the stitches. In the mildest form of FGM, the procedure is almost identical to male circumcision. In the most severe cases of FGM, in addition to all of the reasons above, the FGM is performed to control her sexuality and make her more “calm”. I am not sure if anyone argues that male circumcision will guarantee fidelity or calm the sexual desires of a male. I think it was, at some point, argued to reduce masturbation.

The woman making the presentation argued that FGM was an element of strong patriarchal traditions in these societies. I asked her at the end if it was possible that we have had so little success in combating FGM because we are asking patriarchal societies to value their girls MORE than their boys. We are not asking them to stop male circumcision, and it is common in these cultures and in our society.

As one of the women interviewed in her presentation video said, “We cut the girls and the boys. It’s what we do.” If male circumcision is considered normal and desirable not only in these communities we are trying to change, but in our own society that is claiming some sort of moral superiority about genital cutting, doesn’t it seem contradictory and problematic? She replied that she didn’t see the problem there, but she didn’t know much about male circumcision.

One of my favorite upperclassman was sitting next to me, and he asked if there should be some support of the trend of having doctors perform the procedure in a controlled environment, with anesthesia. Apparently campaigns against FGM are asking that no doctors or hospitals to be involved in FGM, and he thought the opposite, having more trained physicians involved, was preferable.

After the official presentation was over, I talked to him, and he is supportive of routine male circumcision. His instant comment was “No one asked my permission when it was done to me, and I plan on circumcising my son if I have one.” I think it’s pretty clear that support of male circumcision can easily cloud the immorality of FGM. He genitals were cut as a child, as were all of his male relatives. These women just need a good, clean doctor like him to do it, and they will be just as safe as the boys in our country.

I argued with him politely, asking him if he believed in prophylactic appendectomies to prevent appendicitis. When I told him that I had a discussion with a pediatric urologist who was against routine male circumcision, citing the high amount of repairs that her partner has to perform, he acknowledged that his own cousin had been damaged by a circumcision. This is not the first case I have heard of that involved damage due to a circumcision, and I have yet to hear of a male child in my circle of acquaintance having a serious urinary tract infection that could have been prevented by circumcision, or penile cancer, or HIV that could be linked to having an intact penis. (That research is highly controversial, BTW, and is not at all applicable to low risk males, such as males in the United States. Also, studies show male circumcision actually increases male to female transmission.)

As I said, I think I made the right decision to attend, but I was emotionally traumatized by the videos. I had what I consider to be traumatic flashbacks for the rest of the evening. I had a hard time focusing on anything else, kept seeing the videos in my mind, and misheard many things around me as if they were in the context of FGM. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have to have been the victim of FGM, since my privileged experience watching a video about it in that context is absolutely incomparable. I am also even more resolute in my choice to leave both of my sons intact.


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18 responses to “And I thought it was hard for me to watch

  1. I’m sorry you have these images in your brain and think it was quite brave of you to go voluntarily to see them and hear about events that disturb you. I’m also really disturbed by the nonchalant acceptance of routine male circumcision in our own culture and struggle with myself sometimes over when and whether to mention my rather strong feelings about it. My own son is intact, my circumcised husband resents the fact that his parents let someone cut off a part of his body for no apparent reason when he was a helpless baby, and I always think about how best to discuss the issue with people who are planning or experiencing pregnancies. Anyway, it seems to me that our culture’s total incensed outrage about Other People’s “female genital mutilation” is at odds in various problematic (and, you know, racist and paternalistic) ways with its cheerful endorsement of male “circumcision”–right down to assuming circumcision as the norm by referring to my son as “uncircumcised,” etc.

  2. MomTFH

    Thanks for a very thoughtful reply. It is a very difficult discussion to have with people, since there is such a pro-circ bias in the United States.

    Speaking of husbands, my husband did not realize that he was circumcised until he met me. He was 35. He still didn’t believe me when I told him, and he called his mom to get verification. He went through a mourning period that he had been cut against his will as a young child.

    When we didn’t cut our son (my second son), his parents were very upset and aggressive in insisting that we cut him. I got phone calls for several months that entailed comments like “Young lady, you MUST get that boy circumcised!” I thought I handled their very inappropriate intrusiveness with a lot of patience and respect. It is worth noting that it isn’t always the “natural types” like us who are judgmental and aggressive in our beliefs.

  3. LMS

    wow. that is a really intense lecture to go to. I think it would be really hard for me to listen to. The subject of FGM is so far off of many people’s minds in this country.

    I am also in med is sad to hear not many med students at your school attend extra lectures..a lot of our students attend the lectures we have here (maybe its for the free food lol)

  4. Joe

    Excellent post, I am always surprised at how people can’t make the connection between male and female circumcision. It’s so obvious. I am not sure if you’ve read this before but there was an great article on this issue in medical anthropology quarterly. A Rose by Any Other Name? Rethinking the Similarities and Differences Between Male and Female Circumcision.
    Even FGM campaigner Hanny Lightfoot-Klein’s, one of the early ones to speak out against FGM, made a very compelling comparison.

    Somethings that surprised me, I’ve heard pediatric urologist make the same complaints, I wonder why they don’t more actively participate in ending routine male circumcision. I am equally surprised that dispite your colleague’s cousins experience he still doesn’t see the problem. Why would one risk injuring their sons penis when there is little practicle benefit?

    I am not sure what field you’re going into but I hope that in some way you continue to influence people’s opinion on this issue, as you tried to do here.

  5. Lalo

    An interesting post – I’m against circumcision of boys or girls. When the kids grow up if they want to alter their genitals, it should be their prerogative. Until then, it’s no one else’s business.
    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  6. anotherhippydoc

    i studied FGM in a Women’s Studies class. our professor pointed out that feminists from the countries affected by FGM often object to the condescending and hypocritical tone of western feminists in criticizing FGM. not all american feminists examine the traditional practice of male circumcision in the same way they do FGM. many people also fail to recognize that surgically “correcting” intersex babies is also wrong because the baby has no say in what he/she wants. if the surgery is done later in life, it also reduces the risk of losing sensation.
    other problems with how we treat FGM include: thinking of all FGM as the same, even though removal of the whole clitoris, labia and/or stitching up labia is not done in the majority of cases, thinking of FGM being done in unsanitary conditions, when people will money do it at hospitals, etc.

    i’m opposed to FGM, of course, but also opposed to medically unnecessary procedures forced on children.

    thanks for the post! i wish we had cool lectures at our school.

  7. Brava!
    Slowly, slowly, the word is getting out.
    What struck me was the extraordinary contradiction in the comment of your favourite upperclassman: “His instant comment was “No one asked my permission when it was done to me, and I plan on circumcising my son if I have one.” It’s almost as if he was going to do it out of revenge or spite, and I suspect that the real reason it gets passed on so remorselessly from father to son is something like that. One of the real reasons, rather, since there are so dizzyingly many – see

  8. That certainly sounds like a harrowing evening.
    You are so right in pointing out that general acceptance of male circumcision muddies the waters somewhat. Coming from Australia, where currently it is the norm for boys to remain uncut and some people who wish to have sons circumcised have trouble finding a doctor to do it, I find it hard to understand how people can be so uncritical about a practice which is clearly unnecessary and harmful in most cases. I find it interesting that the loss of sensation that circ’d men experience is usually not even talked about by parents wanting their sons to ‘look like daddy’ etc. Even though we are used to male sexuality being given a lot of airplay, this is one case where it seems taboo. Maybe because we’re talking about infants and the sexuality that they may have at some point in the future?

    Having said that, I do think that FGM is on a whole other level to male circumcision. My understanding is that even the ‘milder’ forms of FGM can have a detrimental affect on a woman’s ability to have a normal and safe vaginal delivery. Something that I’ve heard many health professionals aren’t sensitive or knowledgable about – even in areas where there are relatively high numbers of women from countries where FGM is common.

    Interesting topic to raise, thank you.

  9. Mark Lyndon

    Are you aware that the USA also used to practise female circumcision? Fortunately, it never caught on the same way as male circumcision, but there are middle-aged white US American women walking round today with no clitoris because it was removed. Some of them don’t even realise what has been done to them. There are frequent references to the practice in medical literature up until the late 1950’s. Most of them point out the similarity with male circumcision, and suggest that it should be performed for the same reasons. Blue Cross/Blue Shield had a code for clitoridectomy till 1977.

    One victim wrote a book about it:
    Robinett, Patricia (2006). “The rape of innocence: One woman’s story of female genital mutilation in the USA.”

    Even if you see a basic difference between male and female circumcision, the countries which cut girls don’t. Try debating with the bloggers who’ve circumcised their daughters or are about to, and tell them there’s a difference.

    The fastest way to end female circumcision will be to end male circumcision at the same time.

  10. MomTFH

    Wow, great replies. Mark Lyndon, no, I was not aware of the practice in the United States. I will definitely look into it. Your post is tickling a memory deep in my head about girl children in orphanages who were circumcised to prevent masturbation, but I am not sure if that is power of suggestion or a true memory.

    Spilt milk, I definitely agree that similarities aside, FGM does have more complications, in general, than male circumcision. Mostly, men do not have to give birth, so that is not something that will come up for them.

    Hugh7, the 4th year medical student I was speaking to was ironic in the way you pointed out, but on the other hand, sounded exactly like the women in the video. He has accepted his cutting as an adult and justified it. He was rationalizing why it was OK to do it to his future son. It is hard to accept that something that was done to you by your parents and a doctor (in his case) was wrong. He has also participated in circumcision of boys in his pediatrics rotations. It is hard to face that one was part of a mutilation ceremony.

    Joe, no, I have not heard of that article and I will definitely look it up. I just thought of that line of argument during the presentation. I have thought briefly that we don’t do FGM here (anymore, as was pointed out to me), so we shouldn’t cut boys, either. I just never thought about how the same argument applied to FGM internationally until I was sitting in the presentation. I am planning on going into ob/gyn, and I have heard that ob/gyn residents were some of the main practitioners of circumcision in the hospitals, and I am proud that I have heard some are refusing to do the procedure, as I definitely will. Provider conscience clauses do have a place.

    Anotherhippiedoc, maybe you could seek out someone to do a lecture? I had nothing to do with the planning of this one, but I do seek speakers for the clubs of which I am on the executive board.

    Everyone else – thanks for posting!

  11. sigh… if only the people I am surrounded with could make the connection b/t male and female circumcision. This is a topic that causes my husband and I to argue, my brother to call me crazy, and my friends to wonder why I wouldn’t do what others do.

    As much as I would love to have a son, sometimes I think it would just be easier to have daughters only because no one will push me into circumcising them in this country.

  12. MomTFH

    Labor nurse, when I trained at the birth center, we had a lot of orthodox Jewish patients. I used to pray that they had girls.

  13. Joe

    Just an FYI MomTFH are you aware that there are some lose professional groups that are working on education, defunding medicaid, and generally ending circumcision? It might be something you and some of your colleagues who are brave enough to refuse on a conscience clauses would be interested in. Visit 🙂

  14. Lyndsay

    Yeah, I agree that’s an odd thing for him to say. No one asked his permission but he WILL do it to his son?
    My boyfriend didn’t really realize what circumcision was until we started dating. He’s not circumcised and it seemed like he found the idea of cutting a piece of genitals off a baby rather disturbing. When it’s put like that, it does sound kind of disturbing. Why are Americans so against FGM and yet cutting off a part of a boy baby’s genitals is so normalized? Would FGM be fine if it was the minor kind and done safely in a hospital? That’s what I’ve always wanted to ask people who are okay with male circumcision. The stats I’ve found say in Canada, some provinces don’t do it at all and in others a minority do it.

  15. Oh Sh1t!!!! Culture is a Biatch to overcome isn’t it. So sad what is done to these little girls with no anesthesia. I am on the fence about male circ. I tell folks it isn’t necessary. But folks are hell bent on Circ-ing their boys.

    I come from Irish folks. We don’t historically circ the boys. Maybe there are too many of them to circ. It would be labor intensive!!! But it certainly isn’t necessary and my Brother and his boys have never had a problem with not being circ-ed.

    However, my husbands college roomate is a urologist and he told me there are diseases my son could never get if I circ-ed him. He was a Jewish urologist. Don’t know if that has something to do with his decision or not. Also my Spouse comes from a Jewish background and was also Hell bent on circing our Son which caused me much distress. But eventually I caved. Would I do it now? Not sure. Perhaps I am a stronger person. More educated in Medical proceedures. I think I would not circ my son if given the choice again.

  16. These are three papers discussing female circumcision in American medical journals, and using the same reasons to condone it that were used to condone male circumcision:
    www noharmm org CircintheFemale htm (1915)
    www noharmm org circumfemale htm (1958)
    www noharmm org femcirctech htm (1959)

    Click on the link for the position of the Canadian Children’s Rights Council on circumcision.
    www canadiancrc com circumcision circumcision htm
    “It is the position of the Canadian Children’s Rights Council that ‘circumcision’ of male or female children is genital mutilation of children.”

  17. Pinky, there *are* some diseases he will never get if he is circumcised – all diseases of the foreskin. (Duh. Don’t ask how to permanently prevent all headaches.) The biggie they claim is penile cancer, which is rarer than male breast cancer, and rarer in Denmark than the US. Circumcised men do get it – on the circumcision scar. UTIs are also rare, commoner in girls than boys, and readily treatable. The studies claiming to show benefits of circumcision are remarkably poor, and their bias is obvious. (A common flaw – as in a recent Balitmore study of HIV – is that the sub-sub-set of non-circumcised men, at particular risk, who actually get the disease amounts to only a handful of men, and chance could easily have given the result they found.) Circumcision is a “cure” looking for a disease.

  18. Pingback: Still injured and busy « Mom’s Tinfoil Hat

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