AS73: Circumcision Vs. FGM

I’m joined today by Sarah from The Whole Network. This organization wants to provide accurate information about circumcision. Is it just as bad as FGM? Are Americans culturally blinded about this issue? Find out!

Thanks to @helpfulatheist3 for bringing this issue to my attention!

8 thoughts on “AS73: Circumcision Vs. FGM”

  1. As an uncircumcised father with three uncircumcised boys, I’d like to point out that a small child’s penis really looks nothing like his father’s, anyway. I’m sure that doesn’t help with the sense of awkwardness of dealing with a foreskin if you’re not used to it, but a child could have any number of questions about the difference between his penis and Daddy’s.
    It’s not difficult to explain that people used to think it was healthy to cut off the foreskin, but now know that it’s not, so that’s why that Daddy’s is different in that particular way.

  2. My husband is circumcised, our son (now almost 26 years old) is not. Take my word for it, it was never even a little bit weird that he didn’t “look like” his dad. It is a non-issue. Same goes for not liking the look of an uncircumcised penis. You get used to it.

    1. Nancy, technically, your son’s penis is normal and your husband’s is not. Therefore, the terminology should be un-intact, not un-circumcised.

  3. The term FGM easily allows for xenophobia to cloud the perception of us in the western world. I agree that it is mutilation but I’m worried about how non-westerners perceive how we perceive them. It’s great to want to help people but we begin to sound like we are trying our best to control women in these other countries. Mostly I’m concerned about how this may cause women who experience FGM to feel damaged. So like some people I like to refer to FGM as FGC(Female Genital Cutting).

    For FGC and MGC I don’t think the issues are comparable specifically in the western world. I’m more worried about MGC in those ‘tribal settings’ because where FGC is practiced so is MGC. I wish America could set a better example in this regard. Just on the grounds of autonomy I believe that the tradition of genital cutting is morally wrong. FGC in this largely patriarchal world we live in is especially horrifying but I feel that addressing MGC will be necessary at some point to end FGC.

    A lot of anti-circumcision people in the western world can be fanatical. I understand yourself and Dawkins feeling somewhat annoyed by their persistence on the issue (in derailing conversations). As stated earlier I think these movements should converge at some point but at this point I find it to be very situational (when trying to talk about cultural biases).

    I tried researching info about circumcision in the west rather recently and was surprised by all the biased information. Basically the science is hardly conclusive. Ultimately I found the persistence of male circumcision to be all about tradition. It was surprising for me to find that male circumcision became popular in America due to a lot of pseudo-science. I also determined that consistent harm due to circumcision is very rare (vast majority is men feeling psychological damage). And circumcision does treat actual illnesses but as these are quite rare they shouldn’t amount to being used like vaccinations. The HIV studies in Africa definitely don’t apply to the western world (how transmissions occur is not comparable) I have problems with the study but if this really helps that’s great (I think expanding ABC programs would be more efficient but any help is great).

    Ideally adults would decide to be circumcised for whatever reason, but a lot of people would prefer getting it out of the way sooner and when it is an easier operation. I’m alright with this being a family matter. Most parents seem to see it as optional (whether medicaid funds circumcision probably enforces this perception) and the rate of circumcision has consistently dropped in America so I’m not that pessimistic about the issue.

  4. I immensely enjoyed this program and your open and engaging conversation with Sarah.

    That said, I have a dissenting opinion.

    You shared that you believe Female Genital Mutilation is worse than the circumcision of boys. I infer by that you mean the circumcision of boys in America.

    If true, I understand that perspective and your discussion highlighted the contrast between the “medicalized” American practice of the genital cutting of boys in sterile, hospital environments with the primitive, sub-Saharan African practice of using unhygienic rusty razor blades and roughly sharpened stones.

    It may be worthy to note that, where rusty razor blades and jagged stones are used as “surgical implements” for the forcible cutting of the healthy sexual tissue of girls, those same implements are also used on boys. Girls are NOT singled out. They hurt them both with equal barbarity.

    In both cases, the occurrence is rare. Usually, the culturally encouraged amputation of healthy organs for sexual perception in both girls and boys occurs in what we would call a “medical setting”.

    In the most populace Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, the cutting, of both boys and girls, occurs in hospital settings. They do both amputations of the erogenous centers of male and female sexual perception “hygienically”.

    Sterile operating theaters. Sterile equipment. Medical school trained surgeons. Widely accepted surgical procedures.

    In neither case do they call their work mutilation.

    They are performing a “service” that is insisted upon – by both of the parents.

    Mothers insist upon it for their daughters. Fathers insist upon it for their sons.

    That is THE key to unlocking the unasked riddle….”why would anyone agree to the forcible surgical crippling of healthy baby’s sixth sense – their organs of sexual perception?”

    Taste. Touch. Hearing. Sight. Smell. Sex.

    (Yes, sexual perception is its own category of sensation. Think about that for a moment – and honestly answer whether it is like anything else.)

    There is only one answer: self-defense.

    The biggest advocates for cutting girls in Indonesia are cut mothers.


    They say that it’s healthier. They say that it’s prettier. They say that it’s cleaner. They say that it’s more sexually satisfying. They say that there are no ill effects.

    They say all of that because they are vocalizing their personal need to “be healthy” to “be pretty” to “be cleaner” to “be sexually fulfilled” to “be fine.”

    What is at stake in their arguments (and they are VERY forceful and emotional) is the deepest and most closely guarded part of themselves – their sexual self-image.

    They prove that they themselves are “just fine” as women… by carving the very same injuries that they themselves survived …into the healthy bodies of their own defenseless daughters.

    Just like America.

    Anywhere the cut healthy parts off of babies, they do it the same way. Where they have sanitary operating theaters, they use them. They don’t, they don’t.

    The central issue isn’t the availability of operating theaters. The central issue is the preservation of a parent’s own sexual self-perception.

    “I will carve my own injuries into my defenseless child….just to prove to myself that I am ok.”

    That is it.

    That is all.

    FGM, MGM, etc.

    They’re just letters that we use to make excuses.

    Cutting up babies to make us feel better about our status as survivors is immoral.

    In America, a million parents do that to their healthy baby boys every year.

    In Indonesia, they do the same thing to millions of both boys and girls.

    In both circumstances, it is hygienic. In both circumstances, it is legal. In both circumstances, it is a cultural norm, and.

    In both circumstances, it is immoral.

    In both circumstances, it is wrong.

    Bodily integrity is a human right.

    There is only one right way to think about this question. For America: His body, his choice. For the world: Their body, their choice.

    But, oh man. I know how complex this is for a survivor.

    I feel for you, man. It’s a long sorry road to learn about this ugly business.

    I’ve walked down this sorry road. And it’s mostly bad news and pain. But…

    Any man who wants to learn more about what they lost, and what they can do to ameliorate the damage, can find understanding friends who’ve walked the path before them. Reach out. We’re here to support you.

    In deep solidarity with my newborn brothers,

  5. In my opinion it is not something that should be done to babies and children. It’s a completely different situation if it’s an adult deciding to get circumcised be they male or female.

  6. Just for context, I am a uncircumcised male in my early 20s born and raised in scandinavia. I don’t think it is right to make decitions about bodymodifications on you’re children, they own there bodys and not there parents. I don’t have anything against male circumcision as long as it is adults making decisions about their own body’s. Do whatever you want with you’re own penis, cut of the foreskin, put on more foreskin, pierce it or whatever, but don’t make that kind of choices for other people.

    Im i wrong to say that you can compare a parent wanting to circumcise his/her son with because he/she thinks it looks gross with someone how thinks others should not be homosexuals because he/she thinks it is gross?

    Just a random thought about this, isn’t it really weird to be in you’re early teens and realize a part of you’re penis is missing because you’re dad thinks your penis looks better that way?

    And i agree with Thomas that FGM and male circumcision are different. FGM is a whole other ballgame

  7. Having made this decision myself as a father 12 years ago Thomas, it’s been interesting listening to you go through the process, and apparently come out other side. The parallels between the atheism debate and the circumcision debate, in the conflict between the historical auto-pilot versus a willingness to attempt an objective examination of reality, is interesting. As is the power of the learned biases that you acknowledged.

    I’m your basic assembly-line circumcised American guy from back in the day, but when it came to my own first two boys (twins) I had to actually think about it. Once I took a look, the choice was clear, but then I had to go over and over it again before I could violate the cultural norm. I put the “different than Dad” thing to rest pretty early, but the locker room thing took longer. Ultimately I decided to teach them that the best defense is a good offense in that arena and it’s worked out well. There’s far less locker room nakedness in one big room/shower these days at school, etc. then there used to be anyway.

    Once you back away from the fears and try to take an objective look at what amounts to amputation of a perfectly good body part. you start to wonder how circumcision ever got the momentum that it did in the first place. Of course that answer is, religion. An otherwise very sensitive, guarded and modestly treated part of the body is for this one thing subjected to a trauma that makes you recoil if you think about having it done to you today and you wouldn’t even have to endure healing the wound in a near-constant urine bath).

    Let me reinforce your decision a bit, on the cultural side of things. Not only did I do the reading in advance that you might expect, I actually had the nerve to inquire of my uncircumcised friends from abroad, and had my wife inquire of a few willing girlfriends on their take. They guys just laughed and wondered what the big deal was. From 20 to 80 they reminded me that men were born this way for millennia and they seem to have gotten by somehow. None had experienced any significant problem, including with American girls. The couple of women who were willing to discuss it with my wife, and had experienced both, could have cared less. So that pretty much sealed it for me.

    12 years down the road, the difference with Dad has been a non-issue. They have no problem understanding that it’s all the same underneath. It’s interesting to imagine things from their perspective now. As in, how would they feel about cutting off part of their penis (of all things!) now, after they’ve come to understand it as a part of them for their whole life. Unthinkable. But, if the day should come, they can make that choice.

    It’s been interesting dealing with doctors though. The whole thing makes most of them squeamish, and most American doctors know only the most basic info about uncircumcised penises. One of my boys had an unretractable foreskin until just about now. There was much better information available on the internet about this, reassuring that puberty hormones almost always loosen it up (and if not it can be stretched, rather than cut off). Most of the doctors were very worried and made dire predictions if we didn’t get him circumcised once he turned 5 or so and the “problem” persisted.

    I learned some interesting things from the interview, and I thank you for that. Such as how many of the same arguments (hygiene, attractiveness, chastity, like the other girls, etc.) are being used for FGM as male circumcision. Hopefully I’ve returned the favor a bit in the event you face this decision for real, or if others find it helpful. If you want to make it real easy, just let your boy’s Mom see a video of circumcision, old school. She won’t let anyone do that to her baby then.

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