Female genital mutilation: “Balance” at the expense of justice

At Sociological Images, Lisa Wade has decided to promote a report by the Hastings Center on the practice of female genital mutilation. In response to what they consider “hyperbolic and one-sided” coverage by “Western media” without regard to the “cultural complexities” of mutilation, the report claims to offer “a better account of the facts”.

By uncritically parroting the report’s findings, Wade repeats its central mistake. For the sake of “balance”, she and the report both leave a gaping chasm where you might expect to see the most pressing, urgent, relevant aspect of the entire issue: the outrage that children are made to undergo medically unnecessary, disfiguring and disabling surgery upon their healthy, normal genitals without their consent.

However much they’ve tried to dance around what should be the central concern here, and excise any suggestion of moral judgment of FGM (they reserve that for “hyperbolic” journalists), its absence screams throughout the piece. You just can’t avoid noticing how this bioethics think tank seemingly displays no interest in considering the ethics of the very practice under discussion.

And while their intention may have simply been to dispel misconceptions about FGM rather than offer yet another condemnation of the practice, their overall characterization of this issue treats it as something that can be sterilized, prettified, and abstracted away. They repeatedly downplay the reality of mutilation – they prefer to call it “surgeries” or “modification”, stripping away any hint of negativity – with an attitude suggesting that those who oppose it should find something better to do with their time. It is a masterwork of callousness, sure to appeal to anyone who regards women as less than human.

This is underscored by the shortcomings of the “facts” they purport to offer. Their claims are almost wholly irrelevant to the inescapable problems presented by FGM, and provide only a cursory analysis of complex phenomena like cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies before dismissing the very possibility that this could have any bearing on the practice. As a whole, it comes off as pathetically reaching for any remotely plausible reason to oppose the “one-sided” condemnation of FGM, in the name of mere contrarianism.

For instance, the report criticizes a New York Times columnist for describing the mutilation as “the sewing or pinning together of both sides of the vulva, by catgut or thorns, and the obliteration of the vaginal entrance except for a tiny passage”. They contend that this “is not factually correct”. The report goes on to explain how three subtypes of mutilation are performed.

Type I is “restricted to procedures involving reduction of either the clitoral hood (the prepuce) or the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue, or both.” Type II “involves partial or complete labial reductions and partial or complete reductions of the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue.” In type III, infibulation, “the operation is concluded by shielding and narrowing the vaginal opening with stitches or other techniques of sealing, which forms a smooth surface of joined tissue that is opened at the time of first sexual intercourse.”

The authors then point out that “infibulations amount to approximately 10 percent of cases across the continent” and are sometimes performed using sutures under hygienic conditions in hospitals or clinics. Yes, what a relief that only one in 10 girls subjected to FGM have their vaginal opening sewn shut before later being torn open, whereas the other nine in 10 must only endure having their labia or the visible portion of their clitoris cut off. Surely the Times was out of line for implying that there’s anything wrong with this practice.

So just how many women do undergo FGM, anyway? Could it be that it’s just very limited, and blown out of proportion by “one-sided” reporters? According to the report:

In some countries, the prevalence among women aged fifteen to forty-nine is very high (over 80 percent). These include estimates from Djibouti (93 percent), Egypt (91 percent), Eritrea (89 percent), Guinea (96 percent), Mali (85 percent), Sierra Leone (91 percent), Somalia (98 percent), and northern Sudan (89 percent).

Oh. So it turns out that 10% of about 90% of adult women in these nations have had their vaginas painfully sealed shut. This is not a small number. I don’t see why anyone would be reassured by the fact that 10% of these women have been forced to undergo infibulation. When millions of girls are still subjected to FGM, it doesn’t cease to be a problem merely because one writer’s description of a certain method’s prevalence was off by perhaps a factor of 10 and most of these girls “only” have their labia or clitoral tissue sliced off.

But hey, maybe FGM isn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s just a harmless little “modification”. And yes, that’s where they’re taking this:

Research by gynecologists and others has demonstrated that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery have rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction, and their frequency of sexual activity is not reduced. This is true of the 10 percent (type III) as well as the 90 percent (types I and II).

Most obviously, how does one tell the difference? Just as in male circumcision, girls are subjected to FGM long before they become sexually active. So how would they know what they’re missing? Of course they don’t notice any difference in their sexual satisfaction – they have no basis for comparison. This doesn’t mean that these practices have no impact whatsoever on their sexual functioning.

The report continues:

It should also be emphasized that cases of sexual dysfunction and pain during sex have been reported both by women who have undergone female genital surgery and by those who have not.

Notice how this sentence is carefully crafted to give the impression that women experience sexual dysfunction and pain at similar rates regardless of whether they’ve undergone genital mutilation, while actually telling us absolutely nothing. All it says is this: Some women who have undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain. Some women who haven’t undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain.

Well, so what? This provides no information whatsoever about the rates at which these two groups experience sexual dysfunction and pain, or the nature of the dysfunction and pain, or its cause, or its intensity. The report completely glosses over these relevant facts, instead preferring an ambiguous, equivocating, intellectually dishonest statement of “well, sometimes women have pain during sex even when they haven’t had FGM”. This tells us nothing about the effects of FGM.

Regardless, they continue in their attempts to minimize these effects:

The widely publicized and sensationalized reproductive health and medical complications associated with female genital surgeries in Africa are infrequent events and represent the exception rather than the rule.

What’s especially ironic is that the article Lisa Wade cited in her blog post says just the opposite:

It shows that few studies are appropriately designed to measure health effects, that circumcision is associated with significantly higher risks of a few well-defined complications, but that for other possible complications the evidence does not show significant differences.

Regardless of how exceptional the risk of complications may be, why should it be acceptable to expose a healthy child to these risks at all for no medical reason? Just because something is “the exception rather than the rule” doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable risk.

Yet even if there were never any complications, and even if this never caused any sexual dysfunction or pain, removing parts of a child’s body without reason and without consent simply isn’t justifiable. It also doesn’t really harm a child’s ability to function if you arbitrarily decide to give them a permanent tattoo, or remove one of their testicles (they’ve got two!), or lop off a toe or fingertip. But for some reason, people who do this to their children for no medical reason are arrested. Why? Because a lack of harm – or minimal harm, or low risk of harm – doesn’t equate to an unlimited license to alter a child’s body frivolously.

The report then goes on to explore the motivations behind this mutilation:

Female genital surgeries in Africa are viewed by many insiders as aesthetic enhancements of the body and are not judged to be “mutilations.” From the perspective of those who value these surgeries, they are associated with a positive aesthetic ideal aimed at making the genitals more attractive—“smooth and clean.”

Surprise, surprise. It seems the Hastings Center has discovered that People Tend To Think The Choices They Make Are Good. Of course the people who do this think they have a good and right reason for it. It would be ridiculous to think they just go around intentionally being evil and doing this to girls for no other reason than “hey, I’m evil and I’m going to slice up this girl’s genitals!” No one envisions themselves as the villain in the story of their life. This is to be expected.

But it doesn’t mean that their reasons or their aesthetic value judgments are valid. Just because someone has a justification doesn’t mean this justification is sound. While these explanations can help us understand what drives this practice, it’s not an excuse. Even if a culture regards a certain body modification as a visual improvement, it doesn’t justify violating a child’s bodily autonomy. If aesthetic sensibilities are so important here, where is the respect for that child’s own judgment? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to make these decisions for their own body as an adult, instead of having it forced upon them at a young age?

And why is anyone this concerned with the aesthetic appeal of a child’s genitals, anyway?

The red herrings keep on coming:

Customary genital surgeries are not restricted to females. In almost all societies where there are customary female genital surgeries, there are also customary male genital surgeries, at similar ages and for parallel reasons. In other words, there are few societies in the world, if any, in which female but not male genital surgeries are customary. As a broad generalization, it seems fair to say that societies for whom genital surgeries are normal and routine are not singling out females as targets of punishment, sexual deprivation, or humiliation.

This is an enormous and unexplained logical leap. While some societies may perform both male circumcision and female genital mutilation, this fact alone is not sufficient to conclude that the motivations behind each of these practices must be identical, or that a desire to control women and their sexuality could not possibly be a factor in FGM.

Indeed, just a paragraph later, the report explicitly acknowledges this:

In some societies where genital surgeries are customary for females and males (for example, in Northeast Africa), chastity and virginity are highly valued, and type III surgeries involving infibulation may be expressive of these values, but those chastity and virginity concerns are neither distinctive nor characteristic of all societies for whom genital surgeries are customary.

So, the practice of infibulation may be tied to values of virginity and chastity. Yet somehow, sealing a girl’s vagina into just a small opening must have nothing to do with inflicting sexual deprivation upon women. I suppose if they started bending boys’ penises in half and sewing both sides together, that would have nothing to do with sexual control, either?

The authors outdo themselves with the next conclusion they jump to:

Female genital surgery in Africa is typically controlled and managed by women. Similarly, male genital surgery is usually controlled and managed by men. Although both men and women play roles in perpetuating and supporting the genital modification customs of their cultures, female genital surgery should not be blamed on men or on patriarchy. Demographic and health survey data reveal that when compared with men, an equal or higher proportion of women favor the continuation of female genital surgeries.

Just because women are involved with a practice, or endorse it, does not mean that their views haven’t been influenced in any way whatsoever by the values of a male-dominated, male-controlled society. A woman’s approval does not suddenly make a certain practice completely acceptable. An opinion of “but I like it!” should not exempt these values from being critically examined. It doesn’t mean that the origins of these values are now irrelevant just because, hey, women say they’re okay with it. It’s not as though every choice made by a woman is morally unimpeachable and has nothing to do with the beliefs and standards of her culture.

The report declares that “far greater attention should be paid to the perspectives of African women who value the practice and describe it accordingly (for example, as genital beautification or genital cleansing).” Where does the notion that this mutilation is actually a “beautification” come from? The authors explain:

Within the aesthetic terms of these body ideals, cosmetically unmodified genitals in both men and women are perceived and  experienced as distasteful, unclean, excessively fleshy, malodorous, and somewhat ugly to behold and touch. The enhancement of gender identity is also frequently a significant feature of genital surgery, from the point of view of insiders who support the practice. In the case of male genital surgeries, the aim is to enhance male gender identity by removing bodily signs of femininity (the foreskin is perceived as a fleshy, vagina-like female element on the male body). In the case of female genital surgeries, the aim is often to enhance female gender identity by removing bodily signs of masculinity (the visible part of the clitoris is perceived as a protruding, penis-like masculine element on the female body).

Yes, because people have so often failed to give a fair hearing to the notion that someone’s healthy, normal genitals are actually dirty, smelly and ugly. After all, our society has never held such negative views toward genitalia, especially women’s genitalia. It’s unheard of! Likewise, I’m sure that the literal stripping of any perceived hint of femininity from boys’ bodies has no connection to the lengthy global history of elevating men above women and removing any association they might have with a lesser sex. And these attempts to deprive girls of the “masculinity” they were born with certainly has nothing to do with the goal of keeping them out of the elevated status of men.

The sheer laziness and deceit of this report, from a supposedly esteemed bioethics group, is disappointing enough. That they would engage in these intellectual contortions and willful ignorance for the purpose of downplaying the genital mutilation of girls, and criticizing those who speak out against this practice, is outrageous. It just goes to show that bioethicists don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about it. Despite their title, they have no greater grasp of morality than anyone else, and the Hastings Center has made that unavoidably clear.

And it’s a discredit to Lisa Wade’s blog, usually an excellent source of analysis on how negative attitudes toward women are expressed in media, that she saw no need to point out the glaringly obvious flaws in this piece before giving it her stamp of approval. Good job adding some “balance” to counter all those silly people who think girls shouldn’t have their vulvas fused shut, you rebel you!

Female genital mutilation: “Balance” at the expense of justice

22 thoughts on “Female genital mutilation: “Balance” at the expense of justice

  1. 1

    I get a bit sick of people demanding that certain issues be handled in a ‘balanced’ way, as if both sides deserved equal consideration. Sometimes one side is just wrong.

    On the whole ‘aesthetic considerations’ – beauty standards are often means of social control and should be critically examined, especially when the basic message is that your body the way it is has something wrong with it that needs to be ‘fixed.’

  2. 4

    Really good breakdown of the issues with both the report and Wade’s unexamined repetition of it. Thank you.

    Already I’ve had one argument with another feminist who used the Hastings Center as an authority on FGM. The potential damage from this “balanced” viewpoint really troubles me.

    How can the obvious issues of consent and harm be so easily swept aside?

    This especially baffled me:

    Female genital surgeries in Africa are viewed by many insiders as aesthetic enhancements of the body and are not judged to be “mutilations.” From the perspective of those who value these surgeries, they are associated with a positive aesthetic ideal aimed at making the genitals more attractive—“smooth and clean.”

    And foot binding wasn’t seen as a mutilation. And those who practice conversion therapy don’t view it as psychological abuse. And bigots very rarely see themselves as bigots, even when they commit hate crimes.

    Just because you think it’s pretty doesn’t mean you should cut off a child’s healthy body parts.

  3. 5

    Why does anybody give a flying fuck about the rights of the parents to decide the mutilation of their children for no good reason at all? Why the fuck not let the child decide at an age when those decisions about “THEIR” body should be made? Why have the parents any right to decide the “ideal” of a child’s body?

    No parents should have the right in anyway – that concerns male circumcision as well – to make decisions that are not medically indicated to a child’s body that are not reversible.
    What do those creep talk about balance? Next they apologize for the balance of forcing kids being child soldiers, because the situation in their countries demands it.
    What sick, and I mean really sick fucks are those “balancers” of pain and suffering?
    I volunteer to genitally mutilate every one of the jerks who authored and defends that report, of course without their consent, just for the balance of it,

  4. 7

    What rally irks me: do they not realize that defending such practices with cultural arguments one can defend all the misogyny that is inherent in any religiously fundamentalist society, all the hatred against practitioners of non approved sexuality, all the violence against the minority groups?
    What kind of stupidity lurks in those brains that are looking for balance when it comes to a clear violation of human rights – the right to bodily integrity?

    This article again stresses the nonsense to call Sociology a science, it is like theology something you make up as you go, and find excuses for unacceptable behaviour because of “cultural differences”.

    As a supposedly becoming global society, our first priority should be to level the field for the acceptance of human rights, not to excuse their violations.

  5. 8

    It amazes me in today’s modern times these traditional culture believes are still been enforced. What we need is a global army of women against such in humane violation of this Patriarchy Society, where women have no rights ….Let us be the voice of the new social cultural change of their traditional norm…

    Sanctions against these countries should be implemented for their inhumane violence against women in their patriarchy society of old traditions…enough is enough….

    How would they like it if we women take their genital balls and cut them off….

  6. 9

    What a terrifying misrepresentation of the truth, and minimisation of the REAL issues of violation of human rights, the vilification of women and the suppression of personal freedom. Absolutely disgraceful!

  7. 10

    I’m half African and I know women who have been subjected to FGM. It’s a traumatic procedure and serves no benevolent purpose. It’s horrific and this example of middle-ground cultural relativism only serves to legitimise the views of those who believe that underage females should be subject to FGM.

  8. Leo

    Their classification isn’t even fair! What they call Type I covers both cutting the clitoral hood alone and cutting off the visible part of the clitoris. That’s like equating regular male circumcision and removing the glans.

  9. 13

    Regarding countries and numbers, it’s not just those with high percentages (80+%) that are signficant.

    Three African countries are paraded by the US and others as “symbols of democracy for Africa”, yet they engage in this brutality in significant numbers: Kenya (37%), Nigeria (25%) and Liberia (50%).

    The “west” is condoning it by not forcing these countries to stop. Or are human rights only for those with money to spend and their voices can be heard?

  10. 15

    They repeatedly downplay the reality of mutilation – they prefer to call it “surgeries” or “modification”, stripping away any hint of negativity – with an attitude suggesting that those who oppose it should find something better to do with their time.

    Slightly OT, but anyone else remember “Dear Muslima” when they read this?

  11. 17

    In addition to what others have said above, this really leaped out at me:

    In other words, there are few societies in the world, if any, in which female but not male genital surgeries are customary.

    Great. So they cut parts off of boys too. That makes it totally ok to mutilate children, amirite?

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