A Balanced Look at Female Genital “Mutilation” is Anything But

I started noticing a fair few hits from “The Society Pages” and went to see who was flogging my blog (That sounds… dirty, But then again with my accent saying “Can I butter your scones” can be considered as near pornographical).

What I came across was something that sets itself up to be a balanced view about the practice of female genital mutilation.

A lot of people who read that were obviously rather angry. One of them linked to my recent post on FGM and it’s defence in Islam. So I had a read on my way back from my exam and have a rebuttal. If you want to see another one, check out Zinnia’s piece on her blog.

While I’m most well-known for my work on hook up culture, I’ve written extensively on a different topic altogether: how Americans talk about female genital cutting practices (FGCs), better known as female genital “mutilation.”  While FGCs are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”

The very term FGC is used to reduce the horror of the word FGM. If you recall yesterday’s article, I used an example of cataract surgery to show how terminology clouds our understanding of medical procedures and indeed our own bodies. Changing the word to cutting reduces the notion of the damage caused by this practice. And really? Making this a race issue? It’s not ethnocentric to point out a practice is bullshit. No do not bring up male circumcision, it is not the same topic. And for the record I think the American fascination with the procedure is 50 shades of bullshit. Seriously guys? Knock it off.

The main source of distortion has been the mass media.  Aiming to encourage journalists to think twice when covering the topic, the Hastings Center has released a report by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa.  In the rest of this post, I briefly discuss some of the things they want journalists — and the rest of us — to know and add a couple of my own:

The WHO refer to it as FGM as do most major organisations that fight the practice. From the Red Cross to Medicin Sans Frontier. It’s not Mass Media. And calling it surgery is just dishonest. It is to surgery what a coat hanger is to an abortion. It is a practice done with unclean implements and tools that are often sterilised through heat in open conditions. Women have died from this practice, women have contracted HIV from this practice. It is not a small number, it is a rather large one. In some case death rates as high as 30% have been noted. It also increases the infant mortality rate. Even in areas with good medical coverage, 20% of women will suffer permanent sequelae from the practice. It is not “Mass Media” this is hard research conducted by organisations such as the WHO. Now this may be just the high risk type III FGM, but honestly Type II is pretty bad and Type I often causes damage to the clitoris reducing pleasure during sex and/or causing scarring making sex painful.

These are not organisations that are swayed by journalists and “the mass media” who frankly are more interested in Kardashians (They are like Cardassians… Only instead of being devious and cunning opponents they destroy you by vapid reality TV and leaked sex tapes rather than phaser cannons and photon torpedoes) or the fact that my country’s future head of state bucked the trend of super incest that has powered European Royalty and married someone who isn’t royalty. Forgive me if I don’t drop my monocle into my tea, but mass media doesn’t give a flying fuck about people in third world nations. If they did Medicin Sans Frontier’s operational budget would be a lot higher.

Using the word “mutilation” is counterproductive.

People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is a more aesthetically pleasing one.  The term “mutilation” may appeal to certain Westerners, but people in communities where cutting occurs largely find the term confusing or offensive.

No they don’t. They don’t understand why it’s bad because there are really low levels of education and because religious leaders SUPPORT THE PRACTICE but pretty much everyone in these countries who oppose the damn practice are calling it Female Genital Mutilation. NAMBLA may not enjoy being called Paedophiles but that’s honestly what they are! I understand what political correctness is but PC can frankly go hang, this isn’t Putney or Pennsylvania this is people who are being cut often in really unsafe conditions for a bizarre aesthete associated with pseudo-scientific benefits that are simply not true and are being used on women who have little to no say in this.

Media coverage usually focuses on one of the more rare types of genital cutting: infibulation. Infibulation involves trimming and fusing the labia so as to close the vulva, leaving an opening in the back for intercourse, urination, and menses.  In fact, 10% of the procedures involve infibulation.  The remainder involve trimming, cutting, or scarification of the clitoris, clitoral hood (prepuce), or labia minora or majora.  While none of these procedures likely sound appealing, some are more extensive than others.

Yes. Because Type III is mainly a practice in Africa while the others are evenly spaced out.

But that’s like saying “Well it’s better to have a below knee amputation rather than an above knee amputation”. True but you won’t amputate your leg for funsies. The entire procedure is pointless, painful, has a bunch of problems and has high mortality and morbidity associated with it. Even if doctors do it. There are medical reasons to do these things (In fact a cousin of mine had a procedure similar to the suture aspect of infibulation done to ensure the birth of her child rather than a still birth.) but just because you have a medical reason to do something doesn’t mean you can do it for the sake of no reason what so ever. Now granted swapping these types to IV is beneficial but honestly that’s being done with a view to limit damage and eventually stop the practice.

Research has shown that women with cutting are sexually responsive.

Women who have undergone genital surgeries report “rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction…”  This is true among women who have experienced clitoral reductions and undergone infibulation, as well as women who’ve undergone lesser forms of cutting.

This is from a single anthropological opinion piece. The remainder of pieces that were used to support this notion are not saying that the practice is harmless. In fact they say specifically that women with even fairly major FGM can experience pleasure BUT require therapy in order to do so.

None of them defend the practice. All of the articles except the anthropological piece which is anthropological and therefore not a medical or a social piece on a practice condemn it as something bad. Now I haven’t read the ones behind pay walls. In addition the source which she quotes, quotes a bunch of articles that aren’t very up to date. Like “1980s” is a long long time ago. My biochemistry textbook from 1985 was tiny, as was my embryological one. Today the same book is nearly three times the size. We have learnt a lot since then. Quoting really out of date articles doesn’t help your argument.

Neither does noting coital frequency since that’s applying the western notion that coital frequency is reciprocal and even we know for a fact that it may not be reciprocal in the west, yet are supposed to assume that a culture that doesn’t treat women all that well somehow respects their rights to have sex? Or indeed if sufficient women are circumcised, then the concept of sexual pleasure would be warped by the majority. That perhaps a generation of intact women may change their minds about sex.

The entire argument is based on a bunch of really fallacious arguments and a complete lack of understanding of what research done was meant to show.

Health complications of genital cutting “represent the exception rather than the rule.”

News reports often include long lists of acute and long-term negative medical consequences of FGCs, and these may feel intuitively true, but efforts to document their incidence suggest that health problems are, for the most part, no more common in cut than uncut women.  The Report concludes: “…from a public health point of view, the vast majority of genital surgeries in Africa are safe, even with current procedures and under current conditions.”

Well if they were the rule then we would run out of women and the practice would stop rather abruptly.

In addition, if you were to click the above link and read the above article, it mentions specifically

” 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.”

Yes but there are a few well defined complications. Like Tetanus, Gangrene and Shock. The article specifically states that this causes problems without mentioning it because we know what the well defined problems are. Western women don’t get gangrene or tetanus or shock because someone lopped their lady bits off. The complications are important too. The complication of taking anti-histamines is drowsiness. The complication of taking morphine is respiratory arrest.

To explain this I am going to have to break out the sock puppets. One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same… Recognising the severity of the complication is important.

Girls are not generally cut in response to the influence of cruel patriarchs.

Most societies that cut girls also cut boys; some groups that engage in cutting have relatively permissive sexual rules for women, some do not; and female genital cutting practices are typically controlled and organized by women (correspondingly, men control male genital surgeries).

If you paid any attention to the map that Lisa Wade has provided you would note those well known feminist nations of North West India and Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, DRC (Rape Capital Of the World! Well done lads!), Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia (women drivers eh?), Sierra Leone…

Just because a practice is done by women doesn’t mean it’s not supporting a male dominated society. The “Cooking Accident” deaths of India are usually done by the Mother In Law. Dowry deaths invariably involve the jailing of the husband’s mother either as the primary culprit or an accessory.

FGCs are not an “African practice.”

The procedures we label “female genital mutilation” occur only in some parts of Africa and occur outside of the continent as well (source):

Agreed, which is why in my article I covered the Malay practice which is entirely cultural (It’s unheard of in Tamil Malaysians).

Moreover, cosmetic genital surgeries in the U.S. are among the fastest growing procedures.  These include clitoral reduction, circumcision of the clitoral foreskin, labia trimming, and vaginal tightening, not to mention mons liposuction, collagen injected into the g-spot, color correction of the vulva, and anal bleaching.  While it would be simplistic to say that these are the same as the procedures we typically call “mutilation,” they are not totally different either.

For someone who writes about hook-up culture Lisa has forgotten the CARDINAL RULE OF SEX.

Lords and Ladies, repeat after me. The Cardinal Rule of Sex is Informed Consent. The people who do these things are not informed about the procedure and blindly do the procedure solely because generations have done it. And all of these things are voluntary. You are not less of a woman if you don’t have this sanitised vagina. The WHO categorises these procedures in the same system but outright specifies that these are voluntary and done because women in the west CHOOSE to do them and are not forced by culture, faith or families.

Western-led efforts to eliminate FGCs are largely ineffective and sometimes backfire.

It turns out that people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.  Benevolent strangers who try to stop cutting in communities, as well as top-down laws instituted by politicians (often in response to Western pressure), are very rarely successful.  The most impressive interventions have involved giving communities resources to achieve whatever goals they desire and getting out of the way.

No they don’t. However it does cause women who think like that in those countries to start making some noise and people listen to them. You get results by working with communities and with local people who know the setup and the culture. Lisa has this notion that charity workers and volunteers from the west arrive on some howdah issuing decrees like some white (or in my case brown) sahib from the age of colonialism with red coat, pith helmet and awesome moustache. This is a very very very faulty notion of how things work.

Every sane medical organisation that brings in western aid staff do so with the idea that western aid staff fulfil a need that cannot be fulfilled by using local staff or a transient need for staff that is unavailable such as in Darfur where lack of medical staff is exacerbated by escalating warfare and refugees resulting in increased demand of a speciality job or during Katrina where the sudden break down of utilities people take for granted resulted in a need for increased medical care and support staff. The idea is that western aid workers will train local staff and then go away and these local staff can function without us. I have a time line where I am not needed any more. When I am done I am “Gone” and my job is done. I have concrete goals to achieve and while I may not achieve all of them to the level I want, they will be achieved and then I go back home. I don’t need to hold anyone’s hand while they work. These individuals will continue the practices and the goals and set new targets to achieve and progress. A lot of the work you do in charity is training people to not need charity. A lot of it is educational.

Many charities straight up will not TAKE you even if you offer to go unless you possess the skills needed to make their deployment function and you demonstrate a capability or capacity to work. It is actually a major gripe serious workers have with Missionary Workers because in addition to flogging bibles with rice they also don’t bring in skilled professionals and instead bring in weekend warriors. I have specifically reported on one individual whose mission to spread godliness made things worse. We all have our bad days and need a little help but a lot of charities often report workers who come in then proceed to be liabilities in situations where you end up wasting resources to keep them safe. Or they show up and do jobs that “anyone” can do meaning that local people lose out.

The people who go and do charity for sane organisations are nothing like the imperialistic description of what we do. There are plenty of women and men in Africa and Asia who fight on the side of medicine on this issue. They are products of their own culture and while they have some influence from “westernised” thought, they aren’t sock puppets.

Lisa does the work of thousands of people who fight against this horrible practice a bad name while empowering those who spread the pseudo-science of this practice. I straight up mentioned that the culture of FGM is so ingrained in the culture of Kenya that Kenyan freedom fighters actively protected it. That the people in Kenya who fight against this practice are fighting uphill against an institution that had a role in their freedom.

It’s like fighting for gun control in the USA because it played a similar role in the culture of the freedom movement. People actively defend this unnecessarily wasteful and oppressive practice. Defending their viewpoints doesn’t help anyone. It just harms more people.


  1. says

    Lords and Ladies, repeat after me. The Cardinal Rule of Sex is Informed Consent.

    This. A thousand times this. That such a basic concept was completely ignored is astounding.

    Arguing that adult women voluntarily have cosmetic genital surgeries under sterile conditions with anesthesia and therefore we shouldn’t criticize FGM is some sort of bizarre mindfart. It’s as though someone were debating the ramifications of child molestation and their opponent started arguing about BDSM between consenting adults.

    These aren’t the same situations.

  2. says

    Seconding you and Mellow Monkey. While there’s a LOT to critique about Western medical practices like these, they are elective procedures chosen by adult women.

    Also, the fact that some people criticize FGM using racist, classist, or Islamophobic rhetoric doesn’t automatically mean that all criticism of FGM is too harsh or illegitimate.

  3. says

    Urgh rage. I can’t believe she is so blind to issues of consent (fourth’s the above). That coupled with the complete uselessness of the procedure for any medical reason are my first objections to the practice even if you granted the rest of her stupidity on its harms.

    Also this is completely off topic but I absolutely love the feathery patterns on your blog that aren’t dark grey.

  4. GMH says

    “It turns out that people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children. “

    Gee… Um… Tough? Don’t like it, don’t be it.

    All cultures have some interesting beautiful stuff that should be celebrated, treasured, and at the very least accepted by everyone else. I believe that. All cultures ALSO have some damaging bullshit we need to get rid of.

    And we have to call that like we see it. We owe all the stuff due consideration, try to understand the context, hear the reasoning, and generally keep our judgements off of anything that – no matter how weird – simply does no one any harm..

    But the coercive, damaging, abusive, non consensual, oppressive shit? No matter how enshrined or valued it is? Needs to be gotten rid of.

  5. says

    You can remove damaging bits of culture without harming the good bits. A lot of people use the Chinese fit binding analogy without realising that the practice took centuries to die out even with the draconian Chinese law system against the issue. You are at the start of the process. It will take a hundred years or so to eliminate this.

  6. Ysanne says

    If FGM is not really different from cosmetic genital surgeries, I guess we need to re-define attacking someone with a piece of broken glass and disfiguring them as a traditional form cosmetic surgery, and stabbing someone with a knife as traditional abdominal surgery.

  7. kevinalexander says

    All cultures have some interesting beautiful stuff that should be celebrated, treasured, and at the very least accepted by everyone else. I believe that. All cultures ALSO have some damaging bullshit we need to get rid of.


    I don’t understand how cultures are considered sacred. They are only accidents of human nature soaked in history. Let people choose to decide what’s beautiful and shed what’s ugly but don’t try to make that choice for someone too young to comprehend what’s happening.

  8. Pwilferharsk says

    I mostly agree, but:
    “do not bring up male circumcision, it is not the same topic.”
    People who complain about the trivialization of female genital mutilation, while simultaneously trivializing male genital mutilation, are very distressing to me. Of course it’s the same topic: amputation of genital tissue without consent.
    Perhaps the author “has forgotten the CARDINAL RULE OF SEX”, which is “Informed Consent”.
    Or, more likely, (and more bizarre) the author actually thinks American men are doing this to themselves: “I think the American fascination with the procedure is 50 shades of bullshit. Seriously guys? Knock it off.”
    Way to blame the victims.

  9. says

    No… I think you misunderstand me. We aren’t discussing male circumcision here for the same reason one isn’t discussing the prevalence of obesity in western culture…

    It has nothing to do with this topic. It is an entirely different issue called male circumcision. We can do a topic on that if you like but it is a procedure less severe than FGM. This is what I specifically meant. The topic is FGM not “Circumcision as a whole”.

  10. says

    Yes, it’s amazing. Simply saying, “We are going to talk about genital mutilation of girls and women right now. Genital mutilation of boys and men is a different topic,” is inevitably seen by someone as “trivializing” male genital mutilation. The privilege, it is entrenched.


  1. […] We are being urged to fight the scourge of Female Genital Mutilation but how can we do so if we expect our teachers and doctors to notice kids who are at risk and try to protect them and inform parents but not if our government itself is unwilling to do so? I have even opposed feminist voices who used the anthropological argument to defend FGM. […]

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