UNCONSENTING MUTILATION: FGM, CIRCUMCISION AND CASTRATION
Siena Stott educates us on Female Genital Mutilation, what this means and how these procedures are often carried out on unconsenting children.
At school we were taught about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and learned about the ethical, sociological and cultural debates surrounding the ‘practice’. The general consensus in Western society is that it’s ethically wrong, especially at such a young age without the females’ consent. We consider this a mutilation.
However, there are other procedures that do happen to children in our society that are seen as acceptable, despite the fact they are not at the age of consent. For example, ear piercing at a young age can be seen as problematic, as can circumcision. There are also ethical equivalents in the animal world such as tail docking and such which I won’t delve into – but the same principle of unnecessary mutilation applies.
'These procedures have a lot of ethical discussions surrounding them, but there’s also the added dimension of historic, religious significance.'
Before I go any further, I want to define the terms being discussed:
FGM – Female genitals (clitoris) is deliberately cut/damaged/removed to reduce libido
Circumcision - Male foreskin on penis is removed
Castration - Removal of testes (balls) on males
Castration reduces sexual arousal and doesn’t align with any religious beliefs. Today, castration is a legal punishment in Pakistan, the USA, Nigeria, South Korea, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. The crimes leading to this are paedophilia, sex offences, and homosexuality. In the UK, you can choose to get chemical castration. Despite my own qualms with this procedure, ‘choice’ is the way forward.
Circumcision is seen to reduce the erotogenic structure of the penis, which can be viewed as more beauteous and empowering a higher cultural value in some countries. In 19th-Century America, circumcision became popular in combatting masturbation (although it doesn’t actually affect the quality of an orgasm or libido level like FGM and castration do).
'FGM is a non-medical procedure – illegal in the UK – which aims to strip women of sexuality from early childhood.'
Circumcision is not equivalent in terms of pain or level of mutilation, and can have its benefits whereas there’s nothing to gain from FGM. However, the question is not one of science or safety, it’s the medical ethics of doing it against consent.
A colleague recommended watching ‘How to with John Wilson’ on BBC iPlayer, a documentary series which is comedically and comfortingly absurd with its dry humour. In one episode called ‘How to Cover Your Furniture’ (spoiler: it’s not about furniture), John meets someone trying to regrow his foreskin with a skin-restoring device. The grotesque contraption is weighted and pulls some of the skin back from the penis to give the impression of the foreskin being present. This can be somewhat painful, and obviously it’s unattractive, even when you wear it in bed at night it looks uncomfortable. This shocked me – not just because you can actually see everything in the episode, but because I can’t ever imagine it featuring on Dragon’s Den. In all seriousness, it was an eye-opener for me to see the efforts males will go to undo a procedure that they never consented to in the first place.
Circumcision and FGM are anatomically incomparable and differ on many levels. But the fact is that even in the so-called "progressive", Western world males are going to extreme lengths to revert their parents’ decisions. It raises many questions. Should any procedure done below the age of consent be considered a mutilation? Should there be laws allowing/disallowing this? Would there be consequences for the responsible adult if the procedure went wrong? What if the child wanted to press charges (once a legal adult)? If procedures are done illegally, is the surgeon or responsible adult seen as more accountable? Is it the act of the surgery or the outcome that’s more traumatic? Should bringing a blade to any child’s skin for non-essential purposes be considered child abuse?
'Another issue is that the risks of circumcision surgery outweigh the benefits, even in our medically advanced society.'
In 2011, nearly a dozen babies at a Birmingham hospital were treated for life-threatening haemorrhages, traumatic shock and risk of sepsis. This is only in Birmingham in the UK. We need to take into account other statistics to gain a true perspective. For example from 2008-2014 in South Africa alone, more than 400 boys died out of the half a million hospitalised for failed procedures.
The issue with our conversations about this subject are 1) It’s not spoken about enough, 2) Extreme FGM in non-sterile environments is being juxtaposed against the most successful, sanitary circumcisions. The roots of these procedures are culturally familiar, with FGM being practiced by some Christians, Islamic groups, Ethiopian Jews, and followers of certain traditional African religions, and circumcision being promoted within Islam and Judaism.
My opinion is fresh as I’m newly educated on this, and also my views don’t stand so strongly as a woman discussing the male anatomy. But in the general context of genital surgery on children, regardless of religious and cultural associations, we should be more open to discussing the issue of what constitutes bodily mutilation, and is it wrong to inflict these procedures on unconsenting children.