Female Genital Cutting, Sexuality, and Anti-FGC Advocacy

I don’t normally cross-post here from my research blog, but I thought my recent post on female genital cutting (FGC) might interest some of Savage Minds’ readers. Drawing on anthropological research and first-hand testimony reported across the literature, I’ve tried to counter a lot of the ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism that characterizes anti-FGC arguments, especially in the mainstream. This is not an argument for FGC, by any means, but rather, in the spirit of Geertz, “anti-anti-FGC”.

25 thoughts on “Female Genital Cutting, Sexuality, and Anti-FGC Advocacy

  1. Um, aside from the whole creepiness factor — which let me say is LARGE in reading your lengthy post on this topic — the following passage strikes me as indefensible:

    >>>>>While the medical evidence remains cloudy or inconclusive, it seems clear that no medical benefit comes of FGC and that some degree of harm is inflicted by many of the practices. 3 Given the unlikelihood that FGC will cease in the immediate future, the resistance Western activists have posed to medicalization seems cruel and inhuman. Most of the potential medical dangers posed by FGC can be eliminated or drastically reduced by access to adequate health care, both in the performance of the procedures and in dealing with any complications that arise. While there may be some truth to the contention that allowing FGC to be performed under hospital conditions will delay its eradication, this seems a reasonable trade-off for the suffering that might be alleviated. This argument should not be foreign to Western feminists, many of whom have relied on a similar argument in defending the availability of abortion.
    On an ideological level, it is imperative that Westerners, particularly Western feminists, abandon the moral condemnation in which their opposition to FGC is so frequently couched.>>>>

    Okay: so your argument is that on a MEDICAL level the harm of FGC is “unclear” and that on an IDEOLOGICAL level it shouldn’t be morally condemned? Have you got rocks in your head or what?

    And the comparison to abortion — so clueless. I am sorry, dear, but SO FUCKING CLUELESS.

    Whenever FGC comes up in my classes I ask my students how they’d feel about a Sudanese women’s group coming to North America to campaign against breast implants. They go through the whole “but it’s a choice! But women like it! Blah blah!” discussion but it’s easy to point out that the same can be (and, as you document, is) said for FGC.

    NOTE, however, that the point remains: both practices are painful deformations of women’s bodies in the service of systematic misogyny. The Sudanese feminists don’t protest here because of global inequality, duh. That’s not really a clever “gotcha”: global inequality acts on all kinds of problems, not just this one.

    But to say these practices are medically “fuzzy” or that condemning them is somehow misguided: seriously, your head would sit SO much more comfortably on top of your neck if you shook some of the rocks out of it.

  2. I think you’re probably making a valid criticism of Dustin’s article here, but I am reminded a bit of the misreading of the Muslim veil. We see it as a sign of oppressive misogyny, yet many Muslim women wear it for reasons that are undeniably feminist.

    There is a big difference between a strip of fabric and full-on FGC, of course, but I still think it’s important to pay attention to the primary sources. It may look like a product of oppressive misogyny to us (and perhaps it is), but we can’t/shouldn’t look at other cultures through the same lenses we view our own. In our culture, a practice that is couched in misogyny may take an entirely different context in another.

  3. Bryan — I think, instead, the point is that there is no one “correct” reading of a veil. As an anthropologist, what the hey, veils all around. As a feminist, it’s obvious that veils are in the category of Garb That Marks Female Sexuality in a Pronounced Way that, not accidentally, Really Inconveniences Women in Carrying out Normal Daily Life. The ridiculous outfits worn by the Carrie character in Sex in the City (pointy-toe stiletto heels, dresses made out of sparkly hankies) are in my view the counterpart to the burka. That doesn’t mean I think those stupid outfits or the burka get a free pass from critical consideration.

    It is significant — but hardly a debate-stopper — that some women do in fact experience that kind of garb as “empowering”.

    (more to the point: it is REALLY significant that we spend so much fucking time discussing what women fucking wear)

    My point is that thinking cross-culturally ideally produces a state in which you can think critically about your own culture, not a state in which your brains fall out of your ears and right on to the floor.

  4. But is there a difference between ‘thinking critical’ and ‘criticizing?’

    Maybe not, but just a quick thought before I have time to write more.

  5. yes — there is. I should have been more clear. ruthless criticizing (not just thinking differently) is important, as somebody once said.

  6. Agreed. But there also ought to be a balanced discourse. When the anti-FGC rhetoric is dominated by ruthless criticizing there is a severe lack of actual thought – something I think Dustin did a good (albiet flawed) job of providing. Both stances are important though. I’m not sure if he deserves as harsh a critique as he is getting (but then again, perhaps you’re simply providing the ruthless criticism to balance my less assertive stance!).

  7. Ozma, the medical evidence really is unclear — out of some 300-odd studies Obermeyer reviewed, over 140 had simply no evidence at all. Almost none of them have used control groups, so a lot of studies that claim “x% of FGCs result in y medical problem” really only demonstrate that “x% of women who seek medical attention and have FGCs have y problem”. I was, if anything, fairly charitable in my assessment of the medical issue.

    That said, if it causes harm, it causes harm — we can recognize that without labeling it as “immoral”, which would mean… what? It certainly isn’t “immoral” in the societies in which it takes place — so if it’s in some absolute sense “immoral” that means that the people who practice it are lacking some moral faculty. Not only is this bad anthropological practice, but it’s really not helpful to the women it’s supposed to be helping.

    I’m not arguing that FGC is unrelated to patriarchy or misogyny; I’m arguing that a) Western responses are ethnocentric (and I wouldn’t dismiss “patriarchal and misogynistic” in many instances) and b) that patriarchy isn’t going to be dismantled by attacking FGC.

    And I don’t think the abortion comparison is anything like “clueless” — you have a practice that many people feel is immoral and barbaric, and that carries greater health risks performed by untrained, undergound practitioners than it does (or could) under medicalized conditions. The “choice” issues are somewhat different, involving in one instance an individual choice and in the other a collective choice; I purposely steered clear of issues of choice and consent because they are far to difficult to deal with given the current anthropological literature (they are more philosophical than ethnographic issues). But these issues are not resolved in the way we think about abortion, either — a growing literature on selective abortion (e.g. of female fetuses, or of fetuses with genetic defects) is complicating the purity of the notion of “free choice” and highlighting the cultural concerns that come into play.

    I don’t recall raising the issue of African activists protesting here. What I’d like to see is a way of addressing the issues of patriarchy and global inequality that might also be respectful of the humanity and cultures of the people we are trying to help. Westerners have a great deal of power in the world, which means we have a lot of potential to do good, but it means we have a lot of potential to do bad. Closing our eyes and pulling the trigger in the hopes that all that power will do good is, I think, not the best presciption.

  8. Actually, who am I kidding.

    (1) The “attacking X is stupid because it won’t solve the whole problem argument” is ridiculous. If you know the ONE thing we should get to work on to dismantle patriarchy, please, start posting some flyers. Otherwise, it really looks like a line that exists only to be trotted out any time you wish patriarchy-opposers would drop some particular issue.

    (2) The abortion comparison is incredibly clueless. In terms of women’s rights and autonomy, access to safe and legal abortion is a vital good. In terms of women’s rights and autonomy, having one’s breasts and genitalia sliced up in the service of some crap notion of how they ought to look and feel is an unequivocal bad. The “but some people think abortion is bad and some people think these other things are good and they all have to do with women and sexuality and therefore they are all the same” is utterly brainless. It really is.

    (3) Either you notice and take seriously that misogyny seems to be the one cross-cultural human universal, or you treat it in the same gee-whiz way you might treat the fact that “some people like to eat bugs and some people think eating bugs is GROSS!” It seems to me that you are doing the latter, which is moronic.

    (4) it really, really would reduce the stupid factor in your argument if you stopped trying to be a cultural relativist who argues from biology (hey! some medical results indicate genital cutting might not be all that bad!). If you are going to argue from biology, you are going to have to deal with the fact that the evidence — even when interpreted as generously as possible — really is against you. If you are going to argue from cultural relativism, then you are back to the “Bugs: Gross or Not Gross?” drivel which I think you realize is silly and inadequate. Thus your recourse to biology, followed by tripping all over yourself and falling over.

  9. Bryan: it’s always so great to have the men keep score. I prefer it that way, (bats eyes, ducks head, blushes).

  10. Oh my, I hope we haven’t lost our sense of humor. Although I can’t say I didn’t see veiled accusations of misogyny coming from a mile away before I posted that one, my snarky side couldn’t resist.

    In all seriousness, however, I agree with a lot of your criticisms and I’m glad you decided to come back and voice them; the only way to lose an argument is to stop arguing.

    I’m still not sure where to stand on the matter of biology – I haven’t seen any of the referenced studies and can’t make a judgment without seeing the facts – but I know if arguing from the position of biological ethics one can make the argument that given the cultures which practice FGC, cutting is biologically ethical if it increases one’s chance of reproduction and (if Dustin’s biological facts are correct) has little ill effects.

    I won’t argue that position myself; it’s a slippery slope I don’t want to travel down, not to mention I couldn’t really take myself seriously if I said it. I would always prefer to take the route of systemic change than fitting one’s morals to the system. But what do we use as a blueprint? It all depends on where you’re arguing from – geographically, politically, ethically – even from which field of scholarship you’re coming from (or whether you come from a field of scholarship at all). How do we decide?

  11. by your definition of “biological ethics”, getting raped would get a pass. Again, open head, remove rocks.

    in re: sense of humour. you probably saw this one coming from a thousand miles away too, but it’s what people always — always — say about feminists and their arguments. If only they weren’t so humorless, if only they used a different tone, if only they weren’t so overbearing, if only they talked about X instead of Y, if only…

    *then* they might be worth listening to. But until then:

    feminists 0
    same damn thing over and over 1

  12. by your definition of “biological ethics”, getting raped would get a pass.

    Thus the slippery slope I didn’t want to go down. But if you really want to get technical (and I’m not an expert on the subject by any means, so I may be wrong), I don’t think rape would be defensible because it takes away female choice, which is an integral part of sexual relations. I won’t defend this statement any further, because it was just me thinking out loud and not something I’m willing to commit to. That’s the beauty of blogs, right?

    And, yeah, you’re right, I could see that coming. But for me, my comment had nothing to do with you being a woman and me being a man, it had to do with you withdrawing from the discussion rather than returning Dustin’s argument. You’re the one who made it about you being a woman, not me. And I know that sounds like a tired argument, but in this case I think it holds water. And if all else fails and you were offended by it, I really do apologize.

  13. The thing that boggles my mind with the FGC debate is the willingness to lump the huge variety of things that happen together and then label them misogynistic “crap notions.” Omza, do you dismiss Ahmadu’s views completely? How can we compare Yoruban FGC, which removes only the clitoral hood and “nicks” the clitoris, with Sudanese infibulation? How do the girls Lori Leonard studied fit in with patriarchal oppression? They saved up their pennies and ran away to neighbouring towns to have excisions performed against their parents’ and elders’ (who were both women and men) wishes.

    I don’t see how a stand that suggests that all FGC forms are misogynistic, harmful to women, and things that women would never, ever choose is anything other than deeply ethnocentric and problematic. Women do choose to get their genitals altered, all the time. Sometimes (often) it’s problematic. Sometimes it’s rooted in misogyny, patriarchy, or just general bad reasoning. But given the prevalence and history of body modification in humans, I don’t think that we can boil it down to something that is simply about men verses women, oppression, or subjugation. And I don’t think that we can say that the balance of norms, choice, power, etc. is the same in every case.

    And I’m sorry, but I can’t help but see the evidence that most forms of FGC are NOT associated with medical problems (or only very weakly associated) as being incredibly relevant to women’s choices. I do not see a defensible feminist position in using misinformation to argue that other women shouldn’t do something that the feminist women just happen to have a moral objection to. This is taking licence to take away some women’s choices based on moral judgements (it’s like saying “it’s okay to say that it prevents fertility, even though it doesn’t, because they respond to issues of fertility and *we* know that they should stop”).

  14. Ozma, I explicitly avoided the medical argument not becuase I think FGC is good or even unproblematic for women’s health but because a) the data isn’t very good and b) it’s not very relevant. Most feminists would still oppose FGC even if it could be rendered totally harmless.

    And my argument about patriarchy is a little more complex than you’re giving me credit for — I don’t see how us telling women what to do with their genitals is any less patriarchal than their own cultures telling them. If we are going to advocate for better women’s health *and* more equal power relationships for African and other women, we have to get around that, and I think ignoring women’s own complex relationships with FGC and with their own bodies is *not* the way to do that.

    On the “crap reasons”, I agree with Carmen, and I’ll go one further — most discussion of FGC isn’t concerned with the crappiness of the reasons because most pays scant attention to reasons of any sort. And *then*, the small number of people who pay attention have the nerve to label women’s reasons “crap”. Again, how does this help?

  15. Oneman writes:

    This piece is not intended as a defense of FGC or even to dissuade activism intended to help women for whom FGC is a part of their daily lives. Rather, it is hoped that by complicating the over-simplified representations that make up the bulk of anti-FGC discussions, more effective action can be developed that, while it may not directly address the end of FGC, can improve the lives of women overall and indirectly address the issue at hand.

    So, both Oneman and Ozma agree that any attempt to deal with FGC requires coming to terms with inequality. The difference I see is that Oneman is making an effort to describe what dealing with inequality might mean (i.e. “understanding complexity”), while Ozma sees any such efforts as a defense of FGC. (Presumably Ozma feels that inequality must be dealt with as a separate issue, which strikes me as overly materialist.)

    Ozma also seems to deliberately misrepresent Oneman’s “abortion” argument – which (as I understand it) is not a defense of FGC but an argument that legalizing it would make it safer. Perhaps bringing abortion into this discussion was unwise – heroin needle distribution programs might have been a better analogy, but I don’t think he is saying what Ozma implies he is saying.

    While I am horrified at FGC and don’t see any way in which it could be excusable, the whole “white men [and women] saving brown women from brown men” disturbs me (mostly because I know many brown women who are disturbed by it). I think any solution to FGC needs to come to terms with this concern in order to be successful.

    I suspect that Oneman deliberately overstated his case in order to provoke reaction. For this reason it is probably easy to selectively pick out quotes showing him to be clueless and insensitive to the issue; but doing so seems to miss his point and his concerns.

  16. On reading the very original discussion, I wonder how the Lancet study jives with medical intersex research, which for the most part claims that doctors can remove large portions of the clitoris with no long-term health effects. Now, intersex surgery follow-up is notoriously poor, so it is possible that there have been increased maternal and infant deaths among women who’ve had “clitoral reductions” without anyone noticing. If so, I think that would be strong support for the idea that genital surgeries are dangerous. However, if there isn’t an increase in parturient complications for intersexed women, I wonder what that implies for the Lancet study. Possibly that, at least for Type II (which intersex surgeries would be classified as if we included “western” practices in such categorizations), access to adequate medical care during birth is a mitigating factor in how the surgeries affect women.

  17. Looking back, I see I missed this first time around, from Ozma:

    That doesn’t mean I think those stupid outfits or the burka get a free pass from critical consideration.

    And I\’m not trying to forestall critical consideration here; if anything, I hope I\’m encouraging *more* critical thought. If we take veiling as an example, whatever we think of veiling, I think we can agree that the French feminists public, and often forceful, unveiling of North African women at the end of the 19th c. was not the right way to deal with the issue. And how do we know that? Well, for one thing, because since then we\’ve spent a lot of time trying to discuss the complexities of veiling in its many manifestations and of the cultures in which it occurs. I think a lot of the anti-FGC activism today is similarly misguided and, like Victorian-era anti-veiling efforts, often racist and sexist. But there seems to be an incredible resistance to the notion that better ideas might emerge from a better understanding of the cultural context in which FGC occurs, and I have to wonder why that is.

    (more to the point: it is REALLY significant that we spend so much fucking time discussing what women fucking wear)

    And what do you think the fact that we spend at least as much time talking about their genitals says about us? And that we\’ve done so for at least 2 centuries…?

  18. The discussion on intersex operations and FGC in general brings to mind the Savage Love column of 1 week ago. A woman wrote in saying that she kept on losing lovers as her clit was too big. She asked Dan Savage about surgery. He turned to a medical school professor, Alice Dreger, for advice about such surgery. She made some interesting points. She responded, in part: “Should you get surgery? I wouldn’t in a million years, knowing what I know. Many women who have had clitoral-reduction surgery as children and as adults report diminished sexual sensation. Think about it, it only makes sense: You cut into a really sensitive organ, and you’re messing with sensation. Take parts off, take sensation away. Worse yet, some women who have had this surgery report short-term or lifelong genital pain.

    “If that’s not enough to dissuade you, BC, consider this: Most of the surgeons out there hacking away at different-than-average clits don’t know much about clitoral geography. “They’ve finally started confessing this in the medical meetings I attend,” said Dreger. “For example, the nerves turn out to be in different places than most of them thought. Oops! And most of them don’t know that most women masturbate by rubbing the shaft of the clit—which is kind of like how most men masturbate, by rubbing the shaft of their penises. Meanwhile the shaft is what surgeons typically remove, thinking only the glans (the nubbin at the tip) is what’s important. Oops again!”

    You can read the entire column and get links to Dreger’s cite at

    In this light, the different results of FGC are biologically understandable. It need not always result in loss of sexual sensation, depending on the woman and how it’s done.

    At the same time, we are apparently not free of forms of FGC ourselves, as in the case of intersex operations.

    There’s a strange parallel in modern Western discussions of genitalia as related to male or female sexuality. I am, for instance, astounded by the idea that someone could have the ‘wrong size’ of clitoris. Let’s see — we can have penises that are ‘too small’ (maybe) but apparently never ‘too large.’ And we can have clitorides that are ‘too large,’ but has anyone heard a discussion of a clitoris that’s ‘too small’?

  19. Well, there is a fetish community that likes big clitoris’, but I guess that’s why they’re a marginalized fetish community… The thing about penii and clitorii, though, is that size *does* matter — symbolically. You can never have too big a penis, because a man can never be too manly; you can never have too small a clitoris, because a woman can never be too womanly. But a man with a small penis is unmanly, emasculated, a girly man; a woman with a big clitoris is unwomanly, unfeminine, mannish. A big clitoris signifies a man-like sexual appetite; a small penis, a womanlike sexual passivity.

    This is explicit in many FGCs. In many communities, it is believed that, left uncut, the clitoris will continue to grow — until it turns into a penis! (Because male circumcision is less focused on in the literature, I don’t know if there is a corrolary for men, if foreskins left uncut are believed to engulf the penis and turn into a vulva.) There is a sexual fluidity at work here, a recognition that nature left to its own devices does not create sexualities and must be helped along — and which, I’m sure, contributes heartily to the resistance many African women exert against the Western insistance on “going natural”.

  20. I think that, more than anything, looking at claims about the medical effects of FGC and intersex surgeries together demonstrates how poor the information on the consequences of genital surgeries actually is. In the Western medical community, the claim is that there is minimal permanent damage, that women retain sexual sensation and desire, and that other complications (such as scar tissue interfering with urinary function) are minimal. In the anti-FGC discourse, there are claims that *any degree* of cutting results in urinary problems, sexual disfunction, reduced fertility, and complications during labour and delivery.

    Interestingly, (according to Cheryl Chase) intersex surgeries were originally justified in part by the “fact” that African women’s clitorises were removed without impairing their sexual function (meant, in this case, their ability to engage in intercourse and give birth, not their ability to enjoy sex).

    Clearly, there are a number of problems with how we understand what happens when a child’s genitals are surgically altered. The claims about the effects of intersex surgery and FGC are contradictory; but not only that, claims in the “west” about surgeries in Africa have changed based on what purposes they are being put to. I doubt that either side is right at this point (although, to be fair, I haven’t had a chance to read the Lancet study yet).

    Kate says,

    In this light, the different results of FGC are biologically understandable. It need not always result in loss of sexual sensation, depending on the woman and how it’s done.

    I’m not sure if I’m interpreting this statement correctly, but I think it’s along the lines of that North American surgeries are different and therefore have different results for women with respect to orgasm/pleasure. That may be true, although I’m not at all convinced based on the anecdotal experiences of intersexed adults.

    However, it’s a little different from the point that I was trying to make, which is that if the Lancet study is accurate, and any degree of surgical alteration to the clitoris results in complications during labour, then shouldn’t we see increased complications during the labour of intersex women? Girls often undergo multiple surgeries, and (proportionately) large amounts of tissue are removed. So, if *any* tissue removal causes increased risk during labour (as, I understand, the study indicates), then we should expect that intersex surgery also increases risk for mother and child, regardless of whether the women retain sexual sensation. I don’t think such a study has been done, so I don’t know whether it’s true, but I think it would have interesting implications either way.

    Okay, I’m feeling awfully long-winded, so I’ll stop now.

  21. it’s unfortunate that this discussion has been marred by the use of so many ad hominems. these are understandable reactions, but it strikes me that accusing someone of having rocks in their head, for example, hardly counts as an adequate argument.

    i see a number of interesting strands in this discussion, two of which strike me as worth pursuing here.

    first, it seems like the whole debate could benefit from a close analysis of how consciousness theory is used by each side. we tend to settle the question of FGC by asking whether or not the patients themselves object to it. if they do, then we should add our voices to theirs. if they don’t, then who are we to intervene? perhaps it’s positively meaningful to them! but in this latter case we might quickly object that the patients are victims of false consciousness foisted on them by the ideological agents of their society (chiefs, priests, husbands, etc.). i am not altogether averse to this approach, since i believe it allows us to retain our capacity to act politically. but it has its problems…

    and this brings me to my second point. the ideology in question here is readily categorized as patriarchy. in fact, a number of commentators have suggested that patriarchy might be a cultural universal. to me this seems just patently problematic. as ruth benedict has taught us, we can’t assume that social facts that appear similar across cultures (e.g., marriage, love, sex) are indeed comparable. against this advice, we are quick to attribute FGC to patriarchal gender relations: it looks like patriarchy, so we assume it must be. but this impulse merely reflects certain analytical reflexes that themselves derive from our particular culture history. once upon a time we would have been content to see FGC through a functionalist lens, and our relativism – our moral neutrality – would have been built on this basis. by the late 1970s, though, marxist critical theory was gaining traction, and as we began to interrogate previously reified social wholes we found power relationships everywhere. “interest conflict” became the overriding leitmotif of critical analysis. this seems still to be the case among those who insist on moralizing about FGC. this version of the story shows that the men appear to dominate the women, hypnotizing them with narratives and rituals that naturalize their subordination, all in order that the men gain power and prestige and maintain control over resources. gender here is the point of “natural”, taken-for-granted schisms of interest. and it’s a zero-sum game: when the men gain, the women lose, and vice versa. never can their interests be mutual, and they certainly can’t extend beyond the pale of their interest group to encompass greater ends. put all of this together and voila! we have the maximizing individual projected across cultures.

    not that his helps us solve the problem, but hopefully it’s useful in assessing its parameters.

  22. FGC or Female Genital Mutilation, is not just restricted to some tribes in Africa, as you must know. What may surprise you that there are not hundreds but thousands of cases of FGC/FGM in America today.
    Take for instance one community alone. The muslims Shia sect of Bohra’s also called Bohri’s who are disciple of a leader called Dr Burhan-ud-deen, their 52nd “Dai” (Ref: Jonah Blank “Mullah’s on the Mainframe”) – this community is very prosperous in the US and under the direction of their leader MUST perform “female circumcision” on a child when she reaches age seven – not before not after.
    Although this practice is outlawed in the US none the less it flourishes because Bohri Doctors perform the “procedure” off the record.
    These are American girls. They are victimized and traumatized. And since their parents are complicit in this crime against them, there is nothing one can do because if you were to confront them, you would have a collective wall of denial.
    My heart simply hurts for these little girls because in the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth, their voices are silenced, because their orgasm are feared.

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