As it is, Genitals matter

In patriarchal heaven, a special award for total disregard and hatred of females is reserved for people who blather on about how genitals don’t matter and male circumcision is just as bad as female genital mutilation. You are more likely to encounter such drivel from those who are furthest removed from communities which enforce atrocious cultural practices like FGM. But while the temptation is to blank out their appropriative erasure of women’s struggles, there will be no silence in the face of this covert wave of misogynistic violence.

Perhaps in an ideal world, genitals would have as much importance as arms, or ears; vital but not weaponized as they are in sexist, male-centred, capitalist society. But wishing something were different doesn’t make it so. Here and now, genitals matter. And it is essential that those at the receiving end of oppression on the basis of the type they were born with understand exactly why and how this oppression is actualized. For us, this is a starting point toward liberation.

Undeniably, consent is a major issue in both female and male genital cutting. Consent  is compromised, often nonexistent, not only in the circumcision of male and female babies/children, but in cultures which provide no other option for their members except to endure it. And while tribal and religious women/men may proclaim agency and pride in having undergone the ritual, the fact that doing otherwise would have led to grave repercussions undermines the context of choice.

The absence of consent is one of the main arguments against male circumcision. But critique and comparisons between genital cutting of males vis-a-vis that of females must go further, beginning with acknowledging the fact that FGM and male circumcision, both of which center the penis (i.e ‘manhood’), are just two of several gender rituals which pay homage to and reify the belief in the superiority of maleness – even as their enforcement hurts boys/men too. This universal culture of phallocentric worship, and in turn, male domination and female oppression, is at the root of most, if not all, practices of genital cutting.

Consider Uganda where male circumcision is popularly practiced by the BaMasaba (or Bagisu) tribe. The upbeat imbalu festivities, held in the month of August in every even-numbered year, are recognized in our mainstream culture. During each season, teenage boys are initiated into manhood by the cutting off of the foreskin. This marks one as a man; giving boys unfettered access to the spoils of male privilege.

Of such importance is imbalu that adult males who aren’t circumcised are referred to derogatorily as boys. Wives are urged to report uncircumcised husbands. Males who escape from their villages/families in fear or defiance are hunted down and forced to undergo cutting. It is said that if a Mugisu man dies uncircumcised, his corpse ‘faces the knife’ before burial.

Male circumcision is also practiced within Uganda’s muslim community, in the belief that circumcised men are ‘cleaner’ than their uncircumcised counterparts. But the practice goes beyond Bagisu and Muslims. With the dawn of the new millenium, we have seen an increase in cases of child sacrifice, attributed to witch-doctors demanding offerings of human heads, blood, and genitals from wealth-seeking and/or wealth-protecting clients. The ideal ritual is said to be infants (preferably male, as indicated by a 2008 Uganda Police Annual Crime and Traffic/Road Safety report showing that of 25 cases of ritual murder of children, 6 victims were female and 19 of them male), specifically without any cuts on their bodies. Blemishes have been given as a reason as to why some children, supposedly kidnapped for sacrifice, have been dumped off by the perpetrators. Thus, as protection, many Ugandans now rush to circumcise their sons weeks after birth.

Some Ugandan men also opt for circumcision on the basis of the W.H.O finding that circumcised men have less chance of contracting HIV. In a country where despite massive efforts to drive awareness, infection rates are still high, this is not surprising.

Still within these borders, we have the Pokot, Sabiny, Kadama and Tepeth in and around the district of Kapchorwa – the only known indigenous Ugandan tribes which practice FGM. The procedure varies across cultures; here, it mainly constitutes clitoridectomy, that is, cutting off the clitoris. In some cases with partial cutting of the inner labia. While in others, infibulation whereby both labia are cut off and the resulting wound is sewn up, leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual blood. Upon marriage, this hole is raptured open by a penis, usually with the help of a knife. More cutting is often required to widen the opening during childbirth.

In excising the clitoris, female capacity for sexual pleasure, and thereby likelihood of sexual misconduct are curbed. This ‘purification’ ensures that men have control over the sexuality of ‘their’ girls/women, some of them pre-teen by the time of cutting. Whatever their age, girls with mutilated genitals are considered ripe for marriage, and are regarded highly in the community unlike their ‘incomplete’ counterparts.

Genital cutting poses a high risk of transmitting infections, including HIV, due to the sharing of instruments. But while this issue has been openly addressed by tribal and medical practitioners of male circumcision, this isn’t the case for FGM. Moreover, in Uganda at least, female genital mutilation is carried out underground, and not by medical professionals in specialized establishments. Therefore, naive equivalence simply works to sanitize the realities of an absolute tragedy, and accrue to it the surgical advantages in male circumcision.

But this is a fraction of what girls/women who undergo FGM face: excruciating pain from the moment of cutting (without anaesthesia, unlike in the modern practice of male circumcision), and a lifetime of painful urination, on/off urinary tract infections, inflammation of the bladder due to urine retention, painful menstruation due to blood retention in the uterus, severe pain during sexual intercourse, prolonged labour due to loss of elasticity of the vaginal canal, fistula due to rapturing of the vagina and/or uterus during childbirth, and even death. Incomparable to the healing process of circumcised males which generally takes couple of weeks, using local herbs and/or western medicine to numb the pain, hasten the process, and ward off infections.

This is why women world over continue fighting to end this inhumane, barbaric practice. We also recognize that the ultimate beneficiary of all genital cutting, particularly that which is culturally-mandated, is the class of men.

When male children are promoted into manhood through circumcision, continuing male subjugation of girls/women in the footsteps of their forefathers, it is men who benefit and women who pay the price.

When male children are valued over female children, so much so that they are prime offering for sacrifice – as done by biblical patriarchs – it is boys who pay  the price and men who benefit from it.

As they do when circumcised to reduce their chance of being infected with HIV, even as male violence places women at higher risk of infection, with females aged 15-24  (who, according to UNAIDS, account for 75% of infections in sub-Saharan Africa) three times more likely to be infected than boys/men of the same age.

Importantly, men enjoy benefits (real or imagined), whereas women lose whichever way you look at it, in the practice of female genital cutting. And yet even in this day, the subordination, dehumanization, and destruction of femaleness itself in FGM culture is continually defanged in relativism and equality rhetoric.

Enough with those spewing ‘genitals don’t matter’ and ‘just as bad as…’ foolishness while the genitals of our sisters across the globe are cut and diced to the whims and for the ego of men.

The oppression of female persons, girls and women, will not be queered out of existence by the language policing (clitoral amputation?!?) and derailing tactics of conservative idealists and men’s rights activists cloaked in liberalism. We must remain vigilant.

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10 thoughts on “As it is, Genitals matter

  1. feministintactivism

    MGM does not center the penis. It centers the archetypal phallus as an instrument of heterosexuality and removes the feminine aspect. Insults directed at the foreskin consist solely of comparisons to the vagina. The ‘benefit’ of circumcision is Pyrrhic (and the whole concept of ‘medical benefits’ is from the same thinking behind the increasing medicalization of FGM – surgery is not hygiene, and circumcision can cause a net increase in HIV among men who think they’re safe). It is a social ‘benefit’ that presents social status as a valid recompense for physical violence. In the same sense as FGM, where the women doing the cutting even have organized political power – enough to resist men who are fighting FGM in some cases.

    You also limit your comparison to FGM and modern medical circumcision. These procedures are the vast minority, and even in the West barely one in 20 use any form of anesthetic. The existence of FGM is no reason to take patriarchal Western medicine at its word regarding a surgery designed to fix gender identity & enforce heterosexuality. Your arguments that it harms women are valid and all the more reason to treat these issues according to their direct shared causal history. After acknowledging the physical harm done not to men but to boys and infants.

    No aspect of the gender-inclusive anti-mutilation movement (led by women, feminists & FGM survivors while MRAs just troll) is any threat to women or to the anti-FGM movement. There is actually considerable overlap, and more men becoming feminists because they saw feminists speaking against MGM. Additionally, intactivists (by virtue of being mostly mothers) are activists against intersex mutilation and obstetric violence. They fight the men who coerce women to cut sons. To hand this issue over to the MRAs by crediting them with the work of largely women intactivists is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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    1. unculturedsisterhood Post author

      Thanks for reading, and replying.
      Firstly, I don’t understand what this “archetypal phallus” is, if not the penis. Please enlighten me.
      By ‘benefits’, medical or otherwise, it is just to state the idea/reasons behind the practice – specifically the fact that the pretext behind which circumcision is sold is in the interest of men, whether the benefit is real or imagined. You seem to wrongly interprete this as some endorsement of said practices whereas it is simply a statement of the belief which supports the cutting. In fact, you talk about ‘social benefit’ which is the same thing I’ve clearly stated – ref. circumcised Bagisu boys. Speaking of Bagisu, you also note that I’ve limited comparison to modern circumcision. Re-read the article. It is clearly written that both FGM and circumcision of males (in Uganda, which is what I’m writing about) are largely carried out among specific tribes, but because of acceptance, the traditional male circumcision practitioners benefit from more sensitization on safe(r) processes in order to cut the risks of infections, and take more precaution compared to their FGM counterparts. So this idea that I’m “taking patriarchal western medicine at its word” makes no sense to me.
      Cutting one’s genitals without their consent, worse still when it will negatively impact on their future enjoyment of life, is wrong. This includes those who are intersex, some of whom are cut as newborns. None of this is refuted in the original post.
      The work done by those challenging these practices is commendable. Those people are not MRAs; I have no idea where you get this impression in a post which was about those who, in their efforts to derail women who are fighting against FGM, ask that same women also fight male circumcision because it is “just as bad” in reality. Others say that referring to FGM as we do is “bad” because it is transphobic. If you belong to either of those groups, then I strongly disagree with your stance for the reasons stated in the post.
      If the so-called anti-mutilation movement is based on the appropriation of the language of the anti-FGM movement, for example, classifying the circumcision of boys/men such as which I wrote about as “mutilation” (which it is not!), thereby minimizing the realities of FGM to some also men are suffering bullshit, that movement is part of the MRAs I’m writing about. If a man first needs to see/hear a woman speak up against male circumcision in order for him to “become feminist” (as you write), then that is feminism that I want no part in. Moreover, are these men divesting themselves of the ‘social benefits’ they acquired via circumcision &/or other gender practices via which the status of males is ‘raised’ over that of females? Ofen not.
      My feminism centers women, not egotistic men with their need to be centered in everything, including the women’s liberation movement, while girls/women are still oppressed in this male supremacist society.

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      1. feministintactivism

        Thank you for taking the time to write such an in-depth response. I apologize for not clarifying the context I was referring to, as I’m still learning which forms of FGM are practiced in which areas and have had some trouble finding good information. When I refer to FGM here, I’m referring to it more globally – I don’t wish to compare MGM damage with infibulation. MGM is certainly comparable to other common forms of FGM, but that’s still beside the point – it’s not a matter of anatomical similarity but of interdependence and shared psychology.

        FGM and MGM are two manifestations of the same cultural disorder – one most comparable to Munchausen by proxy and body dysmorphic disorder. It is more dangerous than bigotry or oppression alone because it can willfully disguise itself as ‘medical’ (as FGM does in many cultures). Addressing it requires us to recognize that these practices involve two different types of organism – people, and self-replicating ideas that control people. Ideas are living things, and they can manipulate our responses to them. Patriarchy has even found ways to use feminism to reinforce itself. The gender binary that feminism fights is now being incorporated into feminism. One manifestation of this is the idea that the ethical standards we apply to mutilation on girls should not be applied to mutilation on boys.

        “Those people are not MRAs; I have no idea where you get this impression in my post which was about those who, in their efforts to derail women who are fighting against FGM, ask that same women also fight male circumcision because it is “just as bad” in reality. Others say that referring to FGM as we do is “bad” because it is transphobic. If you belong to either of those groups, then I totally disagree with your stance for the reasons stated in the post.”

        I was referring to the last line where you mentioned MRAs derailing the movement against FGM. I wonder what group you’re referring to – I’ve seen MRAs in North America but am not aware of any MRA movement in FGM-practicing areas. There seem to be very few MRAs period, relative to the press they get.

        Many in the US (including a fair number of white feminists eager to paint black men as savages but who are not really involved in fighting FGM) still support MGM and exploit FGM as an excuse. They paint all opposition as coming from MRAs and erase the American feminists and FGM survivors who do fight MGM. Those who support MGM also pay the least attention to FGM survivors’ direct experiences and tend to be unaware of any form other than infibulation. I haven’t seen any counter-movement of men who oppose MGM but support FGM.

        As for the accusation of transphobia, I agree that any transgender complaint about the term FGM is ridiculous. Male and female are biological realities. Trans women are not affected by FGM and are not harmed in any way by the use of the term. If they are concerned about trans women, they should focus on MGM because trans women are born anatomically male.

        I do not ask actual FGM activists (as opposed to Jezebel bloggers) to actively fight MGM. Most of them can’t put resources into both. All I hope for is that nobody will be demonized as the inventors or beneficiaries of any form of cutting (the inventors have been dead for thousands of years). Men would fare better in a society where women were free and sexually liberated. Some MRAs claim that because American women are used to circumcised men that it is therefore the fault of women. But the ‘benefit’ to women is not real. It’s the same logic that says men benefit from FGM simply because the cutters told them they do. The stated intentions behind these practices are smokescreens for the actual causes – people only think that they are choosing to do this of their own free will. Their actions are a result of cultural programming – the reasons they state are excuses long after the fact.

        The concept of ‘derailing’ does not apply to Western discussions of FGM by women who are not affected. They seem unable to talk about FGM without bringing up MGM specifically for the purpose of rationalizing it. These claims do cause boys to get cut – correcting them on these claims does not cause girls to get cut. Few of them are actively involved in fighting FGM. For them it is less about protecting girls than about using FGM for ideological currency.

        I hope that if the idea of ‘medical benefits’ for MGM comes up, that FGM activists will at least be unequivocal in their rejection of such claims. Many of the health claims are fabricated by ‘researchers’ who support FGM as well, such as Brian Morris. Pro-FGM lobbyists in some countries have used the HIV studies on boys as an excuse to consider cutting girls. Or to put it another way, genitals don’t matter to the people with the knives.

        “Firstly, I don’t understand what this “archetypal phallus” is, if not the penis. Enlighten me.”

        I think you provide an excellent description of the archetypal phallus here:

        “…both of which center the penis (i.e ‘manhood’), are just two of several gender rituals which pay homage to and reify the belief in the superiority of maleness – even as their enforcement hurts boys/men too. This universal culture of phallocentric worship”

        Masculinity offers men a lot of false promises. There is the physical penis, which evolved naturally & has a built-in substitute for penetration – the foreskin. Then there is the culture’s idea of the ‘phallus,’ which does not have foreskin. The idea of the phallus is what is privileged, in order to mask the fact that the actual organ is despised. All sexuality is despised because it doesn’t neatly fit into unnatural patriarchal molds. It is despised so much that men who still have normal anatomy are, as you said, considered ‘boys.’ Circumcising cultures are especially homophobic and prohibitive of masturbation. The ability of men & women to relieve themselves without procreating is considered so pathological that both must risk their lives and fertility to get rid of it. Their actual sexuality is sacrificed to socially constructed sexuality. The immorality of oppression doesn’t explain the causes of this behavior.

        ‘Manhood’ is not the organ itself, but the assumption that it will be used for reproduction and not for solo or same-sex activities. MGM and the majority of FGM are designed to remove the ability to receive stimulation from anything other than intercourse. They are designed to reduce pleasure and to reorient it (outward in men, inward in women), but usually not to obliterate it entirely (again, referring to forms besides infibulation). 90% of the clitoris is internal, and no attempt is made to remove all of it – the remaining tissue is still accessible via rough intercourse, which may also be deliberate.

        In these cultures a normal unaltered man is not considered a man and has no privilege. He is also not considered a man if he is gay, cannot breed or will not kill other men (or die trying). On the contrary, he is likely to be considered as not only less than a man but less than a woman or child. Similarly, your response is not to men but to the idea of maleness. Men who fight MGM are at war with surgically enforced masculinity.

        The old Egyptian myths about removing the masculine from women & the feminine from men are an accurate mechanical description – not of normal anatomy but the archetypal anatomy that someone re-designing the species solely for reproduction would choose. That someone is the group’s combined intelligence, which presents itself as a culture or a deity. It is an idea that thinks for itself and uses people as a growth medium. That is what rules human cultures – not men. Men are half the cells in an organism that has 7 billion cells. A man lives a few decades and ceases to exist. An idea lives for centuries and can physically consume the resources of an entire continent.

        In most of the areas that practice it, FGM is one of the few things that women do control and men are often excluded from the ritual or knowledge of it. There it is done because it is believed to confer benefits – social status, ‘cleanliness,’ ‘adulthood,’ etc. Women aren’t looking at their daughters and intentionally trying to harm them. They are not attacking femininity. They are enforcing femininity by altering women. The idea of ‘woman’ is privileged over actual women. Similarly, MGM is a problem not because it attacks masculinity but because it enforces it. It turns male sexuality into a blunt weapon (and is one cause of FGM – even in the US, women are paying to be ‘tightened’ for circumcised men).

        It is inappropriate to refer to being mutilated as a privilege for men (circumcision being one of the most extreme forms of sexual assault & child molestation). Women who gain social standing by cutting girls are not asked to give up any of that privilege. But there are ways that MGM harms others without improving men’s lives. None of them actually benefit the individual man, but they do benefit the idea of masculinity.

        So here are the ‘privileges’ men are giving up by fighting MGM: The privilege of saying that their altered penis is better than a normal one (realizing they were damaged is extremely distressing). The privilege of cutting their sons and forcing mothers to comply. The privilege of expecting intercourse as a substitute for the moisture that was cut off. The claim that women prefer cut men is actually a message that women owe men sex in exchange for being cut. The privilege of expecting circumcised women. So one could say that there is influence associated with MGM that serves the practice itself, but being sexually assaulted does not actually improve men’s lives.

        There are many diseases which only spread via human intercourse and do not exist in other species. Genital mutilation is the ideological equivalent. It is a sexually-transmitted mental illness that exploits our reproductive drive and our ability to communicate and use tools. It can even use our knowledge of other STDs to perpetuate itself by presenting itself as a cure, particularly ingenious because circumcision actually increases HIV rates and so can create a cycle of new justifications.

        It is a disease with no physical pathogen we can kill. It has the combined intelligence of however many millions practice it. And it has altered not only our physical bodies but our understanding of what human anatomy is. Many health textbooks in the US do not depict the foreskin. There was a recent study by scientists trying to chart the history of how human genitals evolved. Their computer models of males were circumcised, and the only behavior they modeled was intercourse. Imagine if an STD could break the microscope you used to look at it.

        That is why I stress the comparison – if we don’t recognize these practices as two manifestations of a single mental illness, this illness can learn and adapt. It is already starting to adapt in the West, where it has learned to market itself to rich white women.

        People who cut their children are not in full control of their faculties. They can’t break out of it because it has altered their physical concept of their own anatomy – they cannot conceptualize normal adult genitals and don’t know how to take care of them. Their whole idea of ‘hygiene’ relies on the altered version.

        My main reason for responding (and my reference to Western medicine) was the citing of the widely-discredited studies claiming that circumcision reduces HIV. This focus on prevention in males is, as you point out, another manifestation of privilege – not towards men but towards intercourse. It is also a case of Westerners conducting surgical experiments on blacks – perhaps the largest such experiment ever. The HIV studies are not reflected at the population level, show no causal link, and there is zero protection for women or gay men. Circumcision also discourages condom use by reducing sensitivity and creating a false sense of security. ‘Voluntary’ male circumcision programs also target young boys and use misogynistic & homophobic themes to do so: http://feministssa.com/2013/03/25/love-cuts-the-misogynists-guide-to-circumcision/

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  2. feministintactivism

    None of this should be construed as a direct comparison between MGM and infibulation. I’ve never seen that comparison made. The comparison is between MGM and any degree of cutting on girls including the ritual ‘nick.’ With or without comparisons, it is still institutionalized sexual violence and its effects on how men relate to women are a defining feature in the sexuality of the cultures where it’s practiced. Women are cut (or get ‘rejuvenation’ in the West) to fit cut men.

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    1. unculturedsisterhood Post author

      I have seen the comparison made, hence the post. Not only that, I’ve seen people minimizing the horrors of FGM by equating it with the circumcision of males. To call that out isn’t to endorse male circumcision. To overlook the power structures and motivations/beliefs underlying these practices when the subject is female viz-a-viz male is disingenuous, misogynistic, un-feminist. And of course, FGM is institutionalized male violence against women.

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      1. feministintactivism

        I’m sorry, but referring to FGM as male violence against women is a cop-out to make women look like saints and men look like demons. There’s nothing feminist about that. The fact that something has harmful effects does not mean you can project harmful intent onto it. The worst atrocities on Earth are committed by people who mean well.

        There’s a dangerous trend in feminism to assume that anything bad that happens to women is therefore intended to be bad, and that the intent comes only from men with women as passive bystanders. If this is the case, then women are not sentient and will never be liberated even if men disappear. Relegating these practices to ‘misogyny’ or ‘misandry’ covers up an enormous amount of sheer anatomical ignorance on the part of everyone involved in them. And it is very tempting for women who have abused girls to blame their actions on men.

        Women do the cutting in most cultures, and the men also cut their sons. It is not oppression. The problem is that the women who do the cutting, like most of the men who cut their sons, do not realize they are doing violence at all. They believe they are protecting their children from magical diseases that don’t exist. That superstition is more dangerous than hate, and blaming men is easier than admitting to centuries of profound stupidity.

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        1. unculturedsisterhood Post author

          Because women do the cutting FGM is not oppression!?! You may as well say that for every other category of male violence against women, misogyny and the like. I’ve lost interest in what you have to say seeing that you seem to have skimmed over the main post which is about FGM practice in Uganda – highlighting the reason why girls are cut (although as per your input, I am wrong on this) and why the movement to end that atrocious practice mustn’t be derailed.

          Instead, you are more intent on making some point about “MGM”; ensconced yourself (& the issues you battle) as the subject of the article; gotten carried away by your own assumptions and jumped allover the place in your response. You make no sense to me. Ironically, perhaps without intent, you’ve displayed the MRA tactics I reference in the post as this conversation has been drastically diverted from the objective of the original post – which was neither about the “anti-mutilation movement” nor endorsing the practice of male circumcision.

          Maybe this exchange would have been mutually beneficial had you first read what was written in its entirety and then asked for clarity where you needed it. But no, you are going on and on about HIV, mental illness…seriously. And that’s in between dryly informing me about things I ‘correctly explained’ in an article I wrote (after you initially claimed that I was wrong); USA this, Egypt this, western that. The most bizzare thing is you seem to believe that if you haven’t seen/heard/experienced something, then it does not exist. And as in this interaction, the onus is on me to rush to explain things to you even as you breeze on with your opinions regardless of the fact that they’re out of context. Really! I decided not to bother replying to your other (longer) post. Matter of fact, I skimmed over it.

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  3. feministintactivism

    “MRA tactics” = anything you don’t like. Pretty much the same thing as asking someone if they’ve quit the Communist Party yet. The longer response isn’t about the anti-mutilation movement or specifically MGM (although it is apologetics to deny that it is mutilation, as if that word suddenly belongs to you). The term FGM was created by Americans specifically to justify treating their own practice of cutting boys as civilized. It is the appropriation.

    The other response directly answers the questions you asked in your first reply, such as the lunacy of trans activists calling the term FGM ‘cissexist’ and what privileges men give up by fighting MGM. Many of them affecting women.

    What’s sad is that despite likely having a unique perspective on this, your thoughts on it are carbon copies of what I’ve read from Americans who can’t possibly know as much as you do. Plagiarized, even. You claim that your feminism doesn’t center men. Of course it does. It centers them as omnipotent godlike enemies who can only work against you. It centers them as the driving force behind women’s own thought processes.

    In your feminism, women are merely extensions of the hate directed at them, a creation of men. You have a much higher opinion of men than I do.

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