African Doctor: Is Female Circumcision So Awful?

Illustration for article titled African Doctor: Is Female Circumcision So Awful?

On the surface, female circumcision sounds like sexual abuse: it is the removal of a young woman's clitoris practiced by some African cultures as an initiation ritual. While FGC (female genital cutting) has been roundly condemned by many Western women, several African scholars will be arguing in favor of the ritual at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting. Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu of Sierra Leone, a post doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, is one of the scholars who is pro-FGC, and even had her own clitoris cut with fellow members of the Kono ethnic group as an adult. Ahmadu says that her Western "feminist sisters insist on denying us this critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage."

Another proponent of FGC, Dr. Richard Shweder, says that Westerners conveniently ignore the fact that they produce their own kinds of genital mutilation in the form of the vaginal rejuvenation of women and circumcision for boys. Shweder says that, "'First World' feminist issues and political correctness and activism have triumphed over the critical assessment of evidence." Ahmadu also has an essay called "Ain't I a woman too?: challenging myths of sexual dysfunction in circumcised women", where she insists that women who have undergone FGC still experience orgasm and a great deal of sexual pleasure.

I asked a friend who has lived in Liberia and works for a post-conflict justice association what she thinks about FGC, and she points out that "There are lots of versions of the procedure. The most severe being cut off the clit, the inner labia, and SEW CLOSED the vaginal hole." That sounds like straight abuse to me. But according to my friend, some modified versions only involve pricking the clitoris. "It's about degrees and when the practice, in its entirety is accepted, there are no ways to moderate the procedure."


What do you think? Is the pro-FGC argument just cultural relativism? Or is the issue more nuanced than Westerners have realized?

A New Debate On Female Circumcision [New York Times]
Ain't I A Woman Too?: Challenging Myths Of Sexual Dysfunction In Circumcised Women. [University of Chicago]

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Jenna Sauers

@wigglepuppy: That's not really true. Some studies have shown slight reductions in HIV reception rates for circumcised males, but that's only because ketanized skin (scar tissue) is less permeable. So the virus has a harder time penetrating the toughened glans penis. Still, even the most optimistic studies only put the reduction in transmission at 50%. Condoms are many thousands of times more effective.

There are other things that are really just cultural differences, but that can cause an apparent difference in transmission rates due to circumcision status — for example, any kind of tear or cut on the genitals that occurs during sex is incredibly dangerous from a disease transmission point of view. The foreskin is delicate, and it can tear if it's subjected to a lot of friction. And practices like "dry sex" (very common in certain parts of Africa) would be likely to cause tearing to both the foreskin and the vagina. So an intact man having dry sex with a woman would be at more risk of disease than a circumcised man having dry sex with the same woman. But the main problem remains the practice of dry sex, since it's painful and dangerous, irrespective of male circumcision.

But think of it this way: The U.S. has the highest rate of male circumcision in the West. It also has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the West. How could both those things be true if male circumcision were an all-purpose STI prevention? You'd be a fool to rely on your circumcision — or your partner's circumcision status — to protect you from disease when condoms are cheap and of proven efficacy.