Thursday 29 January 2015

Hysteria: Male circumcision is a feminist issue too

Below is an interview I gave to Tove Lyssarides at Hysteria, a periodical and platform for feminist activism, about why male circumcision is a feminist issue too.

In it, I argue that "it’s time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. We either accept that the loss of some individual rights of both boys and girls is the price of societal diversity, or we respect the rights of all children, both girls and boys, equally."

You can read the full interview here or below. 

Please let me know your thoughts @beccasteinfeld, and consider sharing it with your networks.




T: You have argued that male circumcision is a feminist issue. Why do you think this is the case?

R: Feminism, at its best, encourages us to think broadly and critically about the potentially harmful effects of gender constructions on both men and women. It is so much more than a narrow interest group of women who care only about ‘women’s issues’ or women’s rights. Feminism is much bigger than that. It is about identifying and challenging discourses and practices that engender all of us. The legal scholars Marie Fox and Michael Thomson describe male genital cutting (MGC) as “a gendering practice tied to masculinity and the management of male sexuality” that “parallels the ways in which feminist scholars have argued that female genital cutting (FGC) serves to fix gender in women.” As such, like FGC, MGC is a feminist issue. Furthermore, not challenging MGC while condemning FGC reinforces sexist attitudes about female and male bodies. It perpetuates the idea that male bodies are resistant to harm or even in need of being tested by painful ordeals, whereas female bodies are highly vulnerable and in need of protection, and as such propagates the notion that vulnerability is gendered. Finally, from a strategic point of view, making foreskin cutting a feminist issue strengthens efforts to eliminate female genital cutting. How can activists expect to convince a mother to leave her daughter uncircumcised if her husband is able to continue circumcising his son? That double standard is counter-productive.

T: What are, according to you, the most important and powerful arguments against male circumcision?

R: First and foremost, the bioethicist Brian Earp’s argument that “all children, whether female, male or intersex should be protected from having parts of their genitals cut or removed unless there is a pressing medical indication … regardless of the cultural or religious affiliations of the parents.” This is the standard approach in medical ethics, and is tied to ideas about the importance of bodily integrity and personal autonomy. Second, the child’s right to an open future: A boy who has been circumcised must live forever with his parents’ choice, thus undermining his self-determination. Third, circumcision can cause physical, psychological and sexual harm: In 2011, in Birmingham Children’s Hospital, 11 boys under the age of one were treated for life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision. Though defenders of circumcision often point to parents’ rights to freedom of religion, the right to manifest one’s religion is not absolute and is limited by the harm caused to others. It does not justify exposing a child to disease, injury or death.

T: Don’t you think the comparison between FGM and male circumcision is problematic and runs a risk of neglecting the sexist and harmful elements of FGM?

R: I understand why some resist the comparison between female and male genital cutting. The media tends to juxtapose the most severe forms of female genital cutting with the least severe forms of male genital cutting, leading to the impression that the former is always barbaric and the latter is always benign or even beneficial to health. But the reality is much more complex.

First, FGC exists on a spectrum from nicks in the clitoral hood through to removal of the clitoris and labia, and sewing up of the remaining flesh (known as infibulation). MGC also exists on a spectrum from removal of the foreskin to sub-incision (slicing open the urethral passage on the underside of the penis from the scrotum to the glans) to testicular crushing.

Second, though FGC may in some cultures involve a sexist expression of patriarchal values and an attempt to contain women’s sexuality within marriage and reproduction by reducing sexual pleasure, some women have challenged the representation of FGC as inherently barbaric. As Earp points out, it is nearly always carried out by women, many of who believe it is a beautifying, empowering and important rite of passage with high cultural value. Consequently those women vigorously defend it against Western efforts to wipe it out, which they regard as culturally imperialist. Meanwhile, some have pointed out that MGC can also be bound up with patriarchy. Judaism only requires the circumcision of boys as part of the divine covenant, suggesting inherent sexism. And the Jewish sage Maimonides and the Victorians advocated MGC to reduce lust and masturbation, indicating that both FGC and MGC have sought to shape bodies and control sexual desire.

There are several other overlaps: Both occur without the consent of the child, and irreversibly violate the child’s human rights to bodily integrity and an open future. Both can cause serious, long-term physical, mental and sexual harm (severe bleeding, problems urinating, infections, and, in the case of FGC, infertility, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths). Both prioritise the cultural or religious beliefs of parents over their child’s right to self-determination.

So the two practices may in fact be much closer in reality that they appear in the public imagination. Drawing attention to these overlaps doesn’t trivialise the harm done to women, it simply highlights that men too can be harmed by genital cutting. It is important to remember that this is not a harm competition: One can believe, as I do, that girls, boys and intersex children have a right to be protected from non-consensual, non-therapeutic cutting of their genitalia.

T: How, according to you, should the (liberal) state deal with this issue?

R: There are three possible approaches: First, the state could continue accepting that, in the case of only male infant genital cutting, personal freedom is the price of societal diversity – approach rooted in a respect for pluralism and multiculturalism. To preserve the community, one sacrifices some individual rights, in this case those of the individual boy. The problem is that sacrificing basic concepts like individual rights and bodily integrity to a particular worldview focused on community could be a slippery slope. Plus, it would require rethinking opposition to FGC, and perhaps even re-allowing it on the basis of parents’ religious beliefs or cultural preferences. In my opinion, this should be unconscionable.

The second approach is more purist and more rights based. It would involve banning non-therapeutic infant male circumcision outright in order to safeguard the rights of the child. This would send a powerful symbolic message. But there are problems here too, since prohibition could have troubling side effects, such as driving the practice further underground or putting parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution. This could put more children at more risk.

A third approach is to reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights, such as prohibiting circumcision without anaesthesia, insisting that it only be performed by a properly qualified paediatric surgeon in a hospital, and outlawing certain religious practices such as sucking blood from the wound. The challenge to this approach is that while it alleviates actual harm, it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity.

Either way, it’s time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. We either accept that the loss of some individual rights of both boys and girls is the price of societal diversity, or we respect the rights of all children, both girls and boys, equally.

T: Many proponents of male circumcisions argue that it is a long tradition that people (parents) will continue to practice even though it gets outlawed. Is it not better to keep male circumcision controlled by the state to ensure clean, hygienic methods for this practice?

R: First, neither the longevity nor meaning of a particular practice are usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of.”

Second, not all parents would continue to circumcise their sons if the practice was legally restricted. A 2006 online survey reported in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Enforcement of existing child protection laws or an explicit ban could actually provide these parents with the legal and moral support they need to effectively stand up against the communal and familial pressure to circumcise. A ban could also send a powerful symbolic message that would no doubt prompt many more people to reconsider their decision to circumcise. So there are advantages to this approach. But, there are also disadvantages. As I said before, it could drive the practice further underground or put parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution, putting more children at more risk.

The advantage of regulation is that it could reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights. The problem is that it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity. Only voluntary or legally enforced cessation of the practice could address those issues.

T: What kinds of reactions have you received for your criticism of male circumcision?

R: A mixture. Some have refused to engage with my ethical and legal questions outright, and dismissed me as a self-hating Jew, while others have been extremely supportive. When I first wrote publicly about this issue in The Guardian in 2011, I was subjected to three weeks of character assassination in one of the UK’s main Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Chronicle, and was fired from my role as an Under-35 Observer to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Two years later, when I wrote about the overlaps between female and male genital cutting, I was criticized again, but this time by anti-FGM campaigners unwilling to consider the overlaps between all forms of infant genital cutting. So you’ve got to have a thick skin to enter this fray!

But, at the same time, many people have reached out to me both in public and private. Some have expressed their agreement, and thanked me for raising these issues or confided in me about their own dilemmas. Others have challenged me, thoughtfully and respectfully. I have had several stimulating and lengthy discussions over email and Facebook about the ethics, legality and health issues surrounding the practice. Several Jewish friends and acquaintances told me in confidence that they feel deeply uncomfortable with their decision to circumcise (some even regret it) or are struggling to decide what to do. I have enormous empathy and sympathy for the position they are in. I think it’s crucial that well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned, and that the significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision is appreciated and understood. But, at the same time, I think Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should also be respected, not demonized. And reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged.


Dr Rebecca Steinfeld is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Stanford University. She is also a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and Haaretz Jewish Thinker. She researches the history and politics of reproduction in Israel, and genital cutting, and tweets @beccasteinfeld