Monday, March 24, 2014

Response to Mary Elizabeth Williams on "Alan Cumming’s fight against circumcision"

Mary Elizabeth Williams writes an emotion-based critique of Alan Cumming's fight against circumcision, which is deserving of a careful and rational analysis.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth starts by quoting Alan Cummings:

“There’s a double-standard, which is that we condemn the people who cut off girls’ clitorises, but when it happens to boys,” Cumming says. “I mean, it is the most sensitive part of their bodies, it has loads of nerve endings, and it can go horribly wrong. I’m speaking out against it … 

And then she ignores the important parts of the statement, that is to say, that the foreskin is the most sensitive part, and that circumcision can go horribly wrong.

After discussing Alan's past and current statement, she goes to say:

The debate over circumcision is a fairly recent one. Though it was once a standard practice in the U.S., rates have been steadily declining over the past several decades, as arguments over its medical validity have raged. 

This is incorrect. The debate over the American practice of circumcision goes as far as the 19th century (Elizabeth Blackwell, MD, 1894) and early 20th century (AP Morgan Vance in 1900), well before the practice was completely established! Physicians were the first ones to denounce the uselessness of the practice. When the practice was actually becoming common, Joseph Lewis published perhaps the first non-physician book against circumcision ("In the name of humanity", 1949) and physician Douglas Gairdner published "The fate of the foreskin". That same year Britain's NHS stopped covering neonatal circumcisions. Children of perhaps the first generation with a rate of over 50% circumcision, the Lewis brothers, Van and Benjamin, started protesting publicly against circumcision in 1970. To call this debate a fairly recent one means ignoring a huge chunk of history.

Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that:

Cumming’s equation of circumcision with female genital mutilation is an insultingly inaccurate one —  boys are not circumcised as a ritualized means of suppressing their future sexual enjoyment, nor does a clean male circumcision compare with the often crude, blunt and unsanitary practice of female genital mutilation.

Again, Mary Elizabeth is ignoring history. One would have to remember 1st century Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher:
First of all, it is a symbol of the excision of the pleasures which delude the mind; for since, of all the delights which pleasure can afford, the association of man with woman is the most exquisite, it seemed good to the lawgivers to mutilate the organ which ministers to such connections; by which rite they signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure, not, indeed, of one only, but of all others whatever, through that one which is the most imperious of all. - Philo

Or 11th century Moses Maimonides:

The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment: the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning. Moses Maimonides

Or the statements by many of the Victorian era American and British physicians who paved the way to acceptability of childhood circumcision, such as J.H. Kellogg:

A remedy [against masturbation] which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed. J. H. Kellogg

And many more. It was only in the 60s that American physicians started arguing that circumcision had no effect on sexual enjoyment. But of course by then, those physicians had been circumcised at birth and had no first person experience of the foreskin.

The second part of the statement is also imprecise:

nor does a clean male circumcision compare with the often crude, blunt and unsanitary practice of female genital mutilation.

Let's compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Traditional circumcision in Africa occur in unsanitary conditions with a high rate of catastrophic results. Traditional Jewish circumcisions occur in poor sanitary conditions, often in a dining room or kitchen, and often expose babies to other risks, such as the use of the mogen clamp (high risk of glans amputation or injury), and in some groups, metzitzah b'peh (oral suction) by the Mohel which has resulted in infection with herpes, deaths and brain damage.

Clean hospital procedures can also result in deaths and mutilations, such as the Memphis baby who had his penis amputated during a circumcision last year.

Mary Elizabeth argues that FGM is a blunt and unsanitary practice. Would Mary Elizabeth consider FGM acceptable under sanitary conditions? Because that is how it takes place in places such as Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia. The World Health Organization opposes any attempt of medicalization of female circumcision because it will make it more difficult to eradicate it (they should know, given the history of male circumcision!)

Organizations currently lobbying against FGM oppose any form of medicalization, even though some argue that it could lead to harm reduction.

What this tells us is that it is not the procedure itself what these institutions oppose, or the conditions. It is what is behind. The practice of genital surgery without consent from the patient, without regard for the future preference, feelings and well being of the patient. And in that regard, male circumcision of infants is perfectly comparable with female genital mutilation, as none of those procedures take into consideration the future preferences or feelings of the person.

Mary Elizabeth Williams reminds us that:

The World Health Organization calls FGM “a violation of the human rights of girls and women” with consequences that include “severe pain, shock, hemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue,”

But she doesn't remind us that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe calls non-therapeutic circumcision of boys a violation of the children's right to physical integrity, and that the typical risks of neonatal circumcision include severe pain (when in absence of anesthesia or improperly used), shock (again, when in absence of anesthesia), hemorrhage (babies have died from loss of blood after medical and religious circumcisions), sepsis (babies have died from septic shock after circumcision), urine retention (babies have died from urine retention with the plastibell circumcision), fistulas and meatal stenosis (damage to the urethra), injury to the penis (partial or total amputation of the glans, loss of the frenulum, scarring, denudation of the penis), etc.

And then she proceeds to reminds us of the "benefits" of circumcision:

while it in contrast notes, “There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”
Without telling us that these studies have been challenged, that real life application has not provided the desired results, and that promotion of circumcision for the sake of HIV prevention also results in risk compensation behavior such as lack of use of condoms.

To circumcise for the sake of prevention of HIV also assumes that males are going to be promiscuous no matter what and won't be able to control their sexuality. I wonder how feminists would feel about a similar assumption over females.

Mary Elizabeth Williams says:

One can argue, quite persuasively, about whether the practice of circumcision still has validity here in the West, especially among those who don’t have a religious directive. 

One could also argue whether babies lose the right to self ownership and genital integrity because their families practice some religions (ritualized circumcisions) or just for the reason of being males. One could also argue whether female babies from some Muslim groups should be protected or not from female circumcision, even by medical professionals, but the FGM law of 1997 indicates that:

no account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that person, or any other person, that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.

Why are baby boys not granted the same respect?

Mary Elizabeth Williams continues

What’s needed, however, is education and enlightenment, so families can make the healthiest choices for their children.

But why would families have any choice whatsoever in removing normal genital tissue from a baby? Why would this be a choice, seems too far a question for her. It should be quite simple, you don't remove healthy tissue from babies. Especially not from their genitals. Period. 

It’s not helpful to make far-fetched comparisons, and it certainly isn’t constructive to imply that men and boys who are circumcised are somehow damaged, “mutilated” goods. 

We have argued over the comparison already, but this is an even more far-fetched statement, as Mary Elizabeth seems to be implying that circumcised women are damaged, mutilated goods. Maybe she should listen to circumcised women about how they feel.

Let's also remember that men have complained about their circumcisions. Notable examples would include Ozzy Osbourne, John F. Kennedy, Ben Affleck, Howard Stern.

Most circumcised males are not "damaged goods", but they have had a part of their penis cut off without their consent.

Some were in fact "damaged goods". Such as David Reimer. May he rest in peace.

Mary Elizabeth continues:

That’s a shaming technique that serves no one, one that turns having a foreskin into a bragging point. 

Propaganda posters shaming uncircumcised males in Africa to create a new social norm

This is not the point. Uncircumcised males opposing circumcision don't do it to brag. They do it because they have first person experience of having a foreskin and feel that babies deserve the right to experience it as well.

Mary Elizabeth arguably has a foreskin (unless she was subjected to a female circumcision, given that she was born before 1997, or unless she has subjected herself to clitoral unhooding -a form of female circumcision not considered to be "mutilation" when performed on an adult consenting woman by a licensed surgeon). In her arguments in this article, it would seem that she brags from not being "mutilated", given the implications that circumcised women are "damaged goods" and mutilated. 

See how one needs to be careful with the use of words to avoid alienating those who have had a different experience from ones prejudices?

Mary Elizabeth concludes:

And it’s an unfair judgment coming from a man who admits, “I myself don’t have kids. I just have managers, assistants, agents and publicists.”

And this seems to be an important point about the author. Mary Elizabeth, as a female, has no personal experience of having a penis. She will never experience male circumcision on her body. For her, circumcision seems to be something that one does to one's sons when one has male babies. It's not something that is done to one.

If Alan Cumming had been circumcised as a baby, he would still, today, be a circumcised man. Circumcision does not go away when one becomes an adult. It doesn't go away when one is no longer a dependent.

A circumcised penis, no doubt, can no longer do some things than an uncircumcised penis can do. For example, a circumcised penis can no longer have its skin glide over the glans during sex or masturbation. A circumcised penis no longer has an intact frenulum. A circumcised penis is missing nerve endings. All those things are consequence of a circumcision, often consented to not by the person, but by the parents. It was something done to the baby.

As males, circumcision affects us not only as children, when its done, but as males, when we can't get rid of it. When we have no choice if it was forced upon us. When our physical integrity was violated while we were children.

It doesn't matter if a man has children or not. Men have their penises, so circumcision or not is not just our children's experience, it is also our own experience. We live our sexuality partially through our penises, and if we are circumcised or not, that will have an effect on our experience of sexuality for the rest of our lives, whether we know it or not, whether we are happy about it or not.

Nobody should cut part of a baby's genitals without extreme medical necessity. If you won't listen to it from an uncircumcised male like Alan Cumming, listen to it from a circumcised male like me, who is parent to an uncircumcised son.


  1. The above does an outstanding job of demolishing the awful Salon op-ed by Ms Williams.

    Ms Williams labors under the typical misconceptions that FGM is performed in order to destroy, deliberately and knowingly, a woman's capacity to enjoy sexual activity, and that RIC is completely innocent of sinister motives of this sort.

    I think, though, that you missed the snide subtext of her last two sentences. Those sentences served to remind readers that Cummings's opinions about the penis, human sexuality, and child rearing can be safely discounted -- because he is gay.