This question:

In most U.S. states, female genital mutilation is illegal. So why is male circumcision legal?

Has a highly upvoted answer which is unsourced and unfactual. Despite my efforts in comments and my own answer to suggest improvements this has not been met productively.

It is worth noting that this answer gets basic facts wrong - no anthropologist in this area would agree with the statement that:

The cultures that perform such acts clearly intend to suppress female sexuality by reducing sexual pleasure.

For a critical review of FGC by world leading experts see "Seven Things to Know about Female Genital Surgeries in Africa". This can be accessed here:


This was written by a multidisciplinary panel of obstericians/gynaecologists who have work with women who have undergone FGM/C, anthropoligsts, feminists and legal expert. It is a non-biased review with authors who advocate radically different policies elsewhere - these are not "FGM apologists" but physicians (& others) who are concerned about the overly sensationalised and overly heated debate about FGC. The physician signatories treat women with FGC and often have to debunk harmful myths about FGC and sexuality. This Hasting Centre report is expert consensus from people who work in the field. They find that:

Research by gynaecologists and others has found that a high percentage of women with [FGC] have rich sexual lives including desire, arousal, orgasm and satisfaction

They also find that:

The association between patriarchy and [FGC] is not well established

and that:

[FGC] is typically controlled and managed by women.

Put bluntly there is little empirical evidence to support the statement given in the answer above. In some cultures FGC is expressive of problematic attitudes to female sexuality/virginity/chastity but this is not a distinctive feature of cultures which practice FGC.

The central point I want to make - This answer ignores the only instance where the USA law on FGM has been invoked, namely the production of Dr Jamala Nagarwala. Nagarwala is from a sect of Islam, the Dawoodi Bohra who practice sunnah/khatna a form of FGC involving a "ritual nick" to the clitoral hood. No tissue is removed. Given that this is the only instance where the US law on FGM has been applied, I think any answer needs to at least mention this aspect of the US laws on FGC - it's not an irrelevance, it was what the only prosecution brought for FGM in the US hinged upon. Not addressing this facet of the issue seems bizarre. The answer is question does not answer the question as a whole but merely addresses a relatively tangential point comparing one (relatively more extreme) form of FGC with MC. This comparison is a common one to come up in this area but does little to address the topic as a coherent whole - although the author clearly does not intend it, it is sort of a "cherry picked" example which deflects away from the crux of the issue- Western law censured all forms of FGC even those considerably less invasive than MC.

To address a point raised by divibisan in the comments - there is actually no distinction made in the West (UN/WHO and US law) between FGM and "ritual nicking"/minor forms of FGM. They are treated as a single homogeneous entity - any form of ritual genital cutting performed on girls is described as FGM. In that sense the original question is misleading with the phrase "clitoridectomies on minors for non-medical reasons is type I", implying that only more extreme forms of cutting are considered as FGM. I have raised this point before in comments. I also do not see why the original question does not see fit to mention the first FGM case in the US - this case would seem to neatly encapsulate much of the politics in this area.

Due to Western bias and a lack of understanding of FGC in the mainstream this answer (which is factually unfounded and unsourced) has been highly upvoted and is obviously seen first. My answer which extensively referenced experts and the academic literature has been generally ignored, despite presenting evidence from international experts. It does not seem in the spirit of this site that unsourced and one-sided answers can be so highly upvoted and calls for greater rigour and citations have been ignored. What can be done to improve this aspect of the site?

It seems clear that at least some standard of evidence is needed to back up factual statements, and if asked for citations this should be met constructively, not repeatedly ignored - the answer in question still has zero citations. This answer relies heavily on "common sense" and "common knowledge" - in other areas I am prepared to accept "common knowledge", but when empirical evidence has been supplied which suggests "common knowledge" is based on unsubstantiated tropes that requests for citations/substantiation should be met constructively.

(Full disclosure- I am undoubtedly not a neutral observer on the issue. I share the belief of many that both FGC and MC are wrong, for the same reasons of bodily integrity/autonomy. However most Westerners have little understanding of FGC and have only heard highly sensationalised stories on the ramifications of FGC, and whether intentionally or not will give a "biased" answers by presenting only certain well-known facts. This topic requires far more nuance than is usually applied, and a careful examination of what we know, and what is actually (harmful) activist rhetoric.)

To address the answer to this Meta question - the answer in question relies almost entirely on the premise presented here:

"as acts of oppression against women, since the cultures that perform such acts clearly intend to suppress female sexuality by reducing sexual pleasure. Those activities and beliefs are antithetical to the ideals and values of the US, and it is impossible to monitor individual procedures to ensure they conform to the mildest type, so the entire range of practices has been outlawed."

The answer in question relies entirely on an unsubstantiated claim that FGC is intended solely to oppress female sexuality, despite my presenting evidence which clearly shows that this is a misleading and unsubstantiated trope in the West. There is also no citation which substantiates the claim that "it is impossible to monitor individual procedures to ensure they conform to the mildest type, so the entire range of practices has been outlawed". This is just speculation, or "common sense".

Furthermore the idea that:

"the US focuses on those cases where the clitoris or parts of the labia are removed, caustic materials are used destroy genital sensitivity, or other permanent damage is inflicted on the female genitalia"

Seems contradicted by the fact that the 1st US case brought under the FGM law was for a form of FGC far less invasive than MC. That a case has been brought under the FGM law in the US seems completely ignored by both this answer and any other answer. This particular legal case showcases clearly a contradiction in US law which both this answer and other answer would hold does not exist.

And in response to this question on Meta:

"he argued that removal of the clitoris still allowed women to feel sexual pleasure and reach orgasm. I suppose that is arguably true, which is why I edited it to compare it to removing the glans (head of the male penis); but it is so argumentative and so thoroughly beside the point that it defies any kind of rational or sensible response."

I do not see this point as "thoroughly beside the point" given that the premise of the answer is that FGC is intended to suppress female sexuality. It seems difficult to state "this is arguably true", when I have provided reference to studies performed by senior gynaecologists who run clinics for women with FGC/M which clearly demonstrates this fact. This point seems to the foundation for this answer: "Male circumcision, whatever its pros and cons, does not significantly interfere with reproduction or sexual pleasure" whereas by contrast it is held that FGC is "[done] explicitly to remove the clitoris and destroy a woman's capacity to enjoy sex". Again - I have provided references from gynaecologists & anthropologists who state unequivocally that such statements are untrue and unsubstantiated. And indeed I invited people to reconsider their answers in response to this - the response seemed to be a grudging withdrawal of the most clearly false claims, without changing the overall statements.

Currently the answer still makes the false and unsubstantiated claim that "the cultures that perform such acts clearly intend to suppress female sexuality by reducing sexual pleasure", despite this being an misleading extrapolation from a few cultures, with no consideration of the majority of cultures which perform FGC having no such intention. When challenged on this, the response was along the lines of "you can't believe the reasons which these people give" - I admit I responded aggressively to this comment. I find this comment absolutely unacceptable - it seems to rely on a privileged position in the global North where such assertions can go unchallenged by the far less powerful/influential global South, where practising communities are rarely given a voice in discussions around their cultural practices. It also seems to completely deny the expertise of anthropologists who have been immersed in these cultures to make their observations - is the suggestion that these anthropologists are fools who have been taken in? Are their studies entirely meaningless due to the "common knowledge" expressed in the answer under question? It also seems to paint a picture of these mothers as "fools" and "monsters", when neither is in fact a reasonable representation. From the Hasting Centre report above:

"The voices of African women who support female and male genital modification for their children and themselves have not been adequately represented in the media or in public policy forums. These parents are neither monsters nor fools: like parents everywhere, they want to do the right thing for their children and are concerned about their children’s health. Nor are they necessarily uneducated or ignorant or helpless prisoners of an insufferably dangerous tradition that they themselves would like to escape, if only they could find a way out."

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    I'm not an expert on this topic, but why are you so insistent that answers should be about the broader category of FGC with a focus on the large number of less extreme "ritual nick" procedures, when the question is asking about Female Genital Mutilation. I would say your answer is valuable as a frame-shift, but since the question is asking about Mutilation, not just ritual cutting, it seems reasonable for answers to focus on that. I've always heard the "ritual nick" method described as an alternative to FGM, to show that mutilation was not required – divibisan Aug 6 at 23:06
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    Thanks for your comment. So the UN/WHO AND MOST western countries draw no distinction between "mutilating" forms and "ritual" forms. This is the idea of "zero tolerances". There are indeed many bioethicists who take a view of harm minimization, but this has gained little traction in the mainstream. Also - the 1st case in the US was "ritual nicking", very much with the aim of gaining a prosecution, despite the cutting being far less invasive than standard male circumcision. The distinction between mutilation and ritual nicking is not recognised by law in the West, any non-medical cutting is FGM – Swedish Architect Aug 7 at 6:58
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    Can you link your source? – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 7 at 14:30
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    @AzorAhai--hehim - Sure! I found a copy not paywalled: sfog.se/media/295486/omskarelse_rapport.pdf – Swedish Architect Aug 7 at 14:48
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    I would not focus too much on your answer being "ignored" ... it is more a facet of being an old answer, rather than a reflection of it's quality (although your answer is very very long). If you were to shorten it, I bet it would be received better. (And to clarify, I use quotes to explicitly quote you, not to mock your wording.) – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 7 at 15:35
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    @AzorAhai--hehim - Your suggestion was a good one. My answer was too long and has now been shortened. Similarly I followed recommendations to remove many references and quote what I rely upon. Thanks for the advice! :) – Swedish Architect Aug 7 at 23:46
  • xkcd.com/386 – Martin Ba Aug 9 at 21:38
  • @MartinBa: lol... AM NOT!!! 😛 – Ted Wrigley Aug 9 at 23:43
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    While this is a very good question, you are clearly still offended by the question and/or answer— hence you have dedicated most of the body of this post to venting. In fact, you are still debating the genital alteration/mutilation issue here when it’s off-topic. I saw this earlier and refrained from stirring the pot, but I blame the recent downvotes I have gotten today on how you have chosen to present my question as disseminating misinformation when in actuality is doing the opposite by giving everyone a chance to weigh in with their own facts. – gen-ℤ ready to perish Aug 10 at 20:13
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    @gen-z - I guess my point is kind of that I have substantiated my answer with extensive references to what a panel of experts on FGC/M from a wide range of specialties has to say on the matter. In such a contentious area their statement is probably the closest thing to a consensus on the facts, and the panel is as a whole non-partisan - there are those advocating for a liberalisation of FGM laws and those advocating for prohibition. If Ted at least provided some reference for his answer I would have less of a problem. He can't ask that I consider his answer factual without any references. – Swedish Architect Aug 10 at 20:36
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    Ted - Just provide a reference. Your answer is unsubstantiated - it just doesn't provide anything other than "folklore" or popular (mis) conceptions. I just take can't it seriously when it contradicts so much critical scholarly work. A reference is a reasonable request, and such a request shouldn't have provoked such furore TBH. – Swedish Architect Aug 10 at 20:43

Sometimes the approach taken towards improving something is important. Your comments would be more likely to have been received well if they looked like constructive criticism trying to improve an answer, rather than appearing to be an apologia for female genital mutilation.

In addition, it's worth noting that the question is more like "Why has the US government taken such an action?", rather than "Is the action taken by the US government based on factually accurate claims?". So long as certain claims are widely believed, and they influence the US government's actions, the claims should be mentioned in an answer. Ideally with information about whether those claims are factually accurate or not, but it's not vital.

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  • Thanks - this was helpful in revising my answer. I'm not sure I fully agree with the last statement - that he facts are not fully known (in this case at least, but often so) is the result of politics (the North-south power split, and the ability of the north to construct "facts" which are perceived as unbiased), although a politic that many will not appreciate because it is one which most of us westerners live within. – Swedish Architect Aug 8 at 6:13

As the author of the answer that Swedish Architect (hereafter SA) takes exception to, I suppose I should offer my perspective...

First, let me point out that SA has had a certain amount of input on my answer. If you look at the timeline of the answer, you'll see that SA offered an extensive edit on April 8, which I subsequently re-edited for balance, but kept significant portions of. It's useful to look over my revision see the kinds of comments I found excessive. I'm usually reasonable about listening to and discussing edit suggestions, and this case is no exception.

That being said, efforts at reasonable discussion are definitely subject to the law of diminishing returns. While SA offered several useful comments, it became blatantly clear (during extended discussion) that s'he was not trying to improve the answer through correction or clarification, but was explicitly advocating in favor of the mildest form of the practice (cutting the clitoral hood, or 'nicking'). I have no opinion about that in general — I'd agree with SA that this mildest form is no worse than conventional male circumcision, though I'm not a fan of either practice — but I didn't (and don't) feel that this kind of advocacy is appropriate on the forum. I like to keep my answers as objective as possible, even if I'm not always entirely neutral.

Worse, SA's advocacy was persistent and aggressive, pushed through dozens of comments that have since been deleted or moved to chat; this drive led him at times to become an apologist for the more grotesque forms of the practice. Note how in the edit he made on April 8 (which I subsequently revised) he argued that removal of the clitoris still allowed women to feel sexual pleasure and reach orgasm. I suppose that is arguably true, which is why I edited it to compare it to removing the glans (head of the male penis); but it is so argumentative and so thoroughly beside the point that it defies any kind of rational or sensible response.

I'm not going to comment on SA's own answer to the question, nor to any comments s'he makes here about the content of either of our answers. I do not want to get back on that merry-go-round. I reject SA's characterization of my answer, since I see his characterization as the biased view of a determined advocate. I hope that clarifies my viewpoint.

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    I'm certainly not "advocating" for any form of genital cutting. I state explicitly I am against all forms. But the argument why they're wrong cannot be made on unsubstantiated statements on sexual/health effects which are not true. So it simply is true that a high proportion of women with FGC can orgasm - they know this because it their body. So telling them not to cut their daughters because it'll stop the orgasmic isn't going to work. This is what the obstetricians in the Hasting report cites in my answer are getting at - to effectively combat FGC we must be honest about the facts. – Swedish Architect Aug 8 at 5:17
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    Furthermore - I am in agreement with E.g. Abdulcadir who has elsewhere been a signatory to statements that FGC and MGC are violations of human rights. Its worth noting - these gynaecologists have to treat women with FGC who believe they cannot orgasm due to Western discourse. These myths are harmful - reconstructive surgery is often requested by these women, but comes with risks and problems of its own. Abdulcadir has done work in this area, and suggests that as many 70% of women, once they understand the risks/benefits of surgery & that they do have a clitoris, will reject surgery. – Swedish Architect Aug 8 at 5:24
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    Now that mat mostly be OT but should clarify my own views, why I take the line I do, and why this is a common view amongst medical professionals who work on the frontline on this area. In terms of the political - the practices are not widely appreciated to have any similarity, but again, anthropologists suggest significant parallels. There's been a lot of "behind the scenes" political where a single Western discourse has predominated due to the North-South power imbalance. Shortly - the West criticises Africa but will not accept similar criticisms of MC and intersex normalisation surgeries. – Swedish Architect Aug 8 at 5:28
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    @SwedishArchitect: Everything you wrote in these three paragraphs is the language of advocacy. Perhaps I'm mistaken about what you're advocating for — your arguments are a bit convoluted and unstructured — but the prescriptive tone you take is as clear as it is inappropriate. We're not here to 'combat' anything; we're here to answer questions. If you won't make that distinction, you are always going to feel frustrated on this site. – Ted Wrigley Aug 9 at 6:12
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    Also - what many people in the West (aside from experts who have worked with women with FGC) do not realise is that the "facts" on FGC that are presented in the media and sensationalized and hyped, not reflecting what rigorous scientific studies have shown in this area. These reports also do not give any voice to practicing communities. This isn't a world removed from banning MC and ignoring any concerns on Jewish/Muslim communities. Again. - Is ask for citations for the key claims you make in your answer. Nothing more, nothing less. – Swedish Architect Aug 10 at 7:49
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    @SwedishArchitect: Sigh... You get accused of being an apologist because you make troublingly unbalanced statements. Even empirical statements must be put in proper context or they can give an entirely wrong impression. For example, let's say someone asks a question about some dictator who (say) chops off the feet of his political opponents. If I make the (perfectly factual) statement that "With modern prosthetics, people who lose their feet can get around perfectly well," I'm effectively suggesting there's nothing too wrong with this dictator chopping off people's feet. Like it's ok... – Ted Wrigley Aug 10 at 13:26
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    @SwedishArchitect: This is effectively what you did when you started talking about how the removal of the clitoris doesn't destroy all sexual feeling. It may be an empirical fact, but it is not pertinent to the discussion unless someone is trying to defend, excuse, or minimize the practice. You can accuse Westerners of bias all you like, but (1) you cannot ignore that bias when you speak, but must address it, and (2) you cannot dismiss real, physical harm in your drive to re-contextualize the practice. – Ted Wrigley Aug 10 at 13:36
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    @SwedishArchitect: You frequently make statements that you are against 'cutting' practices. But if we were to remove every line where you say "I don't like it", what would be left is a whole string of arguments about how the practices are culturally acceptable, mostly fine, not to damaging, etc. Your arguments undercut the sincerity of your claims; you come off sounding hypocritical, like a guy who says "Spousal abuse is horrible, but sometimes the wife needs a good smack to keep her in line; the bible says it's ok." – Ted Wrigley Aug 10 at 13:51
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    @SwedishArchitect: You cannot oppose bias by leaning hard in the other direction. Either you find balance, or you find a fight. – Ted Wrigley Aug 10 at 13:56
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    Thanks Ted. This is helpful. I've attempted some edits on my answer to improve balance. Nevertheless - The dictator chopping people's feet off is not wrong because they'll have trouble getting round (assuming prosthetics). It's wrong because they have human right to bodily integrity. In the same way FGC is not wrong because it's sexually oppressive/oblates pleasure, but because it's a violation of bodily integrity. Getting the argument right is important - It's like saying that dictator chopping feet off is wrong because they can't get around. It misses the point of why it's wrong. – Swedish Architect Aug 10 at 17:20
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    And we clearly agree on that . Similarly - I disagree with statements like "clearly intend to suppress female sexuality by reducing sexual pleasure", because these statements are clearly not true when we look at the anthropological literature. Spurious claims can't be made just because something is bad, least of all if these claims do harm to women with FGC & stigmatize migrant communities. The argument is that FGC is bad because of spurious consequences, ignoring that these sequale are not empirically substantiated. – Swedish Architect Aug 10 at 17:29
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    And we clearly agree on that . Similarly - I disagree with statements like "clearly intend to suppress female sexuality by reducing sexual pleasure", because these statements are clearly not true when we look at the anthropological literature. Spurious claims can't be made just because something is bad, least of all if these claims do harm to women with FGC & stigmatize migrant communities. The argument is that FGC is bad because of spurious consequences, ignoring that these sequale are not empirically substantiated. – Swedish Architect Aug 10 at 17:31
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    @SwedishArchitect: My point — which I'll try one last time to get across, before giving it up (again) as a lost cause — is that you are so focused on your political agenda that you cannot grok (much less write) a proper answer to the question. You act as though everyone who disagrees with you is ignorant and biased; you latch onto one viewpoint in the single discipline of anthropology, as though there are no other philosophical or scientific fields that examine these issues. You think you have 'truth' when what you have is 'a perspective', and it makes you deeply unreasonable. – Ted Wrigley Aug 10 at 17:57
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    @SwedishArchitect: If you took the time to look outside your bubble, you'd realize that everything I've said is not 'opinion'; it's a version of some credible academic perspective from any of a number of different fields. When I write, I don't try to dictate 'truth'; I try to give people a broad enough framework that they can understand. That's all we ought to be doing here; it's pedagogical, not stipulative or prescriptive. If you can't hold back from trying to impose your political views, you should not be contributing here. – Ted Wrigley Aug 10 at 18:07
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    @SwedishArchitect: You simply refuse to get the point, so this conversation is done. – Ted Wrigley Aug 10 at 19:37

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