Last weekend, we went up to the city for the day. On the lawn in front of the Capitol, there was a small group protesting male circumcision, which I found kind of ironic, given my recent guest post at An Attitude Adjustment. Jana's readers were very kind and for the most part offered only support for my choice, and I found myself in the position of, if not advocating male circumcision, at least not arguing against it. This was a curious position for me to find myself in because I spent seven years studying, and arguing against, female genital cutting rituals. All week I've been trying to reconcile my reaction to these two very different responses to male circumcision - protesting in front of the Capitol, and warm support for a mother who chose to have her son circumcised.
In the United States, more than half of infant males are circumcised before leaving the hospital. The practice of male circumcision is widely accepted and is often considered a healthier alternative than leaving the foreskin intact. Many parents choose to circumcise their sons because, in addition to perceived health benefits, they fear their sons will feel self-conscious later in life. This contrasts sharply with female genital cutting rituals in the United States, which were banned at the federal level in 1996.
Most people are familiar with what male circumcision involves - the removal of the foreskin - but many people are unaware of what is involved with female genital cutting practices (FGC). FGC, which is practiced mainly in Africa, can take several forms, and range from a small, symbolic cut that inflicts no organ damage, to the most severe form, known as infibulation, which involves the removal of external genitalia and stitching closed the vaginal opening, leaving a small hole through which urine and menstrual blood can flow. While there is a clear difference in the severity of these two practices, as well as in the potential side effects, there are often similar motivations for performing them - perceived health benefits and aesthetic preference. (The primary motivation for performing FGC is generally to ensure a girl's marriage prospects, which is obviously not a concern when it comes to male circumcision.) However, one is widely accepted in our society, and the other is not just reviled, but illegal.
I'll be clear here. I am not advocating FGC, nor do I agree with it. But my experience with choosing to have my son circumcised for religious and cultural reasons has shown me that these issues do not have easy answers. As the mother of a circumcised boy, I cringed when I saw those protesters at the Capitol. I identify with their basic position, yet they would likely drag me over the coals if they knew my story. As much as part of me agrees with them, I'm just not cool with being accused of child abuse, and I'm sure the mothers who have chosen for their daughters to undergo FGC don't like it either. I have always held the view that if we truly wish to help girls who are at risk of FGC, then we need to engage with their families and communities and seek to understand what the practice means to them. When we mistakenly assume that these parents don't go through the same kind of decision process I did, we undermine our own efforts to reduce the practice of FGC, just as I feel the protesters at the Capitol undermined their efforts with their angry signs equating male circumcision to abuse.
I'm interested in the decision process other parents went through in deciding whether or not to have their sons circumcised. If you're comfortable sharing, what was your reasoning in deciding for or against circumcision for your son? If you did choose to circumcise, what would your reaction be to those protesting against it?