On female genital mutilation 1: the problem

WARNING:  There’s nothing grotesque in these posts.  I’ve tried to avoid too much detail about the conjugal act, but may not have succeeded well enough for some readers.

At the Pope Center webpage, Orthosphere contributor Richard Cocks describes his attempts to wrestle his students out of their moral relativism by arguing that female genital mutilation is wrong irrespective of culture.

I often describe female genital mutilation, practiced in places like rural Sudan and argue that it is immoral because it is painful, involuntary, can lead to infection and death and removes the possibility of feeling sexual pleasure. Thus, this practice is immoral. But my students frequently respond, “That’s just your perspective. The Sudanese would be unlikely to agree with you.”

I’m a great fan of the clitoris and would recommend all married men familiarize themselves with it, so I would like to strengthen and expand Dr. Cocks’ arguments.  I’m sure that he would agree that clitorectomy is wrong even in the absence of some of the above criteria.  In fact, in many places in the world where FGM is common, the practice is not involuntary, and encouragement comes largely from older women.  Some forms of FGM are more painful and dangerous than others, and with Western surgery and anesthesia these concerns could be removed altogether.  Yet, most of us would recoil at even chosen, safe, painless genital mutilation.  We object to it precisely as a mutilation, in a way that we do not recoil from ear piercings or male circumcision.  I agree with Dr. Cocks that this response is not mere cultural conditioning, but is a matter of natural law.  According to classical natural law theory, our bodies are not property with which we may dispose as we please.  They come with meanings and a standard of excellence/right-functioning that precede and inform our choices.  With regard to female sexuality, one must consider the natural functions:  procreation and pair bonding.  One can also invoke the standard of femininity itself–regarding masculinity and femininity as universal principles transcending human nature, as did the ancient Chinese and Captain James Kirk.  One can argue that un-mutilated female sexuality better conforms to the ideal of femininity.

Now, natural law strictures against mutilation are not absolute.  Medical necessity may justify amputating limbs or donating healthy organs.  Thus, we cannot condemn the barbarians without first understanding their motives.  In the link above (here it is again), anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan explains to The Atlantic

The woman is going to go live with her husband’s family, and it’s part of inclusion among other women whose identity is as a circumcised woman. She’s reliant on her mother-in-law and her husband’s kin. So it’s part of becoming inducted into this female network that’s really important.

Also, for us, we believe that bodies are natural and perfect. Not everybody believes that. Some people in Africa believe that bodies are androgynous and that all male and female bodies contain male and female parts.

So a man’s foreskin is a female part. And for a female, the covering of the clitoris is a male part. The idea of becoming a wholly formed female includes being cut—having any part that is somewhat male-like removed from the body.

The sort of feminist argument about this is that it’s about the control of women but also of their sexuality and sexual pleasure. But when you talk to people on the ground, you also hear people talking about the idea that it’s women’s business. As in, it’s for women to decide this. If we look at the data across Africa, the support for the practice is stronger among women than among men.

So, the patriarchy argument is just not a simple one. Female circumcision is part of demarcating insider and outsider status. Are you part of this group of elder women who have power in their society?

Where did these savages get the idea that the exterior clitoris is a “male part”?  Is this just some random superstition?  In fact, I’ve come across similar ideas in several American sex books which describe the clitoris as in some sense a “female penis”.  Cursory readers might well go away with the idea that before the 1970s, with the rise of sexologists like those books’ authors, women didn’t enjoy sex because all they got was vaginal intercourse, which doesn’t hit the right nerves very strongly.  It turns out women’s bodies are designed for orgasm by masturbation or oral sex.

In fact, this isn’t quite the story that the “sex experts” settled on.  The clitoris is a large organ, mostly internal, that can be stimulated in a number of ways.  Still, the fact that the clitorolotrous phase of the Sexual Revolution could match so well the beliefs of African tribalists shows that we are not dealing with a random superstition, nor one that we must look to other cultures to understand.  And if it were true that this part of the woman’s body is a female penis designed for sexual gratification by nonprocreative acts, would it not be reasonable to conclude that this is a bug rather than a feature of the female body?  Putting aside the question of why God would do such a thing, is it not odd that natural selection should have left such a design flaw for so long?  If it makes evolutionary sense for women to have a bundle of nerves to make them enjoy sex, wouldn’t we expect it to be concentrated to reward the kind of sex that will get them offspring?  The Africans might claim that natural law is actually on their side, that mutilated women are more functional and more feminine!

As I said, things are actually more complicated than that.  Still, it’s true that women’s arousal is not concentrated in the vagina the way men’s is concentrated in the penis.  It is for us natural lawyers, defenders of God’s creation, to argue that this is a feature, not a bug.

One Response

  1. I would argue that the natural law restrictions against mutilation are absolute: that removing a diseased organ or limb which is detrimental to the body is essentially different from removing a healthy organ or limb. (There are still line-drawing problems and hard cases, but that is always the situation in abstract moral discourse; no less for murder, suicide, etc. than for self mutilation).

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