Why would feminists support male circumcision?

I am subscribed to the RSS feed of the www.feministe.us blog and every time I read I learn a lot. I used to think of myself as a man supporting women’s emancipation but I’ve learned in the last three years, how often privilege has blinded me and how often well-meaning is different from well-done. And much of this has been based on reading that blog and its comments.

So it’s always a huge surprise for me when I run into a post that seems extremely misguided to me (and that’s a problem that I have with other sites as well: whether it’s skeptics who heavily lay on the libertarian or liberals who show themselves to be supporters of medical pseudoscience). And thus it was with Jill’s post on how inactivists are ruining the debate on circumcision. It’s mainly an extensive quote of and strong show of support for an article at Slate that is full-on for male circumcision.

Now, I understand why feminists have an issue with anyone equating male circumcision with FGM. They are not equal and given an “either-or” situation, FGM (and many other issues) would need to be addressed long before MC.

What I’ve learned reading the Feministe blog (and other places on the net), however, is that “there’s something horrible going on so let’s not do anything about smaller things before we’ve solved the horrible one” is misguided. And therefore I wonder: why does Jill come out so strongly in favor of MC?

The Slate article is thankfully copiously sourced so one can check the statements. I have to admit that I never thought about/looked into sexual pleasure w.r.t. MC so I skipped those. What I am interested in, and have been for a while, are the medical benefits. As is Jill, I believe, when she equates MC with practices with proven health benefits:

Your kid may not want to get a vaccine, but you should probably vaccinate your kid. Your kid doesn’t want disinfectant on that cut, but the cut should get disinfected. Your kid wants to only eat hot dogs every day for the rest of his life, but your kid should probably eat some vegetables.

When I first read that MC can reduce HIV infections by 60 to 70 percent, my mind was blown: such an easy procedure, such awesome benefits.
(this statement is also typically flanked by the claim that the researchers terminated the study early because it would have been unethical to withhold the intervention from the control group any longer)
But the first Slate link is curious: it links to a Time.com piece, which speculates why the prevention of HIV infections might come about but offers as support only another link to an article by the same author, which is about anti-retroviral therapy, not about MC! The other links are similarly indirect.

The reason that such citation behavior makes me wary is that I ran into a post criticizing the 3 studies on which those claims are based rather convincingly: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/05/when-bad-science-kills-or-how-to-spread-aids/ (I’ve linked to this one before)
Part of the argument is that MC in those trials also meant enforced abstinence after the procedure, that after-healing check-ups meant more supervision of the treatment group, and that the early termination (for ethical reasons, remember) actually means that effects look inflated.

And I have to say that the rest of the Slate article doesn’t inspire confidence either:
– the claim that “circumcision is highly effective in preventing transmission of HPV in men” links to a study the aim of which “was to examine the association between male circumcision and the prevalence of penile HPV infection among HIV-infected men” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22676057)
– the statement about genital warts links to http://livepage.apple.com/
– the study about urinary tract infections finds “Assuming equal utility of benefits and harms, net clinical benefit is likely only in boys at high risk of UTI.”
– its claim that the claim that MC is leading to lower condom use is “emphatically false” is contradicted by the UN itself: http://www.irinnews.org/report/79557/swaziland-circumcision-gives-men-an-excuse-not-to-use-condoms

I can’t access the full text of the other two PubMed studies but I wonder whether the criticism of the HIV studies possibly applies as well.

I don’t have strong feelings about MC as a surgical procedure. To repeat, I don’t see it as equal to FGM.
FGM is immensely harmful and a tool for subjugation.
I view MC more akin as having a baby’s earlobes pierced – with the difference that the latter is reversible.

I do have strong feelings about MC as a religious practice. To my knowledge there are no proven benefits to MC, and therefore putting the religious expression of the parents above the right to physical autonomy of the child strikes me as wrong. In terms of medical benefits MC seems to be at about the level of acupuncture, and slightly above Reiki and Homeopathy.

And my interpretation actually shines often through in the arguments of the supporters of MC, whether it’s
– commenters who went as far as predict a “new exodus of Jews” from Germany if the surpreme court upheld the circumcision ban
– Mathias Matussek who wrote in Spiegel

By now, it’s an embarrassment to almost everyone in Germany that, in the grounds for one of its decisions, a regional court in Cologne almost off-handedly declared circumcision — a religious tradition dating back thousands of years — to be illegal.

– or Donna L and Safiya Outlines in the Feministe comment thread who implicitly accuse MC opponents of anti-semitism and Islamophobia

I usually propose the following thought experiment: imagine communist parents who want to have their baby tattooed with an image of Marx’ head – about as useful as MC, born from strong convictions. Would feminists support it?

Or, to give it the fig leaf of medical benefit: say I wanna have my baby tattooed with its blood type and Rhesus factor – arguable medical benefit, about as invasive as MC. Would feminists support it?

This entry was posted in health benefits, health care, health care policy, pseudo-science, science, science-based policy, secularism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why would feminists support male circumcision?

  1. Andy says:

    Most feminists are not in favour of male circumcision and believe that unnecessary genital surgery on a minor is assault. Whereas, as you point out, FGM is usually far more brutal than MC, any kind of cutting that is not required for medical reasons (such as a restrictively tight foreskin that is causing pain or problems with penile function) should be completely unacceptable to a civilised society.



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