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In 38 states, female genital mutilation (clitoridectomies on minors for non-medical reasons is type I) is illegal. There was once a female genital mutilation act (18 U.S. Code § 116), but it has been declared unconstitutional (as far as I know).

Circumcising minors is a controversial topic. In the U.S., guardians have found a host of ways to rationalise removing part of their sons’ penises, but it is not difficult to poke holes in these reasons. In fact, circumcision originally became prominent in the U.S. as a way to prevent masturbation (which obviously does not work).

That leads me to my question. Female genital mutilation also is rooted in attempting to limit sexuality—yet, unlike involuntary circumcision, it is illegal in most of the United States. So why is forced circumcision of minors legal? I’m looking for an answer that can reconcile the two.

Comment on accepted answer: I recognise that female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice and a major human rights epidemic. I do not mean to propagate the idea that they are of equal severity. I hope that accepting Ted Wrigley’s answer reflects that and can help spread wisdom about the problem.


Clitoridectomies are not equivalent to male circumcision. Clitoridectomies are equivalent to removal of the glans (the head of the penis, which contains most of the nerve endings that produce sexual pleasure). It is possible to do an equivalent of circumcision on a female: i.e., removing the clitoral hood which normally covers the clitoris, leaving the clitoris exposed. This is sometimes done as an elective (cosmetic) surgery, and is a cultural practice followed by the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam, and among certain cultural groups in Indonesia and Malaysia. But that is not a distinction made under US law, and for the remainder of this answer, I will refer to this practice as 'female circumcision,' and will use the term 'cliterodectomy' to refer to the more drastic procedures.

In every US state, the full or partial excision of the penis of a male child or young adult would be punishable at the very least as assault causing great bodily harm and felony child abuse. No laws have been specifically passed against this practice, because it is not an established practice of any known group; any case in which this occurred would be treated as an idiosyncratic crime under established law. Laws have been passed against clitoridectomies because that is an established practice of certain tribal groups, and opposing a cultural tradition of that sort calls for specific legal definition and action beyond the normal sanctions for individual crimes.

Male circumcision, whatever its pros and cons, does not significantly interfere with reproduction or sexual pleasure (well... there are arguments that it has some negative impacts on the latter, but they are too complex and nuanced to get into here). Arguments in favor of male circumcision generally rest on issues of cleanliness, disease prevention, or cultural heritage, and most men adapt to the procedure perfectly well. There is evidence to suggest that female circumcision (which only removes the clitoral hood) is equally innocuous. But 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. These are perceived (under the title Female Genital Mutilation) 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.

N.B. In reference to a dispute in comments about the nature of the surgical equivalence... The clitoris, like the penis, has both a shaft and a glans, and in both cases the glans contains the vast majority of nerve endings that produce sexual pleasure. However, the male organ combines the channel for the transfer of semen (as well as for urination), while the female organ is separate from both those functions. The removal of the clitoris has no direct effect on the capacity to reproduce; the removal of the penis — though it does not make a man sterile — makes reproduction impossible without artificial insemination. Clitoridectomies remove the clitoris and the external portions of the clitoral shaft, so for the purposes of this answer we treat a clitoridectomy as equivalent to the removal of the male glans. For both men and women, removal of the glans still allows them to feel some sexual pleasure — the shaft itself is sensitive, and for women, part of the shaft is internal, and may survive excision — but such pleasure is greatly diminished.

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    I recognise that it is a barbaric practice and a major human rights epidemic. I do not mean to propagate the idea that they are of equal severity. I hope that accepting your answer reflects that and can help spread wisdom about the problem. – gen-z ready to perish Apr 4 at 23:04
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    @gen-zreadytoperish: no worries; I recognize your intent, but felt the need to word things strongly. – Ted Wrigley Apr 5 at 6:40
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    I don’t feel like you were too strong at all – gen-z ready to perish Apr 5 at 6:40
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    Clitoral hood removal (or even a less invasive 'symbolic' version of it) is the prevalent method of female genital mutilation among South Asian Muslim communities: theislamicmonthly.com/… – cyco130 Apr 6 at 8:03
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    Unfortunately, I find this answer very badly researched. See this post here for my research and discussion on the topic: [nonestdeus.com/archive/posts/26]. Circumcision can and does cause sexual insensitivity of the glans. – PenumbraBrah Apr 7 at 20:43

It takes time for things to change. 200 years ago slavery was legal. 50 years ago genital mutilation was acceptable, and so was electroshock therapy for gay people. Today those things sound like atrocities.

Perhaps in another 100 years male circumcision will likewise be condemned, and (as far as religious beliefs are concerned) it may well become illegal to force minors into a religion.

In the end, both kinds of genital modification go against the philosophy of independent choice, under which every autonomous person should be free to decide what to do with their body or life without constraints or compulsions. Any non-medical surgery without a competent personal consent goes against this idea.

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    This answer seems to overgeneralise a bit. It's a big world. – gerrit Apr 6 at 8:52
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    @gerrit The part about the idea of independent choice is overgeneralised on purpose. Countries' laws or customs may of course go against moral universalism, but that's really their problem. If we consider that it's OK to have different standards for different people, then the whole quesiton doesn't make sense. – Dmitry Grigoryev Apr 6 at 9:34
  • Comments deleted. I would like to inform all new users that Politics Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum. For information on how comments should be used on this website, please review the help article on the commenting privilege. – Philipp Apr 7 at 14:10

In addition to Ted's excellent answer as to why female circumcision is significantly different, you'd have a problem with multiple religious groups that practice it as a rite. Orthodox Jews are directly commanded to perform it

According to the Torah (Genesis 17: 9-14), Abraham was commanded by God to circumcise himself, all male members of his household, his descendants and slaves in an everlasting covenant.

The Torah (Genesis 16:14) also says: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreksin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

Christians are not required to be circumcised, but many American Christians adhere to it anyways. Some parts of Islam practice it as well.

Since there is no apparent (to those practicing it) long lasting harm to boys who are circumcised, this is one area where they would be a strong push back from the US religious community at large if someone were to suggest laws to make it illegal. Iceland faced a similar backlash

One in three men globally is thought to be circumcised, the vast majority for religious or cultural reasons. Many Jews and Muslims fear the issue of circumcision could become a proxy for antisemitism and Islamophobia, pointing to similar tensions over religious dress and the ritual slaughter of animals for meat.

Muslim and Jewish leaders attacked the proposal, while Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Catholic Church in the European Union, said the bill was a “dangerous attack” on religious freedom. “The criminalisation of circumcision is a very grave measure that raises deep concern.”

There are no corresponding mainstream religious beliefs that mandate female genital modification of any kind.

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  • Comments deleted. The question was asking about political reasons, and this answer provided one. Whether or not you agree with those political reasons is a question of personal opinions, and opinon-based debates do not belong on this website. – Philipp Apr 6 at 15:30
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    "Since there is no long lasting harm" - Perhaps it would be better to say "relative little harm". Critics surely believe the practice is harmful, and generally any surgery (or most other things) has at least some potential harm. "There are no corresponding religious beliefs" - I don't know the exact nature of the relevant cultural practices, but it's hard to imagine the idea has no relation to religious practices. Even if it's less common. – Ian D. Scott Apr 6 at 17:24
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    I think this answer is affected by a degree of cultural bias. Many cultures would consider male circumcision to be harmful (Iceland, the Netherlands, N Europe in general), whilst in America, where circumcision is common, the foreskin is considered to be "redundant". Of course, if zero value is ascribed to the tissue removed, then MC can be described as harmless . Also - many cultures which practice FGC practice a form of FGC which is less invasive than male circumcision, and yet this is still described as FGC and condemned as immoral - notably the 1st FGM case in the US was this type – Swedish Architect Apr 8 at 9:34
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    Why should a religious group be allowed to practice genital cutting/mutilation in any form? – spring Apr 9 at 0:13

In my answer I will refer to “female genital cutting” (FGC), instead of FGM. For reasons why, refer to [22] and [28]. Suffice to say – Many women who have had their genitalia cut do not feel “mutilated”, and feel this is a value-laden term which they would rather not have applied to their bodies, and it leads to stigma and shame [22]. I choose to respect these women’s wishes, given their voice is not often heard. Furthermore [22], this term does actual, active harm to women who have been cut.

I provide a TLDR:

  1. FGC and male circumcision are comparable. Both encompass a spectrum of practices, which are justified in many cultures along similar lines. The two practices commonly serve as "initiation" rites into adulthood. The connection of FGC to patriarchy is poorly-established.
  2. Across much of the western world knowledge about the form and reasons for FGC is poor, relying on poorly-research and unsubstantiated tropes. It is perceived that western reasons for male circumcision are "medical" and "civilised" whilst FGC is done for "barbaric" reasons. This relies on unsubstantiated tropes.
  3. A "zero-tolerance" approach to FGM has been adopted by the UN/WHO, and is incorporated into western law. This bans all forms of FGC, however minor or medicalized, as a human rights violation, as it denies girls bodily autonomy and integrity.
  4. Whilst male circumcision would indeed fall under this category (were it performed on girls), cultural bias (particularly in the US) prevents recognition of the parallels between the practices. This culture bias is most pronounced in English-speaking countries, where neonatal circumcision was routine (and still is in USA), where law-makers themselves are typically circumcised. Throughout history people have acccepted their own childhood bodily modifications, whilst rejecting those of "foreign" cultures. (Chinese foot-binding, ritual scarification/tatooing of minors, corsetting etc.) There is a tendency to rationalise familiar practices, whilst rejecting foreign practices (the so-called "yuck" factor).
  5. The firewall between FGC and male circumcision may be breaking down, as recognition of the potential harms of MC, and recognition of the prevalence of minor, medicalized forms of FGC increases.
  6. The political ramifications of this are likely to play out differently in different countries. Countries in Northern Europe already recognise the harms of MC, and seem likely to further censure it, with the aim of procuring a total ban when this is deemed safe. (Indeed Iceland and Finland have already had attempts at a ban). In USA, it seems more likely that minor, medicalized forms of FGC will be legalised, as the parallel to the culturally endemic MC are recognised (as seen in the 1st FGM trial in the US, where the federal FGM bill was struck down as unconstitutional, for further analysis see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBH0g_Cl7Rk).

The longer version of my answer follows:

  1. Male circumcision and FGC are in fact far more similar than many people would think. Many bioethicists and anthropologists argue that the current discussion around FGC revolves around poorly-researched and un-scrutinised tropes, which do not hold up to scrutiny. These bioethicists believe that treating FGC and MC together (along with intersex normalisation surgery) is both the ethical and pragmatic way forward [21,27]. The WHO and UN definition of FGM (incorporated into law across the developed world) encompass any cutting done to a girls’ genitalia without medical necessity. This is a key point – the “zero tolerance” approach promoted by UN/WHO, and which has been adopted into the laws on FGM in western nations, means that any cutting done to a girl’s genitalia is classified as FGM, condemned as a human rights abuse, and is illegal. On this basis, there is a discrepancy in the law, as male circumcision if performed on a girl, would indeed be illegal. Later in my answer I will address the politics which lead to this discrepancy.
  2. FGC is a wide range of practices across many disparate cultures [1,2,5,7], with varying levels of invasiveness and varying cultural justifications. The perception that FGC is due to patriarchy/male suppression of female sexuality is an over-simplification [1,5,11,12,13], and is not well justified by empirical evidence. Severe forms of cutting are comparatively rare[1], with more minor forms of cutting being more standard. In Malaysia and Indonesia[2,3,4] the clitoral hood is nicked/pricked, and usually little/no tissue is removed. There are “no significant health related risks and physical examination failed to show any evidence of injury to the clitoris nor the labia and no signs of excised tissue”. According to the WHO and UN, this is classified as FGM. There is no evidence this causes sexual dysfunction [5] and many women are unaware of the fact they were cut [2]. This is not purely a pedantic point – this is one of the more common forms of FGC. Until quite recently it was not recognised that FGC was a cultural practice in SE Asia, and it was thought to be confined to Africa. The Western conception of FGC as a drastic mutilation is (partially) a reflection of the evidence we have on it, and the particular countries which have been most extensively studied - in Obermeyer’s systematic review of the evidence on FGC[5], she states:

“It is rarely pointed out that the frequency and severity of complications are a function of the extent and circumstances of the operation, and it is not usually recognized that much of [our] information comes from studies of the Sudan, where most women are infibulated. The ill-health and death that these practices are thought to cause are difficult to reconcile with the reality of their persistence in so many societies, and raises the question of a possible discrepancy between our “knowledge” of their harmful effects and the behaviour of millions of women and their families.”

It is worth noting that across Africa a range of practices are performed – from the most severe (infibulation), through less severe (clitoridectomy), to far more minor practices (so called “sunat”). In the Sudan and Somalia, the cutting has moved from a rather severe practice (infibulation), to increasingly minor and medicalized forms (such as “sunat”) as a result of a “harm-minimization” approach by some activists[6,15]. However minor or medicalised the cutting is, it is still classified as FGM by all international bodies, and the law in all developed countries. Reasons for this are addressed later. In all cultures which practice FGC, males are also cut, usually in the same conditions for parallel reasons. For males this can result in death and deformity [19,20], just the same as FGC.

The perception that FGC is associated strongly with patriarchy and male suppression of female sexuality is not well-established [1]:

“The empirical association between patriarchy and genital surgeries is not well established. The vast majority of the world’s societies can be described as patriarchal, and most either do not modify the genitals of either sex or modify the genitals of males only. There are almost no patriarchal societies with customary genital surgeries for females only. Across human societies there is a broad range of cultural attitudes concerning female sexuality—from societies that press for temperance, restraint, and the control of sexuality to those that are more permissive and encouraging of sexual adventures and experimentation—but these differences do not correlate strongly with the presence or absence of female genital surgeries.”

In almost all cultures which practice FGC, it is done by women, who typically see it as hygienic, beautifying and an important rite of passage with cultural value[7,8,9,10]. Amongst the Kono tribe in Sierra Leone[7]: “

"there is no cultural obsession with feminine chastity, virginity, or women’s sexual fidelity, perhaps because the role of the biological father is considered marginal and peripheral to the central ‘matricentric unit.’ … Kono culture promulgates a dual-sex ideology … [The] power of Bundu, the women’s secret sodality [i.e., initiation society that manages FGC ceremonies], suggest positive links between excision, women’s religious ideology, their power in domestic relations, and their high profile in the ‘public arena."

As a general point – the cultural meaning of FGC tends to be of a rite of passage, from childhood to adulthood. In some cultures, this is derived from the idea that children are naturally partially androgynous. To become fully male/female it is necessary to remove the female/male component – to this end circumcision/excision of clitoris is practiced on male/female initiates. Across the many cultures which practice FGC as a rite of passage it’s meaning takes many forms, but is not generally found to correspond to “sexual suppression”. It is the case in some cultures that FGC is done to suppress female sexuality, but these cultures are the exception not the rule[5,23].This misconception is rooted in the over-representation of FGC practices in Sudan [5].

To conclude in the words of Zachary Aldrous [13]:

“The fact of the matter is that what’s done to some girls [in some cultures] is worse than what’s done to some boys, and what’s done to some boys [in some cultures] is worse than what’s done to some girls. By collapsing all of the many different types of procedures performed into a single set for each sex, categories are created that do not accurately describe any situation that actually occurs anywhere in the world.”

  1. Another common misconception is that women subject to FGC are rendered incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure. This varies with the severity of cutting [5], but as remarked by Sara Johnsdotter [14] there is no “one-to-one” correspondence of the severity of cutting to sexual pleasure experienced. Even women cut in the most severe manner can still experience sexual pleasure [14,16,22]. [16] is a study on women who have had infibulation performed on them, the results show:

“58 mutilated young women reported orgasm in 91.43%, always 8.57%; after defibulation 14 out of 15 infibulated women reported orgasm; the group of 57 infibulated women investigated with the FSFI questionnaire showed significant differences between group of study and an equivalent group of control in desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction with mean scores higher in the group of mutilated women. No significant differences were observed between the two groups in lubrication and pain.”

And the study concludes:

“embryology, anatomy, and physiology of female erectile organs are neglected in specialist textbooks. In infibulated women, some erectile structures fundamental for orgasm have not been excised. Cultural influence can change the perception of pleasure, as well as social acceptance. Every woman has the right to have sexual health and to feel sexual pleasure for full psychophysical well-being of the person. In accordance with other research, the present study reports that FGM/C women can also have the possibility of reaching an orgasm. Therefore, FGM/C women with sexual dysfunctions can and must be cured; they have the right to have an appropriate sexual therapy.”

On the possibility of male circumcision harming sexual it is worthin noting that the foreskin is itself richly endowed with sensory nerves [17], and there does appear to be some link with sexual dysfunction, though this is disputed [18]. Again, as Sara Johnsdotter remarks [14], there appears to be no one-to-one mapping of tissue removed onto sexual pleasure/dysfunction. Instead the picture is a more complex and nuanced one. A large determining factor is whether or not that person is happy with their cut genitalia or not, and hence an international assembly has proposed a human rights argument against all (male, female and intersex) genital cutting practices [21].

  1. The difference in perception is due to cultural bias [12,13,23,24,25] across much of the West. Familiarity with male circumcision, and the foreignness of FGC lead many to think the practices are far more disconnected than they actually are. In the words of Hanny Lightfoot-Klein (a renowned anti-FGM activist) [23]:

“… the mainstream anti-FGC position is premised upon an orientalizing construction of FGC societies as primitive, patriarchal, and barbaric, and of female circumcision as a harmful, unnecessary cultural practice based on patriarchal gender norms and ritualistic beliefs. … Lambasting African societies and practices (while failing to critique similar practices in the United States) … essentially implies that North American understandings of the body are “scientific” (i.e., rational, civilized, and based on universally acknowledged expertise), while African understandings are “cultural” (i.e., superstitious, un-civilized, and based on false, socially constructed beliefs). [Yet] neither of these depictions is accurate. North American medicine is not free of cultural influence, and FGC practices are not bound by culture—at least not in the uniform way imagined by opponents.”

In America (and a number of English speaking countries) male circumcision was a widespread practice in the 20th Century. In America today, male circumcision is still a widespread, common practice, with around 50-60% of newborn males undergoing it. Across the west in general there are substantial Jewish and Muslim minorities, who practice male circumcision for religious/cultural reasons. It is this familiarity, along with political pressure from religious minorities in the face of any restrictions, which has led to male circumcision being a normalised, accepted practice across the west. It is easier to condemn a “foreign” practice such as FGC than a practice which is familiarised. Parallels to Chinese foot-binding, facial scarification and other bodily modifications imposed on children can be made – we are quick to judge other cultures for their particular form of bodily modification, whilst judging our own such bodily modifications to be” normal” and “natural”. 5. Whilst it is true that male circumcision has some health benefits – most notably a lower chance of contracting HIV from heterosexual sex – across much of the industrialized world these health benefits are not deemed sufficient justification to recommend male circumcision. A large reason for this is – the health benefits mostly apply only to sexually active adults, and can be obtained in far less invasive ways (condoms, practicing safe sex). It is a fundamental tenet of medical ethics that the risks surgery are only justified when there is no less invasive way of treating the pathology. The presence of a foreskin is not a pathological defect, it is natural tissue. The KNMG (Royal Dutch Medical Society, Netherlands) states [29]:

“There are good reasons for a legal prohibition of non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors, as exists for female genital mutilation. However, the KNMG fears that a legal prohibition would result in the intervention being performed by non-medically qualified individuals in circumstances in which the quality of the intervention could not be sufficiently guaranteed. This could lead to more serious complications than is currently the case.”

On the matter of health benefits they also state –

“There is no convincing evidence that circumcision is useful or necessary in terms of prevention or hygiene. Partly in the light of the complications which can arise during or after circumcision, circumcision is not justifiable except on medical/therapeutic grounds. Insofar as there are medical benefits, such as a possibly reduced risk of HIV infection, it is reasonable to put off circumcision until the age at which such a risk is relevant and the boy himself can decide about the intervention, or can opt for any available alternatives.”

The evidence available to both European and American health professionals are the same, and yet they reach opposite conclusions. Additionally, across both China, Japan and South America, male infant circumcision is not recommended on health grounds. The US stands alone in this matter and it has been suggested that the US in particular is biased (Hanny Lightfoot-Klein above) in their perception of the medical evidence by the high rate of male circumcision in the US. In response to the promotion of male circumcision in America, a number of health professionals across Northern Europe published a response, stating they believe the American view is seriously biased [30]:

"Seen from the outside, cultural bias reflecting the normality of nontherapeutic male circumcision in the United States seems obvious,[…] the report’s conclusions are different from those reached[ …] in other parts of the Western world, including Europe, Canada, and Australia. […], only 1 of the arguments put forward by the American Academy of Pediatrics has some theoretical […]; namely, the possible protection against urinary tract infections in infant boys, which can easily be treated with antibiotics without tissue loss. The other claimed health benefits, including protection against HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, genital warts, and penile cancer, are questionable, weak, and likely to have little public health relevance in a Western context, and they do not represent compelling reasons for surgery before boys are old enough to decide for themselves.”

It is worth bearing in mind that the default for any medical professional should be to be opposed to unnecessary surgery due to fundamental tenet of medical ethics. And to conclude with, I quote their statement on the justifiability and ethics of prophylactic surgery [30]:

“The most important criteria for the justification of medical procedures are necessity, cost-effectiveness, subsidiarity, proportionality, and consent. For preventive medical procedures, this means that the procedure must effectively lead to the prevention of a serious medical problem, that there is no less intrusive means of reaching the same goal, and that the risks of the procedure are proportional to the intended benefit. In addition, when performed in childhood, it needs to be clearly demonstrated that it is essential to perform the procedure before an age at which the individual can make a decision about the procedure for him or herself.”

  1. The continual misrepresentation of FGC as “incomparable to male circumcision” harms efforts to end FGC [27]. Numerous times women in practicing communities will say “how is this any different to Westerners (Americans) cutting their sons?” The insistence on a firewall between the two practices will continue to prevent progress in ending FGC. Whilst I appreciate people’s intentions are noble enough, it is not helpful to end FGC to have this firewall between the practices. The argument is all the stronger for including male circumcision and intersex normalisation surgeries under a single umbrella. The argument is significantly weakened by (well-intentioned) attempts to separate the two practices. I cannot persuade African women to not cut their daughters, if Americans continue to cut their sons.

I’m going to finish with a personal finish, which definitely breaks moderator rules. I work to end all genital cutting performed on children, whether male, female or intersex. It is a persistent struggle to change the minds of women who perform FGC on their daughters, when they will ask “Why is this wrong, but Americans circumcising their children is fine?” They ask this because they see these two practices as one and the same – cutting cultures almost invariably see MGC and FGC as two sides of the same coin. It proves significantly harder to end FGC if male circumcision is seen as acceptable. Moreover – the ethical arguments proposed for why FGC is wrong, also apply to male circumcision. If we are to declare bodily autonomy and integrity as human rights, they apply to all humans - male, female and intersex. And if we wish to judge other cultures, we should check that our culture is consistent with the measure we use.

Citations: [1] “Seven Things to Know about Female Genital Surgeries in Africa.” Hastings Center Report, vol. 42, no. 6, 2012, pp. 19–27., doi:10.1002/hast.81.

[2] Marranci, Gabriele. “Female Circumcision in Multicultural Singapore: The Hidden Cut.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 2, 2014, pp. 276–292., doi:10.1111/taja.12070.

[3] Rahman A I., Shuib R, Othman MS. The practice of female circumcision among muslims in Kelantan, Malaysia. Reproductive Health Matters1999;7:137–44.

[4] Rashid, Abdul, and Yufu Iguchi. “Female Genital Cutting in Malaysia: a Mixed-Methods Study.” BMJ Open, vol. 9, no. 4, 2019, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-025078.

[5] Obermeyer CM, Reynolds RF. Female genital surgeries, reproductive health and sexuality: a review of the evidence. Reproductive Health Matters1999;7:112–20.

[6] Bedri, Nafisa, et al. “Shifts in FGM/C Practice in Sudan: Communities’ Perspectives and Drivers.” BMC Womens Health, vol. 19, no. 1, 2019, doi:10.1186/s12905-019-0863-6.

[7] Shell-Duncan, Bettina, and Ylva Hernlund. Female "Circumcision" in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change. Lynne Rienner, 2001.

[8] Thomas, Lynn M. “‘Ngaitana(I Will Circumcise Myself)’: The Gender and Generational Politics of the 1956 Ban on Clitoridectomy in Meru, Kenya.” Gender & History, vol. 8, no. 3, 1996, pp. 338–363., doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.1996.tb00062.x.

[9] Wade, Lisa. “Learning from ‘Female Genital Mutilation’: Lessons from 30 Years of Academic Discourse.” 2017, doi:10.31235/osf.io/sd7nq. [10] Goldberg, Carey. “In Defense Of Female Circumcision? Panel Presents Seven Facts.” In Defense Of Female Circumcision? Panel Presents Seven Facts | CommonHealth, WBUR, 14 Nov. 2012, www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2012/11/14/defense-female-circumcision

[11] Shweder, Richard A. “The Goose and the Gander: the Genital Wars.” Circumcision, Public Health, Genital Autonomy and Cultural Rights, May 2017, pp. 141–159., doi:10.4324/9781315095684-16.

[12] Davis DS. Male and female genital alteration: a collision course with the law. Health Matrix. 2001;11:487–687.

[13] Androus ZT. The United States, FGM, and Global Rights to Bodily Integrity. Paper presented at The Rothermere American Institute Conference: The United States and Global Human Rights. November, 2004. Oxford University. Available at http://www.zacharyandrous.com/The%20US%20FGM%20and%20Global%20HR.pdf.

[14] Johnsdotter, Sara. “Discourses on Sexual Pleasure after Genital Modifications: the Fallacy of Genital Determinism (a Response to J. Steven Svoboda).” Circumcision, Public Health, Genital Autonomy and Cultural Rights, May 2017, pp. 46–55., doi:10.4324/9781315095684-6.

[15] http://www.aleciashepherd.com/writings/articles/other/The%20medicalization%20of%20female%20circumcision%20harm%20reduction.pdf

[16]Catania L, Abdulcadir O, Puppo V, Verde JB, Abdulcadir J, Abdulcadir D. Pleasure and orgasm in women with female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2007;4(6):1666–1678.

[17] Cold CJ, Taylor JR. The prepuce. BJU International. 1999;83(S1):34–44.

[18] Shindel, Alan. “Evaluation for Male Circumcision and Sexual Function in Men and Women: a Survey-Based, Cross-Sectional Study in Denmark.” F1000 - Post-Publication Peer Review of the Biomedical Literature, June 2011, doi:10.3410/f.13200013.14542135.

[19] Gonzalez L. South Africa: over half a million initiates maimed under the knife. All Africa. 2014. Available at http://allafrica.com/stories/201406251112.html.

[20] http://ulwaluko.co.za/

[21] “Medically Unnecessary Genital Cutting and the Rights of the Child: Moving Toward Consensus.” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 19, no. 10, 2019, pp. 17–28., doi:10.1080/15265161.2019.1643945.

[22] Earp, Brian D. “Protecting Children from Medically Unnecessary Genital Cutting Without Stigmatizing Women’s Bodies: Implications for Sexual Pleasure and Pain.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2020, doi:10.1007/s10508-020-01633-x.

[23] Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny. “Similarities in Attitudes and Misconceptions about Male and Female Sexual Mutilations.” Sexual Mutilations, 1997, pp. 131–135., doi:10.1007/978-1-4757-2679-4_12.

[24] Earp, Brian D., et al. “False Beliefs Predict Increased Circumcision Satisfaction in a Sample of US American Men.” Culture, Health & Sexuality, vol. 20, no. 8, June 2017, pp. 945–959., doi:10.1080/13691058.2017.1400104.

[25] Earp, Brian & Shaw, David. (2017). Cultural bias in American medicine: the case of infant male circumcision. Journal of Pediatric Ethics. 1. 8-26.

[26] Earp, Brian & Shaw, David. (2017). Cultural bias in American medicine: the case of infant male circumcision. Journal of Pediatric Ethics. 1. 8-26.

[27] Earp, Brian. (2020). Gender or genital autonomy? Why framing nontherapeutic genital cutting as a children's rights issue is both ethically and pragmatically necessary. Journal of obstetrics and gynaecology Canada: JOGC = Journal d'obstetrique et gynecologie du Canada: JOGC. 42. e17. 10.1016/j.jogc.2019.11.023.

[28] Cook, R.j, et al. “Female Genital Cutting (Mutilation/Circumcision): Ethical and Legal Dimensions.” International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, vol. 79, no. 3, 2002, pp. 281–287., doi:10.1016/s0020-7292(02)00277-1.

[29] https://www.knmg.nl/circumcision/

[30] http://artemide.bioeng.washington.edu/InformationIsPower/Pediatrics-2013-Frisch-peds.2012-2896.pdf

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  • I've read your short version. I'll get back to read your longer version and selected references when I can manage. I appreciate the effort you have put into your response - but do not "like" the general drift of your argument. If you look at the cited major references in my answer Compared to the argued medical benefits vs disadvantages from Mayo, Hopkins, ...which can be summarised as - seen to be net beneficial health wise overall - leave to invividual parets' discretion, your references seem to major on cultural & religious aspects with a minimisation of coverage of health aspects. – Russell McMahon Apr 8 at 1:06
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    @SwedishArchitect: Constructive criticism... I think you could improve this answer if you did a couple of things. First, you could remove the first three bullet points, and similar 'backpedaling' commentary. Your points are reasonable and intelligent; starting out on that kind of defensive footing makes your answer weaker, not stronger. Just go straight at what you want to say, and don't worry if people take it the wrong way. You can clarify that at the end, or in comments. – Ted Wrigley Apr 8 at 1:06
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    I can see that I am going to have to at least skim through some of your references. It would be of great assistance to serious readers if people could include live links and not just citations. Also, open access material makes such references useful - paywalled ones tend to act as a means of persuasion by citation volume without any easy way for Joe-average to see what is actually said. – Russell McMahon Apr 8 at 1:08

It seems unlikely that you have looked in detail at what is involved in each case.

Male circumcision has medical benefits which have been and are debated ongoingly.
There are modern well qualified experts who recommend it on solely medical grounds. While there are undoubtedly pros and cons and the practice is not without some risks. The general consensus of the medical establishment is that it is of net benefit but not so greatly so that it should be a universal practice. It is considered to be best left to the discretion of parents as to whether the overall net benefits merit its implementation on a person by person basis.

I am not aware of any competent medical expert who recommends FGM on solely medical grounds (excluding reasons related to perceived medical necessity (eg tumour, severe trauma, ... ) which would not constitute "FGM" by any usual understanding of the term).
Any who do so should be stoned* at the soonest opportunity.
{{*There's a pun in there. Try not to destroy it with clumsy editing.}}


Documented health benefits of female circumcision:



Documented health benefits of male circumcision:

I'd hoped that the first few of these sources would be recognised as constituting bodies liable to be very competent at commenting on such matters. Appearently this is not obvious to some.

Few medical authorities would recommend male circumcision in all cases. There is however a substantial body of informed opinion re its potential benefits, which should be considered on a case by case basis:

Mayo Clinic say:

" ... The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. However, the AAP doesn't recommend routine circumcision for all male newborns. The AAP leaves the circumcision decision up to parents — and supports use of anesthetics for infants who have the procedure. ... ", and ...

"Circumcision might have various health benefits, including:

  • Easier hygiene. Circumcision makes it simpler to wash the penis. However, boys with uncircumcised penises can be taught to wash regularly beneath the foreskin.

  • Decreased risk of urinary tract infections. The risk of urinary tract infections in males is low, but these infections are more common in uncircumcised males. Severe infections early in life can lead to kidney problems later.

  • Decreased risk of sexually transmitted infections. Circumcised men might have a lower risk of certain sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Still, safe sexual practices remain essential.

  • Prevention of penile problems. Occasionally, the foreskin on an uncircumcised penis can be difficult or impossible to retract (phimosis). This can lead to inflammation of the foreskin or head of the penis.

  • Decreased risk of penile cancer. Although cancer of the penis is rare, it's less common in circumcised men.

  • Cervical cancer is less common in the female sexual partners of circumcised men."

US NCBI "The Medical Benefits of Male Circumcision"

  • " ... of male circumcision, particularly in light of recent medical evidence.

Three randomized trials in Africa demonstrated that adult male circumcision decreases human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) acquisition in men by 51% to 60%,1 and the long-term follow-up of these study participants has shown that the protective efficacy of male circumcision increases with time from surgery. ..."

  • " ... In addition to HIV, male circumcision has been shown to reduce the risk of other heterosexually acquired sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Two trials demonstrated that male circumcision reduces

    • the risk of acquiring genital herpes by 28% to 34%, and

    • the risk of developing genital ulceration by 47%.1

    • Additionally, the trials found that male circumcision reduces the risk of oncogenic high-risk human papillomavirus (HR-HPV) by 32% to 35%.1

  • one trial also reported derivative benefits for female partners of circumcised men;

    • the risk of HR-HPV for female partners was reduced by 28%,

    • the risk of bacterial vaginosis was reduced by 40%, and

    • the risk of trichomoniasis was reduced by 48%.1,2

Johns Hopkins
Greater Benefits of Infant Circumcision:
Benefits extend into adulthood, says Johns Hopkins adolescent medicine specialist

  • A recent Johns Hopkins study (Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, online, Aug. 20) goes further. Declining rates of U.S. infant male circumcision will lead to dramatically higher rates of sexually transmitted disease and related cancers in men and their female partners, researchers warn, and add up to more than $4.4 billion in avoidable costs if circumcision rates in the U.S., now averaging 55 percent (down from 76 percent in the 1970s and 1980s), drop to levels now seen in Europe (around 10 percent on average) over the next decade.

  • " ... . I’ve seen many uncircumcised male patients during routine physical examinations who have asymptomatic discharge from the urethra due to either gonorrhea or Chlamydia that would have otherwise gone undiagnosed. This is a threat to the health of the male as well as his partners since STDs can cause ascending infections into the reproductive tract. We’re still accumulating evidence about the role of bacteria that accumulates under the foreskin that may be shared between sexual partners. Bacterial vaginosis may be an example of this. Another concern includes addressing issues about foreskin hygiene and among males in the first year of life higher risk of urinary tract infections. ..."

American Academy of Paediatrics

  • " ... After a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics found the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision. The AAP policy statement published Monday, August 27, says the final decision should still be left to parents to make in the context of their religious, ethical and cultural beliefs...."


Live Science

National Centre for Health Research

Better health - Victoria State Government

UCLA Health

More "related" fwiw:

CIRCUMCISION OF INFANT MALES - The Royal Australasian College of Physicians September 2010

Prevalence of Adult Male Circumcision in the General Population and a Population at Increased Risk for HIV/AIDS in New York City - Journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association 2008.

Estimation of country-specific and global prevalence of male circumcision 2016

WHO 41 pages 2007
Male circumcision Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability

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    You’ve missed all the documented negative effects of make circumcision, which makes this a very biased answer. – Tim Apr 7 at 12:43
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    This answer consists merely of a list of health benefits (which are indeed debated, and with good reason - many of the health benefits are more readily obtained with non-surgical means - condoms and safe-sex are far better at preventing STDs/HIV than circumcision). This does not explain why neonatal circumcision is permissible - given many of the health benefits apply exclusively to sexually active adults, and are therefore not applicable to neonatal circumcision. Also - if we imagine this as a table of "advantages" and "disadvantages" - the foreskin, the tissue removed, is not counted. – Swedish Architect Apr 7 at 12:45
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    @Tim - except this answer isn't claiming that male circumcision is beneficial, and isn't comparing benefits vs drawbacks. The answer is pointing out, and documenting, that there are no supposed medical benefits to FGM that could even be claimed, while there are some that can be claimed for the circumcision. That is a difference. It's not a biased answer, at all, unless you make the false assumption that this answer is trying to claim it is a beneficial practice, overall. – PoloHoleSet Apr 7 at 20:13
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    @PoloHoleSet it would be helpful if the answer explained that then. Right now, that’s entirely unclear. – Tim Apr 7 at 21:02
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    @PoloHoleSet again, I understand your point. I think the answer is very unclear in expressing what you’ve said in your comments. There’s a very strong implication made by listing (only) the benefits of something, that said thing is beneficial. An edit could clear things up. – Tim Apr 7 at 21:13

Short trivial definition-based answer.


severe damage to somebody's body, especially when part of it is cut or torn off; the act of causing such damage
Thousands suffered death or mutilation in the bomb blast.
see also FGM, self-mutilation

severe damage to something; the act of causing severe damage to something
a deliberate mutilation of the truth

-- Oxford Learner's Dictionary

The operative word being severe. Opponents of FGM argue that the functional removal of a sensory organ, (an eye, the tongue, etc.), or what amounts to a sensory organ is clearly severe damage. Removal of skin that's less functional, is not, in the same sense, severe, and is therefore not legally regarded as mutilation.

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    This answer is empirically wrong. FGM is defined by UN/WHO as any non-medically necessary cutting of a girls genitalia. This encompasses even pricking which removes no flesh, to the most severe and gruesome of genital cutting. For example the 2016 trial of Jumala Nagarwala for FGM (1st trial in US) was a less invasive form of cutting than male circumcision, as the defense emphasized. – Swedish Architect Apr 10 at 8:13
  • @SwedishArchitect, Since this Q. is about laws in the U.S., the definitions of the U.N. would not necessarily apply. (It's not like the U.S. and the U.N. have never disagreed before...) – agc Apr 10 at 8:31
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    I should have been more specific - the UN/WHO definition has been incorporated into the laws of most developed nations on FGM. In the US it is the case that "minor" invasive forms of FGC(M) (AKA less invasive than male circumcision) are deemed illegal (such as the 1st trial for FGM in the USA, Dr Jumana Nagarwala). What is frequently not appreciated by popular opinion is that FGC(M) encompasses a wide spectrum of procedures, some more/less severe. All are (in my view correctly, others disagree), condemned as human rights abuses. See zero-tolerance approach of UN/WHO, vs harm-minimisation – Swedish Architect Apr 10 at 8:36
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    @SwedishArchitect, Interesting, but however desirable, (or not), a complete and intrinsic logical consistency is not a property of U.S. law so far. To the contrary, laws and interpretations that flatly contradict each other can remain in place for decades or centuries, unnoticed, neglected, or cherished. IOW, U.S. law can sometimes resemble a hydra-headed monster that fights itself like rivalrous siblings... – agc Apr 10 at 8:49

The naïve hypothesis has been explained in other answers already, that male circumcision and female circumcision are not analogous, that male circumcision is harmless while female circumcision is harmful. Here I will explore an alternative hypothesis, that both practices are similar, but there are no major religious groups practicing female circumcision in the US, unlike with male circumcision. I will contend that the reason the naïve explanation for the circumcision asymmetry emerges so often in the US, is because of cultural biases. I will not condone nor condemn either circumcision, I will not argue whether they are the same, I will merely explain why fundamental anatomical differences between the practices or genitalia is not the reason that US legislature differentiates between female and male circumcision, but rather the religions practiced by the US society.

A little bit of background on circumcision first. Male circumcision either has its origins or has been documented as early as on the sacred texts of Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the relevant passages of the Torah, God speaks to Abraham:

"This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised."

The central texts of Islam, the Quran, don't mention circumcision at all. Which left circumcision practices to be interpreted from spoken tradition and secondary texts. Lacking a canonical gender-specific origin many branches of Islam practice circumcision on both genders and may even use the same word for it Khitan (خِتان‎), while others have a special word for female circumcision Khafd (خفض‎) and might thus be associated with greater gender dimorphism.

On to the question, why is FGM illegal and circumcision not? The answer would be in the question, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) would be a pejorative western name for the Islamic practice of Khafd, the alternative Female Genital Cutting(FGC) is used by neutral sources. The United States has an almost negligible Islamic population, so first there is no institutional or democratic support for the practice, second cases of female circumcision were less likely to be traditional cultural rites and more likely to be improvised acts with no cultural iterative improvements. Early references from 1993 legal journals describe cases of Female Genital Mutilation with no mention of Islam, and mentions stitching, which is the most extreme version, widely practised in african countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia Somalia, Sudan, sometimes referred to as infibulation or type 3 FGM.

Legislature prohibiting female circumcision was first introduced in 1996, in the same breath it first denied funding to countries that practice it, and only then prohibited the practice locally, the inference of foreign relationships in the origin of this law is palpable. The timing is also condemning, one month before Bin Laden had emmitted a fatwa, a death warrant, on Americans participating in a conflict relating to Abrahamic holy sites, this would ultimately culminate on the 9/11 attacks. at which point interest in FGM would decline for a more direct, less veiled form of negative islam public perception. I am not sure whether there was a direct connection between the events, but it reflects the tensions between the cultures at the time.

The counterpart, why is male circumcision legal? The rites are fairly well defined and time tested and have evolved towards being fairly harmless. The attempts to outlaw the practice were fairly defended in trial thanks to the large Jewish community, albeit suffering some concessions regarding oral-genital contact between the mohel and the baby.

It is still possible that female circumcision is practised (much) more harmfully, but the religious difference is the source of assymetry between circumcision in males and females, not anatomical reasons. Especially when speaking about it in the context of the USA.

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    Sorry but I have to downvote because you're confusing circumcision with removal of a sexual organ (excision). As pointed by the (now accepted) answer, they're totally different in nature, one is controversial while the other is an atrocity. – Bregalad Apr 7 at 12:50
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    The prepuce is an organ too. The acts may be different but, but they are also similar, the religious removal of part of the genitals, the practices share the same roots, so I sometimes use the same word. To be fair I use various words to denote various phenomenon: circumcision, FGM, FGC, Khitan, Khafd, infibulation. The fact that circumcision typically refers to penises is a limitation of our language and its jewish influence. Language is politics. – Tomas Zubiri Apr 7 at 18:57
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    .... and skin is an organ. If I have a skin tag or a mole removed, it's not the equivalent to having a clitoridectomies. Finding a distant similarity and claiming things are the same is false equivalence, and does nothing to lend credibility to your arguments. – PoloHoleSet Apr 7 at 20:09
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    Well, this is the politics stackexchange, and the question is why is the law the way it is, not whether it's good or wrong. – Tomas Zubiri Apr 8 at 4:13
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    The comments here are riddled with misconceptions about FGC(M) - In no form of FGC(M) is the clitoris removed in it's entirety, as the clitoris is a largely internal organ and this is anatomically impossible. Clitoridectomy is one type of FGC(M), out of a wide variety of practices, practiced for many different reasons. The majority lf women who have undergone FGC(M) do enjoy sexual pleasure and orgasm. My answer addresses these points at length and evidences all these claims. No anthropologist or bioethicist would agree with the claims here. – Swedish Architect Apr 8 at 11:07

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