To mutilate the genitals of a female less than eighteen years of age in the United States is a crime of assault punishable by fine, up to five years of imprisonment, or both (Title 18, part 1, ch. 7, sec. 116). The only exceptions granted by federal law are cases of health necessity, in which the surgery must be performed by a licensed medical practitioner. Even in such unusual cases, the law specifies that "no account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that person, or any other person, that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual." In contrast, Congress has never passed, much less even entertained, a parallel law that would protect young males from genital mutilation (also known as circumcision), despite the fact that no professional medical society in this country recommends surgical amputation of the healthy foreskin for medical reasons.
Why does it seem counterintuitive to so many Americans, as it obviously is, to grant equal legal protection to males? Why is not the mutilation of the genitals of a male less than eighteen years of age in the United States also a crime of assault, punishable by fine, up to five years of imprisonment, or both? Under such a parallel law, even cases deemed medically necessary could not be justified by a belief that the "operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual."
Most Americans cringe at the thought of any form of female genital mutilation, regarding it as a gross violation of an individual’s right to her bodily integrity. For many this practice may seem to symbolize a survival of ancient beliefs and attitudes that seem starkly out of place in the contemporary world, and, most important, in a country as enlightened on issues of gender equity and human rights as the U.S. What would the average American, however, think about certain "traditional" societies in the world where both boys and girls undergo genital mutilation in the belief that they cannot be sexually mature adults without such operations? Both operations, performed during the teenage years, are matters of "custom and ritual," deeply rooted in tradition and certainly not performed out of medical necessity. Are they both therefore, for their males and females alike, considered to be outmoded customs that are inappropriate in a country like the U.S.?
Apparently not, as infant boys still undergo genitally mutilating surgery at a high rate in this country, even in the absence of evidence that the procedure is medically necessary. Some recent research, in fact, indicates that circumcision may compromise the future capacity of the male - and his partner as well - to experience the full sexual pleasure associated with fully intact genitalia. In "traditional" societies the boy is usually old enough to refuse the procedure, and many of them do so despite the intense pressure of social norms. In the U.S., however, he is given no opportunity to refuse; an infant cannot grant consent but rather has the decision made for him by a combination of parental, medical, and/or religious influences. About sixty-five percent of all male babies in the U.S. are still mutilated today without their consent, and an insignificant percentage of these needed the surgery for medical reasons.
Many U.S. physicians continue to advise parents to sign the circumcision consent form without providing them with sufficient, up-to-date medical information to enable them to make an informed decision. Nearly all parents sign that form without adequate knowledge. Common reasons they give for doing so, unless they are guided primarily by religious custom, are that if left unaltered, their sons’ genitals will be "unnatural," unclean, smelly, unattractive to the opposite sex, different from those of fathers and peers, and dangerous to their personal health. Would Americans accept these arguments if they were applied to females, as they continue to be in other parts of the world? Are shared beliefs about cleanliness, odor, attractiveness, and appearance to peers not simply those of received cultural tradition? Would the same argument be made for the painful surgical removal of any other part of the human anatomy from a non-consenting infant?
Virtually all anthropologists, notwithstanding the heritage of our discipline’s emphasis on respect for cultural difference, oppose female genital mutilation as a violation of universal ethical principles. They have had far less to say about male circumcision, perhaps, ironically, because of their own cultural prejudices. Yet it was an anthropologist, the distinguished late George Peter Murdock, who apparently coined the term "male genital mutilation" in his dry cross-cultural compilation, Ethnographic Atlas, published in 1967. And in 1991 the late Ashley Montagu, one of the discipline’s principal popularizers and most relentless campaigners against racism, referred to both female and male genital mutilation as forms of child abuse. For him male circumcision remains "an archaic ritual mutilation that has no justification whatever and no place in a civilized society."
I have made these statements strongly, realizing that some readers will find them puzzling, even objectionable. Are not religious customs, even mutilating ones, special cases, one might ask? If they are not for females, why then for males; if not for some religions, why others? Is not the medical community divided on the issue? Yes, but increasingly less so than it used to be; and the failure of U.S. medical associations to take a much stronger stand against the practice is considered oddly anachronistic by the medical communities of countries such as Canada, Australia, and those of Europe, including Britain. And is it appropriate to compare the genital mutilation of males with that of females, who suffer far more severely as a result? Yes, I believe that it is, as no infant should be deprived of any healthy, functional tissue in order to fulfill someone else’s cultural mandate.