Male vs. Female Circumcision

Can the two be compared?

Some people say, “Of course not…they are different organs, and the circumcisions are done for different reasons. So, no, they cannot be compared.” Others believe that because female circumcision tends to remove more tissue, often far more, which causes serious medical effects afterwards, it is actually far worse than male circumcision. Still others say that, despite their differences, on a moral basis, the two can indeed be compared. Yet the comparison depends on the moral argument, as some will argue that both are moral, while others will argue that both are wrong, even mutilating. Clearly this is a complicated, emotionally-charged topic!

Different organs, different circumcisions 

Both male and female sexual organs develop during the latter part of the first trimester of pregnancy. During this time, the male organ develops into a penis, which is covered with a tissue on its bulbous end, a tissue called a prepuce, or foreskin. Moreover, the main nerve that causes a male orgasm will develop along the top of the penis shaft. And, while it hasn’t been the subject of a large, definitive study, many argue (especially online and especially among intactivists), there are also important nerves that contribute to sexual satisfaction and orgasm in both foreskin and frenulum tissue, the frenulum being the tissue connecting a foreskin to the penis, and located on the bottom of the penile shaft.

The female sexual organ also grows inside the womb during the first trimester. The female’s sexual organ will grow a small, penile-like extension, called the clitoris, which has a sort-of foreskin, referred to as the “hood.’ But that’s where the similarity ends. Both the nerves and the genitalia spread out through the female’s pelvic area. The major difference, of course, is the female genitalia form “lips” that surround or cover a rather expandable “hole,” that eventually receives a penis during sex (in heterosexual sex, that is), and that becomes the birth canal during a vaginal childbirth.

What circumcision removes and what it leaves

Circumcisions on both males and females vary, depending on custom and the individual circumciser. In ancient days, male circumcisers tended to remove only the tip of the foreskin, which for most men in the Middle East and Fertile Crescent, where circumcision was popular even thousands of years ago, usually extended beyond the end of the glans. Removing it allowed for easier erections for those men who had tight openings in their foreskins, and therefore improved fertility among the culture, though that wasn’t the original purpose of male circumcision. It was to “look more perfect, like the gods,” and for Jewish men, to make a contract, a covenant, between the male and his supreme commander, G-d.

Eventually, and for reasons that are too complicated to discuss in this article, many cultures, and even those Jewish men with the partial circumcisions, began to have the entire foreskin removed. A “tight” circumcision is when there is little extra skin left on the penile shaft when it is erect. When extra skin is left, as it is for most circumcisions in Israel, for example, it is referred to as a “loose” circumcision, that is, there is extra skin on both a flaccid and an erect penis.

Whether part or all of the frenulum is removed during a circumcision depends on what is the circumcision custom of the time and place, as well as on an individual circumciser’s practice. Thus, in a male circumcision, frenulum tissue, either partially or fully, may or may not be removed. (This issue would make an interesting and valuable study, to compare circumcisions that remove the entire frenulum to circumcisions that retain at least some frenulum, given how controversial the issue has become.)

What is important to remember about male circumcision is that the focus is on removing foreskin and sometimes the tissue connecting the foreskin to the penis but never on amputating part or all of the penile shaft. Whether or not frenulum tissue is removed may affect a man’s sexuality – and may not – since the majority of circumcised men are able to achieve erections and have orgasms.

Probably the biggest difference between male and female circumcision is how much more tissue, how much more genitalia, is removed during a typical female circumcision. Sometimes, the female’s outer vulva – the outer “lips” on her vagina – are removed. But often, both the outer and inner vulva are removed, in a circumcision called “infibulation.” Then the opening is stitched to form a small hole, out of which urine and menstrual blood may have difficulty exiting. And given any scar tissue surrounding the hole, it can become rather inelastic, making sexual penetration by the male exceedingly difficult at first. Thus, in many cultures that practice infibulation on females, it can take an average of two weeks of hard thrusting on the male’s part to penetrate his wife’s vagina, achievable largely because he is also circumcised, and therefore his foreskin can not be torn by this thrusting. For some couples, it can take the man up to a month to achieve penetration.

Healing from typical male circumcision, especially a newborn circumcision, can take just a few days to a week or so. Even healing a male circumcision on a teenager or adult takes up to two months. In contrast, a typical female circumcision, even on a newborn, can take months to heal, and often the damage from the circumcision never really heals, leaving many women with numerous medical problems that can last a lifetime. Especially after an infibulation, and because a female circumciser often uses instruments and techniques that result in jagged cuts, a female can experience serious urinary problems, including more frequent urinary tract infections that lead to kidney infections and kidney failure. This is in stark contrast to circumcised males, who will experience far fewer urinary tract infections (a reason often cited for the medical justification of male circumcision. Note that even uncircumcised women are 10 times more likely to get a urinary tract infection than uncircumcised males but when males do get them, about a third of the males, especially those experiencing repeated infections, will lead to more serious kidney infections and even kidney failure. The irony here is that circumcision protects men but puts women at great risk of urinary tract infections and they are already at great risk of them. One of the keys to avoiding infection, of course, is excellent genital hygiene.) Infibulated females omen are also at much greater risk of prolonged labor during childbirth, a risk that can lead to fetal brain damage, as well as fetal or maternal death. Infibulation can even cause sterility; in one study, it was estimated that 1/4th to 1/5th of all cases of female sterility, in Sudan, were linked to infibultation.

To sum up this difference: in a male circumcision, part or all of his foreskin is removed during circumcision, and often part or all of the tissue (frenulum) connecting the foreskin to the penis is removed. In a female circumcision, only the hood of the clitoris may be removed, but usually the entire clitoris is removed, and the outer and inner vulva are removed too, leaving too small a hole, a huge number of stitches, and much pain and medical complications during recovery and even the rest of the female’s life, especially during childbirth.

Other differences and similarities

When and where
Both male and female circumcisions are often done on newborns or infants. But many are done later in life, either during childhood, puberty or young adult.

Circumcisers may be medically trained or may be what is known as a “ritual cirumciser,” which is someone who has learned how to circumcise from a mentor or teacher but who may have little knowledge of medicine, sterility, pain relief, protection (as in the case of male circumcision and protecting the glans and penis from accidental cuts or amputation) and medical aftercare, especially in treating complication that may arise from and after the circumcision procedure. In some countries, such as Egypt, more circumcisions, including female circumcisions, are being performed by medically trained and medically certified circumcisers. In contrast, far too many circumcisions are still performed by ritual circumcisers, who perform the circumcision in unsterile conditions, using primitive tools, no pain relief, no medical protection and unable to offer medical aftercare. Such circumcisions can cause excessive pain, medical problems, trauma, and stress that can last a lifetime, especially if the circumcision is performed on an older child or teens. Even what was once thought of — or rationalize — as not experiencing pain – no crying – may now be considered a sign of trauma!

There are currently attempts, locally, nationally, internationally, on the Internet and elsewhere, to ban both male and female circumcision. The work to ban, to outlaw, and to change the culture from has been more successful with female circumcision. This is true for many places, including the United States, where it has been illegal since 1996, nations throughout Africa, and elsewhere. Despite attempts by Intactivists to make male circumcision illegal, though, such as in San Francisco (2011) and in Cologne, Germany (2012/13), male circumcision, largely because for some it is a form of religious freedom, , a religious law, remains legal everywhere, throughout the entire world.

In stark contrast, especially since the 1989’s international Women’s Conference that took place in Bejing, China, there is a serious movement, supported by such international organizations as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Amnesty International, to outlaw female circumcision. There are also local and other efforts to make it, if not illegal, at least, less popular. Often such efforts depend on educating the community — both the mothers who have their daughters circumcised, largely to make them marriageable as well as to keep family honor – and the men, to educate them to be willing to marry an uncircumcised woman and maybe be uncircumcised themselves. Yet in countries where it is illegal, such as Great Britain and the U.S, mothers from cultures that practice female circumcision will sometimes take their daughters back to their homeland, during a summer school vacation, for example, to have them circumcised.

In conclusion

Clearly, male and female circumcision have something, if not a lot, in common. But like males and females, they also have much that is different. First, no male is ever going to get pregnant or give birth, so no circumcised male is going to suffer the consequences of circumcision, especially infibulation, which for women, can be serious, painful, medically challenging, and even life-threatening. Nor are the parents of any males breaking the law to circumcise their son, in contrast to the parents of many females who are circumcising them against the law of their daughter’s country. And typically, far more sexual tissue and genitalia is removed for a traditional female circumcision.  About 130 million women in the world are circumcised, which practically always occurs among in cultures that are also circumcising all the males. In contrast, far more men worldwide are circumcised: approximately 30 percent of all males in the world, which accounts for at least a billion males, or 9 to10 times as many males as females are circumcised today.

We invite you to draw your own conclusions about this issue. Based on the evidence though, our conclusion is that comparing male to female circumcision is like comparing apples to oranges – in the same field but clearly not exactly the same. And the difference counts!

Further reading

Talking Female Circumcision out of Existence
by Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times, July 17, 2013.

Female Genital Mutilation: An Issue of Cultural Relativism or Human Rights?
by Jacqueline Castledine, Mount Holyoke College

World Health Organization (WHO): Female Genital Mutilation
General article about the issue but contains many statistics.

Report Finds Gradual Fall in Female Genital Cutting in Africa
by Celia W. Dugger, The New York Times, July 23, 2013

Circumcision Rates Vary Widely in U.S.
by Paul Berger, Jewish Daily Forward, August 28, 2012

Female Genital Mutilation