Every culture has body modification rituals, whether it is ear piercing, nose piercing, or something as simple as hair grooming habits. One such ritual, female genital cutting– also called female genital mutilation (FGM) or ‘female circumcision’– automatically carries a judgment. 

People tend to view this as similar to male circumcision which is not the case. Female genital cutting triggers an intense response among many people from Industrialized nations, yet the practice has a presence in the United States as well.

Where is FGM practiced?

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people who were assigned female at birth who experienced female genital cutting within the borders of the United States increased three-fold– more than a half-million girls under the age of 18. The rituals occur in immigrant communities.

The most prevalent cultures that perform female genital cutting are in certain regions of Africa (the Horn of East Africa: Djibouti, Somalia). It also occurs in Asia and is often associated with Islam.

What types of FGM exist?

 Traditional “female circumcision” comes in three main forms:

  • Type one- Clitoridectomy (partial or total removal of the clitoris)
  • Type two- Partial or total removal of all external genitalia (the clitoris and the labia)
  • Type three- Infibulation, (sewing the vagina closed), sometimes with flesh of the labia, leaving only a pea-sized hole for urination and menstruation. These practices intend to promote ‘cleanliness’ and manage a woman’s sexuality.

What are the laws surrounding FGM?

The height of the argument for/against female genital cutting in the United States occurred in the mid-1990s when federal law banned the practice on minors. The law also banned the transportation of children inside or outside of the country for such a procedure. The practice of altering the genitals of those assigned females at birth is technically illegal in 41 states (Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, and New Mexico, and the District of Columbia are excluded).

female genital mutilation

In 1996, Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center suggested an American, medicalized “ritual nick” as a compromise for immigrant communities. Instead of a clitoridectomy, doctors would perform a small cut in the clitoral prepuce. By 2010, the American Academy of Pediatricians backed a similar procedure— but was quickly met with disdain “quick, strong and negative.” The Academy reversed its stance and noted that the procedure would go against the ban.

How has legislation changed FGM?

What has happened in the almost 15 years since the federal ban? There do not appear to be adequate statistics to measure the outcome of the legislation.

Laws on the federal level regarding the abolition of the practice were deemed unconstitutional in a 2018 overturn of a previous law in Michigan. Vice News posted a YouTube video, “Female Genital Mutilation Survivors in The U.S. Are Fighting Back,” discussing the overturn of the federal law in 2018. In the video, they interviewed survivors who had procedures done in the United States.

What is being done about FGM now?

In 2020, Congress revisited and “strengthened” the ban so that it would carry fines and potentially up to ten years in prison for anyone charged with performing female circumcision (though the law uses the term “female genital mutilation/cutting”) on a person under the age of 18, or anyone encouraging the act such as a parent, or an adult who would willingly transport a minor for the surgery.

How do FGM laws affect the community at large?

Laws that control genital cutting also impact members of the intersex, transgender, and genderqueer communities. In some cases, laws prevent doctors from medicalizing and ‘correcting’ ambiguous genitalia before the child can consent, but in others, the same laws could impede gender-affirming care.

Some research suggests that the alteration of external genitalia does not minimize the sexual potential of women and that orgasm and satisfaction have their roots in the mental facets of sexuality and not in the clitoris. (Many women with ‘magic wand’ vibrators may or may not disagree.) In a now decade-old report, the Hastings Center claimed that complications and lack of sexual pleasure due to female genital surgeries had been sensationalized in Western media. Their research covered primarily type two.

Human rights, NGOs, and American governmental agencies like the CDC and the Department of State continue to admonish the practice. Present research continues to debate whether the practice is ethical or abusive. It does not dip into the long-term health and sexual effects–someone should.

Conclusion

 As individuals, it is crucial to acknowledge and honor cultural traditions. However, the modification of one’s body, regardless of identified gender, must always be accompanied by explicit consent. If our society emphasizes the imperative nature of informed and voluntary consent in intimate relationships, it is only justifiable that children be granted the same level of comprehension and agreement before any alterations are made to their bodies.