sex

Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: should there be a separate discourse?

By Brian D. Earp

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Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: should there be a separate discourse?

This month, the Guardian launched a campaign in conjunction with Change.org (the petition is here) to end “female genital mutilation” (FGM) in the UK—see Dominic Wilkinson’s recent analysis on this blog. I support this campaign and I believe that FGM is impermissible. Indeed, I think that all children, whether female, intersex, or male, should be protected from having parts of their genitals removed unless there is a pressing medical indication; I think this is so regardless of the cultural or religious affiliations of the child’s parents; and I have given some arguments for this view here, here, here, here, and here. But note that some commentators are loath to accept so broadly applied an ethical principle: to discuss FGM in the same breath as male circumcision (and perhaps intersex surgeries), they think, is to “trivialize” the former and to cause all manner of moral confusion.

Consider these recent tweets by Michael Shermer, the prominent American “skeptic” and promoter of science and rationalism:

 

 

This sort of view appears to be common. One frequent claim is that FGM is analogous to “castration” or a “total penectomy,” such that any sort of comparison between it and male circumcision is entirely inappropriate (see this paper for further discussion). Some other common arguments are these:

Female genital mutilation and male circumcision are totally different. FGM is necessarily barbaric and crippling (“always torture,” according to Tanya Gold), whereas male circumcision is no big deal. Male circumcision is a “minor” intervention that might even confer health benefits, whereas FGM is a drastic intervention with no health benefits, and only causes harm. The “prime motive” for FGM is to control women’s sexuality (cf. Shermer in the tweets above); it is inherently sexist and discriminatory and is an expression of male power and domination. Male circumcision, by contrast, has nothing to do with controlling male sexuality – it’s “just a snip” and in any case “men don’t complain.” FGM eliminates the enjoyment of sex, whereas male circumcision has no meaningful effects on sexual sensation or satisfaction. It is perfectly reasonable to oppose all forms of female genital cutting while at the same time accepting or even endorsing infant male circumcision.

Yet almost every one of these claims is untrue, or is severely misleading at best. Such views derive from a superficial understanding of both FGM and male circumcision; and they are inconsistent with the latest critical scholarship concerning these and related practices. Their constant repetition in popular discourse, therefore—including by those like Shermer with a large and loyal audience base—is unhelpful to advancing moral debate.

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Pedophilia, Preemptive Imprisonment, and the Ethics of Predisposition

The first two weeks of 2013 were marked by a flurry of news articles considering “the new science” of pedophilia. Alan Zarembo’s article for the Los Angeles Times focused on the increasing consensus among researchers that pedophilia is a biological predisposition similar to heterosexuality or homosexuality. Rachel Aviv’s piece for The New Yorker shed light upon the practice of ‘civil commitment’ in the US, a process by which inmates may be kept in jail past their release date if a panel decides that they are at risk of molesting a child (even if there is no evidence that they have in the past). The Guardian’s Jon Henley quoted sources suggesting that perhaps some pedophilic relationships aren’t all that harmful after all. And Rush Limbaugh chimed in comparing the ‘normalization’ of pedophilia to the historical increase in the acceptance of homosexuality, suggesting that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation would be tantamount to condoning child molestation.

So what does it all mean? While most people I talked to in the wake of these stories (I include myself) were fascinated by the novel scientific evidence and the compelling profiles of self-described pedophiles presented in these articles, we all seemed to have a difficult time wrapping our minds around the ethical considerations at play. Why does it matter for our moral appraisal of pedophiles whether pedophilia is innate or acquired? Is it wrong to imprison someone for a terrible crime that they have not yet committed but are at a “high risk” of committing in the future? And if we say that we can’t “blame” pedophiles for their attraction to children because it is not their “fault” – they were “born this way” – is it problematic to condemn individuals for acting upon these (and other harmful) desires if it can be shown that poor impulse control is similarly genetically predisposed? While I don’t get around to fully answering most of these questions in the following post, my aim is to tease out the highly interrelated issues underlying these questions with the goal of working towards a framework by which the moral landscape of pedophilia can be understood.  Continue reading

Janet Radcliffe Richards on the past, present and future of sex: Part 3

On Wednesday last week, Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards gave the last of her three Uehiro lectures on ‘Sex in a Shifting Landscape’. (Here you can find recordings of all three lectures: 1st audio, 1st video, 2nd audio, 2nd video, 3rd audio, 3rd video.)

She emphasised the goal she pursued with these lectures, namely, to demonstrate methods of philosophical reasoning in practice and to show how they can help in coming to useful conclusions. Recapitulating aspects of her first and second lecture, Radcliffe Richards illustrated the methodological approach John Steward Mill used in the dispute about women’s rights in the 19th century to show the weakness of his opponents’ arguments by proving their incoherence.

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Janet Radcliffe Richards on the past, present and future of sex

            In the last two centuries, there has been a massive shift in the legal, social and institutional norms surrounding sex – both in terms of women’s rights and regulation of sexual activity.  And, undoubtedly, there will be more such shifts in the future – the sexual norms that emerge in the future may well make even the most strident liberals of today blush.  What to make of this complex and sometimes confusing landscape?  This is the subject of the 2012 Annual Uehiro Lecture Series, entitled ‘Sex in a Shifting Landscape’ and delivered over the next three weeks by Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards.  The first lecture occurred on November 14 (you can listen to the podcast here and here), with two more to follow on November 21 and 28.  Continue reading

When the science of sexuality meets the politics of gay rights

By Brian Earp

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Gay genes and gay rights: On the science and politics of sexuality

If homosexuality has a genetic basis, and if gay sex produces no offspring, why hasn’t the culling force of natural selection bred it right out of the species? Neuroscientist Simon LeVay has recently taken to the electronic pages of the Huffington Post to tout his latest book and offer a few hypotheses.

In light of the article’s popularity, Professor LeVay was asked to join a panel of speakers to discuss not only the genetics of sexual preference, but also the social and political implications of such research. Since I had written on this topic on the Practical Ethics blog, I was invited to take part as well.

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A fatal irony: Why the “circumcision solution” to the AIDS epidemic in Africa may increase transmission of HIV

By Brian D. Earp

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A fatal irony: Why the “circumcision solution” to the AIDS epidemic in Africa may increase transmission of HIV

1. Experimental doubts 

A handful of circumcision advocates have recently begun haranguing the global health community to adopt widespread foreskin-removal as a way to fight AIDS. Their recommendations follow the publication of three [1] randomized controlled trials (RCTs) conducted in Africa between 2005 and 2007.

These studies have generated a lot of media attention. In part this is because they claim to show that circumcision reduces HIV transmission by about 60%, a figure that (interpreted out of context) is ripe for misunderstanding, as we’ll see. Nevertheless, as one editorial [2] concluded: “The proven efficacy of MC [male circumcision] and its high cost-effectiveness in the face of a persistent heterosexual HIV epidemic argues overwhelmingly for its immediate and rapid adoption.”

Well, hold your horses. The “randomized controlled trials” upon which these recommendations are based are not without their flaws. Their data have been harnessed to support public health recommendations on a massive scale whose implementation, it has been argued, may have the opposite of the claimed effect, with fatal consequences. As Gregory Boyle and George Hill explain in their extensive analysis of the RCTs:

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Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

By Brian Earp

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Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

Rick Santorum thinks that birth control is immoral. Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, is one of two human beings – if the polls have it right – likeliest to become the Republication nominee for President of the United States this election cycle.

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