Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it’s become very popular to “teach consent” to children at a young age, specifically to boys. In some cases, this has been government mandated, leading to horrific and arguably abusive “educational sessions” where boys are “taught consent” by being forced to apologize to their female peers.
These unfortunate examples aside, I find the whole concept of schools teaching consent to boys putting the cart before the horse. Aren’t proponents of bodily autonomy and consent overlooking a more fundamental battle affecting the very boys they want to teach?
The Hypocrisy of Promoting Consent but Accepting Circumcision
To put it bluntly, our society doesn’t respect the bodily autonomy of our boys and men, and it doesn’t emphasize getting their consent. Yet we’re demanding that they respect the bodily autonomy of others.
The most obvious example of this hypocrisy is infant male circumcision. Around 80% of baby boys in the United States are circumcised, and the other English-speaking nations are high as well with around 30% in Canada, around 20% in Australia and around 8.5% in the UK.
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recently tweeted a terribly hypocritical statement about the importance of “[teaching] our boys about consent and respect in dating” from an early age.
Meanwhile, they simultaneously advocate for infant male circumcision, a procedure that is widely denounced in the international medical community as having no health benefits, is extremely painful and potentially deadly, and most importantly, cannot be consented to by the infant who must endure it.
How can we demand our boys respect the consent of others when we ourselves as a society haven’t first put forth the effort to respect theirs?
Caring More About FGM Than MGM
Circumcision became popular in the English-speaking world in the Victorian area, but of course, that wasn’t the first instance of its practice. Circumcision has been practiced by many cultures both in antiquity and modernity, both nomadic and sedentary. Just as in the Victorian Era, circumcision was supposed to “cure” masturbation and bring boys closer to God, the practice has always had some mythological element to it.
There were similar practices and beliefs around female circumcision over history and many times conducted for nearly the same exact reasons. But while the world has for the most part come to understand the atrocity that female circumcision is; it ignores the equally horrendous atrocity of male infant circumcision.
And before you say, “but female infant circumcision is worse” – you should know that it isn’t. The form of female infant circumcision mentioned in most gender studies courses (removing the clitoris) is exceedingly rare – only 10% of cases worldwide. The more commonly practiced form of female infant circumcision (the kind FGM activists are largely fighting against) is the majority – the act of “nicking” or cutting only of the skin, or genital piercings. This makes up 90% of FGM.
By contrast, male infant circumcision removes the entire sheath that protects the glans. It eliminates thousands of nerve endings and leads to desensitization of the glans itself, decreasing future sexual pleasure. It eliminates natural lubrication and the natural function of the penis during intercourse. So, not only is MGM as bad as FGM – a very strong case can be made that it’s worse.
Circumcision Teaches Boys Their Bodies Aren’t Theirs
Anthropologists and psychologists Like Joseph Campell and Warren Farrell have discussed and studied the bizarre ritual of circumcision and come to some interesting conclusions. Most significantly, circumcision is a rite of passage that teaches boys that as men, their bodies do not belong to themselves, but rather the collective group of society.
As men, they must endure physical pain as the group’s protectors, so the symbolism of injuring the male sex organ is clear.
Consider this quote from Dr. Farrell:
“Disposability training started at birth. With the penis. Studies of male circumcision find that the more a society needed hunters and warriors in order to survive, the harsher were its procedures for circumcision of boy babies.”
In other words, the whole point of circumcision is to teach boys that society as a whole can use their bodies without their consent.
Bodily Autonomy Starts at Birth
I agree that consent is something children should learn. Bodily autonomy and an individual’s control of their own body is a fundamental value (not to mention a basic human right) in modern society. However, the lesson must be consistent regardless of gender.
By circumcising our boys, we’re telling them consent doesn’t matter, so how can we then turn around as a society and try to teach them to respect the bodies of others?
If you believe that there’s a lack of respect for consent in our society such that we need to teach kids what it means, there’s a far more fundamental battle we have to fight first. Our boys learn from infancy that their bodily autonomy isn’t important. If we eradicate and ban circumcision, it would be the best first step towards showing them that as a society we grant bodily autonomy to everyone.