Re: Female genital 'modification'

douglass st.christian (stchri@MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA)
Thu, 5 May 1994 09:14:18 -0400

Steve raises two very interesting points here....

I agree that female circumcision is not a point at which the discussion
of ethical relativism can fruitfully focus, but not for the same reasons
he suggests. While conceding, simply for the sake of concession, that all
gendered body alteration is tied up with sexuality, identity, gender,
colonialism and so on, I fear that turning the lens of ethical relativism
on female circumcision betrays an a priori determination that the
practice is somehow, by definition, one which requires ethical
assessment. That should not be a given, I would think.

Instead, perhaps a more compelling approach would be to define, even very
loosely, by what criteria we determine that in observing and describing a
practice, we must suspend critical ethical judgement, if ever. This way,
I suppose, the indignation and aggrandizement with which Alice Walker
approaches the practice could be better understood. Equally compelling,
it would then obligate us to consider the practice of genital alteration
- of males or females - on a case by case basis rather than falling prey
to the lumping tendencies of the earnest but uninformed, of which Walker,
who by the way I admire and respect, is a good example.

Steve is, I think, calling us to account for how we arrive at the
decision to render an ethical judgement, a turn in this discussion I
heartily applaud.

Which brings me to my second point, and a question for Steve himself [
whose self-description as a Chaotician always, BTW, makes me wish I had
said it first].

In comparing male and female circumcision [ leaving aside for a moment
whether the two practices can be encompassed by the same term] you
distinguish them on the ground that, in general at least, male slices do
not hamper sexual pleasure and so may not be understood as assaultive
while female versions express patriarchies control dream by removing the
capacity for sexual pleasure from the circumcised women under its control.

I found this distinction fascinating for several reasons and would ask
Steve, if he cares to and if the list here doesn't mind a tangent:

1. Are sex, sexuality and gender ineluctably tied up with issues of the
control [ or better yet, the granting] of pleasure? Does circumcision
effect control by compelling pleasures submission to power, in the case
of female circumcision, patriarchal power?

2. What criteria do you think would be helpful in determining that a body
a] restricts or removes the capacity for pleasure
b] enhances or even makes pleasure possible

3. What, if any relationship do you think there may be between the pain
of circumcision and the displining of pleasure..that is, between the
slice of the knife and the policing of bodies as they pursue pleasure,
and further, if this policing is gendered, do you think that it then
becomes, by definition, oppressive.

These are tangential questions which take us a little afield from the
issue of ethical relativism, but since my own work currently involves
trying to think sense into the question of policing the pleasures the
bodies can bring, I would welcome any comments.