Toward Understanding: Circumcision Terminology

There’s an issue in conversations about male circumcision today. Well, there are a lot of issues, such as the complete shutting down of opposing viewpoints and slinging of ad hominems and cyber bullying. But the one out of the dozens of issues that I want to address in this post is terminology.

The United Nations’ official term “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM) refers to the cultural practice that involves removing part or all of a girl or woman’s clitoris, clitoral hood, and labia, and sometimes sewing her vagina closed [1] (see Footnote 1). It’s a horrific practice, and so “mutilation” seems fitting. However, they discovered that when discussing the practice with natives and trying to educate them about how harmful the practice really is, the term “mutilation” is so emotionally-charged that it tends to shut down conversation entirely and do more harm than good in advancing their anti-FGM cause (see Footnote 2). Thus, when conversing with natives and educating them about the harms of the practice, the WHO advocates the use of the emotionally neutral and anatomically accurate term “Female Genital Cutting” (FGC). [1]

A very similar thing is happening in online conversations about circumcision. I would like us to advance toward a better understanding of each other and an improved ability to communicate effectively, and this may be one small part of that.

I apologize if this makes your eyes glaze over.

Terms for the Penis

If a penis has been circumcised, there are a number of terms used to describe it. The most common are “circumcised” and “cut.” People who are very against circumcision often use the term “mutilated.” Obviously, that’s intentionally inflammatory and offensive to males who are circumcised. Circumcised men sometimes refer to their penis as “clean” or “clean-cut.” Obviously, that’s offensive to males who are not circumcised. Therefore, I recommend the terms “circumcised” and “cut.”

If a penis has not been circumcised, there are also a number of terms used to describe it. The most common is “uncircumcised.” I’m going to take a slight rabbit trail for a moment. My children are not vaccinated. Anti-vaxxers often take offense at the term “unvaccinated” because, they argue, “you can’t un-vaccinate a child.” To me, this has always demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of the English language. If I am “unlicensed,” that doesn’t necessarily mean I once was licensed but now am not (that would be “de-licensed”). It simply means I am not licensed. The English prefix “un-” simply means “not.” Ergo, “unlicensed” means “not licensed,” “unvaccinated” means “not vaccinated,” and “uncircumcised” means “not circumcised.” So this whole argument doesn’t make any sense to me, but in the same way that anti-vaxxers often take offense at the term “unvaccinated,” people who are opposed to circumcision often take offense at the term “uncircumcised.” My children are not vaccinated and I use the term unvaccinated. I don’t understand the offense at the terms “unvaccinated” or “uncircumcised.” In fact, I think it’s stupid in both situations. But I’m going to respect that opinion by not using the term “uncircumcised” in conversations where people opposed to circumcision might be involved.

Another term for a penis that is not circumcised is “intact.” This is the term those who oppose circumcision most often use. However, it’s insulting to circumcised males because the term was first used in animal husbandry to mean an animal that has not been neutered or castrated. Thus, using the term “intact” for a man who is not circumcised implies that a man who is circumcised has been castrated and/or emasculated. For this reason, some men take offense to the term. In fact, an acquaintance of mine calls himself “intact” even though he’s circumcised. So in conversations with people from both groups, I recommend against the use of the term “intact.” Other terms used include “natural” and “normal,” which are also obviously insulting to circumcised men and intentionally inflammatory; and “anteater,” which is obviously insulting to men who are not circumcised and intentionally inflammatory. The only completely neutral term* I can find that isn’t highly medico-lingal, and which people on both sides use, is “uncut.” So that’s the term I recommend.

Two completely neutral medico-lingal terms are “prepucal” and “aprepucal.” The “prepuce” is the foreskin, so a “prepucal” penis is one that has a prepuce and an “aprepucal” penis is one without a foreskin. However, I thought these terms were too difficult to catch on with non-medical persons.

Therefore, I recommend “circumcised” or “cut” versus “uncut.”

Terms for People

People who support circumcision typically use the terms “pro-circumcision,” “pro-circ,” or “PC.” People opposed to circumcision call them “pro-cutters.” Although the term is technically somewhat neutral, it is always used in a derogatory way, so it’s considered offensive by pro-circs. People opposed to circumcision also call them “pro-mutilators,” “pedophiles,” “child abusers,” “child molesters,” etc. For obvious reasons, I recommend avoiding those terms as well and sticking with “pro-circumcision,” “pro-circ,” or “PC.”

People who oppose circumcision call themselves “intactivists,” which is a combination of “intact” and “activist.” Pro-circs sometimes call them “intactonuts” or “intactic*nts,” which are obviously offensive, so I won’t use those terms. Because the term “intactivist” comes from the offensive use of the word “intact,” it could be argued that “intactivist” shouldn’t be used, either. However, “anti-circumcision activists” is too long and pro-circs most often use the term “intactivist” anyway, so I recommend “intactivist.”

A somewhat neutral term is “PPC” or “pro-parental-choice.” This refers to people who support a parent’s right to choose whether to circumcise, even if they disagree with their choice. Typically, intactivists believe that circumcision is evil and should be completely abolished, so it will be very rare for you to find an intactivist who is also PPC. Therefore, PPC typically only refers to people who are neutral on circumcision or are pro-circ. I have yet to meet a person who actually believes that circumcision should be mandated, but most intactivists believe that circumcision should be legally prohibited.

Conclusion

To help us move toward a better understanding and more fruitful conversations on the topic of circumcision, I recommend the use of emotionally neutral terminology, including “uncut” versus “cut”/”circumcised” and “intactivist” versus “pro-circ”/”PC.” You don’t advance your cause by insulting the other side, and anyone can see that you’re being a jerk. If you really care about helping boys to live healthier, fuller lives, you should consider reaching their parents in the most effective way possible.

 

*Well, I thought it was completely neutral. I’ve seen it used almost exclusively in a positive light. But just today, after writing this but before publishing it, I discovered that there are even people opposed to that term as well. At any rate, it’s still the least offensive term I can find.

 

Footnote 1

A brand new and exceedingly rare version of this involves removing only the clitoral hood, but this is not a traditional practice [1]. Because removing only the hood is similar to removing only the foreskin in the man, it is accurate to call it “female circumcision.” However, this is distinct from the practice of FGM, which has never traditionally involved only the hood but rather has always involved some degree of harm to the clitoris and almost always removal of some portion of the labia minora. Some may argue that female circumcision can also be performed for genuine medical reasons such as the treatment of clitoral phimosis [2].  However, in that case, if you read the entire study, you’ll find that the treatment involves cutting a slit in the hood, not removing the entire clitoral hood. Therefore, the only accurate use of the term “female circumcision” is in reference to a new, rare practice that is most common in Egypt and is only one small part of traditional FGM.

 

Footnote 2

From Reference [1]:

“The language used to describe these practices remains controversial and requires careful ethical consideration. The term ‘Female Genital Mutilation,’ formerly adopted by the United Nations (UN) calls attention to the gravity of the harm caused by FGC practices. ‘Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)’ is the terminology used within campaigns to end these practices by anti-FGC advocates from practicing countries of origin and the western world. FGM terminology positions the practice of FGC as an extreme human rights violation. This term is often perceived as inflammatory, judgemental and stigmatising, particularly for women previously exposed to the practice who do not view their bodies, or the bodies of their daughters, as mutilated [3]. The implication within this terminology is that FGC is practiced as an act of intentional violence against female children, adolescents and women. Those who do not understand FGC as such an act, but as a valued cultural tradition, may experience the language of “mutilation” as alienating [7,911]. The delicate challenge of reconciling respect for cultural values associated with these practices and addressing their perceived harmful effects on health is evident in this discrepancy between the intent and impact of language.

” ‘Traditional women’s practices,’ ‘Traditional health practices,’ and ‘Initiation,’ are some of the preferred terms identified by individuals who subscribe to the socio-cultural benefits from these practices. Chalmers & Omer Hashi [10] as well as Vissandjée et al. [7] conducted focus groups with overall 600 women from different practising countries living in Canada which revealed “circumcision” to often be the preferred terminology. Several other authors have also identified “circumcision” as an alternative term, yet this term has been argued to trivialise the procedure, falsely attributing to FGC the legitimacy afforded to male circumcision within the West [12,13]. “Female Genital Cutting (FGC)” and “excision and infibulation” have been identified as more neutral, ethically sensitive terminology [4,6]. For the purpose of this chapter, we will use FGC as a term comprising procedures which alter the female genital organs for cultural or non-therapeutic reasons.”

References

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4012131/

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4721030/

 

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