When a ‘Nick’ is More Than a ‘Nick.’

I understand that the American Academy of Pediatrics recent decision to support a doctor-performed ritual ‘nick’ of female genitalia is a form of harm reduction for girls in the U.S. Surely, a nick, or a scratch, or shallow cut performed in a sterile environment is a far better option than having the clitoris and/or labia minora removed, or infibulation.

Amanda Marcotte agrees: “Doctors offering a relatively harmless, ritualistic alternative to more severe cutting could go a long way towards encouraging the view of it as merely a ritual, and not something that has to produce long-term damage to count.”

I do think it’s wonderful that girls may not be sent abroad to their parents’ homelands to undergo barbaric, dangerous, and sexist procedures. But accommodating what is essentially a tradition of sexual violence against young girls still doesn’t sit right with me. On the most basic level: forcing young girls — girls for whom this becomes the first introduction to sex and sexuality — to think of their vulvas as places that are under the purview of a larger, sexist, society is deeply troubling.

And I don’t buy that turning sexism into a ‘relatively harmless’ ritual is much better in the long run. It just seems like a complete failure to address any actual problems, and instead, it codifies sexual violence into medical treatment. Like I said, I know it’s a form of harm reduction. But physical harm isn’t the only harm that matters, is it?

photo: andreweason / CC BY-SA 2.0

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  • A lot of people are missing something important about the AAP recommendation, which is that the practice will still be illegal. All the AAP is saying is that they are now advocating some form of compromise, like this one, but until the law changes, even a “ritual nick” will still be illegal, and the actual report makes that very clear (most commentators on the issue have more or less ignored that crucial fact).

    Moreover, as a commenter on my blog pointed out, there’s a big difference between FGC/FGM abroad and in the U.S; and the AAP recommendation is quite strange because

    “it advocates a policy that would have doctors actively performing a practice that has no medical benefit whatsoever as a hypothetical and rather inadequate solution to an unsubstantiated problem. (The idea that “nicking” infants would satisfy the larger function of FGC seems to miss the cultural point of the practice altogether.) What’s more, according to the AAP recommendation,” the idea that daughters are being sent abroad to be cut is “all speculative. There’s no data in the AAP report suggesting that any of this is happening….Without demonstrating a clear need, the AAP is in effect proposing that it be possible for every female infant whose parents so choose to have her genitals cut when there is no medical benefit to doing so.”

    Personally, I think this is all about access; physicians are trying to do what they see as necessary to get access to communities for whom this issue makes them distrust doctors.

  • Val

    What a coincidence. I saw the film Desert Flower this past weekend. The film is the story of former model Waris Dirie’s early life and much of it centers around Dirie being mutilated as a three year-old.

    After reading this piece I think having western doctors perform this procedure, although supposedly harmless physically, is condescending at best and dangerous at worse.

    It’s better to educate woman who allow this practice to continue to the true harm it does than to appease this practice by trying to make it seem harmless.

  • good call Aaron. My own problem with FGM/FGC is the fact that young girls and women are forced to do this. Look, in life you do not choose your parents, your language, your ethnicity, a lot of fundamental stuff. If a 25 year-old woman wants to do this (and I have met a few women, who having undergone the procedure, said they would do it again, and I have met many who hated it as well), its whatever. If a 8 year-old is dragged into doing this, then I have problem. But its really hard for me, as a foreigner, to be down on the cultural institution (because of the whole messy history of colonialism and stuff). I like the AAP for making the best out of a bad situation all around.