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Keywords:

  • circumcision;
  • female genital mutilation;
  • genital surgeries;
  • medical ethics;
  • human rights;
  • gender equality;
  • cultural relativism

In this article, we offer a critical examination of the tendency to segregate discussion of surgical alterations to the male and female genitals into separate compartments—the first known as circumcision, the second as genital mutilation. We argue that this fundamental problem of definition underlies the considerable controversy surrounding these procedures when carried out on minors, and that it hinders objective discussion of the alleged benefits, harms, and risks. We explore the variable effects of male and female genital surgeries, and we propose a scale of damage for male circumcision to complement the World Health Organization's categorization of female genital mutilation. The origins of the double standard identified are placed in historical perspective, and in a brief conclusion we make a plea for greater gender neutrality in the approach to this contentious issue.