Alan Cumming's fight against circumcision

Alan Cumming is the latest to voice displeasure with the practice. But comparing it to female mutilation is wrong

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 21, 2014 2:20PM (EDT)

Alan Cumming      (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
Alan Cumming (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Alan Cumming wants to tell you about his penis. He wants it to be a shining example to the world. In a candid interview with Drew Grant this week in the New York Observer, the 49-year-old Scottish actor reveals his strong opinions on "Girls," naughty cellphone pictures, and, most controversially, circumcision. Or as he puts it, "genital mutilation."

"There’s a double-standard, which is that we condemn the people who cut off girls’ clitorises, but when it happens to boys," Cumming says. "I mean, it is the most sensitive part of their bodies, it has loads of nerve endings, and it can go horribly wrong. I’m speaking out against it … I’m just so suspicious of the medical industry, which just flings pills at people to ensure everyone is reliant on things. 'Here are some pills, Mommy. Take them, and we’ll take your baby away and hack its thing off, and then we’ll bill you for that too.'"

This isn't the first time Cumming has spoken strongly about the practice. Two years ago, he posted on his blog a piece he said the Wall Street Journal commissioned and then pulled, a story in which he proudly declared, "I, unlike the vast majority of American males, have not been genitally mutilated. I have a foreskin. I am intact." After describing his own penis in pretty frank detail, Cumming went on to explain his affiliations with the organizations Intact America and Norm-UK, and declare, "When I say that we have stopped most of the other barbaric practices described in the Bible so why are we so keen to continue this one, nobody really wants to listen."

The debate over circumcision is a fairly recent one. Though it was once a standard practice in the U.S., rates have been steadily declining over the past several decades, as arguments over its medical validity have raged. When actor Jason Biggs last month posted photos of his son's bris, online critics shot back that the baby "has to live with a mutilated penis because his parents are ignorant." And earlier this week, protesters threatened to disrupt Bill and Melinda Gates' TED Vancouver talk because of their organization's efforts to increase the practice in Africa as a means of "limiting the spread of HIV in the parts of Sub-Saharan Africa."

Cumming's equation of circumcision with female genital mutilation is an insultingly inaccurate one --  boys are not circumcised as a ritualized means of suppressing their future sexual enjoyment, nor does a clean male circumcision compare with the often crude, blunt and unsanitary practice of female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization calls FGM "a violation of the human rights of girls and women" with consequences that include "severe pain, shock, hemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue," while it in contrast notes, "There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%."

One can argue, quite persuasively, about whether the practice of circumcision still has validity here in the West, especially among those who don't have a religious directive. What's needed, however, is education and enlightenment, so families can make the healthiest choices for their children. It's not helpful to make far-fetched comparisons, and it certainly isn't constructive to imply that men and boys who are circumcised are somehow damaged, "mutilated" goods. That's a shaming technique that serves no one, one that turns having a foreskin into a bragging point. And it's an unfair judgment coming from a man who admits, "I myself don’t have kids. I just have managers, assistants, agents and publicists."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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