Vices Here and Abroad

Published Date: October 1, 1996 | Topics: Philosophy, Politics and Current Affairs, Reviews and Commentaries

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A response to Yael Tamir’s “Hands Off Clitoridectomy,” from the October/November 1996 issue of Boston Review.

Yael Tamir states that her purpose in “Hands Off Clitoridectomy” is “to reveal the smug, unjustified self-satisfaction lurking behind the current condemnation of clitoridectomy.” Although she makes plain her own strong opposition to female genital mutilation, and, indeed, urges her readers to “support those who struggle to end it,” she is highly critical of familiar objections to the practice advanced by Western intellectuals. “Despite their liberal appearance,” Tamir charges, “references to clitoridectomy commonly reveal a patronizing attitude toward women, suggesting that they are primarily sexual beings.”

In my experience, the clitoridectomy example makes its appearance whenever someone elects to defend multiculturalism by appeal to some form of moral relativism. The (entirely justified) point of the example is to embarrass the relativist by citing a practice that everyone in the discussion can be counted upon to agree is vile. It is not surprising that anti-relativists should deploy such a strategy. It is interesting, however, that clitoridectomy has become the preferred example among liberal intellectuals. Why not put the spotlight on vices that flourish in our own culture-including that segment of the culture inhabited by academics, journalists, and other elites? Why not confront the relativist with, say, lying, promiscuity, recreational drug use, abortion?

Ironically, these are among the vices pointed to by the decidedly non-relativist Africans and others who practice and defend clitoridectomy. Recently, the New York Times quoted Mohammed Ali, a young Egyptian who cites Western permissiveness as a trump card of his own against arguments for
prohibiting clitoridectomy: “Banning it would make women wild like those in America.”

Of course, Ali is wrong to suppose that possession of a clitoris makes women wild. He is, however, right to believe-and Western intellectuals are wrong to deny-that the chastity of women, and men, is important, and that the loss of a cultural milieu that is supportive of marriage and conducive to the exercise of sexual restraint has been a tragedy for people in the West, especially for women and children.

The clitoridectomy example is uniquely powerful in contemporary elite culture because liberal ideology rejects traditional ideas about chastity and the sanctity of human life in favor of a “right” to “sexual expression.” It is not just women who are perceived by Western elites as “primarily sexual beings,” it is all of us. Sexual “fulfillment” is presented as something desirable-indeed, essential-quite apart from marriage, and even at the price of more than a million abortions per year.

We can reject liberal ideas about sex and its alleged primacy while in no way denigrating human sexuality or denying the obvious (and wonderful) fact that people are, among many other things, sexual beings. When properly integrated into our lives, our sexuality fits us out for marriage and procreation, even if not all of us can realize these goods and some of us have reason not to. And the pleasure of marital sexual union is part of its perfection. This helps to explain why clitoridectomy is morally abhorrent (in a way that male circumcision, by contrast, is not): Even when motivated by a concern for chastity, it violates the good of marriage of which sexual union is no mere incident, but an intrinsic aspect. It relegates wives to second-class status within marriage and encourages husbands to understand and treat them as objects for their own gratification, rather than as complementary equals in a relationship whose sexual dimension enables them to become, in no merely figurative sense, “one flesh.”

A concern for the equality and dignity of women, and for the integrity of marriages, fully warrants our condemnation of clitoridectomy. At the same time, we should have little difficulty understanding why Ali remains unmoved by the criticism of clitoridectomy he hears from Western critics who surely strike him, as they strike Tamir, as “smug” and “unjustifiably self-satisfied.” Tamir is right: Reflection on clitoridectomy, and its role in contemporary debates about multiculturalism, should give us “a sharper vision of our own vices,” and move us “to understand and improve our own culture.”

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