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  • Equality Now in Genital Reshaping: Brian Earp’s Search for Moral Consistency
  • Richard A. Shweder (bio)

For many adolescent Kenyan males genital reshaping is a self-defining experience of enormous positive significance. The same can be said for many Kenyan females. These adolescents, male and female, do not think their bodies have been “mutilated.” Quite the contrary, by their lights the surgical procedure removes a defect of nature and is the means by which a desired state of physical integrity and social maturity is achieved. By their lights the procedure gets rid of unseemly fleshy encumbrances and protrusions and helps them erase unwanted physical traces of childhood bisexuality, thereby making their genitals look smooth and clean and more gender appropriate. By their lights their appearance and self-esteem have been improved by the surgery. The surgery is understood to be a reshaping of one’s body in the service of local ideals for genital aesthetics and sexual identity. Alternatively stated, for many Kenyans having one’s genitals reshaped promotes a sense of well-being and is experienced as an enhancement, much the way body modifications of various sorts promote a similar sense of well-being among many youth and adults in North America and Europe.

I lived and taught in Kenya in the early 1970s. Decades later I happily found myself in an elevator in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a Kenyan guy from an ethnic group and region of the country with which I was familiar. As we descended towards the lobby I struck up a conversation. It turned out he was a professor at a university in the United States. When he learned that I was meeting some friends and that we were driving to a restaurant on the other side of Cambridge he asked for a lift. This was my good fortune because as we sat in the back seat of the car I had fifteen minutes to conduct an anthropological interview about his childhood in the Kenyan countryside.

“So tell me about your circumcision,” I asked, knowing that the practice was customary in his group and that this was a topic about which he would gladly converse and have much to say. And this is what he told me: [End Page 145]

I was thirteen years old and physically mature and it was the season for circumcising an age set of boys and transforming them into men. My older cousins were going to be circumcised but the senior adults thought I was too young. So I threw a fit and demanded they let me be circumcised too, which they did.

I then asked him the innocent question: “Wasn’t it painful?” “Painful!” he exclaimed. “It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced in my life. It took a month to fully recover. But during that time they taught us so many things—about the history of my people, about what it means to be a man, about how to treat women, how to have sex, how to drink beer, how to own property, how to care for cattle, how to face up to painful ordeals in life and be fearless. And during that month we bonded with each other. I feel closer to those men who were circumcised with me—several of whom still live in rural homesteads—than anyone else in the world. When my son was born in a hospital in the United States the doctor asked me if I wanted my son to be circumcised. This really surprised me. I said to the doctor ‘Why would you do that to an infant? The pain will be meaningless to him. He will be too young to learn anything or appreciate the significance of the event. There will be no one sharing the experience with him with whom he can form life-long bonds.’”

Parallel stories, which these days might well conclude with the exclamation “I am not ‘mutilated!’”, are readily available from highly educated East and West Africa women, some of whom even live and teach in the United States and Europe, although to date their voices have been largely ignored or kept out of sight by the mainstream media...


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pp. 145-154
Launched on MUSE
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