Circumcision, Sexual Experience, and Harm

56 Pages Posted: 15 Jun 2017

Date Written: April 2017


Surgically modifying the genitals of children — female, male, and intersex — has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years. In Western societies, it is illegal to modify the healthy genitals of female children in any way or to any extent in the absence of a strict medical indication. By contrast, modifying the healthy genitals of male children and intersex children is currently permitted. In this journal in 2015, Stephen R. Munzer discussed a controversial German court case from 2012 (and its aftermath) that called into question the legal status of nontherapeutic male circumcision (NTC), particularly as it is carried out in infancy or early childhood. Whether NTC is legal before an age of consent depends partly upon abstract principles relating to the best interpretation of the relevant laws, and partly upon empirical and conceptual questions concerning the degree to which, and ways in which, such circumcision can reasonably be understood as a harm. In this article, we explore some of these latter questions in light of Professor Munzer’s analysis, paying special attention to the subjective, personal, and individually and culturally variable dimensions of judgments about benefit versus harm. We also highlight some of the inconsistencies in the current legal treatment of male versus female forms of nontherapeutic childhood genital alteration, and suggest that problematically gendered assumptions about the sexual body may play a role in bringing about and sustaining such inconsistencies.

Keywords: Circumcision, FGM, Harm, Female Circumcision, Genital Cutting, Rights, Human Rights, Religion, Autonomy

Suggested Citation

Earp, Brian and Darby, Robert, Circumcision, Sexual Experience, and Harm (April 2017). University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2017, Available at SSRN:

Brian Earp (Contact Author)

University of Oxford ( email )

Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom

Robert Darby

Independent ( email )

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