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Genital cutting: (re)constructing what?

This study describes, compares, and contrasts six different genital cutting practices: Girl circumcision, boy circumcision, intersex infants, intimate surgery, gender confirming surgery for trans persons, and cutting/piercing for aesthetics or as part of erotic activity.

Although some academics, media debates and activists have highlighted commonalities between different genital cutting practices, such practices are commonly treated as rather unalike issues in legal, social, and medical discourses and practices.

There is a striking lack of empirical research that aims to describe, compare, and contrast motivations for, experiences in connection with and perceptions of such practices. Scholarship has emphasized that there are unresolved dilemmas in whether health risks outweigh the  benefits of such practices, and around who defines the right to genital autonomy and bodily integrity. In this research project, we aim to gain an improved understanding of these dilemmas.

The study makes use of a multiple case methodology where qualitative interviews and both participant and non-participant observation are used to produce data. We will study the cutting practices as six different cases, and for each we will aim to identify and explore the actors that contribute to bring them about, and the actors’ experiences prior to, during, and after the cutting. By defining each genital cutting practice rigidly as separate cases, this will help to, first, identify the characteristics of the case (i.e. each genital cutting practice), and, second, this will help identifying what does not easily fit into the case and consequently how the case overlaps with the other cases.

The main data production will be in Norway, but dependent on funding and the covid-19 situation it is planned that a small part of the data production will be conducted in Ethiopia.


The overall aim of this study is to describe, compare, and contrast the six different genital cutting practices. In order to reach this aim, the following research questions will guide the data production for each genital cutting case:

  • Who are the actors involved prior to, under, and after the cutting?
  • What experiences do the actors have with the use, or lack of use, of health care and social services prior to, under, and after the cutting?


This research project addresses a central unresolved dilemma that the work against female genital cutting has highlighted: the right to genital autonomy and bodily integrity. In the 1980s, campaigns to eliminate female genital cutting emphasized health risks and complications associated with this practice.

The focus then, as now, was to have a zero tolerance policy towards all forms of cutting the genitalia of girls. A problem with this zero tolerance policy was that there was no differentiation between different forms of female genital cutting. By emphasizing the health complications of the most invasive form of female genital cutting in countries where this type was not practiced, the campaigns were not fully applicable to those communities. Perhaps as a partial response to this, together with the United Nations’ Decade for Women (1976-1985), the campaigns against female genital cutting started to conceptualize the practice as a breach of human rights and violence against women.

The shift from a sole focus on negative health consequences to a human-rights rationale on female genital cutting has, in turn, facilitated a focus on similarities between boy, intersex, and girl genital cutting. The issue of consent has in recent years become a central issue that separate childhood genital cutting from adulthood genital cutting practices such as intimate cosmetic surgery, genital surgery for trans-persons and genital piercing.

Childhood and adulthood genital cutting practices have, however, several overlapping aspects such as being associated with similar health risks and dilemmas around who defines the right to genital autonomy and bodily integrity.


Stiftelsen Dam


Norwegian Women’s Public Health Association (Norske Kvinners Sanitetsforening)

Project Start - Finish

August 2020-December 2023

Published Oct. 14, 2020 10:02 AM - Last modified Feb. 23, 2021 1:32 PM