A study published on bmj.com last month found that mutilations among girls and women in Sudan did not readily fit into the World Health Organisation's classification system.
Responding to this study in an editorial, Ronán Conroy of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland suggests that "our own sexually repressive use of female genital mutilation may be at the root of our misunderstanding of its role in other cultures."
The literature on female genital mutilation is long on polemic and short on data, he writes. European and American writers often assume that female genital mutilation is forced on unwilling young girls, but this is at odds with the high social value placed on it in societies that practise it.
The high moral tone with which those in richer countries criticise female genital mutilation would also be more credible if we in the rich North had not practised it and did not continue to practise it, he adds.
The practice of female genital mutilation is on the increase nowhere in the world except our so called developed societies, he says. "Designer laser vaginoplasty" and "laser vaginal rejuvenation" are growth areas in plastic surgery, representing the latest chapter in the surgical victimisation of women in our culture.
And this burgeoning industry is able to operate without the slightest attention being paid to it by medical researchers.
It is Western medicine which, by a process of disease mongering, is driving the advance of female genital mutilation by promoting the fear in women that what is a natural biological variation is a defect, a problem requiring a knife, he concludes.
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