Yesterday (February 6th) was the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an entirely unnecessary procedure which involves the removal of some or all of the external genitalia of women and sometimes the subsequent stitching up of part of the area, often when they are pre-pubescent girls. It has no known benefits, has a high risk of infection, increases risk in pregnancy and childbirth and causes pain, trauma (both physical and emotional) and has even been linked with fatalities. However it remains a regularly practiced cultural tradition, is often endorsed by the young women themselves and their mothers and is more and more frequently being performed by medical professionals (supposedly to reduce the risk of infection and other complications) and subsequently being further legitimised in some communities.
FGM is an abhorrent violation of the rights of young women from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds, across Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia and including Australian and other “western” nations. However, when I read and learn about FGM in a variety of contexts (popular media, medical and social academic journals, during my masters studies in public health) there is something that is often missing either entirely or partially from the conversation. The long term effect that FGM has on female sexual pleasure.
While the degree of infibulation which occurs during FGM varies widely, what is common to almost all forms is the cutting or entire removal of the clitoris, a physiological feature of the female genital anatomy whose role is entirely to provide pleasure. When the clitoris is removed during an FGM procedure on a pre-pubescent girl it is literally condemning her to a life without sexual pleasure as you and I understand it. While there are many studies which supposedly disproves my assumption that removal of the clitoris = denial of sexual pleasure it’s sort of like the situation with global warming. There are studies which proves it’s bollocks but they’re only trotted out to try to support the sceptics and the vast body of evidence proves the opposite. Admittedly, the research which places female sexual pleasure squarely in the brain with physical anatomy coming second is often fairly accurate and the body is amazing at compensating for what it’s lost (just ask a paraplegic) the facts remain that the removal of the main sex organs of a woman before she has the opportunity to explore her sexuality fully is a violation of her human right to seek sexual pleasure based on what she was born with.
As a feminaust I would like to explore why sexual pleasure is so often last on the agenda or off the agenda entirely when it comes to fighting FGM. I have a few theories on why this is, the reality being it is probably a mix of all of them but here they are for your contemplation.
a) sexual pleasure is considered a secondary concern by the international community after the immediate physical health risk the FGM poses.
b) FGM is usually performed on pre-pubescent girls and talking about their current or future sexual pleasure might make them have more sex earlier (like how some people think that teaching teenagers about contraception will make them all into sluts) OR the international community doesn’t like talking about the current or future sexual pleasure of minors.
c) FGM is most commonly experienced by African or Middle Eastern women who have little or no sexual autonomy anyway so why should we bother talking about their current or future sexual pleasure when there are more pressing issues at stake such as their reproductive safety?
d) FGM is performed in cultures dominated by patriarchal traditions and if we’re going to get the men on board we need to talk about health a risk rather than orgasms coz they probably don’t give a shit if their women don’t orgasm but they might care if they’re gonna die in childbirth or from an infection before they’re even married.
You might notice that as my list grew, my attitude towards the potential causes for the silence around female sexual pleasure became less and less respectful. This is because in general, I think that the international community (that monolithic concept of governments, donors, development workers and “experts”) often fails to recognise the inherent ignorance it holds towards “at risk populations”. There are a lot of things that are shit about this world and people who dedicate their lives to improving things one potato patch at a time are truly heroic in my eyes, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt from my studies and my work it’s that no matter where you are in the world, no matter how bad things are, how awful the natural disaster is or how long the civil war has been going on people are still having sex. And mostly, that sex is consentual (whatever consentual means cross culturally). And maybe the right to seek sexual pleasure seems like a wishy washy right when compared with the right to clean water, or education, or freedom of speech, but to me, sexual pleasure is an essential part of the human experience, and it is far far far from my place to say that a) certain people don’t get it (like “African”women) and b) that we should focus on other, more important rights, rather than clouding the issue with the confusing, intricate ones like sexual pleasure.
In my, angry feminaust mind, ignoring or glossing over the sexual pleasure side of the argument against FGM weakens the credibility of the campaigners and is an ultimate win for the forces of patriarchy (yes I’ve only said that word like three times this article, I’m losing my touch). Because if patriarchy is a societal structure which puts the needs and rights of men before those of women then isn’t removing or hampering the potential of women to experience sexual pleasure the ultimate victory of a patriarchal system? The sexual needs and rights of men before those of women, not just through education or social norms but actually, physically, taking it away with a scalpel. It’s taking a personal, private experience of pleasure and enjoyment and making it culturally and societally null and void, but only for half the population…
Image taken from Craftivist Collective photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License.