Doubting critics say the research only encourages female genital mutilation. But you don’t help women by telling them they’re ‘mutilated’, the researchers argue.
When Professor Sara Johnsdotter started studying Somali women living in Sweden, she didn’t think sex would be one of their favourite topics. After all, they had no clitoris.
They’d all experienced the most severe form of female genital cutting – or mutilation, as some prefer to call it.
But to her surprise she found they had a very positive view of sex. They had lots of sexual pleasure, including orgasms.
Two million girls a year have their genitals cut, most of them in Africa.
There are three types of cutting:
- Type 1: clitoris or hood of clitoris removed
- Type 2: inner labia also removed
- Type 3: vagina also sewn up
Doctors who perform it call it female circumcision. Campaigners have dubbed it Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Others say the term Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is less stigmatising. FGM/C is the compromise term. Worldwide an estimated 135 million women have been cut.
Her study squares with the findings of Italian researcher Lucrezia Catania, also presented at the world sexual health congress, WAS.
After all, the little bump we think of as the clitoris is actually only the tip, she points out. In fact the clitoris carries on deep inside the body. So even if the tip is cut off, there’s plenty left for stimulation.
Egyptian sexology professor Hussein Ghanem is sceptical. Remember that the clitoris is the female equivalent of the penis, he says. His answer to men who argue about the effects of female circumcision: “Let’s cut off your penis and see how well you do!”
Hussein Ghanem says that in his home country around 80 percent of women have experienced what he firmly describes as mutilation.
“I think this soft approach against FGM is the wrong way,” he complains. “I think we must be very firm and clear that it is harmful. And that the majority of Egyptian and African women do not experience orgasm.”
There’s a problem with this tough line though, says Sara Johnsdotter. In Sweden she found that some circumcised women were more negative about sex. They were the ones who were more integrated into Swedish society, and more aware of campaigns stressing that genital cutting ruins women’s sex lives.
“You have women saying, ‘I thought I was normal, I enjoyed sex with my husband, but coming here I realise that I’ve lost so much,” she says.
Hussein Ghanem argues that the Swedish and Italian research is playing right into the hands of people who defend genital cutting. He’s heard a colleague of his – a member of the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood – arguing that the Italian findings show the practice isn’t so bad after all. Even though, as he’s quick to point out, top Muslim clerics say it has no place in Islam.
Hussein Ghanem and Sara Johnsdotter each accuse the other of being well-meaning but unscientific. And of muddling medicine with politics. Yet there’s one thing they firmly agree on: they want to see an end to the practice of cutting – or mutilating – girls’ genitals.
“Help the victims, but condemn the practice,” says Hussein Ghanem.
“You have real victims, women who suffer all their lives,” says Sara Johnsdotter. “But you also have many women who live very well with it. A respectful treatment would talk to both kinds of women, with all kinds of experiences.”
“Don’t start by telling people they’re barbarous and that they torture their own daughters,” she argues. Focus on “bodily integrity and human rights”. A woman’s right to keep her genitals in one piece.
This article first appeared in Kenya’s Love Matters. It has been re-published here with their permission.