A Private Session with a Victim of Female Genital Mutilation

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Betty Dodson

She was so soft spoken on the phone that I had to ask her to speak up several times. Badu told me she was an African woman from Kenya who had been circumcised. Two years ago, she began looking for information to understand what had been done to her as a ten year-old child. She came across my name online and made the call.

When I asked what type of procedure had been done, she didn't know. Did she still have part of her clitoris? She didn't know. Were her inner lips intact? She didn't know. Each question was answered the same. She had never looked or touched herself "there." Well, no biggie. I'd heard the same sad story from American women who had been psychologically mutilated by the absence of information about their clitoris coupled with severe prohibition of childhood masturbation.

I explained that if Badu would allow Carlin, my business partner to take a photo of her vulva and give us permission to write up her case anonymously, there would be no charge for her session. She was more than happy and agreed to the arrangement. We made an appointment.

Five years ago I was contacted by a group of French Canadians with an organization called Clitoraid They were raising money to build a hospital in Kenya that offered reconstructive genital surgery cost-free to women who had been mutilated.

Dr. Foldes, a Frenchman, had been doing genital reconstruction on African women for several years. He removed excess scar tissue and when possible, pulled whatever was left of the clitoral stem forward and stitched a raised area to represent a clitoris. After a year of healing, some women claimed they felt pleasurable sensations. When Clitoraid asked if I would help teach African women masturbation skills, I agreed and sent a dozen copies of my book, Sex for One. A group of African women wrote letters of thanks especially for the drawings of different vulva styles. They were grateful to discover what women's "normal" genitals looked like because there was no imagery available to them. It was a righteous cause and I remained a presence on the Clitoraid website.

My interest was to see if this surgery was primarily cosmetic or if it actually restored sensation. I had worked with an American woman who was a victim of Intersex surgery as an infant. Her clitoris was oversized and in the process of making it smaller, the doctor removed the glans and the entire clitoral shaft accidentally. She has never experienced any pleasurable sensations including exploration of her vagina with female prostate stimulation.

There are three basic types of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) or cutting.

Type One is called circumcision. It involves the removal of the clitoral hood which would be similar to male circumcision with the loss of sensitive nerve endings after the foreskin or hood is removed. Type Two is a clitorectomy, the removal of the entire clitoral glans and shaft with part or all of the inner lips excised. Crude catgut stitches or thorns are used to control bleeding from the clitoral artery. The third type is infibulation, the most severe. The entire clitoris and inner lips are cut away with the outer lips stitched together leaving a small opening at the bottom for urine and menstrual flow. Infibulated women have a firm band of tissue that covers the urethra, the vaginal opening that replaces the inner and outer labia that were once rich in nerve endings. It's nearly impossible to imagine the problems that result from this procedure performed without anesthesia or a sterile environment on helpless young girls.

The physical complications associated with Female Genital Cutting are acute and also chronic with life-threatening risks of hemorrhage, shock, blood loss, great pain, local infection and failure to heal with septicemia, tetanus, not to mention the serious trauma to all the surrounding structures. Infibulation results in long-term gynecologic difficulties that involve the development of painful cysts and keloid scars along excised edges. More serious complications include pelvic infection, painful intercourse, infertility, and recurrent urinary tract infections plus never-ending pain that emanates from her sex organ that has never known pleasure.

Very little is understood about the psychological, sexual, and social consequences of this barbaric procedure due to the absence of research done in countries where this is practiced. However, personal accounts by women who've been cut describe the terror of being forcibly held down by Aunts and Grandmothers, women once trusted who now inflict this terrible pain upon her. The practice is entrenched in the African culture mixed in with taboos and superstitions. In Kenya, a motion to outlaw female circumcision was overwhelmingly defeated, not by men, but by the pro-FGM women lobbyists who argued that the "practice reduces women's sex drive and avoids promiscuity, premarital sex and adultery." This is a perfect example of a controlling Matriarchy as in "Mother knows best," a source of women's power that is rarely acknowledged by those feminists who constantly focus on the Patriarchy.

On the day that Badu was to join us, Carlin and I were excited to learn first hand the results of FGM and what could be done to help these women heal. Before we first sat down to talk, I had assumed Badu would be a woman in her twenties. She was a forty-seven year old mother of three grown children. Following a series of questions, her answers remained the same, "I don't know." Once again, this is similar to many American women I'd seen who had never looked at their sex organs either, so "Down There" remained a complete mystery to them too. Like Badu, they were taught to use a washcloth and avoid touching themselves "there."  Badu's tribe had no name for female genitals. American women misnamed theirs by calling it a "vagina" which refers only to the birth canal.

More accurate would be "vulva" that includes the inner and outer labia as well as the clitoral glans, hood and shaft. The internal structure of the clitoris is made up of erectile tissue that consists of the legs, bulbs and perineum. The urinary tract is also surrounded by erectile tissue that contains tiny prostate-like glands. All of these internal parts contribute to a woman's sexual pleasure.

When we sat down side by side for her genital exam with both of us looking into the same mirror, the moment I headed toward her genitals, her legs clamped down like the jaws of a snapping turtle. Her entire body became rigid as she braced her stiff arms behind her. She had assumed the position of being held down. To be released from her memory of restraint, I told her to place her hands on top of her legs and take a deep breath. She still couldn't open her legs, so I placed my latex gloved hand over her entire genital area, leaving it there for at least five minutes. We carried on a conversation about this and that while my hand passively cupped her vulva, a reassuring touch that emanated warmth to calm her poor traumatized pussy. Then I asked her to cover her hands with Almond oil and gently go hand-over-hand up the front of her vulva, back and forth.

She repeated that she had never touched herself but did the exercise. I asked if she was Catholic and when she answered Mormon, I groaned and said they were the worst especially when it came to masturbation. When I recalled seeing a bumper sticker that said, "Another Mormon on Drugs" the three of us began to laugh like crazy. Laughter releases tension even better than tears, so I was greatly relieved that we had found some humor in all of this madness. Finally, I leaned over her body and quickly spread her outer lips. I saw a flash of a dusty rose clitoral glans, small inner lips and the bright pink of her vestibule before her legs clamped shut again. "Everything is there," I shouted. "Badu you're intact!"

At that point Badu slowly opened her thighs and looked into the mirror to see for herself. We hugged each other with more tears and laughter. The three of us whooped and hollered, laughed some more and Carlin came in for a close-up with her camera. Upon more careful observation, I saw a small section of the clitoral hood that had been cut in the middle. It made a small dent but didn't interfere with her clitoris at all. She did touch it and her body recoiled from the sensitive shock. Badu said she'd never let her husband touch her there either. After he'd run off with an older white woman, she'd come to America because divorce was not permitted in her tribe. Her sister had a job at the UN, so Badu and her three children had moved in with her.  I spent more time encouraging Badu to touch her vulva which was very difficult. Then I hit upon the idea of using a vibrator, something between her and her clitoris.

The Liberte was perfect with its gentle vibes. She was able to hold it near her clitoris followed by more laughter and tears and a ton of sisterhood. When I asked who had performed her circumcision, she said it was her Aunt Tara. I suggested Badu send a thank you note because her Aunt had done so little damage that I figured was intentional. Then Carlin and I agreed there could be other tribal elders, women who didn't approve of the procedure, so they cut as little as possible. However, we acknowledged that Badu was still a victim of genital mutilation. It was as though she had suffered a complete clitorectomy without any access to her clitoris that had been there all along.

When I asked how she handled her children's natural exploration of their sex organs with masturbation, without hesitation she answered, "I smacked them." So there it was: The abused and repressed pass on their abuse and repression. It goes from one generation to the next. It's up to Mothers of the world to break this pattern of damaging their children with morbid sexual practices and biblical prohibitions aimed at controlling large populations through sexual pain, shame and guilt. Mothers, Aunts and Grandmothers have the power to end these attacks on children's sex organs. If they can go through the motions and fake FGM in Africa, the same could be true in the Middle East. Some enlightened Jews today fake a boy's circumcision by performing the Bris without cutting off his foreskin. The final step would be to allow the natural process of a child's sexual self-exploration through masturbation without punishment.

In the sixties, I rode in on the second wave of the feminist revolution after reading Betty Freidan's book The Feminine Mystique. My main interest was women's sexual liberation which inspired my first 1968 one-woman art exhibitions of couples engaged in sex as equals. By 1970, I was a card-carrying feminist involved with Consciousness Raising Groups. Now I am part of the third wave with Carlin as cyberspace feminists. These waves are going to keep right on coming until we finally reach the place that so many of our sisters have avoided- women's sexual freedom of choice. Furthermore, women embracing sex for the sheer pleasure of it will continue to grow including our constant companion: Sex with ourselves ‘til death do us part."

It had been a long day. Our African sister was given a copy of my book, Sex for One along with the Liberte' battery vibrator. Badu promised to practice her self-loving ritual and said she would stay in touch. She left after many heartfelt good-bye hugs.

Carlin and I were ecstatic. Then my brilliant business partner looked at me and said, "This is an op-ed piece for the New York Times."

"I'd rather see it as an article in Vanity Fair," I replied. At that point we grinned from ear to ear, did a high five and called it a day.

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