Female Genital Mutilation and Sexual Pleasure

Three illustrations depicting stages of FGM on female figures against a red background with safe2choose.org logo.

In some parts of Asia and Africa, females are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) –a procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. The practice is rooted in cultural, religious, and social norms and is often motivated by perceived notions of cleanliness, modesty, and adherence to traditional rites of passage.

Growing up in Pakistan, where FGM is practised in secret by some minority groups, I was not aware of it until my late teens. This secrecy around FGM, which is common in many other places where it is practised, makes it a largely invisible and, hence, ignored issue. However, given its impact on human well-being, it is important to end this silence and start having open conversations about it. I write this blog in this spirit, to understand FGM and separate the facts from the myths.

As FGM is a biological process, whereas men and women are more of a social distinction, this article will refer to girls, teens, women and people who are born with a vagina as “females”.

Types of FGM

Internationally, the practice of FGM is recognized as a violation of females’ human rights. Among other health impacts, FGM has profound consequences for sexual pleasure. The removal or alteration of sensitive genital tissue may lead to a loss of sensation, pain during intercourse, and difficulty in achieving orgasm.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies FGM into four main types:

Type I – clitoridectomy. This involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, a small, sensitive organ located above the opening of the urethra. In some cases, the prepuce (fold of skin surrounding the clitoris) may also be removed.

Type II – excision. This involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without the excision of the labia majora. The remaining parts of the labia majora may be stitched together, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual flow.

Type III – infibulation. This type is the most severe form of FGM. It involves the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and a portion of the labia majora. The remaining labial tissue is stitched together, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual flow. Infibulation creates a seal, which may need to be cut open for sexual intercourse and childbirth.

Type IV – unclassified. This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes. This category encompasses a range of practices, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing the genital area.

Impact of FGM

FGM inflicts immediate short-term effects, such as acute pain, bleeding, and the risk of infections due to unhygienic conditions during the procedure. Long-term consequences include chronic pain; menstrual difficulties; sexual challenges, like pain during intercourse and reduced sexual pleasure; and psychological trauma, such as anxiety and depression. Complications during childbirth are heightened, increasing the risk of tearing and the need for medical interventions. The altered anatomy from FGM also leads to recurrent infections and the formation of cysts.

FGM and Sexual Pleasure

As mentioned above, FGM can have a significant and lasting impact on sexual pleasure. Before we dive deep into this, it’s important to note that experiences can vary among individuals, and not every person who has undergone FGM will have the same outcomes. The impact on sexual pleasure depends on the type of FGM performed, individual variations, and the circumstances surrounding the practice.

Some of the ways FGM affects sexual pleasure are:

Sensation. In FGM, the removal or alteration of genital tissue often results in a loss of sensitivity. The clitoris, a key organ for sexual pleasure, may be partially or completely removed. This loss of nerve endings can lead to diminished sexual arousal and difficulty in experiencing pleasure during sexual activities.

Intercourse. The alterations caused by FGM can result in pain during sexual intercourse. Scarring, tissue damage, and the absence of natural lubrication may contribute to discomfort, making sexual activity a painful or even traumatic experience for some women.

Orgasm. Due to the removal or alteration of sensitive genital tissue, people who have undergone FGM may find it challenging to achieve orgasm. The physiological changes can interfere with the normal sexual response cycle, making it difficult for some individuals to experience sexual satisfaction.

Psychological impact. Beyond the physical effects, FGM can have profound psychological consequences. Anxiety, fear, and a negative body image may result from the trauma associated with the practice. These psychological factors can further contribute to difficulties in enjoying and engaging in sexual activities.

Relationships. The physical and psychological consequences of FGM can strain intimate relationships. Painful intercourse and difficulties in sexual fulfillment may lead to relationship issues, affecting both the survivor and their partner.

The Future of FGM

Addressing the practice of FGM in our societies requires a multifaceted approach encompassing community engagement, education, and legal measures.

Given the sensitivity of the topic and its entanglement with religion and patriarchy, it is important for a dialogue to start from within the community that practices it. Community leaders, religious authorities, and grassroots organizations have a role to play here, to challenge entrenched beliefs and raise awareness about the practice. This is not only an empathetic approach that would prevent the targeting and stigmatization of the community as a result of misplaced activism, it is also our best chance to develop strategies that fit the needs of the community and would therefore actually work – as stressed by Kenyan FGM survivor and anti-FGM campaigner Sadia Hussein.

Simultaneously, we need more sensible and sensitive education regarding FGM. Education can empower people with knowledge about reproductive health, hygiene, and the adverse effects of harmful practices. Schools, health-care providers, and community leaders can disseminate accurate information and foster a shift in attitudes towards FGM.

And finally, legal measures are essential in this effort. Enacting and enforcing laws that explicitly criminalize the practice, along with penalties for those performing or promoting it, sends a strong message about the societal rejection of FGM. In this domain as well, it is important to draft laws in partnership with the community based on people’s lived realities and internal perspectives rather than gendered and racialized stereotypes about them.

Author: Sherbano Khan is a journalist turned ethnographic researcher interested in issues at the intersection of gender, race, and class.

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