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Prisoners of Biology

What the practice of female genital mutilation teaches us

No gags or quips this week. My topic is female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and this is not a joking matter. It does, however, demonstrate that no culture is neutral about female orgasm. Some cultures celebrate it, others deny its existence and indeed go to some trouble to prevent it. Over-enthusiatic reports from anthropologists that this or that culture does not have female orgasm should be taken with a large grain of salt. Some researchers have been a little too quick to take difference at face value.

It has become fashionable in some quarters to decry the fact that behavioural scientists only investigate WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) populations. The population that receives FGM/C is largely, though not as you shall see, exclusively—not like this. Therefore, findings about them should be of especial interest.

What is FGM/C?

Something like three million women a year--mostly in sub-Saharan Africa--receive some level of genital mutilation. This is usually done at a very young age. Ayaan Hirsi Ali vividly describes her experience at the age of five. FGM/C can range from a comparatively mild incision to a full “scraping clean” of the external genitalia—leaving a smooth flat surface devoid of the clitoral glans and labia. This so-called “Full Pharonic” is every bit as ghastly as it sounds, and produces injuries far too shocking to post pictures of on a family friendly website. This injury is then sewn-up (infibulated). The resultant stitches are expected to be burst on the woman’s wedding night. Injuries and complications abound and are discussed in detail here (strong stomachs required). Those who want full details should read Prisoners of Ritual by the incomparable Hanny Lightfoot Klein and I would like to take the opportunity to thank her again for her help and support during my research. You can get a flavour of this remarkable woman here. Please support her work.

Types of FGM/C

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Why is it done?

Those who practice it say that it makes women marriageable. Those who do not have it done are believed to become “prostitutes or go mad”. However, It’s not a religious requirement—at least not a requirement of Islam. The Prophet only mentions the practice once and he is condemnatory of it. Additionally, the name of the most severe version—the Full Pharonic, hints at a culture that predates Islam by thousands of years.

The mostly likely explanation is that subverting female choice mechanisms—by controlling female sexuality—has been a constant in human history. Females denied the ability to release sexual tension through their own means would have to seek partners to do this. This puts them more under the control of whoever they have been married them off to. Female sexual liberty, whether it expresses itself in masturbation, prostitution, promiscuity, or lesbianism, has been seen as a threat throughout the ages.

Some reasons why we should not be too smug about Western culture’s superiority about this practice

1)      We did it ourselves until comparatively recently. Isaac Baker-Brown was drummed out of the Royal College of Surgeons for publishing his 1866 book on this so-called "harmless operative procedure” which he recommended for such things as "masturbation, lesbianism, and hysteria". However, despite what you might expect, he was not thrown out for performing the operation. On the contrary—he was thrown out for publicising how commonly other surgeons performed it.

2)      We still do it. It’s a national disgrace that the UK, until recently, has not stood up at all to the cultural relativists and clamped down on the practice occurring in some British cities. Change needs to be handled intelligently and sensitively--but it must happen if we are serious about being a modern enlightened civilisation.

3)      We do other things that are not a whole lot better, and are motivated by the same puritan urge. Controlling female sexuality in ways that stop short of physical mutilation--but have much the same effect--may not leave visible external marks. However, this does not make them morally that much better. Internal wounds heal even more slowly, if at all. Misinformation, slut-shaming, and denial of female sexuality may look different from removing genitalia. In biological terms they have much the same effect—subverting female choice mechanisms through ignorance, guilt, and fear.

Some things that may come as a surprise about FGM/C

1)      It is done almost exclusively by women to women—in this case typically mothers or maternal grandmothers. The fact that the typical enemy of female sexuality is other women comes as surprise to folk for whom ideology trumps evidence. It does not come as a surprise to a biologist. Your fiercest rival is the one most like you--competing for similar resources. In addition, children and parents do not necessarily have totally overlapping reproductive interests. A person’s internal narrative might be “I am doing this for their own good”. A biologist would beg to differ.

2)      FGM/C, even of the severest kind, does not necessarily stop women from orgasming through penetrative intercourse alone. This turns out to be especially true as the women get older, had divorced from an arranged marriage, and therefore had a chance to choose a sexual partner who fitted their preferences.

In Conclusion

This last point came as a complete surprise to me when I first started investigating it. The severity of the damage of FGM; the shock and trauma of the injuries; the pain of infibulation. It would be no surprise if someone who had suffered such a thing never enjoyed sex again. However, in hundreds and hundreds of meticulously documented cases these women reported exactly the same sensations that the (mostly) western women we were studying reported about their orgasmic experiences.

These orgasmic sensations included apnea (catching of breath); loss of self; feelings of total trust; floating; internal uterine pulsing. And these women were not WEIRD women. By no means. They were from cultures where reporting of female sexual pleasure was taboo, discussing it among others very tricky, and to express sexual desire women had to go through all sorts of chicanery. So--there could be no “lying to please men” going on. In fact, they hid their pleasure from partners lest they be thought licentious.

All this meant a hit to  the standard sexual story that I had received from a large and vocal section of Western science and culture. Namely, that women had no internal sexual sensitivity. It called into question the orthodoxy that any reports to the contrary were “myths of the vaginal orgasm”, simply perpetrated to please men. According to the orthodoxy, these mutilated women could not orgasm—they had nothing to orgasm with.

But, like bumble bees flying despite aviation engineers’ 1 (allegedly) ruling this as impossible, they were orgasming. This female arousal system that the orthodoxy dismissed as a by-product of males' seemed pretty robust and functional. And, some of the things that the women reported were things that we knew went along with the production of a key chemical--oxytocin. And oxytocin is a very interesting neurohypophyseal hormone, deserving of its own share of blog space.

 

 

 

1) Actually this is an urban myth--but a remakably persistent one. After all, only the daftest of scientists would deny the existence of something palpably obvious just because they failed to model it under lab conditions. Wouldn't they?

Robert James King, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the School of Applied Psychology, University College Cork, in Ireland.
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