Chris Beckett/Flickr
Leyla Hussein, a prominent anti-FGM campaigner
Source: Chris Beckett/Flickr

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) includes any procedure that removes part of the female external genitalia, such as the clitoris, or inflicts any other injury on the genitals for non-medical reasons.

FGM is practised as a matter of course in many countries, most of which are located in central Africa. Young girls, often around the age of puberty but sometimes only a few days old, are compelled to undergo FGM by family members and other authority figures who commonly cite reasons of tradition.

But another of the most prevalent justifications for FGM is that it reduces a woman’s sex drive. The theory is that by excising the clitoris, or suturing the labia together, a woman’s interest in sexual pleasure and her ability to enjoy sex are decreased. In cultures that value female virginity, FGM may increase a woman’s chances of finding a marriage partner. Evolutionary psychologists have long claimed that male anxiety over their female partners’ sexual experience and fidelity is driven by paternity uncertainty: the idea that men can never be 100% sure that they are the biological father of any offspring their partner gives birth to.

What is less clear is whether FGM meets this purported aim. Are supporters of FGM right to say that the procedure can reduce a woman’s sex drive?

FGM and sociosexuality

Ike Onyishi of the University of Nigeria, in collaboration with colleagues in Slovakia and the USA, interviewed around 100 women in a rural village in Nigeria. The women in this village belonged to the Igbo ethnic group, in which FGM is common but not universal. In Onyishi’s sample, 81% of women reported that they had undergone FGM and 19% of women reported that they had not.

All the women were asked to respond to questions from the sociosexual orientation inventory (or SOI). The SOI includes nine questions that gauge a person’s feelings about sex without commitment. There are three types of question: questions about sexual behavior, about attitudes, and about desire.

An example of a behavior question is “With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse without having an interest in a long-term committed relationship with this person?” Attitude questions include “I do not want to have sex with a person until I am sure that we will have a long-term, serious relationship” (reverse coded). And one of the desire questions is “In everyday life, how often do you have spontaneous fantasies about having sex with someone you have just met?” In all cases, higher scores reveal less of a concern about uncommitted sexual relationships.

The results of the study showed that women with FGM scored lower on all three subscales than women without FGM. A maximum average score for each subscale would be nine. On the behavior subscale women without FGM scored 2.5, while women with FGM scored only 1.6. On the attitudes subscale women without FGM scored 3.1, while women with FGM again scored 1.6. And on the desire subscale women without FGM scored 3.5, while women with FGM scored 2.1.

Causation?

Women who have undergone FGM report lower desire for uncommitted sex, are less permissive of uncommitted sex, and report engaging less often in uncommitted sex. But does this mean that FGM is responsible for these differences in desire, attitudes, and behavior? Are supporters of FGM right to suggest that FGM can prevent women from developing liberal attitudes to sex?

We can’t say for sure because Onyishi’s study wasn’t, strictly speaking, an experiment. He didn’t randomly assign girls to undergo FGM, or to forego FGM, and then wait until those girls were adults before testing them. For obvious reasons, a study like this would not be ethical. Therefore, it is not possible to say that the women in the FGM and the non-FGM groups differed in some other way that may have influenced the results. For example, it seems likely that socially liberal parents will be less willing to inflict FGM on their daughters, but more likely to transmit their liberal attitudes to their offspring. This means that FGM could be associated with liberal attitudes, while not directly causing them.

Nevertheless, Onyishi’s data are important because they suggest that supporters of FGM are probably correct to state that women who have undergone FGM are less likely to be unfaithful to their husbands, and less interested in casual sex. This knowledge may help campaigners to develop more convincing arguments in their efforts to eliminate FGM.

Reference

Onyishi, I. E., Prokop, P., Okafor, C. O., & Pham, M. N. (2016). Female genital cutting restricts sociosexuality among the Igbo people of Southeast Nigeria. Evolutionary Psychology, 14(2). Read paper

For an audio version of this story, see the 28 June 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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