My First Circumcised African Woman

Betty Dodson's picture
Tue, 01/27/2009 - 17:18
Submitted by 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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To me, the single most

Thu, 02/05/2009 - 22:00
Anonymous User (not verified)

To me, the single most horrible aspect of FGM is that middle aged women, who otherwise have a lot of common sense and certainly aren't under the thumb of any man, do it to girls. Girls are held down and cut by women of their own village, who have known the girls since they were born.

Meditating on this over the years has taught me that women are not born with a kind understanding of the feminine pink bits. Even that too must be learned and encouraged. Having had a pussy all of one's life does not mean that one necessarily understands and reveres pussy. It also taught me not to romaticize the traditional cultures of Africa. Those cultures can touch on the Dark Side of human nature.

The human race will not be right until all women, everywhere, will treat their pussies with respect and affection, and will be relaxed about them when they are by themselves and with their lovers. I predict that by the end of the 21st century, many women will be happily naked at the pool or beach, but healing the world does not require going that far.

Male Circumcision

Fri, 04/24/2009 - 00:14
Anonymous User (not verified)

I'm a male very interested in sexuality. I read up much on it. I do so for both male and female sexuality, as I find it important for my current girlfriend who was fairly inexperienced and had never looked at herself down there before we got together. I'm just trying to justify why I'm a male posting on your site. I'm a big fan of yours, and I love your messages. When I have children, whether male or female, I'm going to make sure that they hear these messages either from me or their mother.
The reason I'm posting here is that I wanted to highlight the issue of male circumcision. In this article, you mention that one type of FGM is very similar to male circumcision. Why is it that this type of female circumcision is unacceptable while male circumcision is totally acceptable? Being uncircumcised, I have even noticed prejudice from both cut men and women used to uncut men towards uncircumcised penises. It seems to me that the operation is essentially the same. The main difference would be the age at which it occurs, but I have heard it said that since the nervous system of a baby is incomplete, it actually feels the pain more completely and all over its body. Many male circumcisions are performed with little anesthetic, or none. Is it just that male circumcision has reached such a prevalent level in our society that it can't be touched? I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

I do not know about what

Mon, 09/07/2009 - 17:16
PakhitKris (not verified)

I do not know about what Betty thinks of male circumcision, but I will tell you something. My brother is 11 years younger than me, and I remember fighting with both of my parents about his circumcision. I had told them that I don't think it should happen. Sure, they're the parents, but that doesn't mean that I had no right to argue with them. I was concerned for my unborn baby brother! Eventually they won the fight. It's funny how he gets along with me better than anyone else in the family. Some people might call me fanatical, but I had the same arguement with my parents about the spaying of the family's two dogs.
That being said, I just thought you'd like to know that you are in good company, and that someday an entire band of people across the globe will become very loud about this issue. One day, there will be no more societal acceptance of the mutilation of the body.

I just stumbled across this

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 03:44
AnonymousT (not verified)

I just stumbled across this article after finding your site doing some research and this article touched me in a way I wanted to share. I can't directly relate to FGM, thankfully, but I am a childhood rape and sexual abuse survivor. Ironically the one semi good thing I had going was that even as a young child I knew how to masturbate to orgasm and was never told it was wrong. In fact I didn't even so much know what I was doing but because I had been abused I sort of knew the connection to sex in a hazy vague childhood way. I almost never would actually touch myself, just cupped my outer lips and rocked against my hand.

I remember my fear at discovering my labia minors, mine are sort of ragged and one side actually looks sort of like a flower petals unaroused but almost comes to a point when aroused (obviously I have spent much time exploring my genitals since!). I don't know how to fully describe it and I've never seen another vulva like mine. But we're I to show you, I think you could understand just why as an abused child when I first found it, I was convinced I had been torn, damaged. In a sense I believed my genitals had been mutilated though they were not. At least I was not cut, though for sure I was abused, violated. It's been a long road towards healing.  And in fact it wasn't until just now aftee typing the last few sentences that I even understood myself just why it is this article resonated so much with me. Of course. In making the comparison you did between Badu's fear of looking or touching with many American women it allowed me to make my own connection.

I wasn't overtly taught shame though abuse gave me that and I didn't know any better and had that combination of fear but fascination and I believed the man who raped me had permanently damaged me. That's such a huge thing to even say to anyone. I've dealt with and worked through so much of my issues with sex but only now even after all that work, even after lots of freely touching and enjoying my own vulva, only just now am I coming to terms with my shame at what I falsely believed about my body. I used to even up into adulthood fear anyone looking at me, sexually, medically. Like somehow they'd see me and know what happened, think something was wrong. Having health issues too, I can so relate to the clenching up and that physical memory of trauma... 

I'm unpartnered and a lesbian and I really, really love everything about cunts (I even personally just love the word cunt!) I love the way they look, feel, taste, smell. My ultimate sexual fantasy that gets me off is just imagining giving oral sex to another woman. I have so much reverance towards a partner or woman I love's cunt. Absolute reverence. Yet still I tense up, I panic. I get knocked right out of my arousal should a partner get close to mine. So I'm working on this. I'm learning to finally love my own cunt. It's tough yet also baffling how I can be so so into a partners and so panicky about my own. But this is perhaps the key, healing my own issues, examining my childhood belief that something was wrong, that I had been damaged. I long to have a partner I can trust completely who will view and lick and love my cunt with all the reverance I would give hers but first things first, I've got to learn to view my own self that way. 

So, a lot of thoughts and feelings from me. This barely scratches the surface but I just wanted to thank you for this article. Six years after it was posted I seem to have found it exactly when I needed it and I hope it will be a catalyst to my own healing.