Content Warning: Details of FGM, sexual assault
At first mention of circumcision, male circumcision immediately comes to mind. Jokes about foreskin, turtlenecks and such pop into your head.
My 8th-grade health teacher described circumcision as the painful procedure of removing the foreskin from a penis. Though the act was never described in detail, I had imagined a process similar to that of shaving the skin off an apple.
It wasn’t until one Saturday afternoon, well into my second year of college, that I really learned what circumcision was when my more sexually-adventurous friend educated me on what exactly a foreskin was and how it affected the act of fellatio.
Female circumcision, however, is not what comes to mind. However, it’s more common than you think.
In the UK, there are currently an estimated 137,000 victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). The procedure can range from covering or narrowing the vagina, to removing the clitoris, and sometimes both. This act itself has no health benefits, no hygienic benefits, and no sexual benefits. Why then, is it so common?
According to the World Health Organisation, “FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behaviour. It aims to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts.”
FGM is still practiced in many communities, especially if the act is thought to increase the marriageability prospects of a girl, whether that be through preserving modesty by decreasing libido, or removing the “unclean” part of the body.
Earlier this month, the first case of FGM was prosecuted. A woman and her partner were accused of mutilating their daughter. The mother was found guilty while the father was cleared of all charges. However, FGM has been illegal in England and Wales since 1985 with the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act. It was then followed by the Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2003, and reinforced once more in 2015 with the Serious Crime Act. Each following act only strengthened protection on girls to prevent FGM, extending jail terms to 14 years, criminalising “holiday cutting,” when parents take their child overseas for the procedure. The most recent 2015 act goes as far as allowing at-risk children to be temporarily removed from their families.
While this might be the first case of FGM that resulted in a conviction, this could hardly be the only act of FGM that has occurred in the UK over the past thirty years.
Perhaps this is due to the secrecy of the procedure or because it’s forced upon young children who aren’t aware of what is being done. However, what is clear is that there is a definitive lack of reporting.
Sigmund Freud said that society oppressed sexuality which leads to psychosis and neurosis, however, we in the 21st century have seemingly kicked that mental barrier. Right? We use sex for advertising, we use sex in art, books, music, and movies. Tinder, PornHub, and similar sites overflow the internet. As the old adage goes, sex sells.
However, while sex may now pervade our society, sex positivity does not. The shadowy, antiquated spectre of sexist cultural norms such as purity and virginity looms over people everywhere. Consequently, women (and men) aren’t educated on their own bodies. Some become embarrassed at the mention of periods, or the sight of their own genitalia. Some aren’t even aware that their own bodies have been mutilated.
This looming spectre results in not only sexual miseducation but lack of any sexual education point blank. Schools push ineffective, abstinence-only sexual education, people in sexual activity for the first time are unaware of sexually transmitted diseases, and think that they can become pregnant from hot tubs.
Not only are men and women unaware of their sexual health, but sex as an act of pleasure is often spoken about with a hushed voice. Women balance on the tightrope of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. And God forbid we talk about multiple sexual partners, masturbation, or how to achieve the “elusive” female orgasm.
While society has made great strides forward in terms of sexual liberation, the fact is that many societies, western and otherwise, have been built on ideas of female sexual repression, valuing modesty and virginity.
Anthropologists theorise that this obsession with virginity developed sometime at the beginning of the Neolithic era when civilizations began to develop. Once humans became settlers rather than nomads, they needed to pass down their possessions to their children. The only way to make sure that there was a clear line of succession was to control female reproductive capabilities. Therefore, there was more emphasis placed on the idea of female chastity, in order to be able to clearly identify heirs. This idea, conceived in tandem with civilization itself, still pervade institutions such as marriage, education, and interpersonal relationships.
While this conviction is a good first step in creating a society where sexual education is a given and sexual liberation is common it is certainly only the very beginning. Leyla Hussein, the co-founder of the Daughters of Eve, a non-profit devoted towards protecting girls and women at risk of FGM and survivor of FGM herself, spoke about her mixed feelings towards regarding the conviction.
“We are sending out a strong message that children now come first,” she said. “However, the sad thing is we could have helped that mother. That could have easily been me because 17 years ago I did not understand that FGM was wrong.”
FGM continues because it is a tradition. A tradition that is based on antiquated sexist tropes, but a tradition nonetheless. It is one of many such traditions that still populate the world today. While punishing perpetrators of FGM shows the seriousness of such a crime, it will not address the root of the problem. The only way to make sure women are protected is to make sure people are educated. Sexual health education is essential. And it doesn’t stop at being able to correctly label a diagram of a vagina. We have to remove the stigma of sex and allow men and women alike to feel unashamed of their sexuality.
Image credits: Guano via Flickr