Orgasm in ritually circumcised African women
Presented at the 1st International Conference on Orgasm, New Delhi, Feb. 3-6, 1991
by Hanny Lightfoot Klein, M.A.
I have been asked to talk to you about orgasm in women who have been subjected to ritual mutilation of their sex organs. Before I get into that emotionally charged subject, let me veer for a moment into what may seem like an irrelevancy.
Quite recently, I had the opportunity to watch the New York Marathon on television. The marathon is a typically American phenomenon, in which thousands upon thousands of runners of every possible description compete every year. Among these competitors, there is always a group of handicapped individuals, who are not able to run, and who thus traverse the considerable distance by whatever means they have.
As a former runner, I am always fascinated by the near maniacal concentration of paraplegic contestants who tear over those gruelling 40 kilometres in wheelchairs. I have had occasion to run against these so-called "wheelies", and you really have to stay out of their way, if you don't want them to run you over. They have the most incredible determination, and their endorphin production levels appear to be astronomical.
In this particular race, the camera focused on a young woman-a former, promising Marathon contestant. She had tragically lost nearly the whole of her right leg in an accident only 9 months before. And here she was, walking the entire distance-at a pretty considerable pace, I might add. Most of us here could not have kept up with her. Not only that, but she was wearing running shorts, and made absolutely no attempt to disguise the steel frame of her prosthesis. Her attitude about it, as she discussed it with an interviewer, was equally remarkable. She saw no reason to hide the prosthetic device, she told him, because she thought that it was quite attractive to look at. "Actually, it's quite sexy," she said. She was rather proud of it.
Now, let us leave this remarkable young woman for the time being. The area in Africa where I gathered my information is Sudan. This is a vast, next to uninhabitable, acutely desertized, poverty wracked, famine ridden, disease pervaded, dust storm blighted, civil war torn country. This seemingly godforsaken land is riddled with paradox. Its inhabitants are a remarkably patient, cheerful and, under these seemingly hopeless conditions, inexplicably happy people. They are among the kindest, most open, warm and generous people that can be found anywhere on the face of the earth. Yet some of the ancient blood rituals practised in Sudan may well fill the uninitiated outsider with horror and amazement.
Female circumcision rituals, like other widely practised blood rituals, still pervade the greater part of the African continent. They exist at all levels of society, and they affect no less than an estimated 60-90 million African women.
The origins of these practices are obscure, and speculation on their beginnings can only be regarded as science fiction. There is evidence, however, that these customs predate Christianity, Islam, and most likely, also Judaism.
Additionally, their relatively limited geographic distribution lends some substance to the contention that they are not as ancient as the practice of male circumcision.
Detailed information on female circumcision in the Western literature, aside from several eyewitness accounts of the procedures themselves and a number of gynaecological reports on their medical consequences, has to date been quite sparse.
In regions where a milder form of the rite is customary, a small girl or adolescent is deprived "only" of her clitoris. The rationale for this type of procedure is, among others, that she is not marriageable or a complete woman until this "pseudopenis" has been removed.
But in Sudan, and other countries along the Horn of Africa, such as Southern Egypt, Somalia and Djibouti for example, where the honor of a family is measured in greatest part by the chastity and modesty of its women, a far more drastic and far reaching mutilation is perpetrated on little girls. It is known as "Pharaonic Circumcision", and involves not only excision of the clitoris, but of the labia minora and the inner portions of the labia majora as well. The remaining skin of the labia majora is then fused with sutures, creating a seam down the middle, over the wound. The opening that is left for urination and menstruation ideally does not exceed the circumference of a matchstick. The resulting bridge of skin and scar tissue is known as "infibulation".
The rationale for infibulating girls is that such infibulation creates a chastity belt, which provides living proof to the prospective bridegroom and his family that the bride's virtue is intact. Yet another primary object of the entire procedure is to dampen the girl's sex drive. It is generally believed by those that practice it, that this can be achieved by removing her most sensitive sexual pans. (It doesn't always work out that way, because in Africa, as anywhere else in the world, the most sensitive parts of the sexual nervous system are in the brain. But more of that later.)
The procedures have been prohibited under Sudanese law for over three decades, but the law has never been implemented. They are performed more or less openly by midwives, less by nurses, occasionally and in secret by doctors. Local anaesthesia of only questionable effectiveness is employed by urban practitioners on those girls whose families can afford it. Girls in the outlying areas are made to endure the ordeal without any analgesic whatsoever.
Haemorrhage frequently results when the child struggles vainly to free herself from restraining hands during the operation, infections and shock from pain are common, and retention of urine perhaps the most greatly feared immediate consequence.
The most damaging delayed effects result from the infibulation. Among these delayed effects are complications related to urinary and menstrual blockages, impairment of the birth process, fistula and inclusion cysts.
At marriage, penetration is achieved when the bridegroom either rips, cuts or stretches the infibulation open. Because it is considered shameful and unmanly for the young man to enlist a midwife's or doctor's skill in accomplishing this often impossible task, such professionals are employed only in secret. (I leave the joys of a defloration process that often takes several months to your imagination.)
In order for a woman to give birth, the infibulation has to be cut in an anterior direction, since dilatation is in nearly every case seriously impaired by inelastic scar tissue. After birth has taken place, the infibulation is generally restored to its original virginal condition by resuturing it. The whole procedure of ripping, cutting and stretching must therefore be repeated each time a woman gives birth.
When you observe Sudanese women in everyday situations, you realize that they suffer distress or pain rather uncommonly often. You see it in their faces, their body posture, and particularly in the way that they walk. The distress is obvious especially in the young ones, the virgins. They have a very characteristic shuffle. Because they have been sewn so tightly they are barely able to lift their legs.
The next thing you become aware of, is that for the most part, they do not seem to be chronically unhappy women. They are warm, mutually supportive, outgoing and proud. More frequently than one might expect, they are quite happily married, even though most marriages have been arranged without their consent.
The illiteracy rate of women in Sudan is somewhere between 95% and 98%. Education for women is a rather recent phenomenon in Sudan. With very few exceptions, most Sudanese family heads prefer to retain control over their girls by pulling them out of school after only two years - if they allow them to enter school at all. Lack of education, and a resultant lack of economic options in large measure shape the self-image, attitudes and beliefs of these women.
When I discuss the topic of circumcision with them, this is what they tell me: Not only is the day of circumcision the most important day in a girl's life, but the very idea .of not being circumcised is totally inconceivable to them. Only slaves, mental defectives and the daughters prostitutes, are uncircumcised.
Unless a woman comes from that truly minute segment of the population that has had significant exposure to Western thought, she has absolutely no concept that circumcision and infibulation are not, by necessity, practiced where ever women exist in the world .
And why by necessity? She is indoctrinated from earliest childhood on by woman elders, that she has been born with a revolting disfigurement between her legs, one which is of potential horrendous danger to her. If it is not removed, it will make her so voracious sexually, that she will become uncontrollably promiscuous. Unless this noxious piece of flesh is cut away, she will become a prostitute, and dishonor her family. What is more, this terrible piece of flesh will make her stink disgustingly and grow, cancer like, until it dangles like a goose's neck between her knees.
And of course, this will make her so repulsive that no one would under any circumstances marry her. The part about not being able to marry is in any event true, since the bridegroom of an uncircumcised girl would be subjected to so much ridicule by his peers for marrying an "unclean" woman, that life would become utterly unbearable for him.
Since marriage and the bearing of children are practically the only honourable options open to a woman in such a society, this creates a situation in which not circumcising ones daughters constitutes that society's most terrible form of child neglect and child abuse.
It is for this reason that the practice is most staunchly defended by women themselves. Circumcision ceremonies are within the domain of the grandmothers and women elders, and their function is to make certain that the procedure that is carried out on the girls is a "proper" one, which is to say, one that is as extreme as possible.
And so it becomes evident, that while a little girl is subjected to a horrendously frightening, brutal and excruciatingly painful trauma, she also feels cleansed, purified and delivered from great threat when it is over. She gradually recovers from her almost unimaginable trauma. She eventually, somehow comes to terms with it, aided by the strong emotional support of a warm, loving extended family. She comes once more to think of her circumcision as an altogether normal occurrence, one that every woman undergoes, one that has been done "for" her rather than "to" her – a most important distinction – one whose essential "rightness" she never even dreams of questioning.
Eventually, conscious recollection of the trauma fades mercifully into vagueness. Those who have passed this trial by ordeal successfully are generally able to develop feelings of satisfaction and pride. They are secure in the knowledge that they have shown themselves worthy, and that the honor of their family has been safeguarded.
While it is unlikely that there is not an acute sense of loss somewhere below the level of awareness, most women seem to wind up in an emotional territory that we have encountered. earlier, as we accompanied our amputee runner. The newly featureless area from which that repulsive and dangerous piece of flesh has been removed, is now perceived as beautiful, and c..; sexually highly desirable. To render it even more smooth and featureless they pluck out each and every pubic hair that mars its perfectly even appearance. Because the society's men have recourse to polygamy and instantaneous divorce, wives anxiously grasp at any safeguards to their position.
Yet on a physiological level, we are able to observe an inner disturbance in these women. A study of Somali girls shows that the onset of menstruation, which is a prerequisite to marriage in that culture, is considerably delayed, as compared to Western populations.
Furthermore, non-infibulated Somali girls begin menstruation on an average at 13.8 years of age, while infibulated girls begin on the average at 14.8 years, a full 12 months later. It is altogether likely that these differences may be accounted for at least in part by psychosomatic factors. These factors involve anxiety and apprehensive anticipation of the almost assuredly painful events of menstruation and marriage.
And now we finally arrive at the sexuality of circumcised women.
When I first begin to interview women, they generally leave me with the impression that they have little or no interest in sex themselves. Sex is something for men. Sex is a woman's means for carrying out her real purpose in life, mainly the perpetuation of her husband's patriarchy, for which she must bear sons. (Some of this may sound highly familiar to quite a few of you.)
They tell me that they must lie, unmoving as blocks of wood, during the sex act. They also tell me that it would be terribly shameful to be anything other than totally immobile. The kind of woman that shows overt interest would be branded as wanton and promiscuous, unquestionably and irrevocably. Such behaviour would give her husband grounds for immediate divorce. They deny all interest, all pleasure, and they seem not to know what I am talking about when I ask them if they experience orgasm.
For a while, I believe all this. Occasionally an educated woman says that sexual pleasure and orgasm are quite possible to a circumcised woman, and some seem a bit amused at my questions. Somehow this does not quite get through to me at that point in time, most likely because I am still suffering from a kind of shock. "She is the exception. There are always exceptions to everything,” I tell myself.
But what I can not seem to be able to explain, is that many of these same women, who purportedly have no interest in sex, manifest a deep, easily elicited laughter, particularly notable because it comes from deep within their bodies. It is very frequently obvious that they are not at all dissatisfied with their lives, and that they seem to be very proud of their husbands. Their body language is sensuous and relaxed, their eyes sparkle, and all of these signs are somehow incongruous with chronic sexual repression or sexual disinterest. It just doesn’t add up .
And then, I have the good fortune to interview a most unusual woman, who quite plainly informs me that she believes me to be either stupid or crazy, and who succeeds in providing me with a sudden, blinding insight into what is really going on .
She is a woman who has never been given the opportunity to go to school, but she is obviously highly intelligent. I am interviewing her with the help of one of my translators. The translator is a Sudanese woman, who has been Pharaonically circumcised. She is also a registered nurse trained in London, and she carries on a flourishing practice in female circumcision on the side, as do other Sudanese nurses.
At first I question this particular woman about her personal history, the interview proceeds quite normally. Then I begin asking questions about her marriage, and I ask, in all innocence, “Are you able to enjoy sex?".
My translator poses the question to her, and this woman begins to laugh. She laughs and laughs and laughs, more and more violently. She laughs so hard, that eventually, she falls off her chair. When she is finally able to stop laughing long enough to gasp out her answer, my translator begins to laugh as well. The two of them shriek and shout back and forth at each other between hoots of laughter, and eventually the translator is laughing so hard that she falls off chair also.
So here are the two of them are, virtually rolling around the floor, slapping the ground and clutching each other, and I'm wondering what it's all about, because I haven't the faintest notion of why they are laughing and what it all means.
Finally, I slide off my chair, sit down on the floor next to them and wait until they quiet sufficiently so that I can make some sense out of the whole situation. And when at last my translator is able to gasp out the answer that this woman has been trying to give her, the lights suddenly go on for me.
She explains: "This woman says that you must be either a lunatic or a complete fool to ask anyone a question like that. She says, of course she enjoys sex! What woman doesn't? The Pharaonic cannot change that! She says that no matter what they cut away from you, no one can change that!"
And of course, once you get past all of the things that have been stuffed into your brain at one time or the other about what is and is not a "proper" or "normal" or "mature" orgasm in females, you realize that this woman has just reduced the entire matter to what should have been perfectly obvious in the first place:
Just as the whole organism strives for its own individual highest level of function, so does the sexual nervous system strive for its own individual highest level of function. If its most significant erogenous centres are damaged or destroyed, it will most likely find or create other erogenous centres to take their place. Not only that, but one might quite reasonably expect a high level of compensation.
Well, now that I know what kind of information I need to look for, how am I going to get at it? I talk the problem over with my translators, and one of them takes pity on me and brings me home with her, saying that she is going to show me something.
She places some pieces of sandalwood and myrrh in a burner and lights them. When the wood has been reduced to charcoal, she takes off all her clothes, wraps herself in a blanket and squats over the embers, allowing the highly fragrant smoke to permeate her entire body. Then she rubs herself all over with a heavy oil, to seal in the scent.
She holds her arm under my nose. "Smell," she says. The gesture is unnecessary. The odour is not unpleasant, but it is so strong that it is almost overpowering. I have smelled this odour many times before in Sudan, walking down the street, on public conveyances, emanating from huts or houses, in market places, anywhere where there are women.
"This is what we all do when we want to have sex with our husbands," my informant explains. "When he smells that smell, he knows exactly what it means. "
Again a small aside: Baker, the noted British explorer, observed this "smoke ceremony" in his travels through Sudan, more than a century ago. He noted that he could smell a woman who had performed the smoke ceremony over more than 100 yards away. The voluminous and highly detailed journals of Burton, yet another explorer of that same era, reputedly contained specific information about the sexual behaviour of infibulated women. Unfortunately, these journals were destroyed by Mrs. Burton after his death, in a fit of religious fanaticism, or quite possibly jealousy.
Let me remind you at this point who these women sending out such overpowering sex signals are. They are women who have been deprived of virtually all of their external genitalia; their culture places severe penalties on any interest in sex on their part, and they are not allowed any movement during the sexual act.
Why then do they resort to such a strong signal, unless they are in fact very much interested in sex? And why would they be interested, except for the usual reasons, a normal, or even heightened desire for sexual pleasure? If sexual activity were not at all rewarding, but rather only painful to them, as they would have me believe, would most of them not then do everything within their limited power to avoid it?
Could it be that the employment of such a powerful olfactory signal is in fact the use of a prosthetic device? One may safely assume that olfactory sex signals are considerably reduced in a virtually obliterated perineal area, one which has been, to top it all off, assiduously plucked of all pubic hair.
In order to find out the answers to these questions, it is obviously necessary for me to change my tactics. Before I begin to question women about their sex lives with their husbands, (and this is of course the only sexual experience that I can expect them to discuss at all). I now ask them how often they make use of the smoke ceremony. With this simple shift in strategy, I now begin to receive answers that are remarkably consistent, whether I'm interviewing an educated, English-speaking woman, whether I employ a nurse translator or whether I employ any other type of translator.
The greater majority of women readily admit to using the smoke ceremony regularly; many use it daily. Once we have established this simple fact, the transition to more intimate questions is made quite easily. Only once in a while will a woman who has just told me that she uses the smoke ceremony daily, deny that she enjoys intercourse. Generally, if I ask her why she then uses the smoke ceremony, she laughs and drops the pretence.
There is, however, a fairly significant number of women, for whom intercourse is obviously consistently painful, residual to their circumcision. Others have been so traumatised emotionally by a particularly brutal deinfibulation, that they have not been able to overcome the trauma. Yet others have been forced into marriages that are intolerable to them. In such cases, the validity of a woman's heartfelt desire to avoid sex is easily discerned and highly believable. In such situations, the woman almost never makes use of the smoke ceremony.
Among this group of sexually undesirous women, it is noteworthy that there are several educated ones, who have learned, through exposure to Western ideas, that female circumcision is not practiced in most of the world. These women have come to realize that ""hat has been done to them has not been done to liberate them from a disgusting, smelly piece of flesh, as they had been told, but has in fact deprived them of their most sensitive sexual parts. Sexual frigidity associated with unexpressed rage is very often a part of the
picture in such cases.
Most women, however, have been able to make the necessary adaptations. I gain some insight into how they have done this when I ask them what parts of their bodies are most sensitive.
The answers to this question once more reflect cultural taboos. The parts of the body they spontaneously name in reply include the breasts, abdomen, thighs, lips, neck – just about any part of the body, with the exception of the genitals. Again I sense that I must find the right strategy to get at the truth. By now I realize that I am probably encountering strong cultural inhibitions regarding women's mention of their genitals.
A direct but defused question is needed, and yet what shall I call what they have left? I decide In "What about the area of your scar?", and this does the trick. I get very definitive "Yes", 'That is where I have the strongest feeling of pleasure. It is very sensitive", or "It is painful" or "With the Pharaonic you can not really feel your man. Everything is closed."
The next question, "What about inside?" again brings answers that are extremely clear cut. “Yes, the strongest feeling is inside", or "Nothing inside at all", or "Only pain", or "A little inside, a little around the scar, but the best place for me is my breasts", (or neck or thighs or abdomen, etc.)
Next I ask: "When you have sex, how many times out of 10 are you able to have orgasm?" Again the answers are decisive and clear cut. For example: "Every time, except when I am very tired, or one of the children is sick", or "Four or five out of ten", or "When I was younger, it was almost every time, but lately I have a lot of trouble with pelvic infections, so now it happens only very rarely", or "I have never had pleasure with my man. I have only pain and fear."
Perhaps the most persuasive piece of evidence comes from a small group of women who have been married more than once, and who are able to report on their marital adjustment to more than one man. When the marriage is a love match, they experience frequent and intense orgasm. When it is not, they do so only rarely.
The question arises: Are we really talking about orgasm? Some might argue the point. Are my "wheelies" and my amputee runner really running the Marathon? No, of course they are not running. But they do get to the finish line. They have certainly been slowed down by their disabilities, and they have had to develop different skills, but they do get there.
What can we learn from what men are able to tells us? A comment by Burton has survived his widow's destructive zeal. He observes that Pharaonic circumcision tends to have quite the opposite effect it strives to achieve. It does not dampen the sex drive in women, but tends to create a tendency toward sexual voraciousness in them instead. The removal of their sexual parts, he explains, makes it more difficult for them to achieve sexual satisfaction, hence it intensifies their desire.
Some of the women I interview do indeed volunteer that when they want more sex in the middle of the night, they bang pots and pans about to wake their husbands. A more direct approach is of course, not allowed to them. The pots and pans, they tell me, generally do have the desired effect, however. Their husbands understand perfectly.
Interviews with men who have had sexual relations with uncircumcised women as well as circumcised ones provide us with further insight. While Sudanese women are culturally bound to pretend that they do not experience orgasm, that they are unaware, in fact, that such a thing exists, most men seem able to determine when their wives reach climax. They can tell us also, that by their perception, orgasm takes longer to elicit, it appears to be less frequent, and they perceive it as less intense than in uncircumcised women or even in clitoridectomized women.
While delay in arousal and orgasmic infrequency can often be more or less accurately perceived by a sex partner, we must nonetheless have some reservations regarding the validity of a lowered orgasmic intensity. Cultural prohibitions imposed on these women obviously play a part in what is perceived by the men reporting this.
The comparison is based, after all, on an observer's perception. Ultimately, the only person that is able to judge the quality of an orgasm is the person who experiences it.
A surprisingly large percentage of women give glowing, highly credible descriptions of intense orgasmic experiences with their husbands. In these cases, the marriages are generally characterized by a high degree of sexual desire and intimacy.
Those women who report orgasmic difficulty or failure, on the other hand, almost invariably suffer from painful intercourse, depression, or anxiety. Their marital adjustment tends to be a poor one.
What can we learn from all of this? First of all the bad news: I truly wish that I could present you with some brilliantly cogent recommendations on how these cruel and mutilating rituals might be abolished with all due speed. Unfortunately, this is not within my power. Given the cultural context within which these ancient practices exist, I believe that it will continue to be exceedingly difficult to eradicate them. I do not visualize it happening within our lifetime and I very much hope that I am wrong. In time it may happen that the practitioners of these bloody rituals will gradually become convinced of their harmfulness, and that they will eventually abandon them. I have little doubt that before such a change can come about, the place of women in these societies will need to undergo considerable change. There is much work for us to do.
The good news for the sexologist, is that the findings of this study suggest that the sexual nervous system in women is a great deal more extensive, versatile and resilient than we have often assumed it to be. They also suggest that when women's primary erogenous zones are destroyed or damaged, remaining ones may be enhanced or new ones created. While for many women orgasm may be more difficult to achieve under these circumstances, it certainly appears to remain within the realm of feasibility. And not too surprisingly, mental and emotional factors appear to playa crucial role in making it possible.
The ways in which injuries heal, and the scar areas that result, are known to be subject to the vagaries of chance. The area may be left numb, it may become hypersensitive and painful, or it may manifest varying degrees of erogeneity.
The medical literature is replete with instances in which the human body has learned to compensate for seemingly insurmountable impairments. It would seem that this phenomenon is once more amply demonstrated in the various sexual adaptations of Pharaonically circumcised women.