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Hands Off Clitoridectomy

What our revulsion reveals about ourselves.

Yael Tamir

Not since Masters and Johnson has the clitoris -- or its absence -- been a topic of such intense debate. In discussions about multiculturalism, clitoridectomy is now the trump card, taking over the role once played by cannibalism, slavery, lynchings, or the Indian tradition of Sati: "Is this the kind of tradition you would like to protect?" liberals ask embarrassed multiculturalists, who immediately qualify their cultural pluralism. Clitoridectomy defines the boundary between us and them, between cultures we can tolerate and those we must condemn.

Clitoridectomy is obviously a deplorable practice. It is, among other things, an extremely painful, traumatizing mutilation of young girls that leaves them permanently disfigured and deprived of sexual enjoyment. We should express no sympathy toward those who practice it, and support those who struggle to end it.
But we also should be suspicious about the role of clitoridectomy in current political debate. Despite their liberal appearance, references to clitoridectomy commonly reveal a patronizing attitude toward women, suggesting that they are primarily sexual beings. Moreover, those references involve a certain degree of dishonesty. They intentionally widen the gap between our culture and those in which clitoridectomy is practiced, thus presenting those other cultures as incommensurable with ours. The effect of this distancing is to disconnect criticism of their practices from criticism of our own, and turn reflection on other cultures into yet another occasion for celebrating our special virtues. We should resist such self-congratulation. And if we do, the debate about clitoridectomy takes on an entirely different cast.
But when is
the body improved
and when is it
mutilated? In
most cases, the
answer depends on
one's conception
of beauty.

The most straightforward objection to clitoridectomy is that it is a painful procedure, imposed on young girls, and performed in conditions which could lead to permanent damage. This is all true, and part of what makes the practice so objectionable. But it could not be the whole of the matter. After all, removing a tooth is also a painful procedure, often imposed on children, and if performed in non-hygienic conditions, it can produce permanent damage. But we are not horrified and disgusted by evidence that such treatments are the norm in some parts of the world, and that many children suffer greatly as a result.

Moreover, we are all aware of painful practices of body piercing, tattooing, and abnormal elongation of lips, ear lobes, and necks. National Geographic runs cover photos of women and men who have undergone such severe malformations, not in protest but as a neutral representation of other ways of life with their different conceptions of beauty. So hostility to clitoridectomy is not driven principally by concerns about physical suffering. Those who object to it would be no less hostile if it were performed in hygienic conditions under anesthesia.

It might be said that these examples are all irrelevant as they do not include the mutilation of the body. But when is the body improved and when is it mutilated? Are parents who force their children to wear braces mutilating their children's teeth or improving them? In most cases, the answer depends on one's conception of beauty. Because we tend to see straight, white teeth as beautiful, and a sign of good health, we spend lots of money inflicting pain and inconvenience upon our children to achieve this goal. To be sure, parents say (sincerely) that these treatments will improve their children's life chances, self-image, and social standing. But parents who perform clitoridectomy on their daughters invoke precisely the same arguments.

Furthermore, it seems clear that Western conceptions of female beauty encourage women to undergo a wide range of painful, medically unnecessary, and potentially damaging processes -- extreme diets, depilation, face lifts, fat pumping, silicone implants. Of course, adult women do these things to their own bodies, and, it is said, their decisions are freely made. But would our gut reaction to female circumcision be very different if it were performed on consenting adults? It is not unlikely that girls at the age of 13 or 14, who are considered in traditional societies as adults mature enough to wed and bear children, would "consent" to the mutilation of their bodies if they were convinced that marriage and children were contingent on so doing. Many women who followed the tradition of Sati seemed to do it as a matter of choice. Did their "consent" make this tradition defensible? Women "consent" to such practices because the alternative is even more painful -- a life of solitude, humiliation, and deprivation.

One may argue that these traditions are objectionable because their persistence fosters false consciousness, which in turn leads women to make such choices. But our own culture fosters false beliefs of a similar kind. According to Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, some 75 percent of women aged 18-35 believe that they are fat, whereas only 25 percent are medically overweight.1 Still more heartbreaking is the fact that the majority of the 30,000 women who responded to a Glamour questionnaire preferred losing 10-15 pounds to success in work or in love. So the fostering of such beliefs cannot differentiate their culture from our own and explain our hostility to it.

Perhaps, then, we object to clitoridectomy because it is performed on minors. But think of the parents in our culture who foster in their daughters bad eating habits that might destroy their teeth or their vital organs, or, in more tragic cases, lead to life-threatening eating disorders. Are we ready to judge these parents as harshly as we judge parents who require clitoridectomies?

In both cases, parents sincerely believe that they are serving the interests of their children and allowing them to live what is, according to their conception of the good, a meaningful life. Both cases may thus be taken to demonstrate that parents are not the most trustworthy guardians of their children, but why should one case be more harshly judged than the other?

Because clitoridectomy is permanent, whereas other undesirable outcomes are reversible? Yet irreversibility is a problem only if the outcome is undesirable. In what way are the consequences of clitoridectomy undesirable?

The common answer is that clitoridectomy damages women's sexual organs, thus depriving them of sexual enjoyment -- a basic need, perhaps even a right. One may wonder, however, when precisely our society became so deeply committed to women's sexual enjoyment.

As we know -- from Masters and Johnson to the Hite report -- many women in our own society rarely, if at all, experience sexual enjoyment. We are also aware that many features of our society turn women against their own bodies and encourage them to suppress their sexuality. The high frequency of rapes or attempted rapes, childhood sexual abuse, the battering of women, and exposure to pornography limits women's sexual expression and enjoyment. Bodily self-hatred, encouraged by the introduction of unrealizable standards of beauty -- teenage models, Barbie dolls, or even children's fairy-tales -- fosters frustration and feelings of inadequacy.

From Cinderella to Lady D., from Playboy to children's cartoons, the ideal woman is portrayed as a thin, delicate creature with large breasts, a narrow waist, and a limited intellect. Those who do not measure up may spend a lifetime of "self-improvement" and encounter permanent feelings of failure and disgust. Feminists have argued that these phenomena have devastating effects on the ability of women to enjoy sex, and yet very little is done in our society to change the nature of this oppressive reality. Perhaps, then, we are not as committed to assuring women the ability to experience sexual enjoyment as we seem to be when we condemn clitoridectomy.

The difference may be that the damage to women's sexual lives is an unintended consequence of the undesirable features of our own society, whereas this is the aim of clitoridectomy. Perhaps the intentionality makes the act particularly repellent. If so, we should be much less forgiving of parents who, for religious reasons, teach their daughters that sex in general and masturbation in particular are obscene, thus eliciting fear and revulsion at sexual activities. This damage may be psychological rather than physical. But if limited sexual enjoyment is the issue, why should the particular nature of the harm matter so much? It is indeed a striking feature of our society that we are so much more liberal with parents who inflict permanent psychological damage on their children than with parents who slap them or do not take proper care of their clothing or personal hygiene. The different ways in which we react to visible and invisible damages is disturbing; though our reaction to visible injuries is based on aesthetic as well as moral disgust, it is inconsistent with what we know of the severity of mental injuries.

We come closer to the reason why arguments against clitoridectomy are so troubling if we focus on what is special about sex organs. An implicit assumption in these arguments is that if there were no physiological barrier to sexual enjoyment, women's lives would greatly improve. But perhaps we should remind ourselves that women are not merely sexual agents, that their ability to lead rich and rewarding lives does not depend solely on the nature of their sex life. Are we moving from an age in which female orgasms could not be publicly discussed, in which women were supposed to "endure" sex for the sake of childbearing, to one in which the right to multiple orgasms will be the principal emblem of women's liberation?

One cannot help thinking that the gut reaction of many men against clitoridectomy reflects the fact that in our society the sexual enjoyment of women is seen as a measure of the sexual power and achievements of men. Men in our society are more intimidated by women who do not enjoy orgasms than by those who do. In societies in which clitoridectomies are performed, men are more intimidated by women who do enjoy their body and their sexuality. In both cases, a masculine yardstick measures the value of female sexuality.

It is important to remember that the first champion of women's right to sexual pleasure, the sexologist Havelock Ellis, strongly opposed women's social liberation. He opposed women's employment outside the home, and firmly believed that "every healthy woman ought to exercise her productive function at least once in her lifetime, and asserted that women's brains were in a certain sense . . . in their womb."2 The right of women to enjoy their sexuality, he argued, was independent of their right to equal standing in the society; the former right, he thought, was to be seen as prior to, or worse, a substitute for, a whole set of political and economic freedoms.

A fulfilling sex life is certainly one good, but there are others. Nuns take an oath of celibacy, but we do not usually condemn the church for preventing its clergy from enjoying an active sex life. Moreover, most of us do not think that Mother Teresa is leading a worse life than Chichulina, though the latter claims to have experienced an extensive number of orgasms.

It is true that nuns are offered spiritual life in exchange for earthly goods, but in the societies where clitoridectomy is performed, the fulfilling life of motherhood and child bearing are offered in exchange. Some may rightly claim that one can function as a wife and a mother while still experiencing sexual pleasures. Others believe that full devotion to God does not require an oath of celibacy. Yet these views are, after all, a matter of convention. Hence, the problem with clitoridectomy cannot be the deprivation of sexual experiences.

A thought experiment might be helpful here. Suppose that anthropologists discover a new tribe in the woods of Libidia. In this tribe young females who reach the age of sexual maturity are forced to go through a ceremony in which their clitoris is manipulated in a way that they are more likely to experience lengthy and extremely enjoyable orgasms. The ceremony is quite pleasant, performed by women, and not at all humiliating.

As a result, the women of Libidia turn nymphomaniac. Consequently, they lack the concentration needed to perform any serious task. They drop out of school, have limited career prospects, and become completely dependent on male support. Hence, women are marginalized socially, economically, and politically: They own no property, hold no political or economic positions, do not participate in the political process, and have no social influence.

In protest against this tradition, members of a feminist group decide to undergo clitoridectomy. They follow the Amazons, who, according to legend, would amputate their right breast to be able to comfortably carry quivers and be free in the exercise of warfare. In mutilating themselves, the women of Libidia free themselves of any reliance on men and are able to pursue their social and political goals. Sexual enjoyment, they argue, is important, but experiencing it is no assurance of living a meaningful life. Is there anything wrong with such a practice?

Sexual enjoyment has acquired a mythical status in our society, advocated both as the most sublime and most corruptive pleasure. Advocates of clitoridectomy see the corruption: Performing clitoridectomy will restrict the sexual desires of women, thereby turning them into more chaste and righteous wives and mothers. They believe that the pursuit of sexual pleasures may lead a person astray, and that women are more likely to be influenced by such desires and act unscrupulously.

Both assumptions are also well grounded in the Western tradition. The failure to control the pursuit of sexual pleasures was seen by religious thinkers, as well as by many secular liberals, as undermining virtue, fostering bad habits and pernicious behavior, and hindering the possibility of true love (either of God or of other human beings). In the Christian tradition celibacy was affirmed as the highest ideal, and "sex within marriage was regarded as an evil necessary for the continuation of the species."3

But if we will object
to clitoridectomy on
socio-political grounds
-- yet another way
of oppressing women --
the argument will
have clear implications
for our own society.

The assumption that women are weak-willed and feeble-minded is also well founded in Western schools of thought. From Plato to Kant to Kohlberg, a long line of philosophers and social thinkers has urged that women are naturally lighthearted, prone to temptation, and therefore less able to practice self-restraint and think in moral terms. More likely than men to be corrupted, they need special guidance, restraint, and protection. Freud added that women who require clitoral stimulus are victims of arrested development. Mature individuals redirect their sexual desires "into creativity in the arts, sciences, politics, business, religion, and other non-sexual activities. Repression takes its toll on the individual psyche, but a necessary toll. Repression is civilization.4
What is wrong with this attitude toward female sexuality -- whether expressed by clitoridectomy, the Libidian tradition, or our own culture -- is its social purpose: to use sex as a means of subjecting women and depriving them of their chance to participate in society as equals. The major problem with clitoridectomy, then, is socio-political. Clitoridectomy is yet another way of oppressing women and locking them at home, of seeing them as the producers of children and as a source of pleasure to others. But if we will object to clitoridectomy on these grounds, the argument will seem very familiar, and will have clear implications for our own society.

Michael Walzer has argued that every morality has both a thin universal dimension and a thick contextualized content.5 The same is true of wickedness. Societies discriminate, dominate, and abuse their members in various ways, but there is something common to all expressions of oppression. We should place this core aspect, repeated in all traditions in different forms, at the center of our criticism. In the cases discussed here, it is not a particular practice but a set of ill-motivated efforts to control the sexuality of women and to restrict their ability to compete for social and political resources that we should find reprehensible.

Does the overwhelming disgust at clitoridectomy signal an emerging social commitment to structural change -- to ensuring equal social, economic, and political status for women? I'm afraid not. Of course, the absence of such commitment is no justification for clitoridectomy. My purpose, however, is not to justify clitoridectomy, but to expose the roots of the deep hostility to it -- to reveal the smug, unjustified self-satisfaction lurking behind the current condemnation of clitoridectomy. Referring to clitoridectomy, and emphasizing the distance of the practice from our own conventions, allows us to condemn them for what they do to their women, support the struggle of their women against their primitive, inhuman culture, and remain silent on the status of women in our society.

exchanges raise
acute concerns
because they
confront us with
our own deficiencies.

It is time, then, to hold off on using the example of clitoridectomy. But this discussion also carries a more fundamental implication for current debate on multiculturalism. As I indicated at the outset, too often and too easily this debate produces condemnations of cultures other than our own. We do not usually discuss the way different cultures oppress women and compare our modes of oppression to theirs, but instead we ask, completely oblivious to our own vices, How can they do that to them? Yet as we have seen, their cultures show considerable continuity with ours.

Multicultural exchanges raise acute concerns not because they point to the incommensurability of cultures, or the impossibility of cross-cultural conversation, but because they confront us with our own deficiencies. Through them we are able to identify the roots of our own prejudices and injustices and see the devastating outcomes that may issue from them. One way to counter the anxiety such exchanges may incite is to concentrate on practices that appear to be as distant from our own tradition as possible. When we look closely at these practices, the differences start to fade. It is thus time to approach multicultural exchanges with a sharper vision of our own vices, and see the multicultural debate less as a way to understand them and correct their ways than as a way to understand and improve our own culture.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review

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