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ITALY: Sexual Consequences of Female Initiation Rites in Africa

Here’s another expert with answers for the Lab readers who have been debating female initiation rites in Africa. Lucrezia Catania is a gynecologist and sexologist in Florence, Italy, at the Research Center for Preventing and Curing Complications of FGM/C (Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting). For more than two decades, the center has been treating women who have undergone these procedures, especially those with complications from the type called infibulation.

Dr. Catania considers the various forms of FGM/C to be a violation of human rights. She has worked to discourage these procedures and to promote alternative “symbolic” initiation rites that don’t have lasting effects. But she’s also concerned that the Westerners promoting “zero tolerance” policies are inadvertently hurting some women in Africa, and immigrants from Africa, because the opponents don’t understand these rituals and their consequences.

Dr. Catania says that she and her colleagues were surprised themselves at the results of four studies they published last year, in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, examining the sexual responses and attitudes of women who had undergone various forms of FGM/C. The majority of the women in the study had undergone infibulation, an extreme (and relatively uncommon) form of genital alteration in which part or all of the external genitalia are excised and the vaginal opening is partially sealed. (Dr. Catania notes that in the various forms of FGM/C, when an external part of the clitoris is excised, an internal portion of it remains because it is not possible to uproot the entire organ.)

Here’s a summary that Dr. Catania wrote for Lab readers of the investigation:

Our findings suggest, without doubt, that healthy ” mutilated”/”circumcised” women who did not suffer grave long-term complications and who have a good and fulfilling relationship, may enjoy sex and have no negative impact on psychosexual life (fantasies, desire and pleasure, ability to experience orgasm ).

The majority of the interviewed women reported that sex gives them pleasure. Women claiming to achieve orgasm described the effects that characterize the greatest moment of pleasure that they would define as orgasm giving detailed descriptions: involuntary pleasurable rhythmic contractions of the vagina, pulsations of internal genitals, and the feeling of warmth all over the face and the body.

The possibility of FGM/C women enjoying sex represents an enigma for Western people. At the beginning of our investigation, we were incredulous regarding the results we had obtained. Human sexuality depends on a complex interaction of cognitive processes, relational dynamics, and neurophysiological and biochemical mechanisms.

The cultural meaning of the FGM/C in the samples of the present studies was often positively connoted because the women who went through this dangerous experience felt heroic, honorable, and special. Some women reported fearful childhood memories and displeasure with their present condition; nevertheless, the vast majority of them reported feelings of happiness the day after the operation and showed pride in their present condition. Also, the body image/genital image is culturally influenced: women in the present studies considered the intact genitals awful and dirty, and they considered women with intact genitals not fully female, with a highly developed sexuality, and they believed that uncircumcised women cannot be faithful.

Surprisingly, the same study on sexuality conducted on the new generation (young girls with various types of FGM/C) reported presence of orgasm but with less frequency compared with the group of adults. These young ladies were living in Italy but had been circumcised/infibulated in their country during childhood. As children in their own country, they experienced positive feelings about FGM/C and a sense of female completeness; they lived in a setting of social acceptance, felt family love and thought that FGM/C was “something that testified beauty and courage.”

Growing up in Western countries, their experience was transformed and given negative meanings: female mutilation, social stigma; they were depicted as victims of family violence and barbarity. Their sense of beauty changed into ugliness. The social stigmatization and the negative messages from the media regarding their “permanently destroyed” sexuality provoke negative expectations on the possibility of experiencing sexual pleasure and provoke negative feelings about their own body image. The social criticism and the negative cultural meaning regarding their experience cause distortion of their cultural values and they undergo a sort of “mental/psychological” infibulation which could result in iatrogenic sexual dysfunction.

In FGM/C women, when their culture makes them live their “alteration/modification/mutilation” as a positive condition, orgasm is experienced. When there is a cultural conflict, the frequency of the orgasm is reduced even if the anatomical and physiological conditions make it possible. Sexologists should pay attention to sexual education when it is conditioned by cultural influence as it can change the perception of pleasure and can inhibit orgasm.

Dr. Catania says that it’s difficult for these African immigrants to get proper medical help in the West because so many doctors and researchers misunderstand their situation. “Many researchers are scared of saying that women with FGM/C can experience a normal sexuality; others refuse to accept this idea, considering it impossible a priori,” Dr. Catania says. “But responsible doctors need to become aware of real effects–not just imagined ones–caused by FGM/C, which are quite variable.” Many women decline to accept medical help, she says, because of the hostility and ignorance they encounter.

Dr. Catania and Dr. Abdulcadir Omar Hussen, the head of the center in Florence, worked with Somalian women in Italy to devise a cultural compromise for immigrant families that could not be persuaded, despite education programs, to give up their tradition of “circumcision.” This alternative “symbolic” circumcision devised by the Somalian women, Dr. Catania explains, was a hospital procedure that “involves a light prick (puncture) with a small needle on the mucous membrane which covers the clitoris after a local and transitory anesthetic. The very light ‘lesion’ will heal in a few hours without complications.”

This compromise was endorsed by a regional bioethics committee, Dr. Catania says, but it was ultimately never offered because of opposition from zero-tolerance advocates and criticism in the press that it amounted to a “soft” infibulation. (For a parallel case in America, see this account of a Seattle hospital’s attempt to introduce a similar compromise, which was also rejected after a public outcry.)

“It is clear,” Dr. Catania says, “that many many journalists and some institutional representatives do not have adequate information about this topic.”

SOURCE: The New York Times

AUTHOR: John Tierney

URL: Click here

DATE: 20/01/2008


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