Yael (Yuli) Tamir - Hands Off Clitoridectomy - What our revulsion reveals
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review
[Yuli Tamir, the Left wing (Labor Party) activist who was Minister of
Absorption in the Barak Administration now heads the Rabin Center For Israel