FGM in the USA – a forgotten phenomenon: an interview with Sarah Rodriguez

 by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik e.V. – Female Circumcision and clitoridectomy were a quite common practice in the United States during 150 years. So FGM is not just an “African” phenomenon. The historian Sarah Rodriguez cast light on this dark side of history. I interviewed her about her book and her research about FGM in the USA, a forgotten story. 
Milena Rampoldi: Why did you decide to investigate Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States?
Sarah Rodriguez: When I was an undergraduate student, I read Alice Walker’s 1992 fictional story, Possessing the Secret of Joy. For those unfamiliar with the novel, it is the story of Tashi, an American who is also a member of a fictional African tribe, her decision as an adult to undergo female circumcision in an effort to reconnect with her heritage, and then how she tries to come to terms with having been circumcised. What piqued my interest, though, was when Tashi met a white woman in the United States who lost her clitoris as a child at the hands of a physician in the early 20th century who used the procedure to treat her for masturbation. I was surprised by this part of the story, and initially thought Walker had made this up. But, being both curious and in need of a research paper that semester for a women’s studies class I was taking, I went looking in old medical journals for references to clitoridectomy as a therapy for masturbation. And I found some – actually, far more than I anticipated I would find. Intrigued, I ended up not only writing a paper on this for my class, but also writing on the topic for my undergraduate honors thesis. I eventually wrote a book: Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States: A History of a MedicalTreatment.


MR: For me personally fighting FGM is an important aspect of being a feminist. Which are the main reasons of the diffusion of female circumcision in the USA?

SR: First, some context: in the United States, female circumcision as performed by physicians entailed removing the clitoral hood (also known as the foreskin of the clitoris), but the clitoris itself remained. When clinicians performed clitoridectomy, they removed the external nub of the organ. The clitoris is principally an internal organ that extends, rather in the shape of a wishbone, underneath the labia; physicians removed the external part of this organ (for visualization, the connecting part of the wishbone) when they performed clitoridectomy.
Second, it is impossible to verify how often these procedures – as they were both simple and quick to perform, and could be done in a physician’s office – were used to treat girls and women in the United States. Because of this, I am uncertain how common it was for a physician to use either procedure. It is, however, highly unlikely that either female circumcision or clitoridectomy were performed in the United States as commonly as what is typically regarded as FGC has been performed outside the United States.
Finally, in order to understand the use of female circumcision and clitoridectomy in the United States, one must know something about the history of ideas and beliefs about what was regarded as culturally and medically ‘appropriate’ female sexual behavior in this country. A brief overview of that history is below, in response to question three.
MR: Why is it important to investigate the past of women’s mutilation to fight for a better future for women?
SR: I am, I suppose, biased here, since I am a historian, so I strongly value historical knowledge, and fundamentally believe one must understand the past to understand the present as well as the future. We can’t really understand an issue, especially complicated issues, without understanding why they are even an issue, and for this we need to look at history.
I am not the first to have written about these practices within American medicine; a handful of other scholars and activists had before me mentioned how American physicians performed both. Mostly, though, these scholars limited their examination to: 1) the late 19th or early 20th century; 2) as therapy for masturbation or nymphomania (the terms sometimes overlapped in the late 19th century); and 3) framed the medical use of the procedures as either misogynistic practices, or, at the very least, as based on an ignorance of female bodies. This frame, however, doesn’t fully account for why they were used as therapy, nor does it account for how long they were used as therapy.
First, some physicians performed female circumcision and/or clitoridectomy well beyond the late 19th century as treatment for masturbation: as illustration, the last published reference I found regarding the use of clitoridectomy to treat masturbation in girls was in the 1960s.
Second, masturbation was not the only sexually problematic behavior for which physicians treated women by performing female circumcision: physicians also removed the clitoral hood as a therapy for a lack of (marital) orgasm in heterosexual women. The first published use of female circumcision for this reason dates to the 1890s, and female circumcision continues today to be offered to enable orgasm during penetrative, heterosexual sex. (Note that to promote orgasm, only female circumcision was used.)
But how does this make sense – that the same operation, here female circumcision – was used for what appears to be fundamentally different reasons: the cessation of orgasm from masturbation, at one end, and the encouragement of orgasm during sex with one’s husband on the other? Some physicians acknowledged this seeming paradox. In his 1942 book, Goodrich Schauffler, a Portland, Oregon physician who believed in the merits of circumcising girls, noted that when circumcision was used in men and girls it was meant to “diminish the sensibility of the glans,” whereas in “the adult female” the “scientific intention of circumcision is the exact opposite; in other words, to untent the clitoris is thought to increase the woman’s sensitiveness to sexual contact.”[1]
The use of female circumcision makes sense here if one sees the use of the procedure as based in, as Schauffler wrote, ‘scientific intention’ or scientific knowledge: use of the procedure was based on medical understanding of the clitoris as important if not central to female sexuality. The clitoris was regarded as a sexually significant organ, but, if women acted sexually (or failed to act sexually) according to cultural expectations, some physicians looked to the clitoris as the reason.
During the 150 years I examined in my book, sexual behavior outside the confines of married heterosexual intercourse was widely regarded as deviant, abnormal, and unhealthy, particularly for women who were white, born in the United States, and from the middle to upper class. When girls and women masturbated or did not have an orgasm with their husband during sex, they were not acting according to this culturally important sexual script. And some physicians – often, it should be noted, at the request of parents or the women themselves, who also obviously also regarded their behavior as problematic – sought to treat the condition by removing all or part of the clitoris.
By knowing the long history of the use of female circumcision and clitoridectomy in the United States as a medical treatment that both reflected and reinforced a culturally important sexual script, and by incorporating this history into international discussions of FGC, we can perhaps more readily make connections.
MR: I think we should work for a de-culturisation of FGM to show that it happened in many countries. What do you think about this idea?
SR: I think I understand where you are coming from, but I think this subject has become too simplified, at least in the American popular understanding. I would argue rather for a larger dialogue about culture, and the ways procedures that fall under the term FGM have occurred across cultures and times. And I hope this would then open up a discussion about why certain practices are considered FGM while others are not.
MR: Which are the best strategies to fight FGM today all over the world by starting from the reasons why it is practiced?SR: As a historian, I don’t feel well qualified to answer this question, other than to say I think the American historical use for the procedures needs to be part of the discussion.
MR: What are the most important conclusions you have drawn until now, and what would you like to investigate in the near future?
SR: I think one of the most important conclusions to come out of my work is the simple fact that these procedures occurred in the United States.

[1] Goodrich C. Schauffler, Pediatric Gynecology (Chicago: Year Book, 1942), 50.