Have you met your clitoris?
By Aarefa Johari
If you are a woman familiar with your sexual anatomy, you would know it as the button-like growth of skin protruding above your urethra. If you enjoy playing with it for sexual arousal, you would know it as the organ that tingles with pleasure every time it’s stimulated.
If you are a Dawoodi Bohra woman, though, chances are your clitoris is more like a flattened stump of flesh. You might even be among those Bohras who know the organ as ‘haraam ni boti’ – a sinful lump of flesh that needed to be taken out to keep you pure.
I have no clear memory of when or how I first learnt about the existence of the clitoris, but it was probably around the time I realised that I did not have a ‘normal’ one. Like most other Bohra girls, I was subjected to the blade at the age of seven so that a part of my clitoris could be sliced off in a practice we call khatna. Female circumcision.
What was the purpose behind the ritual? All my mother knew, when she took me to the cutter, was that it was a religious obligation, done to girls just as it is done to boys. She had faith, so there must have been some good reason behind it. That good reason, a fellow Bohra later told her, was hygiene and health: female circumcision supposedly helps prevent diseases like uterine cancer (or, as doctors would call it, hogwash).
What part of my clitoris did I lose with that painful cut? How much, exactly? “I made sure only a very thin layer of skin was cut,” my mother told me when I was in my teens and started asking these questions.
How was I to react to this reassurance? By the time I was in college, I had read up enough about female genital cutting and female anatomy to know that the clitoris – that wonderful, fleshy button – exists solely for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Unlike the vagina, it has nothing to do with menstruation, conception or childbirth, but it has almost everything to do with the female orgasm. So should I have been relieved that I only lost a very thin layer of my clitoris, no serious damage done? Should I have been thankful, as many Bohras like to point out, that we don’t circumcise the ‘Africa’ way? Or should I have been furious that my most intimate parts were meddled with in the first place, completely without my consent?
Rage was my spontaneous reaction all those years ago, and it continues to fuel my decision to fight the practice of khatna among Bohras. This has also meant that the clitoris has occupied my thoughts for a good part of the past four or five years. For a long time, these were thoughts of frustration and uncertainty. What did an incomplete clitoris mean for me? Is it the reason I rarely feel the need to masturbate? Would it mean a lifetime of less pleasurable sex, compared to women with full, normal clitorises? How much less and how would I ever know? That was the most maddening realisation of all: without a frame of reference, I never really could know. Many Bohra women around me seemed quite content with their sex lives, but how would anyone who was cut as a child know what degree of adult pleasure they were missing out on, or if they were missing out at all?
It wasn’t until two or three years ago that I understood, more specifically, what part of my clitoris had faced the blade. It was the clitoral hood, the foreskin or prepuce that covers the clitoral glans in the same way that the male foreskin covers the penis. The clitoris and penis are essentially equivalents of each other, born from the same genital tissue of a foetus as it develops into either a girl or a boy. I still don’t know whether I lost a part or my entire hood during my circumcision, because the prepuce, much like the clitoral glans, has no uniform size. For some women, the folds of the hood almost completely hide the button-like glans; for others, the hood is barely there.
But that variation doesn’t seem to matter to the Bohras who believe all seven-year-old girls must be cut. When I started questioning Bohra women about the purpose behind khatna, the most common reasons I came across were either “it is in the religion” or “it moderates the female sexual urge”. But in the past couple of years, I have come across some who claim the opposite – that khatna involves exposing the clitoris by slicing off the tip of the clitoral hood, so the ritual actually serves to enhance sexual pleasure. The same thing, they say, is now an acceptable surgical procedure in the West, called “clitoral unhooding”. So why make a fuss about losing a bit of the hood?
Well, one reason is glaringly obvious, but conveniently glossed over by Bohra champions of the “unhooding” argument: surgical clitoral unhooding is something that adult, sexually experienced women may choose to get done if they happen to have either too much prepuce tissue, or a very small clitoral glans – and if these problems happen to make it difficult for them to achieve orgasms. The key points here are informed consent, adulthood and the presence of specific conditions that deviate from the average features of the clitoris. Otherwise, the hood exists for a very good purpose – protecting the sensitive glans from injury or over-stimulation.
I didn’t even know any of this until some Bohra women asked me to read up about clitoral unhooding, and far from making me feel good about my circumcision (as they had hoped), what I read plagued me with more questions. Is my clitoris less protected than normal? Does unhooding imply more pleasure during sex, or more vulnerability to pain? Or both? And what about the many Bohra women who have lost more than the just tip of the hood at the hands of medically untrained cutters? What if I was one of them? What if I was born with very little prepuce tissue and the cut ended up taking away a part of my glans too?
Looking for answers to these questions has been harder than I thought, and not just because there is a serious dearth of research on the relation between female circumcision and sexual experience. The real problem is that the clitoris has been given almost no voice in our cultural – or even personal – conversations about sex. For an organ that is as much a ‘gateway’ to sexual heaven as the vagina, it has been severely neglected and marginalised, almost uncharted on the biological map. Circumcised or not, few women seem to pay attention to their clitoris, and this is not just a problem unique to the Indian culture I grew up in.
Did you know, for instance, that what you see as your pink pleasure button is really just the tip of the clitoral iceberg? That most of the clitoris is actually an internal organ, much bigger than what meets the eye as our external genitalia? If you didn’t know this, it’s probably because this anatomical fact was discovered (at least by the world of modern medicine) only in 1998, just eighteen years ago. The discovery was made by Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist, who found it odd that anatomy textbooks contained intricate details about male sexual anatomy, but very little about the women.
Her findings were astonishing, and here’s a quick, colloquial anatomy lesson based on them: externally, the clitoris consists only of the clitoral hood, whose folds protect the glans – the literal tip of the clitoris that is a bundle of thousands of nerve endings. Internally, however, the erectile glans extends several centimetres deep before branching out into a large wishbone-like structure known as the ‘corpus cavernosa’. Each arm of the V-shaped wishbone ends with more erectile tissue known as the ‘clitoral crus’. And finally, there are the two vestibular or clitoral bulbs, located behind the walls of the vagina. Like the other parts of the clitoris, the bulbs are also made of erectile tissue that fill with blood during sexual arousal and result in a clitoral erection.
As a whole, the complete clitoris looks quite like an inverted flower, large and beautiful.
I discovered all of this barely a year ago, when the Huffington Post’s brilliant web project, called ‘Cliteracy’, showed up on my Facebook timeline. The project is about ‘The overdue, under-told story of the clitoris’, an educational tribute to an organ that has been misunderstood, vilified or just ignored through much of Western medical history, and was actually erased from the 1948 edition of Gray’s Anatomy, one of the most authoritative textbooks of human anatomy.
At this point, I can’t help thinking of the parallels to the non-Western world, to cultures that have practiced various forms of female genital cutting for hundreds or thousands of years, before Islam or Christianity were born. Our ancestors must have been aware of the nature and purpose of the clitoris. Since so many cultures cite sexual control as the reason behind circumcision, our forefathers must have made an informed decision to cut the clitoris and numb the erectile tissue. And today, at least among the Bohras, most women don’t even know what part of their genitals was circumcised. Because of the secrecy surrounding the ritual, anatomical awareness about the clitoris seems to have been erased.
But what about women who are not circumcised or those who come from communities that do not practice any genital cutting? Eighteen years after O’Connell’s discovery of the full clitoris, in the age of the Internet, what do women actually know about their clitoris? Do they engage with it or enjoy it? I sought answers to these questions the convenient way: by turning to a dozen friends – both Bohra and non-Bohra, cut and uncut – and asking them, “Do you have a relationship with your clitoris?” This was, of course, completely unscientific research, but my ‘findings’ took me by surprise.
“I have no relationship with my clitoris,” at least five of my friends told me. All of them are in their 20s, only one of them is circumcised. They know where the organ is located and, because of general reading about sex, know that it is meant for sexual pleasure, but they never particularly feel the need to touch it, play with it or masturbate.
Many of the women I spoke to were in their mid or late teens when they first learnt about the existence and location of the clitoris, predominantly through encyclopaedias, biology books or reading online. Three of them had used a mirror in the bathroom to see their own clitoris. Some didn’t learn anything about it till much later. “Till I was 17, I thought my clitoris was my vagina,” said one non-Bohra friend. “Despite sex education in my convent school, I didn’t know anything about what was down there.”
Like me, two of my circumcised friends learnt about the organ only when they were old enough to realise that theirs had been removed. One of them was an adult by the time she learnt to shrug off the negativity she had come to associate with the clit. “Actually, the play Vagina Monologues helped me to perceive it in a positive light – that it is beautiful like a flower and is natural,” she said.
Whether or not they were cut, most of my friends said they do not generally feel the impulse to engage with their clitoris. Almost all of them have theoretical knowledge that it is meant for sexual arousal, but in practice, only two claimed to enjoy frequent masturbation, actively stimulating the organ in order to give themselves orgasms. One of them is circumcised, the other is not.
Even when it came to orgasms during sex, there didn’t seem to be many differences in the responses of my cut and uncut friends. Most are not sure if they’ve ever had a “real” orgasm, and merely asking that question led to animated discussions as my friends shared notes with each other. Most of my friends are satisfied with their sex lives, but definitions of satisfaction differ. Some friends, for instance, consciously ask their partners to pay attention to the clitoris, irrespective of circumcision. Others simply don’t talk about the clitoris with their partners. “There is no need to,” said one, who is cut. “I have seen many diagrams of the clitoris but I have not been able to relate to it,” said another, who is not cut. “I still think that the vaginal opening is where we feel the most desire and I’m quite satisfied with it.”
Admittedly, I have felt some relief to hear that the sexual experiences of my circumcised friends don’t differ much from those of my clitorally “whole” friends. Like me, the circumcised women I spoke to had also been through the mildest form of khatna, so perhaps I didn’t have much to worry about.
But shouldn’t we, as a culture, be asking why women have such limited knowledge or interest in the clitoris? It is the only organ dedicated to giving us sexual pleasure – it literally serves no other purpose. So why shouldn’t we have a culture that enables us to enjoy it? Why shouldn’t more of us have a relationship with our clitoris?
Aarefa Johari is a journalist and FGM activist based in Mumbai. She is the co-founder of Sahiyo, an organisation seeking to change the narrative of FGM worldwide. She writes regularly for Scroll.in
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.