As Egypt is hitting the headlines because of a young girl dying from a Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) procedure going wrong, perhaps there are more than a few in the west – particularly in the US – who are considering themselves culturally superior. While it is a nice thought, it simply isn’t true. FGM does happen in the US, albeit illicitly. More importantly, the same general type of cultural trends that keep FGM in practice even when the procedure is outlawed are in play in the US as well.
It is important to remember that FGM is not a religious tradition. It is a cultural one, which in Egypt, is practiced by both Muslims and Christians. The point of the procedure is typically to prevent women from being promiscuous, or from even enjoying sex at all. While US Christians thankfully do not seem to think this is a good practice, they have some of their own issues when it comes to being sex negative.
My first exposure to the sex negative nature of many Christian sects was during my childhood, as I watched my mother and just about every other mother in the neighborhood get squeamish at just the thought of having “the talk” with their children. Judy Blume’s Forever… taught me more about sex than anything I ever heard from my mother. I would like to say that times have changed, but they really haven’t all that much. My own children know they can ask me anything about sex, and I’ll answer them. Unfortunately, based on what they tell me about their friends, I’m an exception, not the rule.
In spite of the immense amount of sexual content in the public eye daily, our society also spotlights sexual naiveté on a regular basis. Purity is prized in many circles, which is probably a good thing considering that it may prevent many of the negative consequences of early sexual activity. However, the by-product is over-mystification of human sexual behavior, or downright lies which depict sex as an evil act. Reality television shows this with teenage weddings, with young men who have no idea how sex works talking about losing their virginity on their wedding night. No one talked to them about sex, so they are left to talk with similarly inexperienced peers who are lucky if they are guided by advice from books.
The message there is even if you do the right thing, and wait for marriage, you’re still going to have to learn through trial and error, because sex isn’t supposed to be enjoyable – or something. That sentiment was pointed out by a young woman who cannot enjoy sex because she had been forced to have FGM when she was young. Karimjee told her story about being cut in Pakistan when she was a child, but also brought up a very disturbing thing about how her life in the US also contributed to her negative feelings about sex.
For quite some time that was true for Karimjee, who felt extreme rage toward her mother, in particular, for allowing her to be cut. After her family moved to the United States when she was 11, Karimjee went on to struggle with her parents’ justification for the decision, which she believes was based on harmful cultural views about desire.
But those views were not necessarily unique to her sect of Islam or other groups that practice FGM. Karimjee has found that spending her adolescence in a conservative, predominantly Baptist Texas suburb contributed to her complicated feelings about her own sexuality.
“It’s hard for me personally to reconcile the fact that my parents were fundamentally responsible for having me cut, but at the same time these were the same people who never made me feel sex was bad,” Karimjee said. “My parents never made me feel like sex was something I needed to be ashamed of. But my peers in high school definitely got that from their churches and their parents, and transferred that on to me.”
Regardless of the culture or religion, the majority of the time when there are sex negative statements and traditions being followed, they are aimed at women. Whether it is mutilating girls so that they never desire sex, or damaging them mentally to the point where they are frozen by guilt or shame at just the thought of talking openly about sex, the end goal is the same. This isn’t about morality, sin, or evil – it is about control, pure and simple. As for the west taking the moral high ground on the issue of FGM, there is an old adage for that – something about glass houses.