Susan Mullen

In the last ten or 15 years, there has been a growing movement among men to reclaim the foreskin and to regard circumcision as a procedure that should not be done routinely. Female circumcision, more properly called female genital mutilation (fgm), is not done routinely in the West. It is done in some Islamic countries and some non-Islamic tribal cultures. The purpose of cultural fgm is to limit sexual pleasure in women. There is no reason of hygiene to excuse it. An excellent resource on cultural fgm is the book Warrior Marks by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar.

Another population group that is routinely mutilated genitally at birth is intersex people. Here my language gets crude, although I am quoting from resources put together by the intersex community. When a newborn shows genital characteristics both male and female, the common philosophy is that “it’s easier to make a hole than a pole”, and most intersex infants are surgically altered so that they appear female. Dosing with hormones and additional surgeries may follow. These surgeries and dosings are also done on healthy boy babies or toddlers who have been mutilated. A tragic example is the late David Reimer, whose circumcision was botched. Reimer was the subject of the book “As Nature Made Him” by John Colapinto, the story of the failed attempts by Reimer’s doctors and parents to make him into a girl, and his attempts to reclaim male identity.

The growing intersex activist community is making an attempt to convince doctors and other health professionals not to routinely mutilate intersex infants at birth, but only to make intervention that is needed for health reasons.

Another group that may be given a form of fgm at birth is otherwise normal girl babies, parts of whose genitals are webbed in some way. One or more surgeries may be done to restore normal, but webbed, female genitals.

FGM can range from “corrective” procedures such as removing webbing from the labia, to infibulation, which is the process of removing the labia and clitoris and sewing up the vagina so that only tiny openings for urine and menses are left, to so-called reconstructive surgery done on intersex infants and accidentally mutilated boys.

If there is anyone reading this who has the opinion that fgm is appropriate, I am here to say that it is not. I would believe that even if it were only an academic or political consideration. But for me it’s personal. I was subjected to fgm when I was a newborn. My labia were left intact but my clitoris was removed.

Feminists say with pride that the clitoris is the only part of the human body that exists solely for pleasure. To me, it is almost unspeakably criminal to remove a healthy clitoris for cosmetic reasons, which is what appears to have been done in my case. To that crime was added the crime of silence. I was not told what had been done.

I believe the fgm was done to me right after birth. The most information I’ve been able to get, since my earliest medical records were destroyed (something that happens often to intersex people) was that I was kept apart from my mother for the first eleven days of life. No explanation remains. My impending birth had caused the shotgun wedding of my parents, and there was no one who was looking forward to my arrival, no one who cared that I was kept isolated at first.

When puberty struck, I was hit with a relatively severe case of gender dysphoria. This is often the case with transsexuals – people who are born into one sex physically but who feel very strongly that they are the “opposite” sex. (Some people consider there to be more than two sexes, and I’m going to stick with just three – male, female, intersexual.) That was not true for me. I did not feel like I was a man trapped in a woman’s body. I felt like a freak trapped in a woman’s body. There wasn’t anyone I could talk to about it.

As a kid, I found that I was always more comfortable with sexual minority people. Even though I grew up in a very small town, there were sexual minority people there, even a few who were “out”. We always knew each other. Nowadays they call it “gaydar”, I don’t know what they called it back in the 1950’s, but it’s probably always been around in one form or another. Mine is not 100% accurate, but it’s maybe 98%, and I wonder about the other 2%.

The first “out” sexual minority person I met was a woman who lived as a man. She was about my mother’s age and had grown up in the same small town, although she lived on a private island in Hawaii when I met her. She had come back to the little town to visit, and I remember feeling a mysterious kindred with the woman. Something in her eyes. Like she was looking at me and recognizing me, even though I was a kid and she was an elder. Something we had in common transcended age and any other category that people put themselves into.

I didn’t even hear the word “clitoris” until I was in my late teens. Sex education for me was a book that had diagrams of male and female primary sex organs and a discussion of how babies get started and grow. Plus the usual indoctrination girls get about how not to be messy during menstruation. Nothing on sexual pleasure, either alone or with a partner. The usual nasty schoolyard jokes about nice girls versus good girls, and snide comments overheard about which girls were “easy”.

I became sexually active in the 1960’s. Living in the usual student arrangements, with thin or non-existent walls, I heard women making all sorts of noises during sex. Sometimes women would make comments about the orgasms they’d had. All that left me, ahem, cold, and once I heard the word “frigid” I decided that I must be that, although emotionally I didn’t feel frigid. My male partners were not helpful in that regard, since to this day I have not had a male partner who cared one way or the other, except to blame me if he noticed my lack of extreme response.

All along, I knew I was different. I didn’t even try to sort out the causes until I was in my late 40’s. I had my daughter when I was 22. The next 18 years, she came first, my job came second, and everything else got the leftovers. Then there were a couple of years when I was trying to get used to being alone again. Finally there came a time when I was able to start sorting some things out.

I started on the quest with a visit to my counselor. She helped me get motivated. I saw my family doctor. Her reaction was pretty much, “Hey, whatta ya know!” She gave me a referral to an endocrinology clinic. There I was seen by two doctors whose specialty was gynecological endocrinology (try saying that fast). They gave me a physical exam and a testosterone tolerance test. In that test they injected me with testosterone and had me sit for an hour to see if I turned into Mike Tyson. When I didn’t, they diagnosed me with idiopathic clitoromegaly. In plain language, that means that I was a normal woman who had apparently been born with a large but normal clitoris. Without my early medical records, that’s all they could say. The doctors did not think a complete chromosome test was indicated, so I didn’t get a referral for one, and would have to pay the $1000 or so it costs myself. Haven’t scraped that together yet. So that’s the medical version of what happened.

A legal note – I am not interested in suing anyone. Most of the people involved are dead. I don’t want to bankrupt the hospital where it was done. And I’m not angry. Maybe I should be, but I’m not. I just want respect for my circumstances, more information about my situation, and publicity for all women who have been or are at risk of being genitally mutilated.

It’s natural for a person to try to come up with a “why” when something big happens to them. Humans want explanations. I’m no exception.

On one hand, it’s easy for me to see myself as an intersexual. Not all intersexuals are sterile. From high school biology, we all remember that a normal woman has a chromosome identity of XX and a normal man has XY. Some men have XYY. There is a condition with the identity of XXY. Some XXY people present as male, some as female. In general, XXY males are sterile and XXY females may or may not be sterile. The condition of being an XXY has two syndromes – groups of characteristics, Turner’s if it’s a female and Kleinfelter’s if it’s a male. I don’t have Turner’s characteristics, and I have too many female characteristics to have Kleinfelter’s.

Could I have been a true hermaphrodite, born with functioning, normal male and female sex organs? One of the doctors who examined me said he didn’t think so, since the fgm that was performed on me was done at a small country hospital, and that hospital would not have had the facilities for the procedures used with a true hermaphrodite.

So far the possibilities are pretty reasonable, and easily proved or disproved by that $1000 chromosome test. What if I turned out to be a normal XX woman? After all, I am not sterile. I tested within the range of normal for a woman on the Mike Tyson test. My body functions as a woman’s body, even if I am tall and have a deep voice.

The main factors that make me think I could be intersexual are interior ones – the gender dysphoria I had as a kid, the empathy I feel with other sexual minority people, and the fact that I never have felt comfortable being forced into either the pink box or the blue box. That’s my shorthand expression for the way Western society insists on forcing everyone into one of two sexes. I knew I wasn’t a man, but the pink box just doesn’t fit either.

If I do turn out to be a normal XX, the possible explanations get really odd, even disturbing. Could the obstetrician who delivered me have been a sadistic woman-hater? Or did the obstetrician decide that if he left me intact, I would have so much pleasure from my normal, large clitoris that I would play with it all day rather than sit quietly and learn to be a nice girl?

Sexual minority people were among the first serious users of the Internet, and there are a lot of resources out there. I made some contacts and I also set up my own web page. I set it up on the “old” geocities, and it’s no longer available, but when it was, I got maybe 2 or 3 serious contacts a month from people who were interested in either learning more or in better understanding a friend who may have been given fgm.

Another contact I received when my web page was still available was a man who asked if I’d be interested in joining an email list he was on, the Restoration List for circumcised men who are restoring their foreskins. I asked the list’s moderator and he said I was very welcome, that there were a few other women on the list including at least one other woman who had been given fgm.

I’ve found a very welcoming community in the people of the Restoration List. I’ve also attended a local meeting of restorers, and I’ve found welcome there also. I’ve found that everyone who is making an effort to heal from genital mutilation has a deep kinship.

I feel compelled to reach out. All stories of genital mutilation need to be told. Genital mutilation is wrong.

I’m also hoping that by writing this I can start to get rid of some of the bad things from my past. The “family” in which I grew up was a very unhealthy one. The fact that I was never told by a family member that I had been subjected to fgm is just one of many instances of neglect. I was a very unhappy, depressed child. All my life I’ve been very sensitive and nervous, but as a kid all I ever got when I was upset was ridicule or physical punishment.

As I got older and was able to leave “home”, I had a lot of difficulty making and keeping friends. What a surprise – I had trouble trusting people! And I still do. I have trouble being physically close to others. I know that my emotional problems have had a result of hurting people who cared about me. People have given up trying to be my friend or my lover because of my inability to trust, my freezing up at even the most casual touch.

I’m tired of hurting people and of constantly feeling pain. Suicide has been a companion and a temptation most of my life. My first attempt took place when I was four years old. I was bulimic when I was five. I’m an alcoholic. My personal life is a joke. But something makes me keep going. I want to get beyond the silence and the secrets, into the light.

Susan Mullen