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No Pleasure for Women in a Land of Genital Mutilation

Michelle Kaufman is a researcher that focuses on sexual behavior in the developing world. She globe trots regularly, conducting ethnographic work all along the way in order to inform both the quantitative and qualitative research that she conducts. Recently, Michelle spent several weeks in Ethiopia teaching research methods at Jimma University. During that time she learned a lot about how Ethiopians view sex and female circumcision.

Spend a few weeks with 20-something year old men on a university campus and the topic of sex is bound to come up. I was teaching a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia recently, whose student population is 90% male. True to form, once the students learned of my research background in sexual relationships, they eagerly started asking questions. I did the same.

The young men in my class are fairly modern and socially liberal in their thinking. For example, they engage in pre-marital sex and often watch pornography online. But Ethiopia has a very patriarchal system in which the man of the household makes all of the decisions. One of my students, as part of his final project, completed a series of interviews with men on the topic of male involvement in family planning. His data confirmed this patriarchy—Ethiopian men have a lot of control over their partners, including their sexual health.

But what struck me most in Ethiopia was the number of men who complained about Ethiopian women not being “active” during sex—meaning the women tend to just lie there and wait for the act to be over. This was especially true (and unsatisfying) for men who have watched pornography and/or had experience with other partners and saw the potential for women to actually enjoy sex. In addition, women only want to have sex in the dark so that their bodies cannot be seen, reducing any visual stimulation for male partners.

Why are Ethiopian women not “into” sex, according to these men? One explanation they offered relates to Ethiopian women’s general passivity. Women are shy and do not feel empowered to tell a partner what they want (or do not want) in bed, or even to initiate the act if they feel desire. But probably more influential is the fact that many Ethiopian women undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and so sexual pleasure is often minimal or nonexistent.

According to the 2005 Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey,1 about 74% of Ethiopian girls and women have been exposed to FGM. The most common form of FGM is Type I (clitoridectomy)—partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or prepuce (i.e., clitoral hood). The remaining girls and women have experienced Type II (excision)—partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without removal of the labia majora. 

A few men I spoke with, a couple of whom were physicians and public health professionals, described cases they saw of women with infections resulting from FGM, or told me stories of women giving birth after being sewn shut, which is more common in Somalian refugees living in Ethiopia.

The physical, psychological, and sexual consequences of FGM/C are well documented.2 One such study from Saudi Arabia found that circumcised women had significantly lower levels of arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and overall sexual satisfaction as compared to those who had not been cut.3 Although I knew such practices existed, it was still very difficult for me not to break down crying during these conversations with Ethiopian men. Unfortunately, such conversations did not come up organically in my interactions with the few female students. But hearing men talk about their girlfriends who had been mutilated was difficult enough.

Some men I interviewed assured me that they can still give a woman pleasure even if she has no clitoris. But when I asked how they know she enjoys it or tried to probe more about the female anatomy and its role in sexual pleasure, they didn’t seem to have specific indicators other than, “She is in a good mood.” And who can blame these women for not enjoying sex? If you remove a girl's sexual pleasure organs before she even knows what sexual pleasure is, how can you expect anything but a lack of enthusiasm for sex?

Luckily, the men I met do not condone FGM/C and are hoping that a generation of uncircumcised women is on the close horizon. It’s also nice to hear men from such a traditionally patriarchal society talk about wanting to eliminate the practice of FGM/C, for their women to experience sexual pleasure, and their own desires to be good lovers. In fact, one man told me he hopes that an increase in more sexually assertive and active women is “part of the development process of Ethiopia.”

But it seems that while many of the Ethiopian men I spoke with were aware that their partners have been mutilated and thought this was a harmful practice, they still did not seem to understand how or why this might cause women to be passive and unenthusiastic in bed. Hopefully some of the men in my class gained some insight with all of their curiosity. 

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1Central Statistical Agency [Ethiopia] and ICF International. (2006). Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey 2005.  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Calverton, Maryland, USA: Central Statistical Agency and ICF International.

2Berg, R. C., & Denison, E. (2012). Does female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) affect women’s sexual functioning? A systematic review of the sexual consequences of FGM/C. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 9, 41-56 DOI: 10.1007/s13178-011-0048-z.

3Alsibiani, S. A., & Rouzi, A. A. (2008). Sexual function in women with female genital mutilation. Fertility and Sterility, 93, 722-724.

Dr. Michelle Kaufman - Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.

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