Remember that old Salt N' Pepa song, let's talk about sex? I was only a kid when it came out but I remember how excited I was over it. At last, some women willing to talk! I barely dared mouth the words in public, let alone sing them out loud, and I certainly didn't understand what the lyrics were all about. But, girl, was I excited! These women were finally calling out for a frank chat about what the S word was all about. Maybe all my awkward questions would get answered without me ever having to blush!
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be.
Over two decades since that Salt 'n' Pepa song, us women are still not having open discussions about our sexuality. Maybe that's why we're so curious about what other women experience in this department. In my years of campaigning, one question that keeps coming up is this: Do FGM survivors enjoy sex and experience orgasm? My answer is never that simple. On one hand yes, on the other hand, it depends. After all these years of working with FGM survivors, I can now confidently say there's no black and white answer.
When I first got involved in this campaign I was twenty-two years old and by then I already had a three-month-old baby girl. I was confused enough as it was about my own body and my sexuality to ever wonder what it was like for other survivors. I used to think it was only women who had undergone FGM Type 3 - also referred to as infibulation - who can't have sex, let alone enjoy it. Because I've undergone Type 2 FGM and I'm lucky enough to have some of my genitals intact and the ability to enjoy sex, I thought women like me must feel the same, and women with infibulation must suffer worse. Once again, I was wrong. Listening to other survivors allowed me to come a bit closer to the truth.
A few years ago, while running a workshop on FGM for Somali survivors, the conversation turned towards the horrors women face during childbirth; the delayed labour, the third degree tears and the terrifying flashbacks experienced during pregnancy and after birth. This was by no means a new topic. The lives of most Somali women are centred around bringing up children. Yet despite these frank discussions about motherhood, no one in my workshops ever brought up the subject of how they came to be pregnant in the first place.
'Surely you had to have to sex to get pregnant,' I said. After a break of deadly silence
a woman dared to speak: 'Leyla, my thing belongs to my husband.' She couldn't even bring herself to say the word vagina. I was taken aback and I remember feeling very sad and confused. There was this woman thinking her own, life giving, pleasure-inducing organ did not belong to her. 'And who does your nose belong to?' I asked. She quickly claimed ownership for that. So she was acknowledging her body as hers and yet surrendering sexual control to her husband. Is it even possible to feel sexual pleasure if you do not own your vagina?
A second woman broke the silence. 'I had Type 3 FGM and my husband makes me come every time.' You could hear the gasps in the room from outer space. I asked her to share why she enjoyed sex; I needed to know as much as everyone else in the room. She expressed the support her husband gave her from the day they met. Her husband refused to enjoy sex on his own. He was the one who took her to an African Well Woman Clinic in Whittington Hospital, where Joy Clarke, an Angel on Earth who doubles as a Specialist Midwife, encouraged her to seek emotional support. 'I no longer feel ashamed when I have sex,' she said. This was a pivotal moment for me as a campaigner, as a therapist and as a woman.
I started to reflect on my own personal challenges growing up in a community where female sexuality remains a very big taboo. My parents told me sex was a beautiful act to be shared between two people. Yet other voices in my community were louder and drowned out their words. Girls were called slags or sluts in my school if they happened to be seen with more than one boy. I grew up in fear of being judged and I grew up learning to silence my body's cravings. FGM and my environment made me fearful of my own vagina. Sex doesn't have to hurt, but emotionally it had drained me. Through therapy I started to recognise orgasm is a psychological process.
The same way I have come across women who have had type 3 FGM and can enjoy sex, I have come across women with type 1 who are terrified of it. FGM is an act of sexual violence and its emotional impact cannot be separated from the physical so easily. If most of our clitoris lies behind the vaginal wall, then even for women with the harshest type of FGM it is still there. But so is the emotional damage.
I hope this blog answers some of your questions around FGM and sexuality, and maybe some questions around your own sexuality. Today I rise for all FGM survivors, and for the freedom of women to reclaim their womanhood and define themselves. Happy V-Day, everyone and Together We Will rise.