In White America, Girls’ Clitorises Were Cut Off Because Christian Parents Feared Masturbation

Dr. Renée Bergstrom, now 72, was just three years old when, back in 1947, her Christian mother took her to a doctor to have the girl’s clitoris removed. The problem, as the concerned parent saw it, was that the toddler had possibly been rubbing her private parts. The physician performed a clitorectomy, and that was that.

Bergstrom, in a brave opinion piece for the Guardian, points out that the barbarity

“… took place in a church clinic that used a scalpel on girls who masturbated.”

Bergstrom

“I remember the excruciating pain and feeling betrayed. I was told not to talk about it, but keeping the secret meant I was alone with my questions as I grew into puberty: what was missing? What would it be like to be ‘whole’?”

The procedure didn’t just rob Bergstrom of a lifetime of sexual pleasure, causing discomfort all the way; it indirectly put her life at risk when she and her husband started a family.

My first child and I could have died — an almost universal impact of FGM is difficulty giving birth. I, like so many women around the world, did not know genital scar tissue does not stretch. I wanted to be fully awake to experience giving birth, but my obstetrician performed an extensive episiotomy under anaesthetic that took months to heal. He was compassionate and shocked to hear the origin of my scar.”

Bergstrom wasn’t the only one.

“I witnessed Christian religions declaring masturbation a sin, some Christian leaders and doctors recommending circumcision to prevent it, physicians carrying out the practice, and our American culture first accepting this form of sexual abuse and then denying it ever occurred.”

It seems impossible to know how prevalent this shameful practice was. Dr. Sarah Rodriguez of Northwestern University’s Medical School, interviewed in the YouTube video above, says that

“It was a quick procedure, it was done in a physician’s office, and also because it probably wasn’t anything that families talked about amongst themselves either — largely because it was done as a treatment for masturbation.”

That such a thing existed at all in America’s Christian midwest culture is all the more shocking because a pioneer of the field, the 19th-century British obstetrician Isaac Baker Brown, had been roundly denounced seventy years earlier for performing clitorectomies — sometimes without patients’ consent — in an effort to “cure” women of epilepsy, catalepsy and “mania,” all of which he thought were caused by masturbation. In 1867, Baker Brown was kicked out of London’s Obstetrical Society, and his career never rebounded. In America, his dubious legacy lived on until — probably — the 1960s.

Says Rodriguez:

It was never rare, but it also wasn’t common. One physician would have done it once or twice in his or her practicing lifetime, perhaps, and other physicians wouldn’t have done it at all.”

Although Bergstrom has broken loose from shame and silence (and in fact is part of a campaign to end female genital mutilation across all cultures), she is still in the thrall of religious thought, openly believing in divine blessings and a Creator. That kind of magical thinking will probably be harder to stamp out than FGM.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.