The first UK conviction for female genital mutilation (FGM) this month was a milestone in the fight for the basic human rights of women and girls. But one of the things that stands out from the news reports of that case is how oddly furtive they were about communicating the key facts – in particular their avoidance of the C-word: clitoris.
In reporting such a prominent case, are readers unable to be shown the correct medical terminology? Why do the media carefully avoid mentioning what occurred, using highly generalised anatomical terms before quickly moving on? If this lack of detail was to spare the victim the indignity of having such a personal matter discussed so publicly, I would have sympathy, however I do not think that this is the case here. What I think is at play, is a deep-rooted fear of the clitoris.
Let us consider if a man were to suffer a similar injury: would we shy away from using the word penis? Of course not. A quick internet search is enough to reveal a whole plethora of penis-related news stories (not to mention non-news stories). In fact, there are so many that we seem, as news consumers, to be a little bit penis obsessed. Huff Post and the Independent have gone so far as creating a “penis” news keyword tag, for all your penis news in one place. To some degree, the media has also now acknowledged the existence of the vagina, and its linguistic appearance is reasonably acceptable in polite conversation (perhaps depending on the context). So why are we so reticent about the clitoris? Why is a mention of it seemed to be deemed too sordid for BBC news?
The big difference here seems to be that while the vagina has an obvious functional utility, the clitoris exists entirely for female pleasure. It seems that the issue stems, not from the provocative nature of a word, but our continued societal taboo regarding women daring to enjoy sex. Sure, we can see depictions of women shrieking with pleasure plastered all over any porn site. But that is exactly the point. Female sexual enjoyment remains exclusively in the realm of the forbidden.
This aversion to discussing, or even acknowledging, female pleasure is instilled early. As a teenager, I remember it being commonplace for boys to laugh and joke about masturbation; if anything, it was downright encouraged. For girls meanwhile, it was impossible to admit even to your closest friends that masturbation had ever crossed your mind, except as something disgusting and shameful. We were all doing it, yet no one would dare to ever admit it and risk being branded weird and somehow dirty.
In an age in which we’re revolutionising the debate around sexual experiences and consent, why are we stagnating when it comes to the discussion of mutual enjoyment? Rebecca Kukla, a philosophy professor specialising in practical ethics at Georgetown University, has written aboutthe problems of a linguistic framework built around consent, with its implication that women are passive recipients of an act. Sex is framed as something a man asks for, which a woman may either consent to or decline, rather than an experience of mutual participation, agency and pleasure. This is not to say that consent is not important; on the contrary, it is essential. But to reduce our discussions of sex to this kind of dichotomy is to fundamentally misrepresent what is an active and reciprocal enjoyment.
It’s time that we grow up and get over our fear of the C-word. Even more than this, we need to cease viewing female enjoyment of sex as sordid and instead catapult it into the mainstream. Yes, a woman has a clitoris! Being able, at the very least, to talk about clinical aspects of female anatomy when reporting factual news is vital to accepting female bodies in their entirety. We must be able to mention a clitoris without feeling uncomfortable, without feeling like we’ve crossed some invisible line and left the realms of civilised conversation behind us.
Young girls around the world are suffering horrendous mutilation because of a deep-rooted cultural fear of female pleasure, and the same fear is preventing us from even articulating the problem. If we want to make progress on this issue, there are many positive actions we can take (I would recommend looking into the work of Forward UK among other FGM-focused charities). But we could begin by examining our own views and free our speech from the shackles of outdated and deeply misogynistic views on sex.
• Lucy McCormick is a Guardian editorial data analyst and a feminist blogger