Can Consensual Vaginal Piercings Still Be FGM?

Under new National Health Service (NHS) guidelines in the U.K., consensual vaginal piercings are now being classed as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by default. I am British — born and bred — and as a woman both moved by the cause to end the barbaric practice of FGM, and as a strident supporter of a woman's right to choose in all aspects of her life, I am particularly concerned by this new information.

Anti-FGM organizations, such as 28 Too Many and Daughters of Eve, have spent years campaigning for the U.K. government to make the prevention of FGM a top priority, and now the cause is finally gaining some much needed media coverage.

The biggest move toward ending FGM in the U.K., however, came last September. Activists and charity organizations alike rejoiced as it was made legal, mandatory practice for all NHS employees to report any instances of FGM they came across in their patients.

Louise Robertson of 28 Too Many told me via email that "recording and reporting FGM within the NHS is vital to improving the U.K.'s response." Once we know what we are dealing with, in facts and figures, we are better equipped to fighting it, right?

However, this all means that, as outlined by the Department of Health, NHS practitioners must record all instances of vaginal "alteration" for non-medical reasons, and this is where things get complex. The World Health Organization (WHO) outlines FGM in four "types," the first three of which describe the practices we are becoming familiar with, and that are easily researchable:

Type 1: Clitoridectomy (the removal or damage to the clitoris) Type 2: Excision (clitoridectomy and the removal of the labia, sometimes both the inner and outer lips) Type 3: Infibulation (narrowing the vagina, or blocking it off, by removal and repositioning of the labia)It is within the non specific, vague realms of Type 4 where the controversy has been caused. Type 4 FGM names specifically "piercing" (as well as pricking, burning, scraping, cutting, and introduction of corrosive matter) as a definitive form of mutilation. Of course, it's possible that piercings could be done in a forced manner. Piercing could be used as a form of genital mutilation — if needles were forced through a girl's labia, clitoris/clitoral hood, or any other area of her vulva, against her wishes. The practice of piercing girls and women against their will is not something that has been a reported form of FGM, though, before this debate rose.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh, the Editor-in-Chief Executive and Founder of the anti FGM charity, Orchid Project, told me via email:

"We have not come across piercing in our work. That is not to say that it does not happen, but we would expect that in the vast majority of cases in the U.K. it is a consenting cosmetic procedure carried out by adults."

So is the NHS's decision to file both consensual and non-consensual piercing of the vulva in the same box and label it mutilation ethically wrong? Does it undermine a woman's right to choose? Sophie Holloway — the founder of self described femme centric, pro pleasure, sex ed movement, Ladies Come First — related to me over email that she feels that "likening the practice of adult consensual piercing to the practice of cutting underage girls is hugely problematic." Likewise, Megan, 30, a woman with a intimate feminine piercing of her own, told HuffPost U.K.: "This trivializes the experiences of women who have genuinely suffered FGM. These women have gone through a terrible experience, which was forced on them without their consent. And now somebody who ought to know better is going to degrade them by comparing them to women like me who are fortunate enough to have freedom of choice, who willingly and knowingly went and paid somebody to accessorize their body."

But will recording instances of consensual female genital piercing corrupt all the important data the NHS is now in an amazing position to obtain? 28 Too Many told me that the "bigger concern is the estimated 137,000 girls and women in the U.K. [alone] who have undergone FGM and the 60,000 girls at risk." The charity stresses that the U.K. needs to "implement the reporting of all potential cases... to ensure protection and support of these girls and women."

Nimko Ali, who suffered FGM as a child and went on to co-found the Daughter of Eve project — which campaigns tirelessly to end FGM — has a similar standpoint. We spoke on the phone about her views on the debate, and she wholeheartedly agrees with the DOH's inclusion of piercing as something that needs to be recorded as an instance of FGM. Her view is that "to fail to record an incidence of female genital piercing may mean an opportunity is missed to improve the life of a girl, who, otherwise, may have been overlooked."

It seems that Nimko, 28 Too Many, and various other campaigners firmly put their trust in the WHO's categorization of piercing of the vulva as Type 4 FGM, even though there is no concrete evidence to confirm piercing as a sign of FGM. Both Nimko and 28 Too Many are coming from a good place, and want what is best for British girls in danger due to FGM.

Whilst it could be seen as progressive and necessary for the NHS to gather data on the prevalence of FGM in the U.K., it is also degrading to compare non consensual genital cutting to a voluntary piercing done on a woman, often to enhance her own sexual pleasure. It's a harrowing juxtaposition. In Stop Cutting Our Girls, presenter (and actress) Zawe Ashton visits an illegal "cutter" in Kenya. The old, veiled lady, with her dark rimmed eyes and willowy fingers, explains to Ashton that:

"If the girls aren't cut they will start to love men, so they will start to chase men. They should be cut before they are 12, otherwise they'll start to get horny... Our tradition is to cut them and make them bleed to calm them down. If you don't cut them, they'll think about pleasure all the time! They can't help themselves."This chilling remark — deeply soaked in cultural misogyny and negative narratives surrounding female sexuality — feels completely opposite to women deciding to pay a trained professional to add another dimension to her sexuality.

Vulva piercing — such as the "Christina" or clitoral hood piercing — and the piercing of the labia behind the vaginal canal, can actually enhance a woman's sexual pleasure. In The Body's Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture, Peter Sweetman describes "more explicitly 'sexual' piercings" as "potentially remapping the body's sites of erotogenic sensitivity [creating] new holes, channels, or orifices, which can in themselves lead to new sensations and ways of using or experiencing the body." He also notes that author Kathy Acker was prone to spontaneous orgasm due to her labia adornment.

Caitlin from Sheffield, a young woman who contacted me over Facebook to tell me why she loves her clitoral ring, said, "For me, this piercing was a symbol of my sexual independence, about me, owning my own sexuality, and taking control of my own body. I love my clitoral hood piercing. I love that it's a piercing that's only for me and those I choose to share it with. And I love knowing that it was my choice to have it, that it was my choice to keep it, and that it's my choice to share it with who I like."

The issue of what constitutes consent has various different and radical opinions in this context. Co-Founder of Daughters of Eve Leyla Hussein concurs. In her thoughtful and articulate piece for Cosmopolitan on FGM and "designer vaginas," she wrote:

"The power of language can play an important role here. We're outraged when an African girl undergoes FGM (and rightly so), but we shrug our shoulders when a Western woman decides to be 'trimmed' or 'tucked.' We write it off as her choice, but aren't both a result of social coercion?.... We need to encourage female empowerment and self-esteem. We should teach girls to love and value themselves for more than their appearance. We must grant girls the freedom to be who they want to be — not what society tells them to be."

She summed it up by saying: "Considering that we put pressure on girls from a very young age to alter their bodies, I have to wonder if cosmetic surgery is actually a choice, or a result of intense social pressure to conform to this idealized image in order to please men. It is sadly not news that far too many women and girls all across the U.K. hate their bodies. We are bombarded with beauty standards everywhere we go."

In the end, those with the opinion that all forms of non medical vaginal "alteration" should be termed FGM and those who feel that it should not are coming from the same place: A place that definitively wants to protect women and girls, and give them power over their own bodies. We are all, actually, on the same team.

Images: Instagram/ericbctape; Fotolia; Orchid Project; Flickr/BeatEisele; BBC/Stop Cutting Our Girls; Amazon; Flickr/thiswasmeantforyou