Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States

Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States: A History of a Medical Treatment

Sarah B. Rodriguez
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 290
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States
    Book Description:

    In the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, American physicians treated women and girls for masturbation by removing the clitoris (clitoridectomy) or clitoral hood (female circumcision). During this same time, and continuing to today, physicians also performed female circumcision to enable women to reach orgasm. While the opposite purposes of these clitoral surgeries (to either contain a perceived excessive sexuality or to remedy a perceived lack of sexual responsiveness) may seem paradoxical, their use reflects a consistent medical conception of the clitoris as a sexual organ. In recent years both the popular media and academics have commented on the rising popularity in the United States of female genital cosmetic surgeries, including female circumcision, yet these discussions often assume such surgeries are new. In Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States: A History of a Medical Treatment, Sarah Rodriguez presents an engaging and surprising history of surgeries on the clitoris, revealing what the therapeutic use of clitoridectomy and female circumcision tells us about changing (and not so changing) medical ideas concerning the female body and female sexuality. Sarah B. Rodriguez teaches at Northwestern University in the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program and in the Global Health Studies Program.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-859-6
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Sociology, Public Health

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Rethinking the History of Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United States
    (pp. 1-12)

    In August 2012, Reuters carried a story entitled “Gynecologists Alarmed by Plastic Surgery Spread.” The story concerned several surgeons across the United States performing gynecological surgery meant to enhance or enable women’s sexual response. The surgeries, known collectively as female genital cosmetic surgery, include vaginal tightening, a reduction or removal of labia, and female circumcision. Women seeking to learn more about the surgeries, the article reported, run the gamut of ages, from teenagers to those in their late seventies. These women’s interests in the surgeries, critics claim, are driven by impossible bodily ideals, ideals encouraged by the availability of pornography...

  5. Chapter One Women, Masturbation, and Clitoral Surgery, 1862–1945
    (pp. 13-30)

    In the early fall of 1896, John O. Polak, a doctor in Brooklyn, New York, examined Lizzie B., a twenty-nine-year-old single woman, who, until her nineteenth birthday, appeared to her family to be in exceptionally good health. Around this time, however, the young woman became morose and spent much of her time alone. She would, reported the doctor, “sit alone for hours masturbating,” though she also masturbated “in the presence of friends and relatives.” When Lizzie’s father finally took his daughter to see Polak, the doctor described Lizzie as “pale and emaciated,” and he learned she masturbated from twenty to...

  6. Chapter Two Children, Masturbation, and Clitoral Surgery since 1890
    (pp. 31-48)

    During a December 1893 speech before the Cleveland Medical Society, physician Alvin Eyer stated that the only cure for masturbation was either marriage or amputation of the clitoris. Eyer then described his removal of the clitoris of a seven-year-old girl, referred to by the initials M.E.H., who had been adopted the previous year. The mother told Eyer how she caught her daughter “gratifying her passions as often as four or five times a day” and that the child confessed to masturbating in the orphanage. Upon examination, the doctor found her clitoris “much developed for one her age” and then proceeded...

  7. Chapter Three Female Sexual Degeneracy and the Enlarged Clitoris, 1850–1941
    (pp. 49-74)

    In a 1921 article discussing sexual “degenerates,” Perry M. Lichtenstein, a physician with the New York City prison system, noted that “both white and colored women indulge in the practice” of obtaining “sexual satisfaction from association with other females.” Lichtenstein noted that, upon examining such women, “in practically every instance” one would find “an abnormally prominent clitoris, . . . particularly so in colored women.”¹ While according to Lichtenstein an atypically large clitoris was common in women who had sex with other women regardless of race, his belief that this was especially true of women of color was based not...

  8. Chapter Four Female Circumcision to Promote Clitoral Orgasm, 1890–1945
    (pp. 75-90)

    In 1896, Eugene P. Bernardy, a physician in Philadelphia, wrote about a young blonde woman who came to him complaining of an “absence of sexual feeling.” Married for two years, with three pregnancies and two living children, it was during her most recent lying-in that the eighteen-year-old woman complained she had “never experienced” the “pleasure I hear so much about.” Indeed, she told Bernardy, “the approaches of my husband I abhor.” Shortly after, her husband came to Bernardy with a case of gonorrhea. Bernardy lectured him on how he had come to acquire the disease, but in explaining his dalliances...

  9. Chapter Five Female Circumcision as Sexual Enhancement Therapy during the Era of the Vaginal Orgasm, 1940–66
    (pp. 91-122)

    In a paper given before the third annual meeting of the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine in October 1956, Chicago obstetrician and gynecologist William S. Kroger stated that “even though the American woman looks and acts as though she is capable of sexual gratification, many do not have orgasm during intercourse.” Kroger declared these women frigid and described several types of frigid women. According to Kroger, some women were frigid because they thought they were not supposed to feel sexual pleasure because sex was “indecent” and others who perhaps become aroused but failed to achieve orgasm. But the label of frigidity...

  10. Chapter Six Female Circumcision and the Divisive Issue of Female Clitoral Sexual Pleasure Go Public, 1966–81
    (pp. 123-148)

    Catherine Kellison first heard about female circumcision from a friend, who told her she had undergone the procedure and now experienced “greater sexual sensations” and “higher levels of orgasm” than she had prior to the operation. Writing inPlaygirlmagazine in 1973, Kellison, who admitted being ignorant about her genitalia, raced to the library to look up information on her body after learning about the operation. She discovered that the clitoris “exists for the sole purpose of giving pleasure” and that women are “multi-orgasmic.” After reading about the clitoris, Kellison noted she was “more than mildly distressed.” If, she wrote,...

  11. Chapter Seven James Burt and the Surgery of Love, 1966–89
    (pp. 149-176)

    In the late 1970s, journalist Barbara Demick interviewed gynecologist and obstetrician James Burt for a small Boston-area magazine, theReal Paper. The Dayton, Ohio, doctor had recently begun generating publicity for a surgery he had designed to improve the sexual capabilities of women. Burt, in an effort to show the positive effects of the surgery, had his secretary arrange for Demick to interview in his office eight women who elected to have the surgery and who were happy with the results. One of these women was Judy (Demick did not use last names). Twenty-seven and married for eight years, Judy...

  12. Conclusion: Genital Geographies
    (pp. 177-182)

    When most Americans hear the term “female circumcision,” they typically do not place its practice in the context of the United States, nor do they label it a medical procedure. Despite the long history of various clitoral surgeries, the notoriety of James Burt, and the contemporary use of female circumcision in the United States, probably most Americans, upon hearing the term, envision the practice generically as African. This is most likely because, in this country, by far the most popular attention on the procedures labeled under the term female circumcision have been in an African context. Though published accounts in...

  13. Appendix: The Clitoris in Anatomy and Gynecology Texts
    (pp. 183-194)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 195-238)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-272)
  16. Index
    (pp. 273-280)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-281)