A new study confirms that women who were forced to undergo genital cutting as young girls have a poorer sex life years later.
An estimated 130 million women worldwide have undergone genital mutilation, also known as "female circumcision." The centuries-old practice, which involves removing part or all of a girl's clitoris and labia, and sometimes narrowing the vaginal opening, remains a common practice in some countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.
It's well-known that genital cutting has long-term consequences for women - including childbirth complications, incontinence and psychological disorders.
Not surprisingly, studies have also linked genital mutilation to sexual dysfunction. The new report, published October 10 in the British obstetrics and gynaecology journal BJOG, adds to the evidence.
What the researchers found
Researchers found that among women who'd immigrated to the UK from Africa, those with genital cutting scored about 30% lower on a scale that measures women's perceptions of their sex life.
"This study shows a quantifiable effect of female genital mutilation on women's psychological well-being in terms of sexual quality of life," lead researcher Dr Stefan Andersson, of Central Manchester University Hospitals, said in an email.
He said the gap was even seen among women who were not currently sexually active.
The study included 110 London women who'd emigrated from countries like Somalia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Of those women, 73 had genital mutilation.
Dr Andersson said it's not possible to tell whether those women reported a poorer sex life solely because of the physical effects of genital mutilation, or if there could be other reasons as well.
Cultural differences play a role
The researchers do point out that comparison between the women who were cut and those who weren't is imperfect: Most of the women with genital mutilation were from Somalia - where the practise is nearly universal - while most women in the comparison group were from Nigeria, where relatively few girls are subjected to genital cutting.
So it's possible that cultural differences play some role in the women's views of their sex lives.
The researchers also acknowledge that they have personal feelings about female genital mutilation - that it's harmful and "should be eradicated."
But the findings are in step with what's already known about the lasting effects on women's lives. And, Dr Andersson noted, with more and more women emigrating from Africa, doctors in countries like the UK will have to be prepared to help women with genital mutilation manage its consequences.
In particular, he said, there should be psychosexual health services that are specifically tailored for these women.
(Reuters Health, October 2012)
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