This year marks a decade since the founding of Clitoraid, a controversial humanitarian organization devoted to promoting clitoral well-being and supporting survivors of female genital multilation. Clitoraid are the main sponsors of Clitoris Awareness Month, providing over 120 patients a year with reconstructive surgery; it works with FGM survivors throughout West Africa, founded the world's only Pleasure Hospital, and are currently launching a training series for Kenyan doctors interested in genital reconstructive surgery.
Oh, and they believe in aliens. In fact, aliens are a big part of the reason Clitoraid has been doing all this. So how did a religious belief in extraterrestrial life lead to over a decade of pro-pleasure, anti-FGM activism?
Clitoraid was founded in 2006 by advocates of Raëlism; a UFO religion whose followers believe that an alien species known as the Elohim visited Earth thousands of years ago and ended up creating human life. Raëlians believe that these extraterrestrials were so technologically advanced that early humans mistook for them for omnipresent gods. This is also, apparently, how we ended up with pretty much all the major world religions.
Now that our own technology has caught up with the aliens, we're finally in a position to appreciate what they created—especially the clitoris. According to true believers, the Elohim created humans to look like them, with all the same bits, bobs, and nubs that they have. Aliens, Raëlians argue, are pro-clit. (And pro-public nudity, which is the reasoning behind the Raëlism-founded movement Go Topless Day.)
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"Everything we do as humans is about pleasure," explains Nadine Gary, the communications director for Clitoraid. She is also a Raëlism high priestess. "The clitoris is for pleasure, that is its function. And if you cut it off, it can't fulfil its function."
It was the cutting of clitorises (also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM) that first got Raëlians worked up about clitoral acceptance and appreciation. The World Health Organization estimates that FGM affects more than 200 million women and girls worldwide; according to Equality Now, more than 137,000 girls are affected in the UK alone. It is practised in 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and in various immigrant communities throughout Europe, North America, and Australasia.
There are no health benefits to FGM—survivors in up to 80 percent of cases undergo the procedure in unsanitary conditions and with no access to pain relief. Side effects include infection, increased risk of infertility, prolonged labour or miscarriage, incontinence, vulva abscesses, and a high mortality rate. The motivations for FGM vary across cultures, but recurrent themes include purity and removal of sexual temptation.
In 2003, Raëlism founder Claude Vorihon (now known as Rael) met with FGM survivors in Burkina Faso and, inspired by their stories, returned to the United States to launch Clitoraid. Working closely with anti-FGM activists in Burkina Faso, Clitoraid quickly announced their Adopt A Clitoris scheme, a donations program designed to finance reconstructive surgery.
Like most well-funded organizations with dedicated followers and a slightly fraught relationship with reality, Raelism has been repeatedly described as a cult. While an official investigation has yet to be launched into these claims, it's understandable that Clitoraid are keen to stress their position as a humanitarian—rather than a religious—organization.
Adopt A Clitoris was launched at the 2007 AVN Porn Convention in Las Vegas and in 2010 Clitoraid partnered with Good Vibrations, a San Francisco-based sex shop. Both Adopt A Clitoris and the Good Vibrations partnership were designed to make Clitoraid financially independent from Raelism. It is this focus on sexual pleasure, rather than the whole aliens thing, that has drawn repeated criticism.
"[Clitoraid] in my eyes is disgusting and somewhat deranged," says Nimco Ali, a London-based anti-FGM activist who believes that labiaplasty is a form of female genital mutilation. "Their link to the porn industry which promotes FGM by the name of labiaplasty is beyond concerning."
Critics have also suggested that by focusing on women's sexual pleasure, Clitoraid is spreading misinformation about FGM by implying that its main side effect is loss of sexual pleasure, as well as pushing a Western sex-positive agenda on women who need psychological and medical support.
"The huge issue for FGM survivors is psychological and emotional support," explains Mary Wandia from Equality Now. "Ending FGM takes more than just physical treatment, although that is welcome too."
Gary counters these accusations by pointing out that Clitoraid's critics are often motivated by more than survivors' wellbeing: "These critics stem from a repressive programing of shame and guilt around sexuality and sensuality perpetrated, for centuries, by the patriarchal religions with the female population consistently being the main victim."
The impact of these attitudes can be seen in the closure Clitoraid's Pleasure Hospital. Association Voie Feminine de l'Epanouissement (AVEFE) is the Burkina Faso legal entity of Clitoraid, founded by Banemanie Tarore; a local activist, and survivor of FGM.
AVEFE were heavily involved in building the world's only hospital devoted to genital and clitoral reconstructive surgery; a building local women quickly began referring to it as the Pleasure Hospital. The name stuck. The hospital was due to open in 2014 until the Burkina Faso Health Ministry intervened with concerns that the hospital would promote sexual promiscuity.
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in Africa, with little training for aspiring doctors and no specific care for survivors of FGM compared to its neighbors. The Pleasure Hospital was intended to be a teaching hospital, and critics have suggested that its closure is a case of politics (and puritanical attitudes) taking priority over women's health.
Accusations that the organization promotes sexual promiscuity appear to be unfounded—Clitoraid sued the man behind the anti-hospital campaign for defamation and won the case in 2014. The suggestion that they culturally misstepped, however carries more weight.
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Ali was in Bukina Faso when the Pleasure Hospital launch was scuppered. "They [Clitoraid] were kicked out for being insensitive and offending survivors," she explains. "In a country with a First Lady and ministers leading the conversation on ending FGM, [Clitoraid] talked about pleasure and reduced women to mere sexual objects."
Gary counters this accusation by pointing out that the then First Lady of Bukina Faso, Chantal Compaore, supported the Pleasure Hospital. "When FGM survivors recover their sexual identity and pleasure, they stop being "mere sexual objects" [and] they finally become empowered in their sexuality."
This human has been robbed of their sexual pleasure, and we are here to give it back to them.
But it's not just their focus on sexual pleasure that has drawn criticism. UK sex therapist Dr Petra Boynton is one of Clitoraid's most vocal detractors and she has questioned the organization's motivations for focusing on countries like Burkina Faso. Boynton points out on her blog that religious organizations have a long (and disastrous) history of introducing health schemes to developing countries.
"[Being] well intentioned is not adequate… It needs establishing whether [Clitoraid's involvement] is there to do good, or to promote themselves or even operate a scam." Boynton went on to observe that the scheme carries colonialist overtones, pointing out the high ick factor connected to any scheme that "asks Westerners to adopt African women's genitals."
When I asked Gary what role Raëlism plays within Clitoraid, she explained that it is the women's health, not their religious beliefs, that concerns Clitoraid. "[The patients] don't care about Raelism and we don't care to mention it to them, unless they ask!"
"Their purpose for coming to us is to have their sexuality and their personality back," she explains. "We don't care what religion they are, it's human to be human. This human has been robbed of their sexual pleasure, and we are here to give it back to them."
It's clear that Clitoraid have good intentions. But for some activists, the sexualization of FGM survivors cannot be excused. "Clitoraid," Ali concludes firmly, "need to adopt some common sense and take their UFOs somewhere else."