How doctors responded to my genital mutilation: An American woman’s 70-year journey

By A. Renee Bergstrom, EdD

Country of Residence: United States

Renee chronicles her experiences with American physicians from the time she was cut at three years of age until seventy years later when she became an advocate against female genital mutilation. She also shared her story during the Sahiyo Stories Workshop to encourage other women to speak out.

  • 1947—age 3—My mother took me to a doctor because she was concerned that my little face turned red when I touched my clitoris. This fundamentalist Christian physician believed masturbation to be a sin and practiced his religion with a scalpel in a Wahpeton, North Dakota, clinic. He removed my visible clitoris. Some of my sensitive tissue fused to my inner labia.

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  • 1959—age 15—I drove myself to the same clinic not realizing this was where my mutilation took place. I complained to the doctor about the uncomfortable tugging sensation from my scar. He did not examine me or offer a solution. (Separating the scar may have solved the problem.) Instead, he gave me a brochure on the sin of self-pleasuring.
  • 1965—age 21—During my premarital examination (why were these required?), I told the doctor I was not sure I would be able to have “normal” orgasms like other women. He faced the wall and did not comment.
  • 1967—age 23—During my first childbirth, my scar did not stretch, so second stage labor came to a halt. I was given anesthesia against my will and did not wake up until four hours after our daughter was born. My obstetrician had performed an extensive episiotomy to enable her to be delivered vaginally. He did not mention the details of my birthing experience while I was in the hospital or at my six-week postpartum checkup. Later, when intercourse was uncomfortable and my vagina seemed lumpy, I returned to discuss the problem. He showed me pictures of normal female genitalia in an anatomy book and said, “Renee, you don’t look like other women.” He thought I could have had a bike accident as a child. He was shocked when I told him my story. I believe he prescribed lubricating gel to use until I healed completely, which took a couple of months.
  • 1968—age 24—When I was pregnant with our second child, I made an appointment with the same obstetrician. I waited and waited in the examination room and finally another obstetric physician came in. He said the other doctor was leaving to put IUDs in African women and would not be available to provide my care. In retrospect, I think his experience with me touched him deeply and he couldn’t face me to say goodbye. I came home crying and my husband thought there was something wrong with the baby. I had hoped to continue my obstetrical care with this compassionate physician so I felt a great loss. The next doctor assigned to me urged me to allow him to connect me with William Masters and Virginia Johnson of the research team. He thought they would be interested in my sexual response and would pay me well to participate in experiments. He suggested this at every visit and I repeatedly declined. He anesthetized me for the delivery. I awakened in a cold delivery room with my feet still in the stirrups, my episiotomy unstitched and my struggling son in a bassinet out of my reach. The OB team had left me to attend to another woman’s emergency.
  • 1970—age 25—I gave birth to our second son eleven months after his brother was born. I was semi-awake as he moved through the birth canal. The baby urinated immediately and the doctor held him so he peed in my face. I missed the first two birthing experiences and this rude, unfeeling man tainted the one when I was alert. Being cut took away my dream of the deeply spiritual joy of birthing.
  • 1981—age 37—I began my End FGM advocacy when I received funding from the Women’s Desk of the Lutheran World Federation to spend two weeks in Geneva, Switzerland, discussing the issue with international organizations there. My empathetic primary care physician was required to write a letter confirming that I was indeed cut.
  • 1981—In preparation for my 1981 Geneva trip, I attended the University of Minnesota Week of Enrichment designed to help doctors, pastors and therapists respond compassionately to those who bring a variety of sexual issues to them. This allowed me to practice telling my story in a small group supportive environment. When word got out that I was in attendance, a surgeon came and offered to create a faux clitoris for me with one of my nipples. I thought about it for awhile, then declined the offer in the parking lot while she stood next to her car. She was visibly angry, so I responded, “Why should I allow another part of my body to be mutilated when sexual intercourse is sufficiently satisfying?”
  • Later 1980s—age 40s—Two physician interactions stand out in my memory. I saw a dermatologist for a boil on my labia. When I shared my genital history, she was furious. Such a refreshing response! Previous physicians hid their emotions as if to protect the medical profession. The second experience was disturbing. I fell on metal bleachers at our children’s track meet with a resulting large hematoma on my labia. The beautiful young emergency room physician appeared to suggest that my husband had caused the injury, probably because she saw my strangely mutilated body. I didn’t provide details because there were thin curtains separating me from other patients. A couple of weeks later, we read that she walked into a lake and ended her life. I wonder if she just couldn’t tolerate witnessing the abuse cases she faced in the E.R.
  • 1997—age 53—My genital scar began to separate. My very caring female primary Unknowncare physician helped me deal with the pain and taught me to massage the area to speed the process, finally ending fifty years of the annoying tugging sensation.
  • 2017—age 73—After several years of sharing my story with compassionate physicians in the Academy of Communication in Healthcare, a male senior faculty member apologized to me from the medical profession for what I suffered. Accepting his apology helped free me to move forward with END FGM advocacy.

 

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