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Betty Dodson and Audre Lorde: Can I possibly use the master’s tools to demolish her house?

April 16, 2010

So Betty Dodson, the ‘expert’ that had recommended Clitoraid with their humiliating Adopt A Clitoris campaign has written an attempted response to the critics of Clitoraid.  The piece, republished on the Clitoraid website, is an interesting provocation to engage but it is so lacking in logic that I’m having a hard time even deciding whether to respond.

On one hand I’m tempted to engage her and convince her the many errors of her ways with regard to this specific issue of Female Circumcision.  She obviously didn’t do her research enough to realize that I’m not African American, there is no such place as San Francisco University, and that the critique of Clitoraid is much wider than just my individual concerns as reflected by the 221 signatures to the online petition before we closed it early.  Indeed many, including Dr. Petra Boynton, Dr. Elisabeth  WoodMatthew Greenall, DarkladyKudzai Makombe and Caille Milner of the San Francisco Chronicle have all previously written criticizing Clitoraid extensively.

Sadly Ms. Dodson’s  willful blindness speaks to how she goes about things and why she’s ended up in the Clitoraid mess she’s clinging to.  Apparently her research method is restricted to grabbing random facts about an issue and rearranging them to suit her own fancy.

Then again i’m reminded of Audre Lorde’s wonderful piece titled The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.  In it she writes that,

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male
ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an
old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with
the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to
educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our
existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This
is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal

This excerpt reflects exactly how I feel about Betty’s attacks on my critique of clitoraid.   Audre Lorde wrote this indictment of feminism 26 years ago and it is stunning how far feminism has NOT come thanks to feminists like Ms. Dodson!

Seriously, when do we get to move on to the real and pressing issues?  Why must I stop and have to explain the importance of respecting African women and our dignity to fellow feminists?

So, that is why I don’t know how to react to Betty Dodson’s statements.  To engage with her ridiculousness is to divert my energies from much more important work that urgently needs to be done.  But if I chose to be quiet I’m afraid I might communicate to other young brown feminists out there that feminism is still a space of hurt and humiliation for women of color where speaking out is met with personal attacks from older ‘experts’.

Then there is the disturbingly unquestioned position of authority that Betty holds on all things sexual.  Reproducing patriarchal systems of hierarchical power, it seems she has reached to far high up the ladder that anyone who dares ask a question is a pariah whose sanity is to be questioned.  I had never heard of her before this Clitoraid thing and so it was in naivete that I questioned her ‘expertise’ on the issue of Female Circumcision.  Woe unto me for daring.

I have to admit that it is with sadness I wonder out loud if this the cutting edge of North American feminism? Is it that the sum total of feminist thought and mobilizing is about pleasure?  We’ve made the entire experience of womanhood all about what is between our legs and not between our ears and in our hearts?  That the respect so necessary in building the bridges of sisterhood is to be abandoned because one ‘expert’ must be venerated?

26 years after Lorde’s indictment we are still standing at the same street corner haggling over whether women of color deserve respect and have anything to contribute to feminism?!

If you were me what would you do?  Would you engage with Betty or leave it at these questions?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonquil permalink
    April 16, 2010 5:44 PM

    You have to conserve your energy.

    For what it’s worth, I went there and reproached her, using many of the arguments you posit above; I also called her out on demonizing her one identifiably African critic rather than any of the white women who made the same arguments.

    I’ll bet you large sums of money my comment doesn’t make it through moderation.

  2. permalink
    April 16, 2010 9:39 PM

    I agree with everything you say in your post, except for one thing. I wish to point out that the concept of reducing sexual pleasure to the clitoral orgasm is by itself a cultural product of white, second wave feminism. I think the womanist’s idea of sexual pleasure has always encompassed far more than that, including even a spiritual element. Ms. Dodson has even appropriated elements of sensuality and sexuality from my culture (South Asian/ Hindu) selectively without the context of community, art and life that sexual pleasure was represented in. I don’t think focusing in on one’s sexual pleasure is in itself distracting from a true feminist goal. It is the process and context that seems to be missing in their (Good Vibrations/ Betty Dodson) approach.
    But, rock on! Your persistent and courageous campaign has been very inspiring to me.
    much love,

  3. April 17, 2010 6:18 AM

    I think that “young brown feminists” will look at your writing and feel encouraged, not discouraged even if you do not engage. Perhaps especially if you do not engage. You spoke out and you were joined by people from across the country and in other countries. Some of those were feminists who were not young and brown, and in organizing some of those voices together you successfully got a company to change its direction. You were successful.

    Success is encouraging. I think if you engage with Betty Dodson you will find frustration rather than success, and that might be a less good message for the young brown feminists you are trying to inspire. Indeed, there is wisdom in knowing which fights to pick and which to avoid.

    Rather than weighing whether or not to engage in a fruitless discussion I think it’s helpful to think about how to even more fruitfully engage with those who could be supporters.


    Ps: I’d like to amplify something that says, too: A focus on sexual pleasure is a serious feminist focus, not a distraction from feminist goals. Feminists have many competing goals taking up time, attention, and organizing resources, and of course we can’t each be focused on all of them. But I’m extremely glad there are some among us who do put sexual pleasure at the center of their feminist work.

  4. Carlin permalink
    April 17, 2010 7:00 AM

    I’m glad we’re having this discussion. Yes, no one will touch Betty because, at this point, she’s a legend. If you google her, her history is all there. She’s pretty amazing.

    Like Anne Koedt stated, there are many areas of sexual arousal on a woman’s body – including her brain – but the clitoris is the source of the sexual climax.

    I have a question: if it’s not all about the clitoris, then why is that the organ that is excised during female circumcision?

    • Kao permalink
      April 19, 2010 10:56 AM

      The source of whose sexual climax? Some women, including myself, are able to orgasm without any clitoral stimulation whatsoever. Or, indeed, any genital stimulation. I have always found it to be incredibly invalidating to be told that my sexual experiences were wrong or imaginary simply because I didn’t fit into that “vibrators are the best ever, women only orgasm from clitoral stimulation ever” box. It is a sad statement that other women have even accused me of lying(!), simply because my body works differently from theirs.

      Perhaps you would find it useful, Carlin, to respectfully consider that if you are not present in a woman’s body, feeling the sensations she feels as she enjoys sexual pleasure and perhaps orgasms, then you have no right to declare what the source of her pleasure is.

  5. Jenny permalink
    April 18, 2010 3:40 PM

    I like your thoughts on this too and I think this will encourage people to think outside the western feminist pardgraim.

    Speaking of the subject, have you seen this article yet:

  6. Donna Newman permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:05 PM

    CLITORAID responds to critics: ‘This baseless smear campaign is costing genitally mutilated women the valuable support they need to get corrective surgery.’

    LAS VEGAS, April 19 – Las Vegas-based, non-profit organization CLITORAID, which helps victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) receive reconstructive surgery, released a statement today in response to accusations of non-accountability, insensitivity to women’s rights, concerns of African cultures and questions about the overall safety and effectiveness of the surgery it sponsors.

    Professor Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, and Caille Millner, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, spearheaded what CLITORAID representative Nadine Gary called “a vicious attack of misinformation and distortion of truth.”

    “Their statements, especially in Millner’s April 14 article “Wrong Approach to Genital Mutilation,” led to an online petition that cost CLITORAID the participation of its fundraising partner,” Gary said, adding that adult toys retailer Good Vibrations of San Francisco “was bullied into canceling its summer fundraising campaign on behalf of CLITORAID after receiving a petition signed by over 200 people.”

    “The funds from Good Vibrations would have purchased medical equipment for our new hospital in Burkina Faso,” Gary said. “Now that won’t happen. It’s so unfair. The allegations are baseless – and some are just plain stupid.”

    As an example, Gary said both critics lambasted CLITORAID for its fundraising slogan “Adopt a Clitoris” as though the phrase was meant to be taken literally.

    “This slogan was intended to pique curiosity and attract donors,” Gary explained “and thanks to it, we manage to fund the building of our hospital as well as training of our surgeons and operating on a few women here in the US”.

    “Patients’ names are kept confidential and in no sense whatsoever was anyone adopting or trading body parts. But that’s what these people implied. They don’t seem to know the difference between a figure of speech and reality. Meanwhile, not even one woman awaiting clitoral repair surgery through CLITORAID has complained about the slogan. In fact, none of them have ever even mentioned it!”
    As for the allegation that CLITORAID is insensitive toward women and toward members of local African cultures still practicing FGM, Gary pulled no punches.

    “Brutal, violent acts like female genital mutilation don’t call for sensitivity,” she said. “They demand immediate action, and that’s what CLITORAID is doing.”
    She likened the call for sensitivity toward those in Africa who perpetuate and condone FGM to those who were “sensitive” toward slave owners or Nazis.
    “Slave owners in the American South thought Northerners were insensitive to their needs,” Gary said. “And it wasn’t considered polite in Nazi Germany to ask what was happening to the Jews. Both situations demanded blunt, effective, immediate opposition, not sensitivity toward the perpetrators and their supporters.”

    She said the same principle applies for eliminating FGM and restoring clitoral functionality through surgery for as many victims as possible.
    “This is a senseless, horrible act that causes excruciating pain and sexual deprivation for millions,” Gary said. “While other organizations just discuss and wring their hands, CLITORAID acts. Our first hospital dedicated to clitoral repair surgery will open in Burkina Faso in 2011. And some women assisted by CLITORAID have already had the procedure done successfully here in the United States, at our head surgeon’s Colorado clinic.”

    Gary said the San Francisco article was especially disturbing because it demonstrated “blatant prejudice toward Raelians.”
    She pointed out that Raelianism is an officially recognized religion in the United States.
    “Millner dissed Clitoraid because its founder, Maitreya Rael, teaches that all life on Earth was created scientifically by extraterrestrials,” Gary said. “But acceptance or rejection of that belief doesn’t change the fact that Clitoraid’s clitoral reconstructive surgeries and related therapy are done by professionals. And those professionals are not Raelians. They volunteered to work with Clitoraid because they know the surgery is effective and that women are waiting for it. They wanted to help.”

    Gary said Larry Ashley, Ph.D., a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, university professor and sexual trauma counselor, sees each Clitoraid-sponsored patient, and that renowned sexual therapist Dr. Betty Dodson created the post-surgery sexual therapy program that complements the procedure.

    “This great team of volunteer professionals is made up of non-Raelians who have chosen to work with Clitoraid,” Gary said. “I notice our critics neglected to mention them.”
    Regarding the surgery’s safety and efficacy, Gary said the reconstructive procedure sponsored by Clitoraid was devised by surgeon Dr. Pierre Foldes in France, where cost of the treatment is reimbursable under the country’s universal health care system.

    “Dr. Foldes isn’t affiliated with the Raelian Movement in any way, nor is he even affiliated with Clitoraid,” Gary said. “But Dr. Marci Bowers, Clitoraid’s head surgeon, trained directly under him. Dr. Bowers is also a non-Raelian, and she is training other physicians to perform the procedure. The surgery is safe and effective and it’s performed in accredited hospitals.”
    Gary said critics of Clitoraid should practice what they preach.

    “Millner and Professor Kamau-Rutenberg say Good Vibrations should have exercised due diligence before associating with Clitoraid, but they didn’t do their own. These two women should have known better. They turned the truth about Clitoraid completely upside down out of their own prejudice and a lot of ill-founded assumptions. In the process, they hurt many good people. And those they’ve hurt most are the FGM victims on our waiting list.”

    Please feel free to contact us if you would like to help in any way. Donna Newman 305-690-9800

    Thank you for your cooperation,

    Donna Newman
    Clitoraid PR

  7. Donna Newman permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:07 PM

    Victims themselves answer San Francisco Chronicle critics of Clitoraid

    LAS VEGAS, April 21 – The San Francisco Chronicle, through Caille Millner’s April 14 column “Wrong Approach to ending Genital Mutilation, successfully bullied the San Francisco-based store Good Vibrations to stop all fund raising activities for Clitoraid, a nonprofit organization that offers clitoral repair surgery for victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) both here in the United States and worldwide.

    Millner and other critics following her lead have questioned the safety and validity of Clitoraid’s reconstructive surgery and expressed concerns about where the donated funds are going. And they say Clitoraid didn’t do an impact study to see how repairing the women’s genitals would affect their local communities.

    In response, here is a written statement received at Clitoraid today from a woman born in West Africa. (She now lives in what she described as “a Western country.”)

    “The world is now open, and it’s a very small place, with migration at its highest. People are no longer restricted to their villages, towns or countries until death. People are now exposed to other cultures. A lot of women who were circumcised [genitally mutilated] in other parts of the world now live in the West, and we now know that we’ve been violated unnecessarily. There is an awakening, a realization that sex isn’t meant to be a pleasure for the man alone and pain for the woman.

    Then there’s the feeling of shame that you are somewhat deformed.

    We withdraw from falling in love with [someone of] another nationality because we know the man will be looking and feeling for our clitoris during sex, and there’s embarrassment when we’re asked about our clitoris. Now even our own men prefer women with a clitoris and female orgasm since they see that as validation of their manhood and good performance.

    Then we come to the medical aspect of it: childbirth, pap smears and general health checks that involve the vagina. A lot of us refuse to go for these because of the humiliation and embarrassment we face each time from the medical staff through no fault of theirs.

    For me, and I guess I’ll be speaking for a lot of victims, I feel like an impotent man in a heterosexual relationship.”

    “It’s very clear to us at Clitoraid that the criticism we receive is mainly from individuals who don’t consider sexual activity important,” declared Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, head of Clitoraid. “That is definitely the reason why Clitoraid was started by Rael and had such a success among Raelians, since the Raelian philosophy states that having a harmonious sexual life is one of the keys to living a balanced life. A traditional religion offering charitable clitoral repair may be more palatable for Ms. Millner and many members of our society. Unfortunately, no traditional religion will ever create a charity to repair FGM victims. They stop with organizing groups that help with preventive campaigns. None will actually restore the sexual pleasure of those maimed because they all demonize women’s sexuality, sometimes to the point of grossly disfiguring women’s genitalia.”

    Boisselier added, “The Raelian Movement, thanks to its pleasure-embracing philosophy, is the only religion working to restore sexual pleasure, and we will continue to do so no matter what opposition stands in our way. We owe it to the 135 million FGM victims who have no other recourse.”

    Regarding the lack of scientific data often mentioned by critics, Boisselier said the surgical technique was developed more than 20 years ago by Dr. Pierre Foldes in France and published in a peer review journal, and that it is now practiced by many other surgeons trained by Foldes. Numerous testimonies from women praise his practice.

    Nadine Gary, Clitoraid’s international head of operations, said the French health care system has been covering this common surgical procedure in France for years, and that Clitoraid’s head volunteer surgeon, Dr. Marci Bowers, MD, “a brilliant gender reassignment surgeon, will gladly and reliably clarify the steps and results of this surgery for anyone concerned about the validity and safety of this medical procedure.”

    Gary said anyone concerned about how Clitoraid’s funds are used should visit, where the organization’s tax return statements are posted.

    “I’m sure they’ll be surprised to see that no one in our organization is paid,” Gary said. “The money is so precious that all Clitoraid staffers are volunteers. Every penny goes to the women who call for help. Our reward is to hear about the beautiful, healing results.”

    Here is what one of Clitoraid’s patients said after her surgery, according to Gary:

    “I feel like every woman feels: I’m going to have the best life, the best marriage.” (Kady, 42, originally from the Ivory Coast)

    “Today, two of the women operated on in March called to report that they’ve started having pleasant feelings where only painful scars were before,” Gary said. “And on, you can read a Clitoraid patient’s account of the path to her first orgasm after she recovered from FGM reversal surgery. The vibrator that helped her enjoy the first orgasm of her life was donated by Good Vibrations, and she says she can never thank them enough.”

    Please feel free to contact us if you would like to help in any way. Donna Newman 305-690-9800

    Thank you for your cooperation,

    Donna Newman
    Clitoraid PR

  8. JupiterPluvius permalink
    April 21, 2010 5:18 PM

    As an example, Gary said both critics lambasted CLITORAID for its fundraising slogan “Adopt a Clitoris” as though the phrase was meant to be taken literally.

    No, the phrase was criticized AS A METAPHOR because it is a truly shitty METAPHOR that evokes decades if not centuries of Western-privileging initiatives where people in the developing world, particularly people of color, are “adopted” by wealthy people in the industrialized world.

    Nobody thought that clitorises were really going to be adopted. They were objecting to a catch-phrase that evokes colonialist do-goodery.


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