The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as: "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and hence interferes with the natural function of girls' and women's bodies. The practice causes severe pain and has several immediate and long-term health consequences, including difficulties in childbirth also causing dangers to the child."
Under an NHS directive following the WHO definition of FGM, the term now applies to any woman who has given consent to having her clitoris or labia pierced, whether for style or sexual reasons. This means medical professionals have a duty to report any such piercings as FGM.
Since September 2014 acute trusts have been obliged to record incidences of FGM (including piercings) and the rules will extend to GPs and mental health hospitals from June 2015.
Although the role of the NHS is to record the information and not take any further action, theoretically any person responsible for carrying out genital piercings could be guilty of an offence under legislation banning the practice (FGM has been illegal in the U.K. since 1985).
Taylor, 24, who has the hood of her clitoris pierced, told SheKnows UK that she didn't believe the news when she first heard it. "I got my clitoris ring to enhance my sex life," she said. "Who has the right to tell me I'm not allowed to be responsible for my own sexuality? What's next? Will other types of piercing be classed as self-harming?"
"This trivialises the experiences of women who have suffered genuine FGM," added Courtney, 28, who does not have a genital piercing but has several other parts of her body pierced. "Most of them are forced to undergo FGM at a very young age. To say that this is the same as grown women who make an informed choice to accessorise their bodies in a particular way is completely degrading."
Others have taken to Twitter to voice their opinions and there's a clear common thread:
Vocabulary guide; Piercings. Piercing is to Mutilation as Sex is to Rape. The determining factor is CHOICE...— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) March 18, 2015
There's a HUGE difference between consenting to getting a vaginal piercing and forcibly having parts of your privates cut off, NHS #FGM— isra (@iLHDCg) March 19, 2015
Likening a vaginal piercing to FGM is tasteless in the extreme. Also, surely it's a woman's choice to decide what she does with her body?— Heisenbird (@_Heisenbird_) March 18, 2015
There's no doubt that more needs to be done to help victims of FGM in the U.K. But is classing women who've exercised their freedom to make a choice to pierce their genitals as having undergone FGM doing anything to help the cause?
"Most responsible piercers won't do any intimate piercings on anyone under the age of 18," Marcus Henderson, spokesman for the Tattoo and Piercing Industry Union, told BBC Newsbeat. Henderson also highlighted the gender equality issue: "Now we're faced with a situation where men are able to make up their mind and consent to an intimate piercing where women are not."
A Department of Health spokesman confirmed the new classification and said that genital piercings were a form of FGM even when carried out on adult women who give their full consent.
He added: “While there are challenges in this area and adult women may have genital piercings, in some communities girls are forced to have them," he said. “The World Health Organisation has quite rightly defined this as a form of FGM. We are taking every precaution to record genital piercings that have been done within an abusive context.”
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