Last month health officials in Burkina Faso shut down a “pleasure hospital” created by Clitoraid—a charity founded by the religious movement Raelianism for the purpose of reversing female circumcision. Like the Raelians’s previous initiative Clonaid, Clitoraid has been mired in controversy since it began.
Opponents of Clitoraid claim the project exploits the issue of female circumcision to gain financial contributions and converts and that it frames the issue in terms of sexual pleasure rather than the health and dignity of women. Some have called Clitoraid a form of neo-colonialism. In response, Raelians claim this is a case of religious discrimination, pointing to the fact that there are Christian and Muslim hospitals operating in Burkina Faso.
Rael, the movement’s founder, has argued that other religions are sexually repressive and that only Raelians will help the victims of female circumcision experience sexual pleasure. The Clitoraid controversy is complex precisely because it weighs questionable motives against the very real health problem of female circumcision in Africa. It also reflects the naiveté that Westerners sometimes demonstrate in condemning a cultural practice as barbaric.
Raelianism was founded in 1974 by Claude Vorilhon (a.k.a. Rael), who claimed to have contact with enlightened extraterrestrials called the Elohim who genetically engineered humanity. Their movement emphasizes technological Utopianism and has advocated genetically modified food (GMO) as well as cloning, which they regard as a step toward immortality. They also support sexual liberation and have organized campaigns for a woman’s right to go topless in public.
In 1997, Raelianism founded Clonaid, a company that claimed to be able to clone human beings. The project followed closely on media coverage of Dolly, a cloned sheep. Brigitte Boisselier, a scientist and Rael’s successor, became Clonaid’s CEO. The company collected sizable payments from parties interested in cloning, despite the fact that human cloning was not proven to be possible. In 2002, Boisselier announced that Clonaid scientists had successfully produced a human clone named Eve. When Clonaid refused to offer any evidence of their accomplishment, however, the claim was dismissed as a hoax. The media grew hostile toward Raelianism and Clonaid and in 2003 sealed documents suggested that Clonaid existed in name only and had no actual assets.
2003 was also the year that Rael became interested in female circumcision while on a speaking tour in Western Africa. (Raelians have been making missionary trips to Africa since 1982.) Three years after French urologist Pierre Foldés invented a procedure in 2004 to repair the damage of female circumcision Clitoraid was founded for the purpose of making the procedure available to women throughout Africa. Boisselier, formerly of Clonaid, became the organization’s president.
While Dr. Foldés has publically distanced himself from Clitoraid, his student Dr. Marci Bowers has worked with the program extensively. Clitoraid engaged in a number of fund raising projects, including an “Adopt a Clitoris” campaign and a number of partnerships with companies that make vibrators. This funding was used to recruit and fund a team of surgeons (who are not Raelians) and to establish a “pleasure hospital” in Burkina Faso. There is some controversy as to what percentage of women who undergo the surgery will be able to experience orgasms as Clitoraid, claims. But so far, Clitoraid has received much friendlier reception from media than its predecessor, Clonaid.
In many ways Clitoraid is the perfect project for Raelianism, which regards human sexuality as the creation of benevolent aliens. A spokesperson for Clitoraid explained that female Elohim have clitorises and bestowed clitorises on their female creations for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Rael’s book Sensual Meditation (1980) encourages masturbation as a form of “voluntary deprogramming” that supports human development by reversing the conditioning of a sexually repressive society.
In March, Lene Segbo, the minister of health refused to sign documents necessary to open the hospital and revoked the licenses of doctors associated with Clitoraid. “Medical organizations should be focused on saving lives and not advertising their religion in an attempt to convert vulnerable people,” he declared. Clitoraid has responded with a campaign of protests and petitions and, in an interview with Afriquinfos, Boisselier blamed the Catholic Church for turning the government against them, citing anonymous sources. Raelians regard the Catholic Church as their sexually repressive nemesis and have engaged in several anti-Catholic campaigns, including a “parade for apostasy” held in Canada in 2002, in which high school students were given crosses and invited to burn them. It is unclear if the Catholic Church was actually involved in the government shut down of the pleasure hospital, though Boisselier made similar conspiratorial claims when explaining why Clonaid refused to present the evidence of its alleged clone.
Susan J. Palmer, the foremost scholar on the Raelians, notes that the movement intentionally stirs up controversy both to gain media attention and to foster unity among its members by maintaining an identity as an embattled group. In this sense, Clitoraid is the direct result of the West’s fascination and horror with female circumcision. Western attitudes toward female circumcision have provided the Raelians with an opportunity to present themselves as compassionate and progressive in contrast to their religious rivals. Doctors like Marci Bowers seem very sincere and Clitoraid may really be able to help women in Africa, but this goal may be secondary to the Raelians’ larger project of presenting itself as a movement that is persecuted for its sexually enlightened philanthropy. It’s complex motivations like these that lead many to believe that they’re just one more example of Western organizations using African problems as a prop to promote their own interests.