In a previous blog I examined the rare act of genital self-mutilation (GSM) in males. More rare are cases of female genital self-mutilation. Back in 1970, Goldfield and Glick first described a syndrome of dysorexia (i.e.. disordered and/or unnatural appetite) and GSM in the Journal of Nervous Diseases. Of the cases reported since 1970, the majority of cases reported have had personality disorders (typically borderline personality disorder) and a history of childhood sexual abuse. In the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Wise and colleagues categorized female GSM into three groups: (i) patients with personality disorders, (ii) self-induced aborters and (iii) psychotic patients. This slightly differs from male GSM where the cases have been categorized into: schizophrenics, transsexuals (i.e., those with a gender identity crisis), those with complex cultural and religious beliefs, and a small number of severely depressed people who engage in GSM as part of a suicide attempt.
Excluding injuries secondary to self-induced abortion or the insertions of foreign bodies in children, to date, only a handful of female genital self-mutilation have been reported in the literature. Some papers have discussed the differences between self-induced abortion and GSM. However, the differential diagnosis has become increasingly rare because abortion laws have become liberal in many countries.
An early 1957 case in the Journal of Mount Sinai Hospital described a patient who mutilated her vagina on four occasions with a hatpin and knitting needle in late pregnancy that eventually led to a Caesarean section. The 1970 case in the Journal of Nervous Diseases (above) involved a 19-year old female who scratched and gorged her internal genitalia with her fingernails and led to a lot of vaginal bleeding that needed medical attention. A 1972 case in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported the case of a woman who lacerated her vulva with a razor blade.
Following one instance of sexual intercourse with her boyfriend, she feared pregnancy and subsequently penetrated her vagina with a knitting needle. This particular act was not her first episode of self-mutilation. For instance, she had previously swallowed dangerous metal objects, cut her wrists, and had inflicted a deep laceration on her left breast. She also began inserting objects into her vagina including (on one occasion) a twig that had to be medically removed. She later lacerated her vulva and vagina with a knitting needle and a kitchen knife. While in hospital she smashed a window on the gynaecology ward and slashed her arm. Several months later, she again ended up in casualty having cut her vagina with scissors on the previous day, sustaining multiple superficial lacerations of the vagina and cervix.
A detailed case study was reported in 1974 by Simpson and Anstee in the Postgraduate Medical Journal. The authors reported that her self-mutilating behaviour shared several features with the typical wrist cutters (e.g., planning the incident carefully, enjoying the anticipation of the event). She felt no pain when cutting and felt relief and fascination when watching blood flow from her vagina.
There have been a few reports of female GSM associated with psychosis and one 1989 report in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy reported an association between, an isolated delusional system, and body dysmorphic disorder. In fact, the feelings of a distorted body image have been noted in a couple of cases where the women view their genitals as abnormal, and as a consequence tried to remove them.
In a 2005 issue of the German Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Silke Marckmann and colleagues reported the case of a female with paranoid psychosis who had injured her external genitals in an attempt to stop coenaesthetic dysaesthesias (i.e., feelings of abnormal sensations which in this case was described as “feeling like an electric current” running through her genitals). They also noted that in this particular case, secondary erotomania was a feature associated with female GSM. (Erotomania is a type of delusion where the affected person believes that another person is in love with them). The authors also reported that:
“In the last months before hospital admission she felt that the dysaesthesias did not allow her to concentrate on anything else which included eating. She lost 10 kg weight in the 2 months before she agreed to hospital admission. She then reported, that she had been hitting herself repeatedly in the genital area in the attempt to stop the dysaesthesias”
However, the condition is complex and as Dr Nagaraja Rao and colleagues highlighted in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, that “genital self mutilation like any other serious self injury is not a single clinical entity and it occurs in any psychiatric condition with corresponding psychopathology”.
Marckmann and colleagues believe that compared to male GSM, female GSM might be underreported. This is because they speculate there may be a bias towards those individuals with GSM needing acute medical attention (e.g., men cutting of their penis and/or testicles). Female self-mutilators may find it easier to hide their chronic self-inflicted genital injuries and not seek immediate medical help. Such GSM injuries may be more likely to be spotted by gynaecologists (and as Marckmann and colleagues note, there have been increased reporting of female GSM case studies in gynaecological journals such as the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and European Journal of Obstetric, Gynecological and Reproductive Biology).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Wise, T.N., Dietrich, A.M. & Segall, E. (1989). Female genital self- mutilation: Case reports and literature review. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 15, 269-274