Intersexuality and genital mutilation

Female circumcision (also known by the value-laden term female genital mutilation) is one of the practices that has been repeatedly used by the west to criticize and label Arabs, Muslims and Africans as barbaric, uncivilized and against female equality.

First of all there is the fact that 1. not all Arabs perform it so it’s not “Arab” and 2. not all Muslims perform it and in countries where it exists people from all religions perform it, so it’s not “Islamic” and 3. not all Africans perform it so it’s not “African.” Second of all, I found out yesterday, to my great surprise, that female circumcision actually exists in the west as well. YES! Uh-oh. Does this mean that the west is also uncivilized, barbaric and against gender equality?

When I say the west I don’t mean Arab/Muslim/African immigrants living in the west. I mean actual white people. What is even more shocking is that the practice is performed by the medical profession. Yes. Science. The objective, neutral, value-free, perfect science. And yes, Doctors. Intelligent, kind, only-want-the-best-for-us but don’t ask them to explain anything because medicine is complicated, doctors.

In my class on gender and sexuality our professor started explaining about intersexuals: people born with male and female genitalia, or unclear genitalia.  Around the world these people account for 2% of the population – more than albinos, for example, and I’m sure we’ve all seen albinos at least once, so we’ve probably also seen intersex people.

Anyway, in the US (beacon of hope and freedom), doctors will perform the following operations on babies who are born intersex:

  1. If the clitoris is too big, they will cut it off/shorten it;
  2. If the penis is shorter than 2.5 cm, they will remove it, and turn the baby into a female;
  3. If a vagina is too small, they will enlarge it to allow for penetration.

These surgeries are known as “corrective surgeries” or “intervention” and are carried out on the majority of the intersex babies born in the US – that is 65,000 people per year!

Okay. Deep breath.

First of all, how is number 1 different from female circumcision? The only reason doctors carry out this procedure is because a big clit just looks ugly/disturbing! There is no other reason.

Second, if you’re an unlucky boy who is born with a small penis, you might actually get turned into a girl!

Third, talk about girls being seen as sexual objects: if your vagina is too small then it will actually be enlarged just so it can be penetrated!

So throughout the lecture I was thinking that this was something western doctors used to do in the past (because of course I’ve been taught to think that anything disturbing related to the west only happened in the past), but apparently it is something happening today. TODAY. (I wonder if this happens in Europe?)

65,000 people.

Since the rise of modern medical science in Western societies, some intersex people with ambiguous external genitalia have had their genitalia surgically modified to resemble either female or male genitals. Since the advancements in surgery have made it possible for intersex conditions to be concealed, many people are not aware of how frequently intersex conditions arise in human beings or that they occur at all (Alice Dreger).

Many intersex people do not know that they were intersex at some point, because doctors and sometimes parents hide this information. Many go through life feeling confused, ashamed, different because they don’t know what happened to them.

The reason behind these “interventions” (often done without parental consent/approval), is that it is dangerous to science and society for there to be people who do not fit into the two created categories of “male” and “female.”  If the genitalia are not clear, they need to be changed. If the genitalia do not fit into our (socially constructed) ideas of acceptable/unacceptable then we need to change them.

And what’s scary is that we admire doctors and science so much that we don’t even question them! How many parents would doubt the doctor when he tells you that your baby needs to have “corrective” surgery. Doctor knows best right? Science knows best. It can’t be wrong and it can’t be loaded with values.

Now I know there are differences between the magnitude of female circumcision and the practices mentioned here, but how much of a difference?

As a friend of mine said, anything in a hospitalized, medical, scientific setting is sanctioned.

The Intersex Society of North America writes on its website:

The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is devoted to systemic change to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female.

I think what pisses me off the most is that the west still has the balls to criticize practices in the east when they do the same thing…what, it’s okay if its in a hospital? Would it be ok if Egyptians cut off big, ugly clitorises if it happened in a hospital and was performed by doctors?

I’m also pissed at the fact that we don’t hear about this. We are constantly hearing about genital mutilation in the global South – constantly. We are constantly being made to feel ashamed of what’s happening in our countries. How many people even know about these operations performed on intersex people? How many Americans are made to feel bad about them?


13 thoughts on “Intersexuality and genital mutilation

  1. miloflamingo

    Very good post. Already tweeted and shared. How do you know at birth what the sexual orientation of a child is going to be? Until the early 20th century what is known as FGM was in fact performed in Europe and North America for fairly similar “pathologies” in women.

  2. almostclever

    My friend had the operation done on her when she was in middle school. She had to wear diapers for 2 years, but she wanted it more than anything because she wanted to look down at herself and not see a penis dangling between her legs.

    There is a difference. Female genital mutilation is tragic, if my friend would have had the FGM operation she would most likely be dead from infection right now. That’s the difference.

    Death rates are what make something inhumane in my eyes. I mean, women in Iran have their vaginas sewn up so they can be seen as virgins, but we don’t feel outraged about it because it is done in sanitary conditions. We don’t hear about thousands dying from it each year.

    For me it’s about death rates, and I will never defend something that kills so many people.

    1. Your friend is lucky. Many have the operation and it ruins their life. Absolutely ruins it.

      By the way, I was not defending female circumcision :S I am against it, just as I am against these operations.

      Death rates should not be the only thing that makes something tragic.

      The problem is the rigidity of our gender constructions. You have to be either male or female. Why isn’t it socially acceptable to be something outside these categories? And because of that we are forcing babies to be operated on in order to make them this or that.

      I remember one of your comments on another post Sarah, where you said what makes FGM horrible is that it is done on children, who have no say in the matter. How is that different from intersex gential mutilations that are done on BABIES who have just been born?

      1. almostclever

        Yes, if it is done on children who have no say it is absolutely wrong. I would completely disagree with operating on a baby, because they have not yet grown up to “feel” or know what sex they are. I couldn’t imagine taking a penis off a child and they grow up feeling like a man with women’s genitals. That is tragic.

        I was under the impression they had to wait until the child was able to decide what sex they wanted to be, so I guess my friend was lucky. She has good parents.

        If it is done on a baby, how are they able to stretch the vagina big enough for a penis, when she is still a baby?

        Do you have references to the literature that talk about this being done on babies?

      2. I have the same question about the baby’s vagina. I’m not sure how that works :S

        I will send you some links to articles about this, and a video as well.

  3. Hello Sara, I am involved in a campaign against FGM based in Germany. I posted your text with your link at one of my Facebook Pages, because I believe it is very important to see the issue FGM from the different perspectives. Please let me know if I can also post your text with the link to your blog at my website. In your text you ask if these operations on intersexual children are also happening in Europe and the answer is yes. At the moment we have a big controversy going on. The victims of these mutilations organized themselves in self-help groups and are putting a big effort in making this kind of operations on minors illegal. Recently there was a demonstration in Zurich, in front of one of the hospitals that is practicing these crimes on a daily basis.
    In the western world we also have the growing trend of Vaginal Cosmetic Surgery, which is often done without adequate knowledge of what constitutes a “normal vagina” and labia. It also can happen, that parents bring very young girls to the plastic surgeon (I heard the case of a 12 year old girl), because they have a problem about the appearance of their genitals. So in my eyes, FGM is not an African or a religious problem but a world problem, it has to do with ignorance, superstition, and fear of women’s sexuality and it is present in most cultures of the world, if not all. Apart to the physical mutilation, we also have the psychological one, for example the psychological castration inflicted by the catholic religion on women for many centuries here in Europe and later in the USA, and the truth is, we are still suffering under it today!!
    For me the fight against FGM is a reflection about the human nature, about all the things that are wrong and we have to change, in order to save people, especially defenseless children, from unnecessary suffering.
    I send you my warmest regards from Germany, Isabel Henriques

    1. Hi Isabel,

      Feel free to post this anywhere you like!

      I think, like you said, there is the issue of what is “normal” – what does a normal vagina/clitoris look like anyway? Cosmetic surgeries need to have a normal one in order to fix all “abnormal” ones.

      “FGM is not an African or a religious problem but a world problem, it has to do with ignorance, superstition, and fear of women’s sexuality and it is present in most cultures of the world, if not all.”

      Brilliant! I absolutely agree!

  4. almostclever

    Hey Sara, do you have those links? I really would love to see what info you are learning. It definitely changes the perspective if this is what is happening, eh?

    1. Hey!
      I’m not at home right now so I don’t have the readings with me, but until I get to them, there is this website:

      And this reading:

      Coventry , Marta: “Finding the words”, in Alice Dreger (ed) 1999: Intersex in the age of ethics, Hagerstown MD: University Publishing Group, pp.71-76

      If you can’t find it online, I will scan mine and send it to you (as soon as I get home hehe).

    1. Okay so these authors have written books on the subject:

      Ann Fausto Sterling and Alice Dreger


      Let me know what you think. Hope you got the article I emailed you yesterday…

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