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?


Science & objectivity

Many of us were raised in contexts that valued science above all other ways of understanding the world. Science was above religion, above social “sciences”, above local knowledges.  This was largely due to the fact that it was seen as more objective than any other form of knowledge. It was only recently that I started to question this assumption: why is science the “best” way to understand? And is it really objective and value-neutral. I just read a fascinating article that demonstrates exactly why science is not as neutral as some of us may think. The article is The decline of the one-size-fits-all paradigm, or, how reproductive scientists try to cope with postmodernity by Nelly Oudshoorn.

She begins by pointing out that the field of andrology (medical study of the reproductive functions of men) is barely known, whereas its sister gynaecology is one of the striking examples of the institutional and discursive process of othering in the biomedical sciences. Before the 18th C, the male and female body were seen as the same, except that the female body was a ‘male turned inside herself’ and basically a lesser version of the male body. Then in the 18th C, biomedical discourse began to conceptualize the female body as the Other, a body essentially different from the male body. 

Biomedical discourse showed a clear shift in focus on similarities to differences. This shift seems to have been caused by epistemological and socio-political changes rather than by scientific progress. New liberal claims led to new ideals about social relationships between men and women in which complementarity was emphasized. This was meant to keep women out of competition with men, designing separate spheres for men and women.

This is an extremely important point, as it shows how medical discourses don’t just “naturally” come out of nowhere, but are created and influenced by social, political and economic contexts and discourses.

Following this shift, the female body became the medical object par excellence, emphasizing women’s unique sexual character (Foucalt).

The search for the cause of women’s otherness (a search created BECAUSE women had begun to be seen as the Other) eventually led to setting women’s bodies apart in a medical specialism: gynaecology. Women became a special group/type of patient. As Foucalt has highlighted in his work, when such a “special” group is created, entire discourses, justified by science, come to be created.

The quest for universal contraceptives is the ultimate consequence of the process of othering. Instead of seeing the diversity among women, it was assumed that they were all the same and thus a universal contraceptive could be invented.

Although the pill was developed as universal, it nevertheless contained a specific user: a woman, medicalized enough to take medication regularly, who is used to gynecological examinations and regular visits to the physician, and who does not have to hide contraception from her partner. This portrait of the ideal user is highly culturally specific.

Moreover, it was women of colour who were used in the Pill experiments. The choice to test hormones on women of colour could only be made because scientists did not recognize any fundamental differences between women. Again, science reflecting society.

In the 1970s, scientists concluded that they had failed to create a universal contraceptive.  This admission came with the collapse of the dreams of modernity – again, science mirroring society. Crisis in modernity eroded the belief in one technological fix to improve the human condition, although I would argue that this way of thinking has now resurged.

What is also interesting is that when looking to control population growth, scientists chose to focus on women rather than men. Today, around 20% of contraceptive-using couples rely on male methods, even though female methods such as the Pill have a large amount of side effects (seriously, who wants weight gain, bad skin and mood swings?).

Rather ironically, reproductive biologists have argued that, in terms of population control, it would have been more efficient to choose men as the major target for controlling fertility because men have a much longer fertile life than women.

Yet somehow it always was and still is about women. Could that be science reflecting sexism? Maybe 🙂