By Hida Viloria; published on February 23, 2012 at 2:29 pm
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended human rights for women by strongly opposing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM.) She neglected to address, however, that it is currently being performed in the United States.
Although the United States outlawed FGM in 1997, a provision within the legislation makes it legally permissible to mutilate girls whose clitorises are deemed “too large.”
How did this happen, one might ask? It is simply a matter of culture.
People born with atypical sex traits, known as intersex, have always existed, and in the majority of cases there are no health risks associated with our differences. However, because of cultural attachments to traditional male and female body types, cosmetic genital surgeries are practiced on intersex infants, the majority of whom are females (possessing ovaries and uteruses) with large clitorises.
The practice began in the late 1950’s, when psychologist Dr. John Money advanced the theory that large clitorises were unfeminine and women would be better off without them, as they might result in lesbianism. The critical role they play in female sexual response was not widely understood or valued, and thus began the practice of performing clitoridectomies, and later, “clitoral reductions,” on girls whose genitals were disliked by doctors or parents.
Numerous medical and social advancements have ensued in the understanding of female sexual pleasure, but when it comes to well-endowed women, we are still operating in the era of Mad Men.
While most medical experts today concede that clitoridectomies were barbaric, the modern alternative is still frightfully flawed. For, while the stated goal of “clitoral reduction” is to preserve nerve function, how can one gauge this in an infant girl?
Dr. Dix Poppas, of Cornell Medical Center, has endeavored to test the “success rates” of such surgeries by stimulating girls as young as 6 years old with vibrating devices, in the presence of their parents. It is difficult to fathom how anyone would consent to the sexual stimulation of their little girl in this way: as difficult as it is to fathom Female Genital Mutilation.
It is often parents’ or doctors’ homophobia which informs clitoral reduction surgery. For example, I interviewed a young woman for my undergraduate thesis whose doctors had strongly recommended “clitoral reduction” soon after her birth. Her parents, both New York attorneys, insisted on being told the real reason for the recommendation, as they could see no medical necessity or benefits. The doctors finally conceded that it was “in order to ensure that she would grow up to have a normal heterosexual sex life.”
This assertion is not only discriminatory: it is false. Over the course of over sixteen years as an intersex activist, I have come in contact with numerous women who are happily married with children, and whose husbands appreciate their increased sensitivity. Personally, I feel blessed that my father, a physician, decided to leave my precious body parts intact. So does the previously mentioned woman, whose parents also decided not to operate.
A recent poll of researchers on the topic produced three studies on the outcome of clitoral reduction surgery. The most conclusive, performed on women who had undergone the surgeries as adults, found that “Sexual function could be compromised by clitoral surgery.”1 Of the 39 women studied, 78% suffered from non-sensuality as compared to 20% of women who had not undergone the surgery, and 39% from anorgasmia as compared to 0% of women who had not undergone the surgery. Another study produced similar results2.
The results of the largest study, performed on 51 young girls subjected to the surgeries, were inconclusive, as it is impossible to assess the sexual response of those to young to judge it3.
In December 2011, I contacted Senator Clinton to discuss the fact that intersex people are routinely subjected to human rights abuses because, like LGBT people, we do not fit into cultural expectations of male and female – whether we grow up to identify as LGBT or not.
I informed her that in Australia, Europe, and other parts of the world, we are already included in the quest for LGBTI human rights, and urged her to make United States’ policy similarly inclusive. I received a response that failed to address my request for inclusion in the LGBT acronym, and subsequent equal rights protections. I urge Secretary Clinton, and the State Department, to reconsider their position.
At the first State Department event marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, On February 16th, Secretary Clinton stated:
“We cannot excuse this as a cultural tradition. There are many cultural traditions that used to exist in many parts of the world that are no longer acceptable. We cannot excuse it as a private matter because it has very broad public implications. It has no medical benefits. It is, plain and simply, a human rights violation.”
I would like to respectfully remind Secretary Clinton that these statements apply to all women (as well as all men).
FGM performed on intersex women is driven by homophobia, a cultural tradition that Senator Clinton herself recently stated is no longer acceptable. I commend her for acknowledging that FGM is a human rights violation, but it is also a human rights violation when the current United States anti-FGM legislation continues to single out some women for the chopping block.
LGBT people have rightfully attained legal protections by lobbying against the discrimination they face. This has yet to happen for intersex people, largely because, like infant girls subjected to FGM in many parts of the world, parents still have the legal right to make decisions about the bodies of their children.
Protection can only be attained by acknowledging that, as with FGM, culturally-based discrimination is at the heart of non-medically necessary intersex infant genital surgeries, and similarly outlawing them as the human rights abuse that they are.