Today, International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), marks another day of tolerance towards what I like to call Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM). While we commend nations that have or are seeking to ban FGM, the ban excludes baby girls such as those born with the intersex variation Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), who are biologically female (with ovaries and uteruses) but often have large clitorises. These girls are routinely subjected to FGM every day in the United States and other nations.
FGM is defined as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” So why is it wrong when performed by African cultures but not in the U.S.? After all, in other instances, such as male circumcision, banning surgical practices is seen as a violation of religious freedom.
The answer, as you might’ve guessed, is racism. As an article in the Harvard Law Review notes, “… mainstream anti-FGC [female genital cutting] discourse constructs societies where FGC is performed as barbaric, primitive, and uncivilized.” The article goes on to say, “If FGC [female genital cutting] and intersex cutting are sufficiently similar, then either both should be criminalized or both should instead be addressed only through education or other such awareness-raising reforms (as has so far been the approach used with intersex cutting).”
Given what we know in our supposedly enlightened, sex-positive culture about the clitoris’s important role in achieving orgasm, you’d think that having a large one would be considered a boon. However, as Dr. Kenneth Glassberg, former head of the American Pediatrics Association, reveals, discriminatory cultural factors drive support of the practice: “Society can’t accept people of different colors, and now we’re supposed to accept people with genitalia that don’t match what their gender is? I do not believe this society is ready for it.”
Apparently, women with abundant pleasure organs are just as threatening to certain intersexphobic segments of American society as women capable of sexual pleasure are to certain African cultures. So threatening that enforcing social norms of “femininity” surprisingly similar to those guiding African FGM, has taken precedence over “do no harm.” As the Harvard Law Review article concludes:
“… close analysis of intersex surgeries shows that each of the
arguments central to anti-FGC [female genital cutting] discourse—
including the argument that FGC is a patriarchal cultural ritual—
applies with equal force to intersex surgeries. Like FGC, intersex
cutting can produce severe physiological complications and have a
devastating psychological impact. It frequently results in sexual
impairment and can permanently deprive an individual of the right
to make decisions affecting his or her own sexuality and gender
identity. Finally, despite their good intentions, medical practitioners
performing intersex surgeries, like their counterparts who perform
female circumcisions, do not provide medically necessary treatment but
rather enforce (perhaps unwittingly) a system of culturally specific
“Zero tolerance,” means no tolerance. If the U.S. State Department truly considers FGM a violation of women’s rights and dignity, as they say on their website, they’ll include all girls in their ban on the practice.