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Dan Savage reports:

Dr. Dix Poppas

A pediatric urologist at Cornell—Dix Poppas—has been operating on little girls with what he judges to be oversized clitorises, cutting away important clitoral tissues, and then stitching the glans to what remains of the shaft.
….
At annual visits after the surgery, while a parent watches, Poppas touches the daughter’s surgically shortened clitoris with a cotton-tip applicator and/or with a “vibratory device,” and the girl is asked to report to Poppas how strongly she feels him touching her clitoris. Using the vibrator, he also touches her on her inner thigh, her labia minora, and the introitus of her vagina, asking her to report, on a scale of 0 (no sensation) to 5 (maximum), how strongly she feels the touch…. Poppas has indicated in this article and elsewhere that ideally he seeks to conduct annual exams with these girls….

I believe all genital mutilation/cutting/circumcision/surgery performed on children is wrong. This is for two related reasons. The first is consent- a child or infant cannot understand the reasons for and consequences of genital surgery. Any surgery that is not medically necessary, and genital surgery is rarely medically necessary, should not be performed without the individual’s consent. Unless a major bodily function is impeded by the formation of the genitals, the surgery is cosmetic. The second is that this surgery may have long-lasting and deep-rooted effects for the infant or child, and so cannot in good conscience be performed without the individuals consent.

Intersex SymbolSome people are born with genitals that may seem “too big” or “too small” by the parents’ standards or in the opinion of the family’s physician. This is natural variation. There are plenty of genetic situations that can cause a person’s genitals to appear different than what we consider “the norm”. When a person’s genitals don’t neatly fall into what we expect a “woman’s” or a “man’s” to look like, that person is intersex. There is no way to tell by looking at an intersex baby’s genitals whether that baby will grow up to identify as a woman, man, both or neither. There is also no way to tell from genitals whether a person will grow up to be L, G, B, T or Q. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that about 1% of the population is born with “bodies [that] differ from standard male or female”.

That means that reshaping a baby’s genitals to fit a preconceived notion of what a girl or a boy “should” look like is not only likely to harm sexual/sensual function in adulthood, but also may result in the parents and physician guessing wrong and reshaping the child’s genitals into the “wrong” sex. Our sex and gender identification is not formed only by outside society… see As Nature Made Him.

In the article above, Dan Savage is correct in identifying clitoris-reduction surgery on infants as based on sexism and homophobia. Since we do not know whether all children described as having a large clitoris will identify as girls/women in adulthood, I cannot say that this is specifically “female” genital mutilation, but more broadly genital mutilation.

All non-medically-necessary genital surgery is cosmetic. And do we have any good reason to perform cosmetic, permanent surgery on a non-consenting child’s genitals? My stance is “no”. Some circumcision of boys and girls is done by religious dictate: because a holy text mandates it, or because it purportedly helps ensure virginity, etc. Other circumcision is done to fit the child into a cultural idea of what a “woman” or a “man” should look like. It is prescriptive… we see a baby as nature made hir, and we decide god or nature made a mistake that a human must correct.

But why must it be “corrected”? What is there to correct, exactly, when no major bodily function is impeded? Parents and doctors who perpetuate cosmetic genital surgery are allowing their own fears and limitations regarding sex, gender, and sexuality to play out physically upon the body of their child, a child whose very existence makes them fear for the rectitude of their dearly held social categories. Is it right to make a child suffer for life so that the parent and doctor can avoid hard questions and self-examination?

Some will always, inevitably say, “well it is too hard on the child to be raised intersex/with ambiguous genitals/ambiguous gender”. Why is it hard? Because society is sexist and homophobic, believes viscerally in a culturally-moderated gender binary, and people can be narrow-minded about these issues. Is the potential meanness of others, the potential bias against diversity, enough to perform cosmetic surgery? Why is it so hard for the parents to follow their child’s lead, to leave paths open and allow their child to pick one? I suspect that the parents are more worried about themselves, the potential explaining they may have to do, than about the highly touted danger of allowing the child to make hir own decision.

The situation that Dan Savage describes above only takes this human rights violation farther. Farther than even your average person is comfortable with, I think. To draw out the process of forcing a young body into a man-made sex mold for years, with close and constant medical intervention, is cruel and unusual torture. Parents who allow this are gravely remiss in watching out for their children’s best interests. They are also probably deeply misinformed by the “experts” into whose hands they have fallen. And the doctors—and doctor Dix Poppas particularly—are committing deep ethical breeches that I believe are egregious enough to be human rights violations.

Discuss infant genital surgery in comments, if you will. Slurs and insults not tolerated.

Kein Geschlecht Oder Viele

This sign is held by activists in Germany and says: "No Gender/Sex or Many". Source

Women seeking asylum in the US due to horrible and socially condoned gender-based violence in their country of origin are usually denied. The US Homeland Security Department defines a person eligible for asylum as “a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

I have always wondered why sex/gender isn’t a category here. Doesn’t gender-based violence occur around the world? Doesn’t it occur at times in certain locations, such as systematic rape in the Sudan, or systematic female genital mutilation in Guinea, or systematic kidnapping of little girls for the sex trade in northern India, or systematic selling of women as though they were possessions? Are these human rights abuses not predicated on the person’s membership to the female sex? Why is it acceptable grounds for asylum to have been enslaved because you were an ethnic minority, but not because you were female? Why is it acceptable grounds for asylum when your genitals were mutilated because you were a political dissident, but not if yours where mutilated because you were born female?

Well I’ll tell you right now, it certainly mustn’t be because American society deprioritizes and silences violence against women, and has a general history of ignoring or exacerbating women’s problems on the global stage. Definitely Not Misogyny. Oh No. The Horror.

So it must be for some legitimate reason, right? Like when the US denied asylum to Guinean women who had been genitally mutilated in their country of origin, and who had daughters whom they wished to save from that special form of gender-based torture. Those women were definitely terrorists.

Well, President Obama is slightly rethinking this approach.

The Obama administration has opened the way for foreign women who are victims of severe domestic beatings and sexual abuse to receive asylum in the United States. The action reverses a Bush administration stance in a protracted and passionate legal battle over the possibilities for battered women to become refugees.

This was sparked by the case of one Mexican woman, identified only as L.R., whose case is rather extreme: “According to court documents filed in San Francisco, the man repeatedly raped her at gunpoint, held her captive, stole from her and at one point tried to burn her alive when he learned she was pregnant.”

And the Mexican authorities demonstrated their complete lack of interest in protecting her human rights:

Local police dismissed her reports of violence as “a private matter,” the court documents said, and a judge she turned to for help tried to seduce her.

“In Mexico, men believe they have a right to abuse their women because they are like a possession,” she said. With three children born from her involuntary sex with the man, who never married her, she fled to California in 2004.

So yay, that’s good we’re reconsidering our harsh stance right? But women who suffer for their gender outside of domestic relationships, or who have or are threatened with FGM are still not protected. If I understand all this correctly. And I may not, what with me doing my thinking with my irrational Woman-Brain ™. And besides, it’s not even certain that we will accept L.R.’s petition.

I still can’t figure out why admitting that women suffer persecution based on their identity as women (a suspect gender), just as Bantu in Somalia suffer for their identity as Bantu (a suspect ethnic minority) – to name a random example among thousands – is so hard for the US government. What’s the controversy here? Is it because they are afraid of a deluge of abused women applying for asylum? Is it because our government is somehow dimly aware we haven’t cleaned our own house yet?

I’m glad the Obama Admin is opening the door a crack. But I could use some more time ruminating on the deeper implications of American refusal to acknowledge gender as a suspect class, i.e. “any classification of groups meeting a series of criteria suggesting they are likely the subject of discrimination.” More on that here.

Your thoughts?

No FGM

Recently, the US Board of Immigration Appeals denied asylum to three women who had been victims of FGM (female genital mutilation) in their home country of Guinea because they had no well-founded fear of further persecution, since your vulva can only be cut off once.

To be clear, in Guinea, 95% of women are subjected to FGM.

The women claim that the high prevalence of FGM in Guinea indicates a culture of serious oppression against women. They further claim that they have well-founded fears that their daughters would also have their vulvas cut off if they were to return.

“There’s no question female genital mutilation is a horrendous act,” said Department of Justice lawyer Michael Heyse.

But…

Jessica Sherman, a Justice Department lawyer, said there was no evidence in the cases of the three women that the same individuals who harmed them would do so again.

At the hearing, the judges seemed particularly upset at a conclusion by the government that it was fair to return the women to Guinea because they could not suffer further persecution since mutilation had already occurred.

“Supply me any case in which a well-founded fear of persecution was not sustained because the same leg couldn’t be amputated or the same organ removed,” demanded Judge Rosemary Pooler.

Pa-DOW government lawyers! “Justice Department” indeed. That’s a blow to their old “Vulvas Can Only Be Cut off Once, So Go Back to Your Totally Non-Persecuting Country Wench!” song-and-dance. And I say “old” because the government has always denied victims of FGM asylum, in the absence of any other additional fears of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. However, as these judges suspect, when it’s non-female-specific body parts that get cut off based on your membership in a particular social group, US Immigration seems to think fear of persecution is indeed well-founded and meets their criteria.

It looks like some awesome judges are about to do away with the “Vulva Exception”. Which, in the defense of the Board of Immigration Appeals, I’m sure was based on totally non-misogynist, completely and coolly rational US policy, and probably had to do with terrorists and national security, and was therefore well-justified. I’d like to see that memo: CIA Warns DHS of National Security Risk Posed by Vulva-less, Mutilated Asylum Seekers.

Stay classy, Board of Immigration Appeals.

© idyllicmollusk 5/1/08

September 2014
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