Monday, January 16, 2012

Gender Junk: Clit Snipping, Or How Western FGM is Totally Not Like Non-Western FGM At All

An article was recently published at RH Reality Check comparing Western's women voluntary embrace of breast implants to non-Western FGM.  The more apt parallel is to be made between FGM and Western women's embrace of labiaplasty and other elective genital surgeries.

It's important not to make false equivalencies- FGM is much, much more widespread than labiaplasty and other genital surgeries, and it is almost always imposed on girls without their consent.  Voluntary genital mutilations in the West, on the other hand, are, at least nominally, "consensual", and are, for now, far less widespread.  An important issue up for interrogation is to what degree Western women's consent to Western forms of genital mutilation is coerced.  FGM as traditionally understood also goes much further than Western genital surgeries- there are 4 levels of FGM, each more extreme than the last, while Western mutilations are concentrated in the less extreme categories.  However, I think it's very important to note that when I first learned of elective labiaplasty, it was just cutting up our labia that was on order.  Now, there is the "Toronto Trim" wherein plastic surgeons will clip the hood of your clitoris.  As a woman with deep respect for the clitoris, I'm going to assert quite forcefully that unless there is a dire medical necessity from which potential gain might outweigh potential risk, no woman has any business letting a plastic surgeon anywhere near her clitoris with a scalpel.  If we've so quickly gone from labia-cutting to clit-"trimming", how long before these surgeries become even more extreme?

Differences aside, I think there are important parallels between non-Western and Western forms of genital mutilation, and they are worth exploring.  Most obviously, both practices are deeply, deeply embedded in woman-hating cultural narratives.  They are also both centred on men's control and perception of women's sexuality and bodies.  They are both, in short, harmful cultural practices that reinforce male control over women's sexuality, at potentially great expense to the woman who is mutilated and to other women in the community (part of FGM's success is due to the fact that women cannot afford not to conform in a community where all other women do).  I am really bothered to think that women with some higher degree of rights would *choose* to cause themselves such great potential harm in acquiescence to misogynist cultural norms.  And I think it's a feminist duty to point out that such acquiescence increases pressure on other women to acquiesce.  I am also very wary of condemning the "harmful cultural practices" of the "Other" while refusing to interrogate our own.

These thoughts are not, to me, particularly controversial.  I'm drawing out a parallel between two practices that, while quite different, share some troubling commonalities.  But today's feminism is so fucked up that to draw such parallels quickly reduces the conversation to accusations of "shaming" and "not trusting women" (check out the comment threads whenever these sorts of issues come up in the feminist blogosphere).  Shaming gets us nowhere and isn't particularly nice.  But failure to question the forces that shape our "choices", as well as the consequences of our choices for ourselves *and for other people* is just as bad.  These conversations need to be had.

I'm happy for procedures to exist for the minority for whom such procedures are medically necessary.  But I'm not down with normalizing elective and risky genital surgeries in pursuit of some new "normal" as popularized by porn (or insert whatever appropriate guilty media in the case of normalizing any elective, risky surgeries in pursuit of "normal" or "desirable" ideals).  I also do not think it's ok, in any way, shape, or form, to claim that elective genital surgeries in the West are feminist acts.

What do you think?


3 comments:

  1. Have you read Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf's "Transforming Displaced Women in Sudan"? She makes the point that female circumcision is actually a woman's mother's choice, or her own (notwithstanding a few cases of male influence). Many Sudanese women assert that the operation limits their sexual desire, at which point they use that self-control to assert control over their husbands. Please read it. I think you would appreciate the work.

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  2. How can it be a woman's own choice when it is done on children, which I believe is most common? The Mothers have no choice but to have it done. If the child is not done no man will marry her and she will be rejected from society. The more extreme versions of FGM are a guarantee of virginity because it requires a KNIFE to open the wound for intercourse to take place. No woman WANTS to do this, or have it done for her child. She has no other choice.

    15years ago the number of women waxing their vulvas was very limited. A month ago I read an article written by a woman, basically asserting that is rude not to have a Brazilian before a gynacological appointment. Unless porn gets so jaded that they decide to bring back the bush or to create a new "fetish" (which would soon become mainstream) for "outtie" vulvas I have no doubt that in a few more years vulva surgery and "clipping" (shudder) will be much more common. Of course women will claim its a free choice "it just feels better" or "its more hygienic" meaning that women that dont do it will be ostracised and considered dirty, "letting themselves go". Its already happening.

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  3. Anna- "Of course women will claim its a free choice "it just feels better" or "its more hygienic" meaning that women that dont do it will be ostracised and considered dirty, "letting themselves go". Its already happening."

    YES. I agree so much, and it absolutely infuriates me. I've been meaning to write a post forever on the whole "it's more hygienic" thing. I really don't understand why there isn't more dialogue around how our "private" "choices" to do extreme/expensive/painful/misogynist porn-influenced things to our own bodies have real and damaging effects on people other than ourselves- namely, women who wish to resist acquiescence to misogyny and are shamed/ostracised for doing so. (And girl children who never even have a chance!)

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