Crossroads of Female, Male and Intersex Genital Modification

About two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts on Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM. Being the subject of my senior thesis, I spent more than a year researching the practice, digging up facts, figures and cultural ideology. By the end, I was not only firming against FGM, but all forms of circumcision. There is no reason to mutilate healthy genital tissue, be those genitals on a male, female or intersex body. Outside of medical reasoning or the consent of the person being operated on, such procedures are always wrong.

The response I usually get to this problem is that FGM is far more terrible than all the rest and should be focused on above all the others. I would agree with this statement mostly because of the way FGM is typically practiced. Outside of a sterile environment and in the absence of medicine to help with pain, infections and complications, FGM is far more sever. Saying that does not make the genital mutilation of male bodies or intersex bodies any less wrong, though. I was on the fence about circumcising any son I may have in the future until I wrote that thesis. Honestly, I don’t see that as being much different in terms of right or wrong than any other kind of genital altercation done without consent.

This photo, “30a.StopInfantCircumcision.WhiteHouse.WDC.30March2013” is copyright (c) 2014 Elvert Barnes and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license
This photo, “30a.StopInfantCircumcision.WhiteHouse.WDC.30March2013” is copyright (c) 2014 Elvert Barnes and made available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

If you are one of the lovely readers who read my post on FGM, another question may come to mind. I discussed the idea of offering medically trained professionals in a sterile environment to perform FGM procedures for those who felt they needed it. Such a place would force patients and their families to read in depth, accurate information about the risks of the procedure, offer examples of other ceremonies or practices – developed with their culture in mind – that could be done instead of FGM. For example, many cultures performing Type 1 (complete or total removal of the clitoris) believe the clitoris will grow into a penis if not removed or altered. The practice of FGM in this instance is more about defining gender than anything else. There has been success in certain communities in completely eradicating FGM by replacing the practice with a sort of celebration of womanhood. I would also put in the rule books at such a place that the consent of the patient was mandatory. Those that refused would be directed to services that would help them get by or escape if their culture continues to demand FGM.

The aim, as I described it in my thesis, was twofold. I wanted to protect the lives of women who – no matter what advocacy groups do today – will have this procedure done. Their lives matter and I don’t think they should be allowed to die just because their culture on that day hadn’t gotten rid of FGM, yet. Maybe that information will result in them getting a lesser version of FGM. Maybe they will grow up and refuse to give their child FGM. Perhaps many cases would result in no FGM happening whatsoever. In this way, women having the procedure performed aren’t taking up quite as much risk and the eradication of FGM from the culture is promoted to the point of extinction.

That, is a very longwinded way of saying my post a couple weeks ago was not in support of FGM, but a discussion of the best way to truly erase its practice.

With all that out of the way, what would you say if I told you genital mutilation existed in American hospitals? If someone is born intersex – say they are born with male genitalia but are female on top. It’s legal to remove and reshape that genitalia to resemble female genitalia. The reverse is true as well. We can’t handle the idea that a human might be born outside the traditional definitions of male and female. Furthermore, many of us don’t understand the concept of sexuality, thinking if we raise a child as a girl she will automatically accept that definition and be attracted to men. Why else would we remove and reshape the penis of someone born intersex thinking they will automatically accept the idea they are female?

I read some stories in my research about people who had this done to them. They grow up confused, still feeling different than everyone else even thought they look the same. It all makes sense when they find out they were altered at birth and many resent that the procedure was performed on them without their permission. Still, the parents in that situation are just as well meaning as many of the parents performing FGM on the other side of the world. They think the procedure is necessary for their child to get by in society, thinking about the school bullies and angry politicians that might stand against them. Will they be able to get a job? Will they ever find love? Will they be accepted by society?

These issues were brought to my attention as I researched my senior thesis, solidifying my belief that – outside of medical necessity – genital modification of any kind, outside of the consent of the individual, is always wrong. I’ll fight FGM first, followed by intersex mutilation and then male circumcision. I don’t understand why I should have to choose, though. In my eyes, these are all wrong. I stand against them at the same time.

What would you do if you gave birth to an intersex child? Would you choose to modify their body to make them seem male or female? Do you think the issues of FGM, intersex genital modification and male circumcision are related?


23 thoughts on “Crossroads of Female, Male and Intersex Genital Modification”

  1. What an interesting subject you have chosen to write about. I do think the topics of FGM and genital surgery are related in so far as an adult is making a life-changing and potentially life-limiting decision for a child who is unable to give consent about something so profound happening to their bodies and in all cases, including traditional male circumcision, the adult is doing so because of a desire to conform to the norms of their cultural context.

    My sons were obviously born in Europe where circumcision is only carried out for religious or medical reasons. I did not, therefore, even countenance having them circumcised. However, even had they been born in America, we would have been among the growing number of parents bucking the trend and not having them circumcised. None of the arguments for circumcision are compelling enough for me to have done so. I can’t see that being any more reason their peers might bully them than any other reason bullies might conjure up as justification and – in a first world country – I am not convinced of any medical benefit.

    It is, of course, almost impossible to determine how you would respond to a rare and unusual circumstance and arrive at a decision. No one truly knows how they will react to anything until they are forced into the context that requires a genuine reaction. What I do know is that had we had a child whose genitalia were somehow indistinct we would have researched to the max because that’s what we have always done. My response to any medical issue or crisis is to read everything I can lay my hand on on the subject and make contact with people who have been through it. I think making informed decisions is critical at all times but never more so than when having to give consent for a procedure being carried out on someone else and one that has the potential to impact on them for the rest of their lives. So I can’t possibly say how I would act but I know I would not rush into anything and not would I make a decision lightly or without amassing information.

    1. The American Association of Pediatricians still thinks all boys should be circumcised for cleanliness. This is clearly false, as I understand rates of various infections and STIs are lower in Europe than in America and far less boys are circumcised in Europe.

      When it comes to intersex, I would do research, but I’d only want to do something out of medical necessity. Given what I know, if the infant would grow up perfectly healthy just the way they were born, I’d leave them be. I don’t plan on forcing any specific gender on my children, so they’d be free to choose what they want. Perhaps they are not male or female and will grow to embrace themselves the way they are.

      Now, there may be things I will have to prep them for when sending them to school and social events. That said, “kids will make fun of them” is not a valid reason to perform a surgery on an infant, in my opinion.

  2. Modern medicine is able to determine the real gender of an intersex baby pretty definitively. Many itersex babies who are the resentful adults you speak of were altered years ago into females as this is the easier cheaper alter, withor much consideration for what their chromosomes and hormones rendered me. This is not how it is, mistakes are still possible, but in the rare case a hermaphrobAby is born extensive tests are run to determine true gender before genital alteration. I think to grow up with both sets of genitals can be as horrifying as anything else, to be a boy with a vagina and a penis or a girl with a penis and a vagina would be traumatic, in a whole different way from being gender confused or attraced to same gender. A person would not be able to experience physical intimacy well into adulthood if ever. You’re right we cannot handle this, it doesnt fall under the same category of fgm or circumcision, because it is first and foremost an aberration, a deviation. i think an educated alteration is very important, modern medicine doesn’t preclude correction if ever a mistake is made.

    1. Mistakes do still happen. They may be able to more closely identify the sex of the baby, but there is more to gender than sex. Also, these surgeries can and do effect the recipients ability to retain feeling in that area and which leads one to believe that they could potentially not be able orgasm either. They should be able to make decisions like surgery for themselves, not have it imposed upon them because things don’t look right to someone else. It’s not like anyone has to see their genitalia until they are old enough to make that kind of an informed decision.

      1. I hear you, but again its an aberration, surgery is corrective, not cosmetic or ritualistic. Its just not the same. Teenage genitalia does get seen and felt, its part of the formative journey, noone chooses to remain an aberration, the price of living as a deviation to have very expensive, very intrusive assignment surgery later, if they are lucky Enough to have the means) is way higher, than making an
        Educated assignment decision at birth, worst case scenario there is reassignment later on. I understand your argument, but i think if you really thought about it beyond the convenience if lumping all procedures together and labeling them unethical, you would recognize that intersex decisions just dont Belong in the same category as fgm.

        1. I have thought about it and read a bit on it. People have different opinions on it. I just can’t agree that those born intersexed shouldn’t get a say and shouldn’t know how they were born. They have had a movement since about the 1970’s to try to increase awareness and deter parents from making this decision for them. Many have said they would have wanted to remain the same or choose for themselves. And I know this is from before the educated guess you speak of could be more medically guessed, but infant genitalia is small and much easier to make mistakes with. The gender variant movement is also growing and they may not want to be altered at all and be exactly what they were born as.
          I am not just deciding what I would do or what I wish I could be brave enough to do given that situation. I am listening to the people who were born that way and are speaking out against such a decision.

          1. Fair enough. But i’ll just add that people you’re listening to are
            Not a good scientific sampling, they
            are mostly the ones pushed forth to speak out by unhappiness, they were also born decades ago. Many years back. The diagnostics and methods, the precision are incomparable between then and now. Those who have no Identity issues, for whom the surgery went well would unlikely come out with the same frequency and make themselves heard, so the sampling is not only dated but also consists more of those who are struggling, not those who are happy.

            Anyways perhaps intersex issues just belong in a category all its own, is all. As i mentioned i think Equating corrective surgery to the travesty that is fgm is a bit unfair.

    2. I don’t trust the idea we can identify the gender of an infant. People are born appearing 100% male or female who grow up feeling like the wrong gender all their lives. We just can’t accept there might be other genders besides male and female.

      I relate this to FGM because this worry about how they will fit in with society, whether or not they will ever be able to be intimate, etc. are some of the exact same worries parents considering FGM think. In their culture, FGM is often necessary for those things and they will stand out like a sore thumb if left unaltered.

      I just can’t agree. If they grow up and feel like they should be different, they can choose to have an operation of their choice. They will know better than anyone else what gender they are. The only exception I can see is if the child figures out who they are in childhood. I have read stories of transexual children where the parents allow the children to take medications or hormones. They may even help them through certain surgeries. Depending on the situation, I could maybe be okay with that, but I can’t agree with maiming infants with no medical necessity.

      1. Yea i think we differ fundamentally in our perception of physical deviance, i think it’s traumatic, i think it’s a pipe dream tot hunk that someone starkly different can feel like they belong, i think by the time they grow up and make the decision to be altered, they will either be sorely traumatized, with the core of who they are forever altered, or entirely unable to afford it, surgery that late is the game is incomparably expensive. The world will never accept aberrations of this sort, ever, it’s not the same as sexual deviances, as this is a physical issue outside of the species norm , it’s a biological survival adaptation to find physical deviations from the norm repulsive, in order to preclude the genetic materials responsible from being passed forth. But let’s agree to disagree.

  3. “There is no reason to mutilate healthy genital tissue, be those genitals on a male, female or intersex body. Outside of medical reasoning or the consent of the person being operated on, such procedures are always wrong.”

    I agree with this. I don’t like the idea of cutting body parts of another. The fact that it is done on people without their permission makes it seem like a violent act even more.

    Once again, I take the position that if I would not personally do something, it tells me that something about it is just wrong. This is similar to how I would not kill a cow and butcher it, therefore buying beef is not any different.

    1. I understand why parents would choose the surgery as much as I understand why parents have their children undergo FGM. While not true for every instance of FGM, in many cultures a woman would stand out or be degraded for not having the operation. I’m sure parents who give birth to an intersex child feel the same way. They fear for the life of their child. The decision to do a surgery doesn’t come from a malicious place.

      Nonetheless, it becomes malicious when, as you say, it is done without permission.

      1. If we can help people get over the beliefs that lead to genital mutilation, it will be reduced and possibly end. I know what you are saying. Some parents believe they are doing the right thing, but one might question whether the parents are choosing it for their children or if the pressure of what society expects of them is too great and so they obey.

  4. Great post! I completely agree. Changing someone’s genital tissue for non-medical reasons shouldn’t happen without their consent. When I started getting into this subject a few months ago, I hadn’t realized how bad male circumcision could be too. And it’s a real hot button with people. There seems to be support against it online, but when I talk to people one-on-one I get the look from them that says I must be crazy to think of it that way.

    1. The amount of American men being circumcised has been going down steadily over the years. Still, the American Association of Pediatrics promotes the procedure. I even read somewhere they think circumcision is just as important as vaccination. I just can’t get behind that. I imagine there might be some intersex children who do need a surgery out of medical necessity, but if they are healthy just as they are, they should be left alone.

  5. Thank you for your thought provoking post. I agree with you that mutilating healthy genitalia is wrong–unless the person has given full consent. I cringe to think of what the majority of baby boys go through in our country. And I’m so happy for my son that he got to keep what he was born with, because I educated myself, got the facts, and knew for a fact that there is nothing wrong with normal foreskin! This might be TMI, but having long-term relationships with French men also helped; I realized that in other parts of the world people don’t just say to their infant boys, “Hi, welcome to the world, now let me cut a part of your penis off!” Now how to educate people with foreskin hate? I don’t know. People seem to think it’s unclean, or gross for some reason…I feel truly sad for the baby boys whose parents think it’s a good idea to have them circumcised. My cousin said she was going to have her son circumcised “for cleanliness reasons.” Cleanliness? Dear god… It’s such a polarizing topic, so emotionally charged, it’s difficult to discuss without people having all sorts of reactions. So thank you for being brave and talking about it.

    1. Cleanliness is why the American Association of Pediatrics still promote it. It’s just so funny to me, because every reason I hear given in support of male circumcision is also used by some who support FGM. It’s false in both cases.

  6. I’m totally against FGM, too. Even if it’s done in a clean medical facility. At the very least, you are stopping women from having orgasms.

    Generally I think male circumcision isn’t good either, Because why remove healthy tissue? Although there is one exception: Male circumcision can help prevent HIV transmission, which is a pretty big deal. In that case the pros beat the cons by quite a bit.

    1. Plenty of countries have low circumcision rates and lower HIV rates than we have. I don’t think there is any reason for male circumcision for the same reasons I am against FGM. If a man is so concerned, he can choose that operation on his own. It should not be imposed upon him as an infant.

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