In light of Women’s History Month last month, I found myself thinking a lot about how the women’s movement in the United States, like U.S. culture in general, has expanded to include not just white and heterosexual members, but people of color and queer folks as well. Personally, as a Latinx, gender-fluid intersex lesbian ― or hermaphrodyke, if you will ― I think it’s a fantastic development. Even if you’re a fan of cultural diversity however, you know that it comes hand in hand with a host of cultural misunderstandings which homogenous societies have the luxury of avoiding.
I was just struck by a stark example of this after watching National Geographic’s groundbreaking Gender Revolution documentary, released this past February. I’ve never seen a film with such great representation of loving parents of trans and intersex kids, and it was a joy to watch. Until, that is, a doctor in the film suggested that clitoral reduction surgeries are fine for babies who grow up to identify as female—and his claim was left unquestioned.
It happened during the segment about the Lohmans, a beautiful family who decided not to subject their intersex daughter (born with ovaries and typically female XX chromosomes) to medically unnecessary genital surgery. In their daughter’s case, the recommendation was for a clitoral reduction, and Mrs. Lohman concluded beautifully that she thought it was best to let their daughter decide for herself whether or not she wished to make such surgically cosmetic changes to her body. When asked how she’d feel if her daughter asked them one day why they hadn’t made her more typically female looking, Mrs. Lohman said that possibility seemed less harmful than making an irreversible decision about her daughter’s body and having her grow up to say she wished they hadn’t.
I thought the message was perfect, not just in terms of intersex people’s calls for the right to bodily autonomy and self-determination, but also because the documentary first aired on February 6th, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). You see, irreversible genital surgeries of intersex babies and minors is referred to as Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) by many advocates because of its similarities to FGM. Mrs. Lohman was right to be concerned that her daughter might oppose clitoral reduction surgery, as these surgeries were outlawed in the U.S. as FGM in 1996 because they can decrease or eliminate the capacity for sexual pleasure and cause psychological trauma. However, they are performed legally every day, right here in the United States, on girls like the Lohman’s daughter.
Like survivors of FGM, countless intersex women who survived IGM have stepped forward to say that it harmed them. They’ve been doing so for over two decades, on national television, in film, via personal video testimony and in print. However, due to extremely negative views about intersex bodies and people, known as interphobia, their testimonies and demands for a ban on IGM have not been addressed in the way that the calls for a ban on FGM have been.
Gender Revolution’s host, Katie Couric, spoke with the doctor who recommended IGM to the Lohmans, and he defended the practice saying that if it were his child he would have likely opted for surgery. He discussed the fact that, “...the majority of them, 90-95% of them, would identify themselves as female.” Then he went on to say, “The trouble really lies in that 5-10% who do not identify as a female, and you operate on them and you didn’t give them the chance to express that gender identity.”
Couric pointed out that one out of ten is a high number to risk this with. The doctor agreed, stating that, “…for that group of people, I agree, it’s a complete disaster.”
I agree, and have been speaking for decades about how harmful it is if someone who receives a clitoral reduction surgery grows up to identify as a boy. I think these cases are doubly harmful because these folks not only suffer from the psychological trauma and reduced sexual capacity, but also suffer from an incorrect gender assignment. So I was happy to hear the doctor acknowledge this problem.
Then I waited for him to discuss how clitoral reduction surgeries also harm the 90-95% of infants subjected to them: the future girls. But nothing came. Not one word, by anyone. In fact, the doctor’s statement that, “the trouble really lies with the 5-10% who don’t identify as female,” implies a belief that the very fact that someone identifies as female makes clitoral reduction beneficial.
Sadly, I’ve heard this reasoning for decades. It presumes that intersex girls are not “real” girls, and that making them look like such is a higher priority than sparing them the harms of FGM. I find it highly misguided however, since, with the clitoris being the female sexual pleasure organ, one could argue that women with larger than average clitorises are, if anything, super women. Medical “treatment” guidelines for abundantly endowed women essentially overlook the importance of female sexual capacity and pleasure though, prioritizing “feminine appearance” instead, and have long been criticized for this reason as the epitome of sexism in practice.
This sexism was demonstrated by the way the “not real” gender framing was unfairly applied to intersex girls and not intersex boys. You see, in the minds of doctors who seek to “correct” intersex babies, those who grow up to identify as male are not “real boys” either, as they will also not have typical male genitals. However, despite this, the doctor interviewed in the documentary acknowledged the “tragedy” in removing large clitorises if they are to serve as intersex men’s’ sex organs—but not intersex women’s.
The United States says it’s “barbaric” when African cultures subject future women to clitoral reductions, but this country seems perfectly comfortable condoning this practice for American women if their clitorises are deemed too large. Seeing as how the clitoris is the only organ on the human body whose sole purpose is to produce pleasure, it’s almost as if supporters of the practice are saying, “Women should be able to experience pleasure… just not that much!”
As I write about in my memoir Born Both: An Intersex Life, I’m intersex and gender-fluid (meaning my gender identity and expression changes), but I was assigned and raised female. I’ve identified as a woman for the majority of my life—without being forced to undergo a clitoral reduction surgery—and I didn’t mind one bit that I was more endowed than many of my sisters . In fact, as one might imagine, given the clitoris’ previously stated role, I’ve considered being a well-hung woman quite a gift.
This gift, however, is not one that our culture seems to think women should have. But I’m left thinking, “Really, folks? Didn’t we get over these notions in the “sex-positive” 1980’s and ‘90’s?” Apparently not, because intersex women with genital variance are being cut up because we’re considered too endowed—too sexually endowed—which is a classic example of society’s desire to limit women’s sexual capacity and pleasure.
As an excellent Harvard Law Review article explains, FGM and IGM are both performed to uphold cultural ideas of femininity and womanhood. In African cultures there’s a belief that FGM will make girls more attractive and “marriageable” to men, and in American culture there’s a belief that IGM will make girls more attractive and marriageable to men.
As Dan Savage explores in “Doctors Treating Pregnant Women with Experimental Drug to Prevent Lesbianism,” some doctors believe that “virilization” in intersex girls (which is responsible for genital variance) is synonymous with lesbianism—and they want to stop it. They believe it may be possible to do so with pre-natal drugs, which they believe can also “prevent the births of girls who display an ‘abnormal’ disinterest in babies, don’t want to play with girls’ toys or become mothers, and whose ‘career preferences’ are deemed too ‘masculine.’”
So whereas FGM is performed to limit women’s sexuality, IGM is performed to limit not just sexuality ― specifically lesbian sexuality ― but to ensure that women grow up to stay home, have babies, and behave appropriately “feminine” ― an ancient sexist endeavor with a modern intersex twist.
However, doctors are wrong to think all virilized girls will become lesbians. Quite a few women whose natural variance is still intact have contacted me over the years, and the majority have been straight. They’ve relayed how happy they and their husbands are with their sex lives due to their abundant, highly sensitive lady parts.
I’ve also heard many non-intersex women joke over the years that they wish they were better endowed. For example, Meredith Vieira once joked on an episode of The View, during which they were discussing the 20/20 segment on intersex that I would appear in that night, that she was just happy she’d finally found her clitoris! Indeed. How can we hope to empower women and women’s sexuality when we’re passively allowing the surgical mutilation of the female pleasure organ — specifically because it’s deemed “too” abundant?
The bottom line is that sexual pleasure is important, and when millions of dollars are being spent to ensure that men can continue to experience it, everyone concerned with women’s equality should be up in arms about women being denied theirs. The practice suppresses women by keeping us disconnected from the human birthright of pleasure and joy, and it’s a part of women’s history that should be relegated to just that: the past. But becoming a truly sex-positive society entails being an intersex-positive society, because amputating heathy clitorises without their owners’ consent is a women’s issue, and it’s still happening to intersex babies.