…but I’ve been sitting on this column by Hanna Rosin @ Slate for a while now and I just can’t get the anger out of my bloodstream. So I’m going to blog it out and see if that helps.
Oh, Ms. Rosin. If only you would quit writing stuff that makes me so mad! I really liked your work in God’s Harvard, I did, and although you glossed a bit too, well, glossily, over the non-fundie history of home education and emoted a little too strongly about the cherubic goodness of your subjects — despite the fact they’re happily growing up into the next generation of Dick Cheneys and Karl Roves — I was willing to forgive you the oversight. Write it off as the slightly rose-tinted view of a researcher who has grown close to, and thus a bit fond of, her subject. I mean, we’ve all been there, done that.
But you keep on writing shit about gender that pisses me off. In this case, your post up at Slate’s Double X blog about Dr. Poppa, the pediatric urologist at Cornell University who has been performing cosmetic surgery on babies whose clitorises are deemed “too large.” (See sunday smut no. 27 for my initial reaction.) Rosin is upset by the outrage in the blogosphere, which she believes focuses unduly on the sensational nature of Poppa’s research (“he touches six-year-old girls’ clits!”) and ignores the fact that the good Doctor is trying to reach what in her mind appears to be a positive goal: girls with clits that don’t look like penises (achieved through surgical reduction) and yet still retain the nerves necessary to give the patients sexual pleasure.
To his critics, however, these details [Poppa’s quest for a better clitoroplasty] don’t matter. [Dan] Savage calls this a conspiracy of “out and out homophobia.” He claims the medical establishment pushes these operations because girls with bigger clitorises are more likely to be lesbian. This claim is a stretch; girls with CAH are only slightly more likely to be lesbians or tomboyish when they are young. The vast majority are heterosexual and comfortable as girls. Gender norms have shifted pretty drastically in the 40 years that this operation has been performed, and still more than 95 percent of parents choose it for their children. Why? Because much as Savage might like it to be, the world is not yet a place where most little girls can have a clitoris that looks like a penis and feel entirely at ease. And few parents would want to use their daughter to test that proposition.
I just — I can’t — I’m floored by the the utter wrongness of this as a goal. Aside from the question of trying to regulate children’s sexual orientation and gender presentation (see the coverage of hormone treatments for potentially CAH babies as another, related example of how fearful we are of children who might possibly not conform: don’t try to tell me this isn’t about gender and sexuality policing), Rosin overlooks the fact that we’re talking about medical practitioners who perform potentially debilitating cosmetic surgery on infants.
It’s not that “details don’t matter” (excuse me??) The details fucking matter. The detail, for example, that decisions about what a “normal” clit looks like are aesthetic decisions, made by doctors influenced heavily by cultural norms (see Anne Faustos-Sterling’s Sexing the Body). The detail that this is not surgery the children need in order to be physically healthy or experience sexual pleasure. In fact, it jeopardizes their sexual pleasure so that their genitals will conform.
Now I realize, despite my own aversion to being cut open with sharp instruments, that some people are less freaked out by surgery than I am. And I realize that surgery saves lives. I also recognize the right of adults to alter their bodies, even when not medically necessary, to better suit their vision of how their bodies should look and feel — even if I would not make those same decisions. But children whose bodies are physically healthy should be allowed to grow up without surgical alteration until they are adults and have the cognitive and legal ability to make up their own freakin’ minds. By suggesting that parents who consent to altering their children’s bodies in this way — again: risking their child’s capacity for physical pleasure out of the desire that their bodies visually conform to the gender binary — are saving their children the possibility that their genitals might make them ill-at-ease, Rosin is leaning on mid-20th-century theories about psycho-sexual development (themselves highly homophobic) that suggested children were somehow irreparably damaged by any experience of ambiguity when it comes to their gender or sexual orientation.
Has she not stopped to ask herself whether, maybe, it’s adult fear of nonconformity, rather than young peoples, that is driving this need to surgically alter our children to erase the beautiful variation that is human existence? Isn’t it better to tell and show your child that you think her body beautiful than to make it clear — through imposing upon her painful surgical procedures and years of follow-up medical tests and treatments — that she is somehow not quite “right”? Isn’t it better to make your home a harbor from whatever toxic gender-enforcing messages are out there in the culture than to be the first to rigorously enforce those standards? What object-lesson are you teaching your child here: That it’s important to conform to arbitrary cultural standards no matter the cost? That one must sacrifice pleasure for the sake of superficial appearance? That to be a “girl” or a “woman” one must alter one’s body to fit cultural expectations of what it means to be feminine?
Above all, it sends the message that the person you are when you are born is not okay, that your physical body is not acceptable even if it is pain-free and carries you everywhere you want to go, and gives you pleasurable sensations, digests your food, thinks complex thoughts, learns new skills, experience a full range of emotion, and helps you explore the world with curiosity and joy.
Again, this is not meant to be anti-surgery in cases where surgery can demonstrably improve a patients life. But activists have been pointing out for years that it is beneficial to be patient and allow children to grow into their own sex and gender identities in the fullness of time, before limiting their options prematurely by surgical means.
Rosin’s critique of Poppa’s online critics makes it sound like we’re a bunch of irrational drama queens who are unable to think about children and sex in close textual proximity without losing the ability to reason. I really, really wish she would quit being so fearful that children not surgically modified will be unhappy with their genitals and start asking why we feel such a strong need to police peoples’ genitalia in the first place. If she’s really worried about these children who are going to grow up feeling awkward about their bodies (as an aside: isn’t that really just part of the human condition? who doesn’t feel awkward in their own skin sometimes?) shouldn’t she be using her platform as a nationally-recognized journalist to speak out more forcefully against the conditions that make them so?
There. Rant over. I’m now feeling a bit calmer. And will go home to enjoy the company of my partner, who often despairs at the amount of verbiage I am willing to generate in the name of feminism. Sorry, honey! I think it might be congenital. Maybe they have a surgery to correct it?
It's really disturbing to discover that these medical practices, which I had thought to be a thing of the past, are still happening, as well as to read some of the terrible rationales for them. I recently introduced a screening of the film XXY, which dramatises some of these issues in a really powerful way and which clarifies the message that children in particular should be celebrated for the body they have and not be mutilated to conform with someone else's (often very oppressive) values. Thanks for ranting 🙂
Hanna Rosin virtually ALWAYS deserves to be ranted at, but I don't think Dr. Poppa himself deserves quite as much as he's been getting. Of course this surgery shouldn't be happening, of course parents shouldn't be requesting it — but they are, and he and other doctors do the surgery at their request. I don't think that is right. But it is worth noting that the actual research he's doing that started this whole thing is trying to figure out how to make the surgery have less impact on the future sexual lives of these children. In a world where, deplorably, parents insist on this surgery, figuring out how to do it with minimal impact to the child's future sexual health does seem like a worth-while goal. Though, of course, convincing parents NOT to insist on the surgery is an even better goal.
@tasha_beck, thanks for the thoughts and encouragement :). I'll have to check out the film.
@Greensparrow, I agree with you that an “omg Dr. Poppa touched the clits of little girls with vibrators!!!” response isn't very useful. In my mind, the point isn't that he did this, the point is that the whole practice of doing clitoroplasties on children who cannot consent to cosmetic surgery is unethical. Poppa is practicing medicine in a medical community and broader culture that condones this alteration of children's bodies when they are too young to make informed decisions about this permanent action.
If he were doing research on adults who had consent to the procedure, or if he were doing research with children who required genital surgery out of medical necessity, then I do agree with you that the research question he is asking (i.e. can we do a better job with this necessary surgery so patients retain more sensation?) should be lauded. It's not the question that's at fault, it's the situation in which the research was carried out!
Fantastic post. I still cannot believe that we alter our children's genitals for cosmetic reasons. It's sickening.