It's hard to find words to describe the upset and helpless feelings I have after reading Hannah Rosin's recent piece for Slate about Dr. Dix Poppas, the Cornell University pediatric urologist who has feminist and homo bloggers in an uproar over his questionable methods of genital reconstructive surgery and the subsequent testing methods he uses to check the stimulation level of the private parts of girls as young as 6 years old.
Rosin asserts, "The patients in question are girls with a condition known as CAH, or congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which affects about one in 5,000 girls." Girls with CAH have a large clitoris, and Rosin says, "for many years the standard treatment for this has been... cosmetic reduction of the size of the clitoris, usually done on infants before they turn 1." Note the use of the word cosmetic in that sentence. This surgery is not medically necessary, only asked for by parents who are uncomfortable with the idea of having a daughter with enlarged genitals.
Rosin tries to defend Poppas's actions by suggesting that what he practices is "nerve sparing" surgery, as opposed to the traditional removal of the organ. But as I've discussed, there really are no good reasons for altering a baby's genitals. I've come to the conclusion that if we hope to end the practice of FGM around the world, it's probably time to stop circumcising male babies, too. Yes, arguably male circumcision is a religious rite, but so is handling poisonous snakes. That doesn't mean it's a good idea. Plus, there are men all over the world doing just fine with foreskin who I imagine think circumcision is inhumane.
It's not just Poppas's genital cutting that has his critics on edge, but even more so the methods he uses in testing the effectiveness of his surgeries. Rosin reports that using a vibrator, "with a parent and a female nurse practitioner looking on, the doctor would measure the patient's sensitivity threshold by dialing up the stimulus until she could feel it and rate its intensity." According to reports, the doctor did not stimulate his patients to sexual arousal, but come on! I remember being 4 and knowing that it felt good to touch myself "down there." I'm sure his six-year-old patients were not writhing in ecstasy on their hospital beds, but the act is sure to be emotionally scarring nonetheless. Katy Kelleher at Jezebel says, "At the age of six, these girls are old enough to remember their visits to Poppas's office. They are old enough that the memory of a much older physician stimulating them with a vibrator will be easily accessible in later years. And Poppas wants to do this annually."
Not only are these girls now painfully aware that their pee-pees are "not normal," they're made to feel like Frankenstein. Just because you created a "perfect" genital area, doctor, does not give you unlimited control over the region. (Rosin reports that these testing methods were never approved by higher-ups at Cornell.)
Sex expert and Savage Love columnist Dan Savage is outraged over Pappas's methods, and maintains that "there's nothing wrong with these girls and their healthy, functional-if-larger-than-average clitorises; there's no need to operate on these girls; and surgically altering a girl's clitoris because it's "too big" has been found to do lasting physical and psychological harm." Rosin's true colors come out when she counters that by saying, "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." Exactly, Ms. Rosin. If parents don't feel at ease with their children, how can these girls feel at ease with themselves? What's next, doing facial reconstruction surgery on children with Down Syndrome? One would never hear of such a thing, and most people show off their faces much more frequently than their private parts.
Poppas's work was brought to light by two bioethicists, Alice Dreger and Ellen Feder, who published an article in Bioethics Forum criticizing a 2007 paper Poppas and two colleagues wrote in the Journal of Urology. Dreger has written another critique of Poppas in Psychology Today, saying, "When I once asked a group of women with androgen insensitivity syndrome what they wanted me to work on primarily in my advocacy work, they said stopping the exams, particularly those in which med students, residents, and fellows parade through to check out the surgeon's handiwork."
Any woman who has given birth can probably relate to a small extent. I can't tell you how many strangers stuck their heads and fingers in my vagina during the over-24 hours I was in labor, and though of course I understood it was medically necessary, it is odd to be asked by a pretty, young nurse if you'd mind her shaving your pubes. One of the first hospital staff members I saw after getting my gown on was a young male intern who helped dilate my cervix. It makes me sick to think of the embarrassment young girls are going through, having their genitals poked and prodded and indeed nodded at with approval by men who are dictating what a woman should look like. As a chubby woman, I know what it feels like to be afraid that the world won't accept your naked body as is, but I'm an adult. I can handle those fears. I also contributed to my size and can do something about it, if I so choose. But I want to be accepted for who I am, to the extent that I am naturally curvy, in the same way that girls with enlarged genetalia have every right to consider themselves normal, too.
There is a petition at Change.org to "Tell Cornell University: Stop Genital Mutilation Now." It remains to be seen whether Poppas will be reprimanded by Cornell University for pursuing this methodology without permission. I certainly hope so.