Questions about Vulvanomics

11/17/2011 at 11:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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This Friday, the New View Campaign will be protesting cosmetic genital surgery clinics and clinics that perform procedures like laser vaginal rejuvenation. In case you’re new here, the New View Campaign is a feminist grassroots organization developed over a decade ago by Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a sexologist and college professor (among other things.) The group’s goals are to present a form of feminist resistance against female sexual dysfunction (their view is largely recognized as THE feminist answer to FSD,) and pharmacological treatments for the conditions that fall under its umbrella; to eradicate cosmetic genital surgeries (or at the very least, to force more research on procesures,) and offer some alternative, non-medical interventions to improve women’s sex lives. The last item means taking a social construction approach to sexuality, a cerebral topic which constitutes another series of blog posts. (Check my archives, I’ve talked about the New View and social construction before.)

This nationwide protest is visible activism as part of their recent Vulvanomics media blitz. The clinics in question have not been publicly named to my knowledge – the group communicates on a listserv instead. I haven’t joined it, due to a clause on the New View website that states joining the listserv means you endorse the group’s philosophy & actions. The New View Campaign does not represent my views and does not speak for me.

It is not the first time the group has publicly protested against vulvar modification. The intentions are good – draw attention to unnecessary asthetic procedures, which target women, are expensive and carry health risks. In spite of this, I wasn’t comfortable with it the first time around. And I remain uneasy, because I fear that their activism has the potetial for some unintended negative consequences.

Full disclosure: I may be a bit biased, seeing as I’m someone who actually knows what it’s like to undergo genital surgery, and as someone who actually has FSD.

As the campaign gets underway, I want to contribute to the hard conversation by raising a few questions about this planned event.

– I understand vulvar and general cosmetic surgeries to be a symptom of a larger problem – body snarking & policing, fatphobia, misogyny and racism – rather than THE problem. Take away cosmetic surgeries, and there will still be these underlying problems remaining. An example of this would be Austrailia’s practice of censoring naturally large labia in softcore pornography.
What steps is this current campaign taking to address the systemic, more intangible problems that may motivate permanent surgical changes in the first place?

– One goal of this round of activism is to get the FDA to monitor cosmetic and laser surgeries and require more rigorous research, to be made available to end users (clients.) That way, women can do better research and make informed decisions about what they do with their bodies.
However, I doubt this type of activism will end there. I got a feeling I can answer my own question above: Even if the New View gets exactly what it wants – which would be beneficial to women – the anti-surgery and anti-medicine activism is likely to move on to new targets. Perhaps then the New View will shift its focus to censorship vs. idealized & unrealistic body representations in pornography, etc. All of which is certainly eligible for a social construction critique.
However, since these systemic problems will still remain, and are likely to be the next area for activism, that means even if you read the material and wanted to go through with surgery, you’ll probably still have your decision questioned. It will never stop and there is no way to do a cosmetic surgery correctly, so you’re just going to have to deal with the stigma and shame of doing it wrong anyway.
So, the question is – are there any conditions in which it is socially acceptable for a woman to undergo cosmetic or sexual surgery on the genitals? If so, what are these conditons?

– One approach to address women’s insecurity about the appearance is to embrace vulvar diversity. But what do we mean by vulva diversity? In galleries of what normal vulvas look like, how often do we see vulvas with visible (if subtle) health problems? Does vulva diversity, a celebration of the wide range of normal, include vulvas like mine which, pretty much everyone including Dr. Tiefer, agrees, is in fact not normal? (Remember, when vulvodynia acts up, a lot of gentle and sexual touches will register to the vulva owner as pain.) And does the movement to celebrate vulvar and body diversify embrace those women who have already undergone modification?

– I notice that this campaign refers to cosmetic genital surgeries as FGCS – it’s not explicitly defined on the petition but I’m pretty sure the acronym translates to “Female genital cutting surgery,” with the intent of invoking FGC, aka FGM – female genital mutilation.
Recall that the film Orgasm, Inc. did not hesitate to use the term FGM, even though it carries a degree of stigma – the implication is that, if you’ve undergone FGM, then you are a mutilated mutant. FGC is more sensitive term.
But how does the New View respond to critics who claim there is a difference between FGC and vulvar cosmetic surgeries? Some critics here, for example, claim there is a difference between damaging girls’ genitals against their will & without their consent, vs. trained surgeons operating on women who seek such procedures out.

– During a recent Feministe shitstorm, (not actually that recent in blog-time but still to soon for me,) (Google “Feministe ‘don’t do this’ just because I’d prefer to avoid trackback trolls for awhile longer,) several commenters deflected questions about medically necessary genital surgeries. The idea seems to be that medically necessary procedures are exempt from critique. That’s different – and I still don’t understand why.
– So how are we defining medically necessary vs. purely asthetic? What criteria is necessary to justify a surgical procedure to a vulva? How do we quantify the amount of discomfort and danger required? How shall we address the intersection of medical, sexual and cosmetic concerns, for example in reconstructive surgery? To that end, were the current surgical facilities subject to the protest screened to ensure that medical patients will not receive unwanted attention?

– Relatedly, some of the New View’s criticisms, and general feminist critique, of cosmetic surgeries include the fact that surgeries hurt, come with health risks, and cost a lot of money. Genital surgeries carry sexual health risks in particular, and the price tag can reach thousands of dollars – just like my medical surgery, which my insurance dicked around about & didn’t reimburse what they were supposed to.
But these concerns – pain, side effects, and cost – are present with medical surgeries as well. So, again, why are medical surgeries, which carry the same risks, not subject to the same critique? (Basically, if cosmetic surgeries are bad because x, y, and z… and I did a surgery that also involved the same x, y, and z… then what makes my situation any more forgivable? Intent? I thought the intent doesn’t matter.)

– During the same recent Feministe shitstorm, I saw a commenter raise concerns about the impact that anti-cosmetic surgery sentiment and activism might have on trans* individuals. Some transsexual women and men undergo top and/or bottom surgery.
Has the New View taken any steps to clarify the difference between GRS and cosmetic surgery? (Of course I suppose transphobes will look for any excuse to be transphobic – and if that means invoking the spectre of cosmetic surgery with all it’s negative implications, – then we’re gonna need a lot more activism to get that to stop.)

In fairness, most of the problematic comments about cosmetic surgery, including genital surgery, is derived from the New View’s work, rather than explicitly stated by representatives of the group. I’ve noticed that in her writing, Dr. Tiefer by and large is very thoughtful about what she puts in print. In contrast on the Feministe post I’m referring to, Jill & co addressed cosmeric surgery as largely an individual provlem, imploring indivduals not to go through with it. Buried in the comments, there was some effort made to address social problems contributing to the spread of this type of surgery… But I had to wade through a whole lot of crap to find it, to the point where I found the thread exhausting. I give up; you win; I disengaged.

The New View has been around for over a decade, stirring up uncomfortable but necessary conversations – and that, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But its still largely the same organization it was ten years ago, and it really should take some time to examine & reevaluate some areas for improvement, especially with regard to its internalized ableism re: FSD and mental illness.

So, I just hope that on Friday, I don’t run into a protest group outside of an outpatient cosmetic surgery facility just like the one where my medical surgery took place. As much as I’d like to be a punk and counter-protest, (I’d be the one holding the sign that says, “New View doesn’t speak for me / Ask me about my surgically altered vagina”) I know myself well enough to recognize that a group of women protesting vulvar surgeries – by using props of tools like the ones used on me – will probably just set off a massive anxiety attack.


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