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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  1. Ugh, this is just so… what is this I don’t even. I’m starting to have a thought about the New View Campaign that I’ve only ever felt about a few things in my life: that they’re not even wrong. They fail so horribly at intersectionality, especially when it comes to disability and trans* issues, that it makes me just want to go hide under my bed for the next decade or something. (Except I know that I can’t, because my health and sex life are potentially at stake and my body is real, unlike all of these theoretical bodies that they’re so concerned about.)

    It just feels like, without more information, some of this is so… like, can we please get more “citation needed” stuff? How many people are urging women to get cosmetic vulvar surgery? Can we get some names and statistics on this stuff, even? The fact that you can’t even get the names of these clinics to boycott without joining their listserv is all kinds of squick and “NO YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.” If they want people outraged and protesting, shouldn’t they be publicizing the names of specific clinics as much as possible?

    And… admittedly, I haven’t taken a poll, but I keep thinking the average cis woman’s reaction to the whole concept of “laser vaginal rejuvenation” would be something like… instantly crossed legs and “DO NOT WANT.” It’s like the McDonald’s sex clinics that were supposed to be everywhere by now. WHERE THE HELL ARE THEY? The only time I’ve seriously seen anyone advocate female genital surgery for non-pain-related sexual reasons was… on body-mod sites, which discussed things considered pretty extreme even by body-mod standards, and even then I think it was like… just two or three people. (Some of the men on those sites had done, um, much more extreme things to themselves. I won’t mention what any of those things actually were because they’re all very much “cannot unsee” stuff.)

    And… yes, the fact that they can’t tell what’s the result of systemic oppression, vs. treating it as some kind of isolated manifestation of some kind of weird ideology about sexuality. Just fails so hard. (Maybe because people like Leonore Tiefer are viewing sex so firmly through an ideological lens that they can’t see the forest for the trees, and so they can’t imagine anyone else would either.)

    And as far as I can tell, the New View Campaign has never given a shit about trans issues or even noticed that trans people exist. I guess… well, this delves into some stuff that’s far more personal than I care to go into publically now, but there is this whole nasty undercurrent of transphobia in a lot of places where “accept your body as it is” is considered the only acceptable feminist viewpoint. Like trans people don’t have to deal with enough BS and fail from cis people who are absolutely convinced it’s all about not being able to “accept yourself,” that being trans is always based on some kind of faulty reasoning or inability to accept yourself/your body/whatever. And insist on that stupid “medically necessary” vs. “cosmetic” binary without considering whether the nature of someone’s problem (like gender dysphoria) is such that their emotional and likely physical health will suffer severely if they are not allowed to have certain kinds of surgery. Also the fact that in some places, you are actually NOT ALLOWED to change your legal gender UNLESS you have had some kind of surgery. So how does this fit into the “medically necessary” vs. “cosmetic” binary? When someone is going to encounter a constant string of legal snarls and potential severe harassment if they can’t have surgery?

    And people who cling to the “pain is the only valid sexual dysfunction” idea seem to be thinking along the exact same lines– that it’s some sort of faulty conclusion, you failed Logic 101 and/or just watched too much Sex and the City and thought you were supposed to be like that, so you need to let us do your thinking for you. As someone who’s had to struggle a lot over the years to determine which of my disabilities I am genuinely unhappy with, vs. the ones I was unhappy about only because society constantly sends the message that only specific kinds of people count as real people or that certain disabilities are “just an excuse to be lazy/rude/etc,” their low opinion of patients/PWDs here just really pisses me off. That they basically seem to think we can’t think “objectively” about our own bodies, so they have to do the thinking for us.

    I mean, yeah, I can get behind the whole concept of protesting labiaplasty because “they’re not pretty if they’re not symmetrical” or whatever– mine were (TMI) asymmetrical for years– but you know what, I actually stopped worrying about it when I read a book in my mid-teens mentioning that a lot of women had labia that were unevenly sized, and that it doesn’t make you gross or a freak or mean there’s anything wrong with your body. That was all I needed to stop worrying about it, seriously. The whole “OW WHY DOES IT HURT WHEN I TOUCH THERE IT SHOULD NOT HURT” thing, on the other hand, was NOT covered by even the good sex ed books I read (except the ones that just mentioned dyspareunia in passing with “you might have an STI! See your doctor!”), and was much, much, much (repeat a couple dozen times) more disturbing to discover.

    And… if they want to think about bad logic, they should really start in their own backyard and look at how they’re distorting reality for their own ends. Like… until I read your reviews of “Orgasm, Inc.”, the only context in which I had ever heard of the “Orgasmatron” (or something like it with a different name, anyway) was as assistive technology for people with spinal cord injuries who had trouble reaching orgasm. And I thought it was, in principle, a really good idea. Too much of the medical system treats people with spinal cord injuries like they’re just doomed to live an unhappy life forever after, and doesn’t focus on improving the quality of their life at all, so I was glad to see that someone was addressing the area of sexual function as part of quality of life. But it sounds like to hear “Orgasm, Inc”‘s depiction of it, you would never guess that it had ever even been considered for that purpose– that some sleazy guy just invented it to create a fake disease and convince women they had it so he could make money. Four people? Seriously? WTF kind of sample size is that? You could make almost anything in the world sound convincing with a sample size of four. “Inflatable sheep saved my sex life!”, or something, and you could do an entire documentary about it.

    (And I know I haven’t been around here in awhile, sorry about that. I guess it’s just… I’m trying to open up about stuff that’s been a source of intense personal pain to me for almost fifteen years, because I want to help others who might be struggling alone, but sometimes you hit a point where it gets too painful and you just can’t talk about it any more, you have to go do other things for a while. Or a few months.)

    • Remember, this isn’t the first time the New View has staged public protests outside of plastic & laser surgery clinics. As was the case last time, the group did put together a .pdf list of statistics & the articles that talk about what exactly they’re protesting. The old list & the new list are on the NV’s website, which I still refuse to link directly to. (To find it, on their side bar it’s under “Our Campaign -> Vulvanomics 2011” and then there’s a link to this year’s PDF in the last paragraph.)
      So they’ve got the sources cited but I still don’t know what facilities were & were not protested at this year. I think I had to join the listserv or else e-mail someone to find such information. And I’m sure the reason the group kept that private so long was for their own security or to make it so that the facilities didn’t have time to increase their own security.

      In fairness, there’s some evidence to suggest that the New View cares about the trans* community… there’s This abstract, which I don’t have access to the full text right now, something about why LGBT people should care about the NV… And according to this piece: Dr. Tiefer used to interview trans women… but the author’s choice of words to describe the interviews inherently problematic. I see on her NYU page that she wrote some transgender related stuff in the 90s & early 2000s as well, I’m curious to see the full text. Still, I feel 100% comfortable saying I’m having a real hard time finding a connection between the New View & transgender issues.

      Other stuff I’m thinking of:
      Like I seriously don’t get how this is not just yet another form of body policing, in and of itself – protesting outside of plastic & laser surgery facilities. I don’t get how it’s different and therefore worthy of praise rather than criticism. Especially when we hold up individual women who’ve had such procedures done as examples, to use as pariahs.
      See, Hugo Schwyzer (I don’t always like his stuff but sometimes it’s okay) wrote recently about the Real/Fake dichotomy. I think this adds on to what you said about how we’re supposed to be happy with our bodies as they are, and if not then we face social consequences. He directly addresses cosmetic surgery – he cites one patient who deliberately lies about the reason she got a breast augmentation done. She said it was for reconstructive reasons so that she could avoid the stigma and shame of aesthetic reasons.

      That stigma & shame should not be there in the first place. That is the penduluum swinging too far in the other direction. It was supposed to make it so that you could accept flaws & deviations without stigma & shame – now it’s more like enforcement.

      I don’t even know if or how body mods fit in with a discussion of elective cosmetic surgeries. (Also, re what cannot be unseen: SPICE MUST FLOW!)

      And so what I’m thinking is, we give a “Free pass” to people who go through genital surgery “For medical reasons,” whatever the hell that even means; I still don’t get why my vulvar vestibulectomy counts as “medical enough” since I wasn’t going to die and I could have chosen non-surgical treatments instead.
      So why do medical patients even get a Free Pass in the first place? Like I said, I experienced the same thing that the New View criticises – a high price to pay, a side effect (Bartholin’s cyst comes & goes,) and pain (post-surgery; not during.)

      I don’t care anymore what your reason for seeking such a surgery out is in the first place. I think if you’ve decided to go through with something like this, then yeah obviously you should have enough resources & research available to make weigh such a choice in the first place. (That’s something that I’m okay with the New View campaigning for – additional information. But do you gotta do it like this?! I hope no surgeries were actually performed on the day of the protest, because if I hobbled out of the facility to a big crowd of protestors protesting exactly what I just went through – I’d be beyond mortified.) But I figure if you’re going to go through with it, there’s probably not anything I or anyone else can say or do to stop you, and so you better have it done by someone who knows what they’re doing.
      (Note my choice of words here, talking about seeking out on purpose. I’m not talking about folks who get coerced into doing this against their own free will.)

      ALSO something else I’m thinking of, not about surgery, which needs to get fleshed out more (this is very nebulous right now:)
      A few years ago (2009 during the US healthcare debates,) I wrote something about private & public healthcare. I think I need to go back and re-do it, with a focus on Big Pharma.
      In her writing, Dr. Tiefer talks about how, in Europe, Big Pharma doesn’t get to make private advertisements, and Big Pharma doesn’t sell as many drugs overseas. Pharmaceutical companies can’t make as much $ overseas as they can over here in the US (and in New Zealand, where private ads are also allowed.)
      You know what else a lot of European countries have?
      Public healthcare…
      Of course Big Pharma can’t make private ads overseas with public healthcare in place… Government chips in to pay for care. They’re not going to want to foot the bill for privately advertised drugs… they’re going to want to make sure they pay for Good Shit.
      I’m starting to think that Big Pharma isn’t the Final Boss we need to fight. If we have to fight Big Pharma that means we have to take a closer look at lifesaving drugs & reproductive medicine too (The Pill & how it’s advertised – did I mention here before, that Teva Pharmaceutials staged a fake party to celebrate The Pill? But looking at the marketing behind reproductive medicine isn’t going to make me any new friends.)
      I think we need to look over Big Pharma’s shoulder & look at the US’s Private Healthcare system. I think that’s the Final Boss. It’s not Big Pharma, it’s Big Healthcare – Big Pharma is just one symptom, one arm of the problem.

      Also I got the date of the protest mixed up I thought it was Friday it was actually Saturday. Not a super significant error but just to clarify I must have read something wrong somewheres.

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