What You Need To Know About Intersex Genital Mutilation

It’s an indisputable fact that biological sex cannot be neatly divided into the binary categories of 'male' and 'female'. However, there is an overwhelming societal reluctance to acknowledge the wide spectrum of biological sex – a reluctance that contributes not only to the erasure of intersex identities worldwide, but also to the number of ritual surgeries still performed on intersex bodies. This type of surgery is known as Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM), and takes place with alarming regularity within both developed and lesser-developed countries across the globe.

Despite their unnecessary nature, intersex activist Morgan Carpenter points out that these procedures are often justified as 'corrective'. “Genital mutilations don’t take place because infants have a particular identity,” explains Carpenter. “They take place because the kids are considered to be disordered – and this is wrong. The only disorder in most cases is that our bodies don’t fit medical and social expectations of what it means to look male or female.”

In the United Kingdom specifically, the justification of these mutilations as 'corrective' was last year negated when the country was internationally condemned for human rights violations, tortures and crimes against the child. These condemnations were based on a periodic review carried out by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), for which Holly Greenberry collated data on behalf of IntersexUK, the human rights organisation she cofounded alongside Dawn Vago. “Over 18 UN treaty bodies opposed the UK’s approach,” explains Greenberry. “These include the High Commissioner of Human Rights and the special rapporteur from the Committee Against Torture.”

These various violations of international human rights laws go a long way towards explaining the lack of time allotted to discussion of IGM in the UK parliament. “It’s somewhat of a ‘loaded gun’ to acknowledge that your public health service sterilises and performs anatomical sex assignment and genital mutilation surgeries on children,” argues Greenberry. “These children are not allowed to grow and determine their own bodily autonomy, whereas the lack of parental support and peer contact undermines the parents’ right to full information and understanding of their child’s future needs." In the UK, in cases of intersexed children, the approach is generally to operate first and discuss later.

A lengthy modification and misunderstanding of history also contributes to the problem. The origins of IGM are often traced back to the work of psychologist John Money, who established a theory that it was possible to assign a child’s sex and raise them according to the gender that the doctor or parent felt was best. In fact, it was specialist paediatrician Lawson Wilkins who actually ‘invented’ and established the standards of these surgeries. Money just exacerbated the problem.

Money’s theory was famously tested on David Reimer – initially known anonymously as ‘John/Joan’ – a biological male whose penis was accidentally destroyed during a botched circumcision and who was subsequently raised as female. Reimer eventually committed suicide; he had suffered severe depression after opening up about his experiences in order to discourage sex reassignment surgeries from taking place in the future. And yet, as Greenberry explains, “This surgical approach and model is still followed today despite being illegal under international law.”

Despite being ignored throughout history, intersex identities have a large presence in medical and mythological literature

Activists are fighting this, though. Last year, the artist Ela Xora launched a series of exhibitions entitled Signs of Intersex People, a response to the discovery that, in the past, Cambridge’s Museum of Classical Archaeology had banned intersex deity sculptures. “Museums have erased intersex bodies – they consciously banned ancient intersex history and artefacts from their collections, arguing that ‘intersex bodies are not fit for the public to see,'’' says Xora. "This effectively masked historical intersex figures from history; from the public, from their students. This exacerbates the invisibility of intersex bodies in the past, present and future.” This invisibility is a key problem – erasure leads to dehumanisation which, in turn, leads to the continued justification for these mutilations.

Xora points out that, despite being frequently ignored throughout history, intersex identities have a large presence within both medical and mythological literature. She also points to the importance of terminology in the practice of undermining what she describes as the "grey scale" of biological sex: “Intersex is well-documented but referred to in history under different names such as ‘hermaphrodite’. In reality, the idea that biological sex is binary in nature is a myth born from myths.”

It’s also more common than many may initially think – Greenberry claims that around 1 in every 150 children in the UK has some degree of sex characteristic variation (estimates vary by source), yet the medical and professional care dedicated to intersex people is “appalling – not in line with the quality care and overwhelming value that the NHS professionals offer”. Whether this anomalous treatment indicates deliberate discrimination or mere lack of education, it’s clear that further action needs to be taken.

One initiative to raise the visibility of intersex identities is the establishment of two days of importance – Intersex Awareness Day (26th October) and the Intersex Day of Solidarity (8th November). The former commemorates a demonstration by a small group of intersex friends and activists, all of whom had been forced to endure painful surgeries, outside a Boston medical conference in 1996. Morgan Carpenter is largely responsible for the growing awareness of these two dates, founding the Intersex Day project back in 2015. “I aim to bring together the intersex-led and institutional events that mark this date in order to show not only how far we have come, but the challenges still facing us.”

IntersexUK is equally invested in the improvement of intersex rights – not only do members of the organisation travel the country delivering lectures and lived testimonies at medical schools, it is the first NGO in the UK to deliver intersex consultancy and education to a Scottish parliamentary welcome. However, despite support coming directly from the United Nations and various human rights organisations, the issue of IGM is still largely unacknowledged within UK parliament.

When asked what exactly can be done to actively combat the lack of visibility and general erasure of IGM, Carpenter urges the general public to research the problem and share the results. “Write to your MPs and demand change – we have often documented the evidence, we just need more people to speak up. Charitable organisations can also help fund intersex-led work – we’re desperately under-resourced.”

Carpenter says this lack of funding is indicative of general misunderstanding surrounding the true urgency of the problem. “This is not only a case of human rights violations being committed and subsequently justified in developed countries. It is also a case of societal misunderstandings leading to the continuation of an archaic, barbaric practice – once backed up by theoretical evidence which has not only been discredited, but proven to have fatal effects.”
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