Pharyngula

I don’t know. They seem to come in a range of sizes; when they’re as large as a small male penis, I suppose it might be unexpected, perhaps a little confusing, perhaps a little ambiguous to people intolerant of the idea that the human form is found in intermediate shapes. We know that the variation is normal, and that the frequency of children born with intersex genitals is in the neighborhood of 0.1%, and it really shouldn’t be a matter of serious concern — a large clitoris is as healthy as a small one.

Some parents freak out if their newborn is different, especially if the sex of their child isn’t crystal clear, even if it is a difference as irrelevant as size of the clitoris. And they demand immediate cosmetic surgery, asking that the large clitoris get cut down to a size they want to call “normal”. Seriously, I don’t even know what the “normal” size is, or that it even matters.

And here’s the scary thing: there are doctors who will happily oblige them, whisking young children off to the surgery to whittle their genitalia into a shape their parents will find more pleasing. The child, of course, is too young to have a say — but not too young to have their sex organs truncated.

That’s what Dix Poppas has been doing, chopping up clitorises to meet some nonexistent esthetic ideal. This is unethical: it’s mutilating children who are too young to give consent for entirely cosmetic purposes. If these kids were left alone to grow up, and then as adults they requested such surgery, then fine — the fact that it’s done in kids as young as five is monstrous. It is a non-issue; five year old girls will not be judged on the size of their clitorises, and even adult women should not…but there goes Poppas, wielding his scalpel in the name of a particularly uninformed heteronormativity.

But then this story takes a detour into the twilight zone: after hacking their clitorises, Poppas has the children come in for checkups in which he tests the sensitivity of their genitalia with a vibrator. I will admit, when I heard that at first, I thought it was a reasonable idea — if you’re doing an experiment in which you excise healthy and well-innervated tissue, it’s a good idea to carry out tests afterwards to assess your surgery, and to scientifically measure the extent of the reduction of nerve activity. It’s simple scientific curiosity.

But wait — these kids aren’t part of a science experiment. They’re patients who are being treated. This is not a situation for tinkering and poking and playing strange subjective games with children’s genitalia — it should be entirely about making sure recovery has not taken any unpleasant terms. It’s not as if he can go in and repair the nerves if there is diminished sensitivity, and hey, if there is serious risk of nerve damage in a cosmetic surgery, don’t do it in the first place. I’m an adult who can be aware of the issues, and if I were told that I could get a surgery that would make my penis prettier (for some undefined value of pretty), with only a small chance of nerve damage that would make it unpredictably insensitive, I wouldn’t have to think at all long before saying, “Bye bye, quack”.

These surgeries are bizarre, poorly rationalized, and are being evaluated in inappropriate ways for unexplainable purposes. It needs to stop, now. Poppas’ work should be brought before an ethical review board immediately.