Published in the Fall 2005 issue • Features
Making the Cut
Forget boob jobs and Botox. These days, the pressure to be perfect is hitting many women below the belt
Continued from page 1
Beyond physical risks, many criticize genital surgery on principle. “I think it is sick and reprehensible that doctors would perform surgery on women’s vaginas to improve their patients’ self-esteem,” sex therapist Marjorie Rosen told the Allentown Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper.
Simone Davis, a professor and gender theorist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, fears that labiaplasty makes all women look pretty much the same between our legs, even though we are born looking very different. Surgeons perpetuate the idea that there is a right and a wrong way for a woman to look, and the right way is to have a “clean slit,” says Davis. “There’s a trend in the U.S. to wipe away all blemishes, and we do it with makeup, we do it with plastic surgery ? Labia are neither inside nor outside, they are gateway tissues, and they kind of represent a part that is confusing.”
Davis points out that before the rise of pornography, most people were not exposed to images of female genitals. Most heterosexual women have only seen their own vaginas and picture-perfect porn images, making it easy to prey upon their insecurities and doubts.
Although cosmetic labiaplasty is a new trend, people have been cutting up women’s vulvas for centuries in various regions of the world. In many parts of Africa and the Middle East, girls routinely undergo clitoridectomies (have their clitorises cut off) as part of coming-of-age rituals. In the most extreme version of female circumcision, as it’s often called — or female genital mutilation (FGM), as the Canadian court system refers to it — the entire clitoris and all of the labia minora are cut off, and the vaginal opening is sewn partially together. The idea is that if a woman experiences pain rather than pleasure during sex, she will stay faithful to her husband.
Although FGM is illegal in both the U.S. and Canada, Davis says, “when you really look carefully at the language used in some of those laws, they would also make illegal the labiaplasties that are being done by plastic surgeons in the U.S.”
Europe and North America have a long history of women’s clitorises being removed. For example, a 19th-century English doctor performed a number of clitoridectomies to reduce “hysteria” and to combat “excessive” masturbation. He was criticized in England, but some American doctors enthusiastically began to slice women’s reproductive organs to try to “correct” female behaviour. They would remove the hood or the ovaries to “elevate the moral sense of the person.” The practice continued into the 20th century, often as a supposed cure for marital unhappiness.
In 1959, a doctor named W.G. Rathmann published an article in a respected scientific journal about a clamp he’d created to cut the hood off in one clean stroke. Rathmann felt that if a woman climaxed more easily, she and her male partner would be happier. One of his patients, he claims, had divorced four times before seeing him, and supposedly said she had “wasted four perfectly good husbands” by not having surgery sooner. This may sound old-fashioned, but modern-day doctor Stern also claims that for many, a labiaplasty or vaginal tightening can “save their marriage.”
Rathmann presented his ideas as though he was motivated by compassion for women. However, like many of his medical peers, he thought female genital surgery was the solution to not only sexual frustration and female insecurity, but also male ignorance and stupidity: “If the husband is unusually awkward or difficult to educate, one should at times make the clitoris easier to find.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, Ohio gynecologist James Burt performed more than 4,500 of his own “surgeries of love” — most without consent. While women were on his operating table for other problems, such as incontinence, he would reposition their vaginas to a different angle and trim their clitoral hoods. He felt God had improperly designed a woman’s insides to suit a man’s pleasure, and saw himself as correcting the mistake.
Burt eventually lost his license. His patients wound up with horrendous infections, pain during sex, chronic bowel and urinary problems, loss of sexual sensation — and $20 million from the Ohio Supreme Court.
Today, for a mere $3,500 to $7,000, women are beating a path to the plastic surgeon’s door. “People say that what is so awful about [African] ritual cutting is that they do it without consent,” says Davis, “but in the west, we do consent, and we even pay for the privilege!”