Smith Alum Gives Talk on Genital Surgeries in the U.S.

Olivia Goodman ’14
News Editor

On April 9, the Office of Student Engagement (OSE) hosted graduate Elizabeth Reis ’80, who gave a lecture entitled “Private Parts, Public Problems: Genital Surgeries in the U.S” as part of a year-long lecture series in honor of the inaugural year of the Five College Certificate in Queer and Sexuality Studies, co-sponsored by the RCSG and the UMass Stonewall Center. The Five-College Consortium funded the series, and all five colleges have hosted a number of speakers throughout the year as part of the series.

Reis’ lecture came out of a book project she is currently working on, which examines American attitudes toward genital surgeries, such as neonatal male circumcision, surgeries for female sexual dysfunction, cosmetic vaginal surgery, castration for sex offenders and transsexual and intersex surgeries.

Reis began her talk with the history of intersex and ended with the recent trend in vaginal cosmetic surgeries, or “designer vaginas.”

“I drew some important distinctions between intersex surgeries to ‘correct’ ambiguous genitals and the cosmetic surgeries that women are opting for these days – it’s becoming its own field: cosmeto-gynelogical surgery! – namely, a distinction about the issue of consent,” she said. “Women can consent to the procedures they’re getting like labiaplasty and moving the clitoris, to name a few, but I question whether they’re really given all of the facts when they make these decisions, as well as what motivates these decisions in a social climate obsessed with women’s bodily perfection.”

Assistant Director of the OSE for Student Programs Patrick Connelly, organized the event in collaboration with Genny Beemyn, the Director of the UMass Stonewall Center. “We developed a list of individuals who are nationally known within their academic discipline and respected for their research on queer sexual and gender identities, history and communities. We also sought to touch on topics that were timely for the campuses and the LGBT community as a whole,” he said.

Reis’ hope for her talk, and for her larger book project, is a change in public thinking. “Must bodies and sexual desire be ‘normalized?’ These recent medical interventions are based on the premise that intersex is a condition that needs to be corrected, even at the expense of a person’s basic well-being. Surgeries such as prenatal dex and clitoral reduction have been contrived solely to conform people to our narrow ideals of ‘normal.’ It is time to be mindful that medical views are embedded in a particular context. Once we become explicit about our biases, perhaps we can work to change them,” she explained.

However, Reis makes clear that her research about American attitudes toward genital surgeries is not a “call to action” either promoting or bashing genital surgeries, particularly those that are medically necessary. She is not against gender assignment surgery for intersex infants, for example, but cautions against irreversible surgery to make an infant’s body look more like the chosen assigned gender, since many surgeries done on intersex babies are cosmetic in nature. She advises waiting until people are old enough to make decisions about cosmetic surgeries for themselves.

Her positioning on labiaplasty echoes this sentiment – that grown adults can make their own decisions about their bodies. Reis is examining outside influences, such as marketing and the pressures on females to achieve physical perfection, and is not speaking out against the surgeries themselves.

“If women want labiaplasty for whatever reason, they get to do it. What I don’t like is the intense marketing by surgeons that tries to convince women that there’s something ‘wrong’ and ‘abnormal’ about their bodies, which encourages them to think about their bodies in pathologizing ways,” she said.

“Many surgeons’ websites combine the discussion of cosmetic procedures with those that are medically necessary, and so it is quite easy for women to conflate the two,” Reis continued. “The hype about ‘designer vaginas’ promotes the idea that there is something wrong with women’s genitals that need to be surgically fixed. These surgeries perpetuate a very narrow image of what we consider ‘normal,’ and that’s what I’d like to see changed.”

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