I got this next story from another writer on Twitter, N. K. Jemisin, about a protest against unneeded vaginal surgery. I want to point out first that what I’m about to talk about has nothing to do with Nora or her views on this topic, only with my interpretation of the article and its presentation of the topic. I also want to make clear that Muff March may have a more complex message that I’m not getting, and this could be a problem with bad reporting. If this is bad reporting, and I can find a better presentation of the message, or if someone can link me to one, I will update this topic.
The Muff March protest sounds good on the surface, being opposed to unneeded genital procedures, but the problem is the tone of the article doesn’t make this issue clear, as in which procedures are being done for the “wrong” reasons, and it goes into some uses of sexism and fear mongering in its presentation. The article uses language meant to cast all surgeries in a bad light like: (emphasis mine)
“At its most modest, the Muff March is against the pornography-influenced obsession with removing pubic hair. But it’s also about protesting against the sort of surgery that makes you cross your legs.”
“In the US this industry is worth $6.8m (£4.4m). In the UK the latest figures come from a 2009 report in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. It revealed that in 2008 the number of operations increased by 70% compared with the previous year: 1,118 labiaplasty operations on the NHS. (There were 669 in 2007 and 404 in 2006.) And that’s just the NHS. The Harley Medical Group reported over 5,000 inquiries about cosmetic gynaecology last year, 65% for labial reduction.”
Oh, my god, it’s an epidemic of insane pussy tightening! Grab your genitals in fear of scalpels! The porn industry wants you to shave your genitals! The filth! The fear! (O_0)
Note how the statistics are trumpeted to declare how many labiaplasty operations there were, and how many more were done this year than the last, but doesn’t say how many were medically necessary and how many were for soothing minor vanity issues. It doesn’t say how many were transsexual women going in for their second stage labiaplasty, or how many were women coming in after having their vaginas cut during a birthing, and now need cosmetic corrections to reduce scarring. (Because scars lack enough nerve endings for proper tactile sensation and may hinder sexual function.) There is no assumption that some of these are for the right reasons. The assumption is made that most aren’t needed, and therefore this epidemic must be protested.
Let me talk to you about body dysphoria. I’m a minor expert on this, having dealt with the problem personally, and having a LOT of friends with genital and body dysphoria. So I know that if a woman has misshaped labia, with one labia significantly larger than the other, she may feel uncomfortable with her body, even if she’s never watched porn or thought about how all vaginas are different. Her sex partners, whether by verbal or more subtle cues, can make her aware that she is different down there. Enough poor encounters can make her unable to have sex because she’s uncomfortable and can’t get in the right mood for sex. In other cases, a misshaped or lopsided genital appearance makes the dysphoric person suffer even without outside validation, and they can’t even masturbate without feeling awkward.
As for genital electrolysis, there are women who have hair inside their vaginal tunnel or their inner labia. Not only is this embarrassing, it can also be irritating or turn into a health problem. And even when a woman chooses to “zap” her bikini line so she doesn’t have curly hair peeking outside her swimsuit, I don’t see a problem with her choosing to spend her money appeasing her vanities. I also don’t see how this desire to remove pubic hair instantly translates to being “porn-influenced.” In fact, invoking porn here reveals an ulterior motive for the protest that has nothing to do with healthy body images, and has more to do with a prejudice against porn.
Let me be clear. If the Muff March people had pointed to a porn company that was encouraging ladies to go in for muff altering procedures, even for electrolysis of their bikini line, I would be on that story like Garfield on a lasagna. I’d be looking forward to roasting the bastards telling women that to work in porn, they had to fit a certain “vaginal look.” But I have never heard of such a thing in porn, and I watch a lot of porn. Back in the day, I was a webmaster uploading porn (much like David Sands in Haunting Sins), so I had to watch a lot of porn that I might NEVER have clicked on of my own volition. (But if I’m watching it on an hourly salary, that’s not too painful. I digress.) I’ve seen a lot of vaginas because of my porny habits, and they’re all different shapes and sizes. There is no porn-default perfect pussy. Doesn’t exist.
I have heard of porn models being asked to shave for certain genres of video, but hell, that’s no different than asking an actress to cut her hair or dye it for a role. Women dye their hair to appease their vanities and no one feels a need to tear them down for the desire to change their heads. Where these people are really protesting is the idea that women are harming themselves in the name of a false body image. But I would suggest that women have as much right to decide the appearance of their vag as they do the length and color of their hair.
But let’s get back to the porn. Some videos are themed for shaved women, but a lot aren’t. If you wander more to certain kinds of Teens categories, there’s a tendency to shave a small-breasted model and have her baby talk and play on sets that imply she’s 12, not 18. And folks, I don’t go in for that kind of porn. I’ve just encountered varying forms of the theme while wandering through the teens category in search of something slightly more mature. But I can tell you, the fake kiddie crap is out there. Yes, it’s unhealthy, but it’s just one genre out of hundreds in a huge industry where there is no default body type or “look.” So to take that one unhealthy facet and say “All porn encourages pussy shaving and electrolysis in the same way” makes you just as misinformed as a conservative Christian who only listens to his pastor.
“But Zoe,” you say, “Some women are doing this because they think their pussy looks loose, and they shouldn’t have surgery down there. It’s WRONG! Why can’t you admit that it’s WRONG?”
Who in the hell appointed you as the judge of how other women view their bodies? If a 38-year-old woman with four kids feels her pussy lips are a bit too loose for her to enjoy sex and tightens her labia so her husband’s four-inch tool feels good again, are you going to say she shouldn’t want better sensation in sex? Is her enjoyment of sex also incompatible with modern feminism?
“Well of course not, Zoe. We’re only protesting the unneeded surgeries.” Well that’s a vague statement that risks making even legitimate surgeries look harmful in the public eye. I can give you many clear and valid examples of why women might want or need these procedures. But you can’t really give examples of how porn is influencing women to have genital electrolysis, nor can you explain how labiaplasty is hurting these women. The protest only sounds logical until you think about it with a clear head. The one claim that comes through in this march is that some women’s vaginas should be protected from themselves. I disagree, and I think all women should be free to decide how their body looks, even if other women think it’s “wrong.”
I’m all for protesting unneeded surgery. If Muff March was protesting female circumcision, I’d see that as a clear goal, and we wouldn’t even need to discuss their motivations. But labiaplasty is not the same thing. It is not a harmful surgery, nor is it dangerous. The doctors’ goals in this kind of cosmetic procedure includes the preservation of function and sensation, and on minimizing scar damage. I need to repeat this: the surgery is not harmful. Unlike a breast implant, there’s no side effect that can lead to lifelong complications. There’s nothing to regret later. It is an outpatient procedure with almost no downtime for the patient, and will not strip a female of her sexuality the way female circumcision would.
It may possibly be used by some girls who are a little too focused on fitting in with a certain body image, but that is a problem that needs to be addressed with each girl on a case by case basis, and any girl who watched porn would quickly learn that there is no one right look to vaginas. It is only an uninformed teen with no experience who looks down on her labia (pun intended) and wonders if they somehow look wrong. Mind you, I’m not saying show your daughter porn to give her a healthy image of women’s roles. I’m just saying, watching porn would quickly validate that not every vagina looks symmetrical or “tight.” It would not convince them that there is a factory default vag.
More to the point, a woman’s decision to have labiaplasty, for whatever reason, is not up for a matter of public discussion, especially not from a group of women who know nothing on the topic and can’t be bothered to do research or to present their case more clearly. I’m all for people protesting, and I can agree that some girls go in for surgeries they don’t need. But I wouldn’t want to deny those girls a surgery if it meant women in need might also be denied because some arbitrary exam decided she wanted the surgery for the “wrong reasons.” I don’t want other women deciding what’s right for my body, or any woman’s body, anymore than I want a man doing it.
Feminists, you argue that women should have dominion over our female bits on the inside, that we should be for the choice to have abortions even if we don’t want abortions or can’t have kids. Okay, I’ll agree to that pro-choice stance, but then you want to decide whether electrolysis and labiaplasty are unfit for feminism depending on the motivations for having them. That’s a hypocritical stance, and it insinuates that some women aren’t allowed to be feminists because they don’t have the right attitude about their appearance.
Attaching this protest to an anti-porn stance also guarantees that I’m going to keep my distance. Because even if your main concern is in the right place, your ignorance on the topic and its underlying sources ensure that all you do is bark up the wrong trees. So maybe it will offend you that I’m not joining your protest. But I’ll ask you something, and if you can answer this satisfactorily, I will change my stance. Can you define the negative side effects of pubic hair removal or labiaplasty? Will it later lead to shame for the woman, or to health problems? Can you point to anything that makes this a more important issue than the rising interest in female circumcision in first world countries? Because if not, I’m sorry, but I think the Muff March is misguided feminism at its worst. They have no clear goal, and they’re motivated by misguided notions of moral superiority.