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“Cutting the clitoris turned intractable women into happy wives.”

shin1068111's picture

First day of class, the gap between gender and technology seemed so large that most of the students in my gender and technology class had trouble describing the interaction between them. However, we have learned that technology has served an important role in altering gender in the current society by reading articles on sex roles in virtual society and medical procedures such as hymenoplasty. Before discussing the interaction between gender and technology, I believe it is important to talk about how my initial thought about gender and technology. Before taking this class at Bryn Mawr College, I, personally, did not have a good idea of gender and was being ignorant about it because I did not know about the complexity of the subject. In my science classes, teachers have taught me that there are two sexes, males and females, which are defined by what types of chromosomes they have. In my social science classes, teachers have taught me that there are two different gender roles, which are defined as men and women. Therefore, sex and gender were nothing more than just concepts with binary categories. I ignorantly thought that there was nothing more to be learned. Therefore, the learning experience about diversity of gender was very confusing or somewhat upsetting at first, because the concept of gender that I knew about was distant from what I was learning in my science and social science classes. A book written by Joan Roughgarden, “Evolution’s rainbow,” was a clear example that has shocked me in a great level. As a person who considers oneself as a scientist, I was astonished to discover all the existing gender diversities in the nature that have been overlooked in all of my science classes. It was even more shocking because I was so used to make connections between sex and gender, but the book has introduced many cases where the connections completely break down. One other example that has shocked me the most would be the article written by Erik Parens, “Thinking about Surgically Shaping Children.” As mentioned, I was educated to believe that there are only two types of sex, male and female. Therefore, the existence and the number of intersex cases and the procedures that are done to them came to me as a shock and wanted to learn more about it.

While searching for more articles related to intersex, I ended up finding an astonishing article about clitorodectomy performed in the United States as a procedure to surgically “cure” the intersex genital problems. Many people, including myself, are aware of the procedure being done in some African countries as a part of their culture. However, they do not know that such procedure is performed on 2000 children a year in the United States. Historically, clitorodectomy as a medical procedure has been initiated around 19th century in England and performed on women in order to minimize their urge to masturbate:

A respected gynecologist named Isaac Baker Brown, who later served as president of the Medical Society of London, has an interesting theory about women: most of their diseases, he believes, can be attributed to over-excitement of the nervous system, and the pudic nerve, which runs into the clitoris, is particularly powerful. When aggravated by habitual stimulation, this nerve puts undue stress on the health of women. He lists what he calls the eight stages of progressive disease triggered by masturbation: first comes hysteria, followed by spinal irritation, hysterical epilepsy, cataleptic fits, epileptic fits, idiocy, mania, and finally, death (Coventry).

He also stated that cutting the clitoris turned intractable women into happy wives. It is very upsetting that we are still performing such obsolete procedures that alter gender identity of women and enhance the old stereotype that women are not supposed to take pleasure out of sexual activities. Then, why do surgeons change the shape of a child’s healthy clitoris about five times a day? The answer is simple; doctors and parents think it is “too large.” Medically, a clitoris that is longer than three eighth inches is considered to be “abnormal” for an infant and parents and doctors are concerned that children will be suffering psychosocial and functional problems as growing up. Interviews and publications from people who have gone thru such procedures have claimed that they still develop serious psychosocial problems. Therefore, such surgical procedures apparently do not achieve the goals that are intended. It is true that having intersex genital organs could cause psychosocial and functional problems. However, it is also true that surgical procedures do not solve the problems entirely, especially when the decision for surgery is made by doctors or parents. When the surgery is performed to make them a “normal” woman with “normal” size of clitoris, they are being forced to be feminized.

In order to minimize surgeries that force intersexual babies into the two pre-existing sex categories, I think it is important to educate people about intersexuality. The psychosocial problems will be minimized when general public acknowledges intersexuality as a type of sex and the functional problem, which might not even exist, could be fixed depending on the individual.

Now it is somewhat clear that technology has shaped gender in various ways, and the effect on gender is increasing more and more as the technology advances. Many people believe that advanced technology would break gender barriers due to the advancement of medical procedures that could easily alter one’s physical appearance, which is widely used to define sex and gender. However, I believe such procedures could strengthen binary sex and gender categories, because intersex people are being forced to fit into one of the categories, because doctors believe that surgical procedures are easily accessible for them to fit into one sex. Instead of building firm binary categories of gender, it would be required to acknowledge gender diversity, which naturally exists. Then, we will be able to minimize the psychosocial problems raised by judgmental views of general public.


Coventry, Martha. "Ms. Magazine Online." Ms. Magazine Online | More Than A Magazine - A Movement. Web. 10 Feb. 2011. <>.

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Anne Dalke's picture

Cutting to the chase

I was interested to see how your paper begins from the position of "shock": shocked first to learn about ecological diversity from Joan Roughgarden, you were shocked a second time to learn from Erik Parens about all the surgical interventions still being performed done to limit that diversity. And so you set out to learn more about clitorodectomies performed in the U.S. to normalize the appearance of intersex infants. A great beginning!

To learn more, you might go beyond (way beyond) "Ms Magazine" as a single resource, and way beyond, too, your reporting on the theories of Baker Brown, who clearly "fell out of favor with the medical establishment" early in Coventry's report. Reports on recent activist work to stop the sorts of interventions that trouble you can be found on the website of the Intersex Society of North America,  which is quite explicit about their work to stop unwanted genital surgeries. Katie Baratz Dalke's lecture to the post-bacs @ Bryn Mawr last week is another very local example of the sort of education you call for.

Which is to say that what you are calling for is what is has already long been well in play. So I guess my real question for you goes back to the place where you began: why you were so shocked to learn about these initiatives. Why did your education not prepare you better for this information? Why were you not educated either in diversity, or about the multiple moves to reduce it? (not to mention the multiple moves to stop such reduction??)

I appreciate what you've done, here, to make your paper internet friendly, by the use of images. I'd nudge you to keep on working in that direction, by looking over the various projects your classmates have done, and trying for a format that goes beyond that of a paper. Form signals content, and this project, which questions the enforcement of the very concept of "normal," might itself begin to play with what we think of as the "norm" for student intellectual work.