A culturally biased interpretation of law

This post is an edited translation of a text that was first published on the Norwegian feminist blog maddam.no. The Norwegian version was published in the daily Klassekampen April 24, 2012 (see picture below).

Faksimile av Klassekampens utgave av artikkelen
Facsimile of the article published in Klassekampen April 24, 2012.

The hunt for beauty has found a path to the crotch. Designer vaginas are perhaps not a part of the mainstream, but the demand for surgery that aims to beautify the female genitals appears to be on the rise. Legal regulations (at least in Norway), however, seems a little unclear. The Law on Genital Mutilation (Norwegian: Kjønnslemlestelseslova) states that whoever makes irreversible changes to female genitals should be subject to legal penalties. Still, no plastic surgeon has been charged or prosecuted with such a crime. The parliamentary deliberations, which in Norway serve as a source for legal interpretation (link to Norwegian text here) states that the law targets a specific cultural practice. Is that reasonable?

Before continuing, I’d like to explicitly condemn the genital mutilation or so-called «circumcision» of young girls. No-one in their right mind would claim that we should tolerate such practices in Norway. However, if my interpretation of the law stands up to scrutiny, the consequences when it concerns adult, consenting women appear absurd.

In the parliamentary deliberations mentioned, some actions are explicitly excluded from the regulations in The Law on Genital Mutilation:

«The prohibition does not apply to procedures which have a medical reason, e.g. procedures that are necessary during the delivery of children, the removal of genital organs in the course of cancer treatment etc. Corrections of congenital defects, e.g. hermaphroditism, as well as legitimate sex reassignment surgery are also not prohibited.»

This seems to be a reasonable exclusion from the scope of the law. The list of exemptions is not exhaustive, but mentions examples in two main areas: Procedures that are medically necessary and procedures that relate to sexual identity in a strict sense. Does this include genital plastic surgery? In an interview, a Norwegian plastic surgeon performin such surgery, Halfdan Simensen, tells a online celebrity site about his business (link):

«As with breasts, labia come in all shapes and sizes, and almonst anything is normal. But individual freedom is an important point here, and having performed about 500 procedures of this kind, my experience is that they serve a real need. Unfortunately, many gynecologists don’t care about what the women themselves feel.»

In online fora for women, genital plastic surgery is discussed. Some share experiences about problems which obviously need medical attention. Others relate how bicycle seats and underwear are uncofortable. Many stories are about beaty ideals.

One user, for example, explains:

«I don’t dare to wear a bikini, because it makes a big lump appear between my legs. And I’m very afraid of getting intimate.»

Another user appears to have greater issues with her self-esteem:

«The problem is that I don’t want to give birth before I’ve done it [have a labioplasty, my note], no midwife would want to receive a child from my ugly loins…»

Whatever one thinks about these statements and the plastic surgeon’s appeal to heed women’s feelings about genital plastic surgery, it’s difficult to see how the parliamenatry deliberations supporting The Law on Genital Mutilation take into account its subjects individual freedoms and feelings:

«One of the purposes of this bill is to regulate those instances which are not covered by The Penal Code. In particular, consent from a legal and capable adult to a minor procedure could be exempt under The Penal Code. The Ministry proposes that the prohibition applies whether the women has consented to the circumcision or not.»

The Law on Genital Mutilation thus prohibits procedures that permanently alter the genitals of adult women with full mental capabilities, even if they have explicitly consented to them. But isn’t culturally dependent genital mutilation objectively different from genital plastic surgery?

Let’s see what clinics have on offer. One clinic, Plastikkirurgisk institutt, explains in detail which procedures are offered:

1) «reduction and shape correction of the labia minora»

2) «reduction and toning of the labia majora»

3) «shape correction of the clitoral area»

4) «increasing the volume (labia majora, entire genital complex) with the patient’s own fat»

5) «vaginal rejuvenation, i.e. reduction of the inner diameter of the vagina»

6) «liposuction of the genital complex»

According to the definitions put forth by the World Health Organization (WHO), these procedures clearly belong within three of four defined main groups of genital mutilation. The group that is not covered is that which contains the most harmful procedures – among them the so-called pharaonic variant or infibulation – where the labia majora are sewn together.

Bilde som viser de ulike formene for kjønnslemlestelse skjematisk. Et normalt underliv, type I, der klitoris eller bare klitorisforhuden fjernes, type II, illustrert ved at også deler av de indre kjønnsleppene er fjerna, og type 3, der det i tillegg til fjerning a v disse kroppsdelene sys sting på tvers av de ytre kjønnsleppene, slik at hele genitalområdet lukkes.
Schematic illustration of a normal genital area and female genital mutilation of types I, II and III in the most common variants.

Going into details, according to the definitions in the WHO report Eliminating female genital mutilation, a «shape correction of the clitoral area» to some extent falls under FGM type I, partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce. Any procedure that alters the shape of the clitoral area will likely entail the removal of parts of the clitoral prepuce.

«Reduction and shape correction of the labia minora» will be covered by type II, removal of the labia minora only. A variant, type II a, defines as FGM procedures that only target the labia minora

The other procedures will all be covered by the WHO definitions of type IV, a cover-all category for all other harmful or potentially harmful practices that are performed on the genitalia of girls and women. Piercings are explicitly mentioned – body artists beware! Stretching of the labia minora is another phenomenon that is mentioned. Such stretching is not a part of the debate on FGM in a Norwegian, European or North American context, but the WHO’s reasoning for including it is highly relevant to the present discussion:

Labial stretching might be defined as a form of female genital mutilation because it is a social convention, and hence there is social pressure on young girls to modify their genitalia, and because it creates permanent genital


Cutting the vagina or the introduction of harmful substances to make it tighter or to increase one’s own or the partner’s sexual pleasure is also mentioned. «Vaginal rejuvenation» would surely be covered by this definition.

How do the plastic surgeons draw the line? The aforementioned Halfdan Simensen says:

«I reject few, but I want young women to have a referral from a gynecologist and an approval from their mother.»

How then, does he, hypothetically draw the line between an ethnic Norwegian 16 year old, bringing a letter from her mom and saying that «she can’t live with her hideous crotch» and another 16 year old with Senegalese roots who says «I can’t stand the thought of walking around with an unclean, uncircumcised vulva – please remove my labia minora,» while her approving mother waits just outside the doctor’s office.

Or even worse: What about legal adults? If the law currently in effect is interpreted not to prohibit the purely cosmetic surgeries, the only reference in legal texts supporting such a position would be the followin passage in the parliamentary deliberations:

The ministry states that it considers it to be very important that immigrant cultural norms are taken into consideration, but not that any norm is worthy of protection, when the norms in question are repressive or physically destructive.

It could be argued that the immediate harms of cosmetic surgeries are minuscule when compared to genital mutilation. The Law on Genital Mutilation considers the immediate harm when judging the severity of the criminal surgery/procedure. A precondition for a ruling that a case of genital mutilation is «severe», entailing a sentence of up to 8 years of prison, is that

«the procedure leads to illness or incapacity to perform work that lasts more than two weeks, or that an irreparable injury or harm results from it»

A user in a women’s online forum relates her experience with labioplasty:

«I’d got a leave from work for 2 weeks and 3 days. Way too long leave, I thought. Gosh, was I wrong! [I] had such a swelling that I couldn’t leave home for 10 days, and it only subsided after the 13th day. and after three weeks was almost back to normal»

In practice, this means that the only objective legal difference between cosmetic genital surgery and severe genital mutilation, when adult, consenting women are concerned, is the cultural environment in which the desire to have the procedure performed orginates. If the decision is made on the basis of beauty ideals originating in Western culture, whoever performs the procedure seems not only to go free from legal penalties, it’s even allowed to market the procedure and perform it on legal minors. If the decision is made on the basis of other cultural norms, especially African, whoever performs the procedure must face charges.

If this is indeed the legal situation, the part of The Law on Genital Mutilation that concerns adult, consenting individuals, quite surely will be covered by The Law on Discrimination (link to Norwegian text). If we’re not willing to go so far as to prohibit scalpel prettiness, we should at least consider how we relate to the question of being an adult and taking on the responsibility for one’s own body. There is solid, general wording in The Penal Code covering coercion and bodily harm. Is it really necessary to have an extra law just to penalize Africans?