Guest Post: Body Shaming is Unacceptable, Even if Directed at Vile People. An Intersex Critique of “Small Dick Energy” 

We can be specific. Every year, babies are born with innate differences in their sex characteristics that have been medicalised, prompting doctors to (try to) reshape their bodies to fit with dominant gender norms. For decades now, the “standard of care” for these babies, if their phallus is deemed “too small” for a boy, has been to surgically assign them to the female sex — notwithstanding XY chromosomes or testicles. But there is no evidence that non-voluntary infant phallus amputations actually improve quality of life compared to voluntary genital surgeries later in life, or to no surgeries plus psychosocial support.
Guest post by Morgan Carpenter, bioethicist; co-founder and executive director, Intersex Human Rights Australia; Magda Rakita co-founder and executive director, Fundacja Interakcja (Poland), and co-chair, OII Europe; and Bo Laurent, founder, Intersex Society of North America
Like thousands of other people born with traits like ours, we have each been subjected, without our own informed consent, to risky and invasive surgeries intended to make our bodies fit surgeons’ ideas about how female and male bodies should “ideally” look and function.
Greta’s ill-chosen words contribute to the hostile social environment for intersex people that motivates and enables these abuses. And it contributes to shame that makes it hard for those who have been harmed to speak out.
This is not a tiny population. Instead, there are a sizable number of people born with actual “small dicks” according to doctors’ subjective impressions. These impressions, in turn, are shaped by wider social norms about what counts as an acceptable phallus size for a boy or girl.
It is time to relegate “small dick” to the dustbin of pejoratives now deemed deeply offensive.
Don’t get us wrong. Rhetorically taking someone down a notch is undoubtedly sometimes appropriate. Especially if they have an inflated ego, an objectionable moral character, and regularly disrespect others, as appears to be the case with Tate.
Instead, surgeons who operate on intersex children have dismissed intersex people who speak up about our experiences as “disgruntled” or even “zealots.”
Well, since you asked, we aren’t actually sure that “an eye for an eye” is the most promising ethical framework for this situation, or really any situation. Nor are we convinced that ridiculing people by associating them with an intimate body part — here, one assumed to be pitiable — is a good idea, even if the “only” people who have that body part are members of a socially privileged class.
We can already picture the eye-rolls.
We have been made to know our bodies are fascinating, disgusting, weird, inadequate, or incomplete — in need of “fixing.” Scornful remarks premised on the idea that a “small dick” is something to be ashamed of are not benign: they have real-world consequences.
The “standard of care” is based on untested assumptions and fear. Meanwhile, there is abundant evidence that unchosen, medically unnecessary intersex surgeries have caused many of their intended beneficiaries permanent physical and psychological harm.
However, as we will explain in a moment, not everyone with a “dick” is socially privileged in this way.
Notions about shame and future risks of stigmatization in locker rooms are some of the main rationales cited by medical doctors to justify surgeries on people with genitals considered “inadequate” for their assigned/assumed sex. Similarly, the vision of their child being bullied or ridiculed is often enough to convince parents to agree to medically unnecessary and risky interventions.
We recognize that “small dick energy” is a play on “big dick energy” — a phrase that implies confidence and self-possession, evidently based on the idea that having a big phallus, as a male, is correlated with sexual prowess. “You’re not the stud you think you are,” is, as we are fully aware, the gist of the message Thunberg meant to convey.
These cases and our own stories are not historical anomalies—they follow standard clinical practice in many hospitals still today. That is why we have been active, on three different continents, in the intersex movement that has worked now for three decades to end these devastating practices.
We aren’t against mocking misogynists.
“Come on,” you might be thinking, “Isn’t it men who have dicks — excuse me, penises — whether big or small, and aren’t men fair game for a little body-related disparagement? They are hardly a marginalized group of people. Besides, they comment on women’s bodies all the time. If they can dish it out, they should be able to take it.”
This has meant, among other invasive operations, surgically amputating most of the child’s “too-small dick” (now reinterpreted as an overly large clitoris), often impairing sexual feeling and function for life.
When used as a slur, we argue, the phrase “small dick” belongs to a problematic class of body-shaming retorts. It is like impugning someone with a pejorative that refers to a person with a neuromuscular disorder, or to a person with a cognitive disability.
We don’t have to write out the negative terms here; we know they are no longer acceptable. And it doesn’t matter if those words are used to target people without these traits. Such words hurt people who are not even part of the discussion. They become collateral damage.
But as people born with intersex traits — that is, with sexual anatomy judged not to fit the “ideal” mold for male or female appearance, including with respect to phallus size — we have a markedly different perspective on the specific phrase employed by Thunberg to try to convey it.
We love Greta Thunberg. But we were hurt and disappointed that she chose “small dick energy” as a pejorative in her recent Twitter exchange with the self-proclaimed “misogynist influencer” Andrew Tate. This particular choice of words was not, in our view, the self-evidently praiseworthy retort that many progressive commentators took it to be.
In Australia, a Family Court approved the request of surgeons to be allowed to remove the testes of a preschool child with atypical sex characteristics. Assigned female at birth, the child had been subjected to surgery to supposedly “enhance the appearance of her female genitalia.”
Yet although genital “normalization” surgeries have been universally denounced by the United Nations and by human rights organizations in the US, Australia, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe, they have not abated.
To reiterate: such children can face the literal removal of their penises and testes. This kind of non-consensual genital surgery, experienced as mutilating by many who underwent it, is what happened to “MC” — a child whose case resulted in a lawsuit pressed by the intersex advocacy group interACT Advocates and Southern Poverty Law Center.
But we are against doing so by alluding to, or making disparaging comments about, body parts or mental attributes possessed by marginalized people — people who suffer unjust stigma due to those very traits.
That sentiment in itself is unobjectionable.