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

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

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.

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.

We aren’t against mocking misogynists.

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.

We can already picture the eye-rolls.

“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.”

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.

However, as we will explain in a moment, not everyone with a “dick” is socially privileged in this way.

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.

That sentiment in itself is unobjectionable.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Instead, surgeons who operate on intersex children have dismissed intersex people who speak up about our experiences as “disgruntled” or even “zealots.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

It is time to relegate “small dick” to the dustbin of pejoratives now deemed deeply offensive.


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6 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for the post. In all the times this tweet came up in the media I follow, I think I only saw one commentator (maybe Chase Strangio?) even suggesting that there might have been an issue with it.

    The tweet raised for me the question of who if anyone gets to weaponise “insults” like this, because I wasn’t immediately sure what Thunberg’s thinking was behind it. My initial assumption on reading the tweet was that she was using the phrase as something she thought Tate would find insulting even though he shouldn’t. She might also have been thinking of him as someone who contributes to the culture of finding it insulting: in using it on him, maybe she thought of it as turning it against him, a kind of revenge. That got me thinking about how I’d feel as a queer person if someone who knew better threw a homophobic insult at someone who was publicly homophobic. It’s hard to imagine ever feeling comfortable with that if the person throwing the insult weren’t queer themselves. If they were queer, then it would at least feel like their revenge to claim. Even then, there’s a difference between a sharp word across a bar, and a tweet that draws 300 million impressions.

  2. Doing a great job of tuning the issue to suit your own WOKE needs and customising it suit what YOU want it to suit. Attempting to hijack one issue and turn it into something else. Seriously, back in your box chocolate. Try another way to get focus on your cause instead of trying to piggyback off someone else. Really pathetic.

    1. Yeah, I don’t appreciate having to think about this WOKE nonsense either. HOW DARE YOU use the best joke of last year to talk about your own life experiences, different to my own no less! Your opinion is not the same as my own, so get over it. There’s nothing wrong with the way I think, all my friends and family agree with me. I always say there are two ways of be in this world: Right and wrong. I’m right and you’re wrong. All this woke nonsense about how difficult your life is gives me a headache. I can’t fix your problems, and I’m not changing the words I use. That’s what the real issue – The war on humour. Funny words about penis size are hilarious, that Tate person was bad, Greta good, and unintentionally making someone else feel bad about themselves is secondary and not anyone elses. It was a joke, and if you feel something else but good laugh that’s your problem!
      Thinking about other people stuff makes my brain hurt. I’m taking a nap, and when I wake (not woke, nice try!) I better see a new article retracting everything, Morgan.

  3. This post is insightful, important, and reasonable. It does not blame or berate anyone. It does not discuss “WOKE” needs or hijack anything. Think about walking a day in the shoes of a person who has had to navigate the experiences described here before you judge. Or better yet, just don’t judge if you have no idea what you are talking about. As the mother of a child born with intersex characteristics I can assure you that these are absolutely real issues that deeply affect real people – real children and the real adults they become. What is the source of this anger that real people seek in a compassionate and reasonable way to help others understand these real issues?!?

  4. A few of the responses to this article illustrate the aggressive attitude commonly exhibited to areas of tension between individuals across many social group boundaries(and societies) which is frequently blamed upon the individuals involved with little, if any, acknowledgement of the learned social response and feedback loop that attitude creates within the social group because the volume control becomes seen as the best guide (something social media frequently exaggerates). Any resulting individual empathic response and potential learning about the other is often pushed out by the exertion of power and suppression as a means of the individual being seen to fit within.

    When any example of such bare faced effrontery is perceived as individualised the most frequent perception is that a personal attack is taking place which must be powerfully defended against. In the past an article by Anderson in issue 1 of the Journal of Practical Ethics 2022 covered that type of problem from the individual perspective. The forward looking aspects for social groups has been covered before and will also probably be written about in the future.

    A very real difficulty arises where a social group which has become (or has only ever been) power based. Then to be most effectively informed of a problem, a loud and powerfully obvious example which creates a clear contrast with what may possibly be openly espoused culture often becomes required for change to be caused. And many social group members do not necessarily recognise the difference between an issue being raised about a difficulty for the social group they may feel they belong to (whose main values they follow), and a personal attack. Many will no doubt ask, is there a difference, causing a shoot the messenger response.

    The use of particular words and phrases by social groups to privately communicate particular meanings within the group does change over time, these alterations are frequently made to maintain the groups defences in areas they may feel vulnerable, or indicate membership, but they can also create difficulties for themselves and others once the private meanings become more publicly available, this creates more complexity where older meanings are supplanted as the use of the language is altered. Humour is one area which often makes use of those differences in meaning, and as comedians have stated in the past, for them the context (broadly interpreted) is important. The film Otto made use of such a difference when Tom Hanks (Otto) was in hospital. That joke became funny because the two immediate participants had become close enough to see the humour, increasing/directing towards the possibility for the third person (and by association audience) to also infer it; But for others who lack that timing and context, there may be hurt and confusion. And that type of thing is something communications over the web often does little to ameliorate, And yet a recognition requiring empathy, understanding and comprehension on behalf of anybody who sees web content is what is needed, because if that is lacking hurt will arise unnecessarily leading to responses which may be interpreted as character rather than a social contextually based defensive response which most frequently demands everybody comply to a particular social groups value set and worldview.

  5. Thank you for your insight, perspective, and desire to protect others. All bodies are deserving of respect. No person should be devalued just because their body is different.

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