Last week, the British government announced that medical professionals must report women with vaginal piercings as victims of female genital mutilation—yes, the horrific cultural practice that is illegal in that country (and this one). And after a week of outcry, a government spokesperson told Fusion they're rethinking their stance.
The Department of Health had previously defended the new measure, saying it is merely following the World Health Organization's definition of genital mutilation and collecting data meant to protect victims and provide a more accurate understanding of the scale of FGM in the country.
But the directive includes a big grey area that revolves around four words: “within an abusive context.” Until the government can definitively explain what it means for a woman to have her vagina cosmetically pierced in an “abusive context,” opponents argue the directive risks doing more harm than good. Here’s what you should know about the controversial measure.
Why did the U.K. change its policy?
Since February 2014, British hospitals have been recording and reporting cases of female genital mutilation in their patients as part of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, the government’s commitment to ending the practice in the country.
Last week’s mandate was merely an extension of this program, noting that medical workers should report—along with more serious indications—any harmful procedure performed for non-medical purposes that includes “pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing the genital area.”
Why do women get vaginal piercings?
Genital piercing isn’t for everyone, but plenty of brave women rock clitoris or labia jewelry. In the U.S., an estimated 2 percent of women’s piercings are genital piercings, according to a 2006 Northwestern University study. So what do piercers think of the classification?
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Rhianna Jones, a piercer at London’s Into You Tattoo & Piercing. Jones told Fusion that she has performed many genital piercings throughout her 15-year career.
“A piercing is a tiny hole in a bit of skin,” she said. “A consenting adult who pays someone to do that to them is not the same as somebody being taken somewhere and being mutilated. That’s not the same in the slightest.”
Jones said that some women get the piercing at their partner’s suggestion—some couples come in together and get their genitals pierced at the same time. “Most of the time, it’s because they want it to look pretty and put something shiny there,” she said.
Could vaginal piercers face charges?
Jones told Fusion that she typically takes precautions with all her clients: No one gets a piercing without filling out a consent form and presenting a photo ID, which is kept on record for six years. She doesn’t pierce anyone under 16 years old. And if a client between the age of 16 and 18 shows up with a consenting parent, she will only do facial and navel piercings—no nipples, genitals, surface piercing, or dermal anchors.
Since the new mandate, Jones is refusing to perform genital piercings until she knows exactly what the consequences may be. “I’m not going to risk my career or my boss’ shop," she said. "It’s my livelihood.”
Her caution may be prudent: A Department of Health spokesman confirmed to Huffington Post UK’s Sara Nelson that someone who performs a cosmetic genital piercing could theoretically be found guilty of violating FGM legislation, though the government's role is more to gather data than start prosecutions.
Are women with vaginal piercings at risk?
The same grey area that puts piercers at risk of prosecution puts women themselves at risk: Classifying consensual piercings as abuse undermines women's authority over their own bodies.
The Department of Health has confirmed to Fusion that it has heard people’s concerns and is working to update the mandate to ensure that women who have had consensual piercings aren't recorded as victims. They did not comment on when the update might become official.