Web sites provide women “poor” info about genital plastic surgery

Women seeking information about genital cosmetic plastic surgery are ill served by Web sites purporting to provide expert advice and guidance about such procedures, a new study finds.

Researchers at the UCL Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Institute of Women’s Health, University College Hospital in London, England wanted to assess the quality of information available online to women considering surgical alteration of their genitals – a practice that, for the record, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises against. To that end, they Googled the term “designer vagina,” which they report is commonly used to describe procedures aimed at improving the appearance of women’s genital areas.

The team of researchers reviewed the first five U.S. and the first five British Web sites that search yielded, analyzing content according to 16 criteria they developed, including accuracy, the kinds of procedures offered, and representations of success rates and potential risks of those surgeries.

What they found was a mishmash of confusing information, the study said. Common procedures – 72 of them -- were identified by a baffling number of terms, from "labioplasty" and "liposculpting" to "hoodectomy" and "hymenoplasty." Though all 10 sites mentioned risks related to surgery, only six spelled out what those risks were. Hardly any mentioned that women’s vulvas naturally differ from one another in size and appearance and that a broad variety of appearances are normal. Worst of all, according to the authors, none of the sites mentioned an age below which such surgery is inappropriate.

According to the study, women typically seek genital cosmetic surgery because they’re not happy with the way they look in that area or because they think surgery might help them or their partners achieve greater sexual satisfaction. It’s unclear how many such surgeries are performed in the U.S.; the American Society of Plastic Surgeons doesn’t keep track because the numbers are so small, according to that organization’s media relations office. But the new study suggests these procedures are increasingly popular.

“The quality and quantity of clinical information in [female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS)] provider sites is poor, with erroneous information in some instances,” the study concludes. “Impeccable professionalism and ethical integrity is crucial for this controversial practice. Clear and detailed guidelines on how to raise the standard of information to women on all aspects of FGCS are urgently needed.

Their work appears in the "Obstetrics & Gynaecology" edition of the on-line journal BMJ Open.

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