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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Just Call Me Chris/topher?: The Trouble With Ambiguous Genitalia

Kat Fallon

In trying to decide what to write this last Bio paper on, I solicited the help of some of the girls I eat with in Erdman. They twirled their forks on their plates, bit their lips, scratched their heads. "How about hermaphrodites?" someone chimed in. I lit up. Sure, I thought. Hermaphrodites. That will be interesting. And then: Wait. What's a hermaphrodite again?

In beginning my research, more so at that point to figure out for myself what a hermaphrodite actually was than to begin researching my paper, I had a hard time turning anything up. I talked aloud to myself, to my computer, and to the hermaphrodites of the world. Where are you guys? I wondered.

And then I found them. Or rather, they sought me out, grabbed me by my shirt collar and said, "Hey listen up, girl. Don't call me that."

Because that's where they started with me, I figured that's where I'd begin my paper.

The word "hermaphrodite" has become problematic. Apparently, its roots are to be found in an oppressive Victorian belief that there exists a "true sex," and that any deviation on this "true sex" is a "pseudo-sex" (1). The problem lies in the implications of the word; "'hermaphrodite' implies that a person is born with two sets of genitals-one male and one female-and that is something that cannot occur" (1). Then, of course, there's the problem with referring to someone as pseudo anything.

After beating me up for my choice of wording, they decided to set me straight. The correct word, the preferred term, as it were, is intersexed. What is intersexuality? According to the Intersex Society of North America, "intersexed people are born with chromosomes, external genitalia, or internal reproductive system that are not considered 'standard' for either male or female" (2). As problematic as the word hermaphrodite is, though, it seems as though the definition of intersexed is equally as problematic. As the ethicist Dr. Alice Dreger points out, "one quickly runs into a problem. . .when trying to define 'key' or 'essential' feminine and masculine anatomy. In fact, any close study of sexual anatomy results in a loss of faith that there is a simple, 'natural' sex distinction that will not break down in the face of certain anatomical, behavioral, or philosophical challenges" (3).

Because of the difficulty in defining what it means to be intersexed, it is difficult to produce accurate statistics. It has been approximated, however, that one in one hundred people are born with bodies which "differ from standard male or female" bodies (3). Furthermore, the number of individuals receiving "normalizing" surgery on the genitalia is approximated to be one or two in every one thousand births.

To go even deeper into the problem of representation, it is nearly impossible to produce accurate statistics or even accurate studies on intersexed people because of the secrecy surrounding their conditions. Many people are kept in the dark as to their "ambiguous genitalia." The Intersex Society of North America has deemed this secrecy a "conspiracy of silence," and have begun to make moves towards revolutionizing the treatment of intersexed babies. Rather than immediately perform plastic surgery on a child's "ambiguous" sex organs, the Intersex Society of North America, along with a great many other supporters of the intersex struggle, have proposed a new "model of treatment" (4).

This new model advocates alternatives to "harmful or unnecessary surgery" and in-depth counseling for both the child and the child's family (4). While case studies which have been followed through are very rare, the existing such cases seem to show that children whose genitalia are medically altered at birth generally have a difficult, confusing experience around puberty. It was initially believed that "a person's sexual body image is largely a function of socialization," as a case study by John Money seemed to support that a child's sexual identity is merely an effect of social learning (5). However, this case study was abandoned before the child in question reached puberty.

John/Joan, a victim of an unfortunate surgery which cost him his penis, was raised as a biological female without ever being told of his true situation. Years later, when John/Joan was interviewed by other curious doctors, he was found to have chosen the lifestyle of a man, claiming to have known for years that something was not right and that he had never truly believed himself to be a woman (5). As a teenager, John/Joan had been known to pee standing up even without a penis. S/he was truly disturbed at the growth of her breasts and had decided, at the age of 14, to abandon her life as a girl(5).

The few intersexed people who underwent sexual reassignment as infants and have been observed through puberty have encountered numerous difficulties in identification. Children born with micropenises who are raised as women risk feelings of inadequacy, as their inner reproductive systems are not equipped for procreation (5).. Additionally, the secrecy surrounding the issue of intersexuality leads many children to grow up feeling different but not understanding why. Many intersexed people have had such negative experiences with the medical field that they have refused to take part in their hormone treatments, which could lead to serious osteoperosis later in life (4). If these children were aware of their sexual "ambiguity" and were allowed to make choices about medical intervention on their own, the Intersex Society of North America purports that their lives might not be so traumatic (4).

Interestingly, until very recently, Money was the only psychologist to truly examine the state of intersexed children. His ideas became very well-accepted and rarely contended, despite their small scope and eventual inaccuracy. Dr. Milton Diamond points out that had doctors dealing with intersexed babies truly been concerned with the effects of pediatric surgical sex reassignments, they might have dispelled Money's idea that sex was merely socialized by examining transsexuals, whose "sexual self-identification is in opposition to their genital configuration and rearing" (5).

It would appear, then, that issues as baffling as intersexuality and transsexuality are examined on a comfortable, surface-level. Society, and the doctors who attempt to explain such medical/mental oddities to such societies, would prefer to slap a quick label ("hermaphrodite", "pseudo") on anyone who deviates--willingly or no--from the fabricated Victorian "true sex." The revolution of the intersexed people is not merely one of renaming. These people are more concerned with dispelling the myths and secrets surrounding them. Their revolution is one of knowledge, education, and yes, a little wordsmithing, too.

WWW Sources

1)On The Word "Hermaphrodite"

2) What is Intersex? What Do These Diagnoses Mean?

3) Frequency: How Common Are Intersex People?

4) ISNA's Recommendations for Treatment

5) Pediatric Ethics and the Surgical Assignment of Sex

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