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Lesson Plan : Intersex

phenoms's picture

Hello All,
I would just like to preface this web event with a short explanation of my format/subject choice. When I was in the 9th grade, I had a biology teacher who, one day, convinced a male classmate that men menstruate. The teacher continued the prank, asking “***** have you really not gotten your period yet?” This boy began to get visibly anxious, as he oscillated between belief and skepticism. Everything he had learned about menstruation through popular culture led him to believe menstruation and masculinity did not mix. And yet, here before him was a science teacher testing the malleability of a mind by trying to convince him otherwise.

Knowledge comes to us from all directions - which means that (mis)information can be conveyed  through a plurality of sources. It’s as important to disentangle popular myths as it is to build up scientific “truths.” The following is a lesson plan designed for high school health teachers who wish to confront the issue of (inter)sex from more than one perspective. In order to learn something, it is instrumental to unlearn false truths first, we must sift through the myths surrounding the sexual binary.

High School Teacher Lesson Plan / Guidelines for Teaching Biology and Representation of Intersex bodies.  

To explore and discuss the scientific continuum between the sexes
and the culturally constructed binary of male/female
To unlearn myths/half truths about intersex
To critically examine the way media/popular culture both help spread awareness and stigma surrounding intersexuality.

Section Breakdown:
Pop Culture Representation

Scientific Approach
Sources used: Textbooks, science websites, blogs.
Assigned reading: Joan Roughgarden’s “Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People” chapters 12, 16.
Discussion Points: (Split into groups of 3-4 before reconvening as a class for discussion)
What does Roughgarden mean by the gender binary?
What role does she ascribe hormones in creating/destroying this binary?
What are the consequences (pros/cons) of having a scientifically defined “normal?”
Do you find Roughgarden’s genetic defect explanation compelling? Why or why not?
Sex differentiation can manifest itself in countless ways, and can be caused by many factors. List 2.

Next, Read :
What is the role of medicine in determining who is intersex and who is not? Of the parents? Of culture? Of the individual?

Popular Culture
Sources: Intersex advocacy websites, youtube clips, magazines, novels.
Assigned Reading/Watching:, Friends season 8, episode 9 (the one with the rumor), Law and Order Season 6, Episode 12 (John/Joan), Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides,

Discuss in Groups
Compare and contrast how these two TV programs dealt with issues of intersex bodies (as well as underlying homophobia).
Granted that intersex condition is so misunderstood, can we consider any media attention positive for awareness?
How do each of these popular formats address society and science pertaining to sex differentiation?
How does shame and embarrassment factor into each scenario?


How many of these misconceptions had you heard before reading this?

Next, read through some of Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello’s blog entries here:

“I believe that the framing of sex as dyadic also contributes to the everpresent popular question about fertility and “hermaphrodites”: can we impregnate ourselves? The answer is that it is extraordinarily unlikely, but I believe the reason this tired old query nevertheless comes up again and again is due to how people, having no idea at all of what intersex bodies are actually like, have to use their imaginations.”

Dr. Costello presents a problem of ignorance, and we return once again to the question of exposure... Does greater exposure, even if it’s cringe worthy and not very PC, help the cause of the intersex individual by relieving some of the burden of explaining an unknown condition?
Pick a passage that you liked/disliked/surprised you/made you think. Share it with your group and discuss.
As With most internet forums, this blog enables comments. What do you observe about the comments here? Are they supportive? Inflammatory?  Reactions?

Now we move onto a less trusted internet medium - Open forums. Read through the following

Can you gauge the general tone of responses?
What’s the level of scientific literacy/ cultural stereotyping?

Laws are often the convergence of “truth” and culture, and as such are very telling about a society.
Read the following articles

How does intersex treatment vary across cultures?
When reading the newspaper article, did you notice any inaccuracies / misconceptions between sex and gender?

If you had to design laws on the topic of intersex individuals - what would they look like? For children? Adults? Marriage?


Anne Dalke's picture

Disentangling the entangled


Yours is one of several projects prepared by your classmates about teaching intersex to K-12 students. Be sure to check out Gavi’s Rainbow of Sex Difference,  jfwright’s Beginning Book about Sex and Gender for Trans* and Intersex Kids  and Katie Randall’s Template: Presenting on Intersexuality.

Yours is distinct from the other projects I’ve read so far in its focus on popular culture representations, and I think that’s a great place to start: with the sort of material students are already awash in, and likely to be mis-led by (so I’d suggest actually beginning the class w/ that, teasing out what they "think they know," then bringing in the more scientific and informative material that will challenge their misconceptions….)

I find myself thinking, too, now, about the links between your first web event—where you found that “untangling the biological/social for sexuality proved more difficult” than you had anticipated—and this one, in which you say it’s “important to disentangle popular myths.’” It’s the process of "disentangling” that links the two, a process that seems much more problematic to me in light of all that Karen Barad’s been teaching us lately about entanglement, that "we are part of that nature we seek to understand," that “the intra-action of an organism and its environment is a phenomenon that cannot be separated out,”  that the "self" that each of us is is the result of specific intra-actions, that “identity is undone @ the heart of matter itself” (=the queerness of the quantum).

How does one “dis-entangle” what is so deeply “entangled”? Hmmmm…..