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Knowing the Body

2004 Second Web Report

On Serendip

A Space for Intersexuality

Elizabeth Piastra

In the video Hermaphrodites Speak, many of the individuals present stated that they felt something was missing and wished to convey to others that the surgery is unnecessary and a violation of their bodies, that something is now missing from their lives. In my paper, I will be looking at the circumstances and policies surrounding the birth reassignment surgery to which they are referring. In addition, I want to examine how this relates to our need for categories, specifically the gender categories of male and female. Why is it that we need to perform surgery on babies with ambiguous genitalia in order to somehow make them fit into these black and white gender categories? What would be the consequences of allowing hermaphrodites to make their own decisions regarding their individual sexuality? How problematic is it if they don't fit into a concrete category, and who is it that feels this is a problem?

Inspired by the intersexual character of Cal/Callie in Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex, I decided to turn to the dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary Online) to see if perhaps the definitions of "intersexual" and "hermaphrodite" had changed since the book was published. I was curious to see what the accepted, supposedly educated, view on intersexuals and hermaphrodites was these days. When I looked up the meaning of "intersexual" in the Oxford English Dictionary, I was surprised to see that there was no independent listing of the noun form of the word but only the adjective which was defined as: 1. Existing between the sexes 2. Biol. Typified by or having both male and female characteristics; having some characteristics proper to the other sex. Also absol. as n., an intersexual individual. Aha! There was the noun intersexual hidden within the definition of the adjective. Next, I typed in "hermaphrodite." This time the dictionary yielded results for both the noun and the adjective form. As a noun, a hermaphrodite is defined as: 1. A human being, or one of the higher animals, in which parts characteristic of both sexes are to some extent (really or apparently) combined. (Formerly supposed to occur normally in some races of men and beasts; but now regarded only as a monstrosity.) b. an effeminate man or virile woman. c. A catamite (a boy kept for unnatural purposes). As an adjective, a hermaphrodite is defined as: 1. Of men or beasts: Having parts belonging to both sexes (really or apparently) combined in the same individual.

My dictionary search led me to make several interesting discoveries and serves to illustrate a point about how intersexuality is viewed in society. The first discovery was that intersexual as a noun has yet to gain its own place in our language, that it is still unworthy of having its own place in the dictionary. My interpretation of its inclusion as a noun under that of the adjective is that to be an intersexual is to be one without acceptability, without agency, that even the dictionary has yet to welcome the presence of intersexuals as subjects. It was surprising and disturbing to see that the word "monstrosity" was a part of the definition for hermaphrodite. The fact that the human race had once recognized intersexuality as occurring normally and now considers it a monstrosity seemed to demonstrate to me that we are indeed regressing. The labeling of a hermaphrodite as a monstrosity contributes to the idea of the intersexuals as "other" than normal, suggesting that maybe they are "other" than human. Maybe what struck me the most about the definitions for "intersexual" and "hermaphrodite" was that there were all defined in relation to the two existing sexes, male and female, or maybe I should say the two acknowledged sexes. The language used to describe intersexuals in relation to male and female reveals what is problematic about the place of intersexuals in our society. Sexuality is always defined in relation to what is considered the norm, in this case, the social construction of gender and that what is normal is the idea there are only the two categories, male and female. The lack of a place for intersexuals in language is also apparent in the fact that there is no adequate pronoun with which to refer to intersexuals, who are neither he nor she and never will be. If intersexuals cannot be referred to as such, it does not mean that they do not exist, only that they are outside language and that society remains persistent in denying them a way to voice their identity. It is a way of blocking the normalization of intersexuals, of keeping them on the outside and forcing them to somehow try and conform.

One in one hundred births produces in an infant whose body differs from the standard male or female, and the chances of a baby being born who is neither XX or XY is one in 1,666 births. Intersexuality is the result of a variety of different conditions like Klinefelter (XXY) syndrome, Androgen insensitivity syndrome, Partial androgen insensitivity syndrome, Classical congential adrenal hyperplasia, Late onset adrenal hyperplasia, Vaginal agenenis, Ovotestes, Idiopathic (no discernable medical cause), Iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment, for instance progestin administered to a pregnant mother), 5 alpha reductase deficiency, Mixed gonad dysgenesis, Complete gonad dysgenesis, and Hypospadias (urethral opening in perineum or along penile shaft or a urethral opening between the corona and the tip of the glans penis). (Blackless) In other words, there is no one intersexual body just as there no male or female body is identical to another body that is biologically the same gender. It can be said then that there is no typical body, no "normal" body. In addition, it must be pointed out that the nature of genetics is that it is random and that the purpose of mutations is to produce variance. Intersexuals are a natural product of nature, not a hideous monstrosity that was never meant to be. According to the laws of nature, natural selection will take care of useless mutations, and it must be noted that this same process has not allowed the intersexuals to die out.

One or two in one thousand births results in gender reassignment surgery. (Blackless) It seems as though the primary reasoning behind gender reassignment surgery performed on infants with sexually ambiguous genitalia is to "normalize" their genital appearance, since in most cases, it is not essential that the surgery is performed to the infant's physical health. Whatever ambiguous genitalia the infant has is evaluated and based on what would be the least complicated, the infant's body is reconstructed to resemble a "normal" body. Yet, the reality is that there is no "normal" body. There can't be because everyone is different. It is also important to note that Intersex genital surgery is, in a way, irreversible. The infant as an adult will never be able to regain the exact body structure that he/she had originally been born with, the one that he/she was meant to have.

This presents an ethical dilemma. The first principle of medicine is "Primum, non nocerum" which translates into "First, do no harm." Intersexual adults often claim that they feel as though irrevocable damage and violence has been done to their bodies, and these intense feelings are evidence that the surgery is more harmful than it is helpful. Since surgery is performed when they are infants, the only ones who give consent are the parents and not the intersexual whose body it is. In the past, the parents have been convinced by the doctor that it will be in the infant's best interest if the surgery is performed, and no questions have been asked. The option of waiting to perform the surgery was hardly ever presented to the parents, and if it was brought up, it was often discouraged. The argument is since there is no medical need to perform the surgery, why not just wait until the intersexual has reached an appropriate age to reveal how he/she feels about his/her body. Maybe the intersexual will decide that he/she does not want surgery at all.

Normal is a myth, and a damaging one at that. The need to categorize human beings as definitively male or female does not allow a space for individuals such as those who consider themselves to be transgendered or intersexual. It also suggests that there is a male or female model that we must all strive towards depending on our respective genders. The fact of the matter is that intersexuals are not and will never be male or female because they were never meant to be, that male and female are social constructions that are pushing us towards a non-existent norm. The idea that those who are different, who deviate from the norm, are monstrosities who have to be fixed is more than problematic, it is terrifying and tragic. The world is not black and white, and the act of trying to fit everyone into neat categories is an impossibility that must be acknowledged as such. The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) states that they consider their mission to be "devoted to systemic change to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female." Maybe we should listen to what individuals and families dealing with intersex believe is a step in the right direction for society, that the problem of intersexuality is not one of gender but of stigma and trauma. It is not intersexuality and intersexuals that are the problem but normality and mainstream society that must be "fixed."

1. Oxford English Dictionary Online

2. Blackless, Melanie, Anthony Charuvastra, Amanda Derryck, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Karl Lauzanne, and Ellen Lee. 2000. How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and synthesis. American Journal of Human Biology 12:151-166. Available from

3. Intersex Society of North America

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