When I was doing first year women’s studies I watched a video called “The Opposite Sex,” which dealt briefly with intersexuality. The first time I watched this, I didn’t think twice about the language used. Later I watched it again, and saw things from a different perspective. In the video the development of a baby in the womb is shown – at first you can’t tell if a baby is going to be male or female, it has the potential to be both. Then the baby develops testes or ovaries, a clitoris or a penis, labia or a scrotum. “But sometimes,” gasps the presenter, “the process can go horribly wrong.” A few photographs of intersexed genitals flash quickly across the screen. We are not introduced to the individuals, we just see their “horribly wrong” genitals. The presenter tells us that when a child’s sex is undetermined, “A fast decision about which sex to raise the baby is vital to its development.” Then, of course, the child should be surgically altered to look like a boy or a girl.
In reality, there is a lot of variation between the genitals of different individuals. Occasionally (about 1/2000 births) a baby is born with genitals that are so different from the cultural definition of “normality” that they are seen as a threat. Supposedly a threat to the baby’s happiness, but probably more of a threat to the child’s culture.
The language used by doctors describes intersexuality in terms of a biological male/female dichotomy. Instead of saying “intersexed genitals,” they speak of “enlarged clitorises,” and “underdeveloped testes.” Even in the face of undeniable evidence, they refuse to give up their insistence that there are two and only two sexes!
When deciding whether a child of indeterminate gender is male or female, doctors have certain criteria to follow… but these are all totally male-centered. For example, to be considered male a child has to have a penis that is a certain length or longer, and the child must be fertile. BUT to be considered female a child doesn’t have to have a vagina, or to be fertile! Also, doctors have made comments like “it is generally easier to live as a passive female than to live as an impotent male.” Because it is hard to construct a satisfactory penis, intersexed individuals are likely to be raised as girls.
The surgery is often invasive and traumatic. It can leave the intersexual person with little or no capacity for sexual pleasure later in life. The surgery is purely cosmetic; the aim is to make the child look normal. Sometimes the parents have to dilate the child's constructed vagina several times a day, which is often experienced as sexual abuse, and can be traumatic for the parents as well. The point? To make sure that a penis can fit inside, so the intersex person can have normal heterosexual sex. The argument is that if the child is left to grow up intersexual they’ll never be happy. I don’t believe that’s true.
There’s another video in the women’s studies collection, called “Hermaphrodites Speak.” It was filmed at the first international conference of the Intersex Society of North America, and in it intersexed people had the opportunity to share their own stories. Several things stood out in this video.
All of the intersexed people in the video had been lied to, or told nothing by their doctors, and often by their parents (who were encouraged to lie by medical professionals).
The people who had had surgery felt ashamed about their bodies and what had been done to them. Some of them were unable to achieve sexual pleasure, others felt their sexual capacity had been changed or limited, and they felt angry that their own unique erotic potential had been stolen from them, usually before they had even experienced what it could be like. Those who had not been surgically altered, or had surgery after the onset of adolescence, had felt positive about their bodies, and had enjoyed their experience of sexuality as it developed. All the people interviewed believed that children should be “left alone” unless there is a proven risk to their health.
In the last few years intersexual people have begun to speak out about their experiences, and to form political organisations and support groups; one example is the Intersex Trust of Aotearoa New Zealand. Their aim is to create a different future, where intersex people and their families are supported and respected, where intersexuals have the choice of surgery if they want it (instead of having their bodies mutilated when they are too young to express their wishes) and are given access to information and medical records. Their hope is that intersex people can have “diverse, rich and meaningful lives… in whatever way they determine that is to be.”Posted by Fionnaigh at August 5, 2003 09:49 PM