History and Present State of Intersex Conditions


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  • The prevalent view of 19th century medicine and psychology was that sexual desire was determined by reproductive organs. Newborns with ambiguous genitalia were usually raised as males. This was mainly due to a lot of worry about genders ending up where they didn’t belong, it was seen as much less dangerous if a man’s latent female desire was roused in the company of males, than if somebody thought to be female but actually male was in the company of females, such as in a convent, it could lead to ‘demoralizing’ of those women. Intersex marriage was considered immoral and an abomination because it could not produce children, but in some cases, the couple was allowed to remain together if it was a happy union. One such case was a widowed man who already had children married an unknowingly intersex woman. Because she clearly expressed desires towards men, they were allowed to remain together.
  • In the British school of thought, intersex individuals were allowed more autonomy, and were allowed to keep their affairs private. Unsexing or desexing was common, especially in women who were of the female gendered, acted female, and had female desires, or have been of the female gender for a long time.
  • Herculine Barbin was a famous case of a French intersex individual. She was raised as a woman, became a teacher, and eventually took on a female lover. Barbin was found to have male genitalia inside her body, and a legal decision was made to declare her a man. Eight years after the discovery, he committed suicide. This case led to a public interest in the idea of intersexedness, and individuals who were found to be intersex usually could not keep the fact private. The French school of thought also had a lot of interest in inverts, or people whose sexual desires did not match their genitals or physique, such as homosexuals.
  • Ulrichs eventually became famous for his proposition of a “third sex” which he believed resulted in homosexuality. Mayne later went off of his ideas by suggesting a gradation of sexual anatomy. Look at nature and evolution, many aspects of the human species are gradual, such as skin color, so why couldn’t sexual anatomy have the same kind of gradient? This claim had the unintended consequence of making intersex people seem like a degenerate version of those with normal sexual anatomy.
  • A lesson that may be learned from the 19th century medical thought on intersex individuals is that there may not be a simple natural law that explains complex human behavior. This is applicable in the search for the ‘gay gene’ today, in an effort to predict behavior. Instead of focusing on a biological explanation of what the individual ‘truly’ is or which gender they desire, the focus should instead by on what the individual likes or wants despite their anatomy or genes.
  • Present views are still shaped by culture, in that only 2 sexes are possible when an intersex child is assigned to one of them. Without knowing it, doctors are impacted by cultural values that dictate that the child can only fit into two sexes. Genital reconstructive surgery usually occurs to facilitate sexual determinism. Doctors feel that if a child has ‘normal-looking’ genitals, then the corresponding gender will follow. However, the decision on which sex to choose does not always rely on scientific tests such as chromosomes or hormonal response. Most infants are assigned to the ‘female’ sex due to an inadequate penis. Forming female reproductive parts is also usually easier to do than to build a functioning phallus.
  • Doctors usually present the notion to parents that the child has a ‘true sex’ and definitely has a gender, but it just has to be found under the ambiguous genitalia. As soon as the doctors find it, the “bad” genitals will be fixed, and the child will develop normally. There is usually a fair amount of pressure on doctors form parents who do not know what to tell relatives about the sex of the baby, because some tests such as to see to which hormones a child responds to, may take months, and parents may decide on what they think the child is before the doctors give an answer. The rhetoric used in cases of intersex infants never calls the condition abnormal, but instead refers to it as an intermediary stage of fetal development which ever fetus goes through, but this child for some reason got ‘stuck’ and the organs did not finish developing. Because of this, genitals are said to be reconstructed (as if into what they truly are), not constructed, and gender is reannounced, as if the first announcement was a mistake on the part of the doctor, not reassigned.
  • An incongruity in the medical world is in the importance places on nature versus nurture. Even though parents of intersex infants are told that social factors and how they treat their child are the most important in ensuring that reconstructing was successful, doctors still search for a biological cause and answer to what the ‘true sex’ is. An interesting point this makes, is that parents with normal births are not told this, the connection of gender to sex is implied. Counseling later on in life of an intersex individual re-affirms the existing gender, not seeing if the patient has changed their mind. For example, a teenage girl may be told that her ovaries were removed because they were making the wrong combination of hormones, when in reality it was her testicles that were removed. Many intersex individuals who are not adults but were assigned the ‘wrong’ sex at birth feel strongly that the children should be allowed to make the choice once they are old enough, not the doctors. However this is not entirely realistic due to the aforementioned pressure on the parents to know what sex the child is so they can appropriate the gender identity linked to that sex in this culture onto the child.
  • History and Present State of Intersex Conditions

    1. 1. Intersex in History<br />
    2. 2. 19th Century<br />Sexual desires determined by reproductive organs<br />Intersex newborns usually raised as males<br />Worry about intersex individuals ending up where they didn’t belong (e.g. men in convents, women in barracks)<br />Intersex marriage immoral, since it can’t produce children<br />In some cases, the couple was allowed to remain together if it was a happy union.<br />(Dreger, 1997)<br />
    3. 3. British School of Thought on Intersex<br />Allowed intersex individuals more autonomy and allowed to keep their affairs private<br />‘Unsexing’ or ‘desexing’ common<br />Usually removing testes in someone who was of the female gender<br />(Dreger, 1997)<br />
    4. 4. French School of Thought on Intersex<br />After the outrage of HerculineBarbin, public announcement of an intersex individual was common in the media as it gathered a lot of interest.<br />Interest in the idea of ‘inverts’ to explain homosexuality, or when sexual desires did not match genitals.<br />(Dreger, 1997)<br />
    5. 5. Ideas of Ulrichs and Mayne<br />Propose the need for a Third Sex<br />Suggest a gradation of sexual anatomy<br />Much of nature is gradual, such as skin color and evolution in general<br />Unintended consequence of making intersex people seem like degenerate version of those with normal sexual anatomy.<br />(Dreger, 1997)<br />
    6. 6. Implications for the Future<br />A simple natural law searched for to explain link between genitalia and sexual desire.<br />Same link searched for now between genes and homosexual behavior.<br />Try to find biological explanation, not looking at what an individual likes or wants.<br />(Dreger, 1997)<br />
    7. 7. Intersexin the present<br />
    8. 8. Present Views<br /><ul><li>Still shaped by culture
    9. 9. Only 2 possible sexes
    10. 10. Doctors make decisions based on unconscious cultural values
    11. 11. Sexual determinism
    12. 12. With ‘normal-looking’ genitals, the corresponding gender will follow
    13. 13. Many decisions made via aesthetics, not chromosomal or hormonal tests
    14. 14. Most infants assigned to ‘female’ due to inadequate penis.</li></ul>(Kessler, 1990)<br />
    15. 15. Searching for the Sex<br />Doctors continue the notion that the child has a ‘true sex’ it just has to be found under the ambiguous genitalia.<br />Idea that real gender will be found, the ambiguous, “bad” genitals will be fixed<br />Pressure from parents on doctors <br />What to tell relatives<br />Genitals reconstructed, not constructed, gender reannounced, not reassigned<br />(Kessler, 1990)<br />
    16. 16. Nature vs. Nurture<br /><ul><li>Parents told social factors, and how they treat the child are the most important in ensuring that reconstruction was successful
    17. 17. Doctors still search for biological cause
    18. 18. Parents with normal children are not told this
    19. 19. Counseling later in life involves re-affirming the existing gender, not seeing what the patient wants
    20. 20. Many adult intersex individuals who were assigned the ‘wrong’ sex feel strongly that the individual should make the choice, not the doctors.</li></ul>(Kessler, 1990)<br />
    21. 21. Bibliography<br />Dreger, Alice. “Hermaphrodites in Love: The Truth of the Gonads.” Science and Homosexualities. Ed. Vernon A. Rosario. New York: Routledge, 1997. 46-66. Print.<br />Kessler, Suzanne K. 1990. The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants. Signs 16(1):3-26.<br />