Imagine someone telling you that your sex was undetermined at birth. Imagine someone telling you that your sex was undetermined at birth so they took it upon themselves to pick a sex for you. Imagine growing up constantly feeling as though you are in the wrong body. Imagine growing up being told you are a monster. Imagine growing up realizing that you have had over twenty surgeries done on your body to modify it and make it look “normal”. Imagine someone telling you that your whole life will be a battle because of the way your body looks. Imagine the hurt, the pain, and the sorrow you will feel every time you look in the mirror and see yourself as incomplete. For many people that fall outside of the sex binary these imaginative scenarios are real life occurrences. It is estimated that “one out of every five children in the United States is born intersex” and until recently it was required by doctors and physician to pick a sex for that child at the time of birth (Intersex, 2008). Picking an infants sex without knowing any personality characteristic is extremely problematic. Similarly performing surgeries on intersex infants can often lead to harmful consequences.
I would like to begin by defining intersex. According to biologist “Intersexuality to humans refers to atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish male from female” (Intersex, n.d.). Genetically males are defined by having XY chromosomes and females XX. Variations of the two are considered “abnormal” and labeled as intersex. Intersexuality challenges the sex binary, a belief that bodies only come in two sexes. Our society finds this extremely problematic because so much is based on the belief that there are two, and only two, sexes. My introduction at first might seem like an extreme hyperbole but it is not. My introduction mirrors the pain that Max Beck has gone through by being born outside the sex binary to a society that does not allow it.
Unlike a common majority, the body Max was given at birth did not fit into societies male or female categories clearly. When Max was born the doctors could not tell if max was a boy or a girl “Between my legs they found ‘a rudimentary phallus’ and ‘fused labio-scrotal folds.’ They ran their tests, they poked and prodded, and they cut open my belly, removed my gonads, and sent them off to Pathology” (Beck, n.d.). Max Beck was born a healthy baby however, his health was clouded with the confusion of his sex. After weeks and weeks of studies, samples, “poking and prodding” doctors concluded that Max had “Some cells in his body that had XY genotype and some that XO,” XO occurs when an individual has a genotype of only one X chromosome (Beck, n.d.). With this information Max’s parents made the decision to take Max home from the hospital and raised Max consciously and carefully as a girl named Judy. For Judy the consequences of the surgery would affect her body image, mental health, and sexual identity.
When surgeries are preformed on intersex infants a large consequence from the surgery can be the development of that child’s body image. As we grow most if not all of us will have some battle with our body image. “I am too fat” or “I am too skinny” the list we conduct about ourselves seems to grow and grow as we live through life. When we are younger however the lists we come up with usually come from what our classmates tell us. I remember being told, “You are too hyper Somer” so throughout my kindergarten education I tried to fight that label. Before long I accepted the label that was used to describe me, “I was a hyper seconded grader.” As Judy developed into adolescence she started to “distance herself from her body” which lead to an abundance of emotional turmoil and low self worth. Judy felt as though she was simply a “walking head” without a gender identity (Beck, n.d.) As Judy tried to find solitude within her identity the doctors kept reassuring her that she was in fact a girl she just was not “finished” developing yet. As Judy was waiting to become a “finished” girl her friends were off exploring their sexuality as heterosexual males and females. Judy felt left out and even more ashamed of herself and her body. For Judy being an “unfinished” girl was starting to make her feel uncomfortable in her own skin.
When surgeries are preformed on intersex infants that child goes through life with an abundance of confusion that leads to poor mental health. For Judy and for many intersex children the parents often encourage them not to talk about the surgeries with their friends. The parents usually do this to protect their children form being made fun of and getting their feelings hurt in school. With so much secrecy left on the child the burden of holding in something can have serious consequences on their mental health. Over Judy’s lifetime she has had an abundance of surgeries, most of which all took place during adolescence. Judy was always encouraged to tell her friends that she went on family vacations during the holidays instead of the truth, that she was at the hospital having continuous surgeries to “correct” her sex disorder. Through “hormone replacement therapy and vaginoplasty” Judy finally became a “finished girl” (Beck, n.d.). However along with Judy’s newly constructed body came feelings of isolation. Judy thought of herself as a sexual monster. She was afraid of the world to see and judge her. Due to her low self-confidence Judy restrained herself from sexual and emotional contact with others in order to avoid being hurt. Mentally Judy was depressed and felt alone. Sadly those emotions are common for many individuals that are surgically altered as infants.
When surgeries are preformed on intersex infants a common consequence is confusion of sexual identity. Humans are sexual beings and in order to perform sexually you have to become comfortable with your sexuality. For many individuals that have had sex operations preformed on them from young grow up with a large sense of confusion about their own sexuality. This point is illustrated best with Beck’s story. As Judy grew her curiosity gravitated towards finding her sexual identity. When Judy was a teenager she avoided getting sexually involved with anyone because she still felt as though she was a sexual monster, and no one could ever love her or her body. As Judy got older she experimented with both a women and a man. This was difficult for Judy because she was not sure if she was heterosexual, or homosexual. Eventually Judy became accustom with identifying herself as a lesbian. However when Judy found out about her “condition” from birth her sexual identity was flipped upside down. Judy the lesbian became Max Beck the heterosexual. For intersex individuals exploring your sexual identity is very difficult due to the fact that our language only allows a limited amount of options. If you are not sure what your sex identity is how can you even begin to describe your sexual preference?
Through Max Beck’s story I hope to achieve an understanding of the harmful consequences that evolve from performing surgeries on intersex infants. Body image, mental health, and confusion of sexual identity, are only a few of the negative impacts these surgeries can have and it is important to realize as a society that a persons’ sex cannot just be assigned. Our society has created a sex binary. If you are not a female with XX chromosomes or a male with XY than your something “else”, something “different”, you are intersex. Our creation of the sex binary does not come with out a cost. It excludes those who fall outside of it and sets those individuals up for feelings of constant depression and confusion. For individuals like Max Beck that fall outside of the sex binary everyday life can become an emotionally difficult experience. It is up to us as a society to embrace that there is more than XX and XY chromosome and that other combinations are just as beautiful as those we put in a hierarchy called the sex binary. Performing surgeries on intersex infants often leads to harmful consequences. For these reasons I strongly believe that parents should hold off on having their intersex infants surgically altered until their old enough to decide which sex they identify the most with.
Beck, M. My life as an intersexual. Retrieved March 10,
2010, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/beck.html
Intersex. (n.d.) Retrieved March 12, 2010, from: Wikipedia
Intersex Initiative (June 29, 2008) Intersex FAQ. Retrieved March 10,
2010, from http://www.intersexinitiative.org/articles/intersex-faq.html