When you were only a few days old, your parents and doctors made the decision that your genitals, which appeared to be a small penis, would be reconstructed into a clitoris. They constructed you, a male, into a female, and they did so in a way that made it difficult for you to feel sexually aroused and that prevented you from ever achieving an orgasm. You know that your parents were only following the advice of your doctors and doing what they thought was in your best interest. But still, every day, you can’t help but feel a deep-seeded anger inside of yourself. Their endeavor was meant to help you lead an uncomplicated life with a clearly identifiable sex, but it only made your life more confusing and difficult.
In as many as one out of every 1,500 births, a child is born with indistinguishable genitalia and considered intersex (“How Common is Intersex”). While many intersex infants are born with functional genitals, others are born with genitals that require surgery in order to urinate properly and to decrease the risk of infection. For many years, the United States made common practice of choosing a sex for all functional and non-functional intersex infants, early on, and attempted to reconstruct them in the “correct” manner. One major reason for such surgery was to, “‘fix’ them properly…[because the] non-binary outcome appears to the medical community (and indeed to most of society) as a logical impossibility” (All Together Now 75). Doctors and parents believed that not possessing a defined sex was not viable and was unacceptable.
The sex binary is based on the misconception there are only two sexes: male and female. This widespread norm encourages society to exercise power and discipline over people who do not fit the accompanying expectations. In turn, it is largely responsible for unnecessary surgeries performed on infants with ambiguous genitalia. Riki Wilchins insists that policing of the sexual binary exists. She states, “specific kinds of knowledge about bodies enable us to exercise specific kinds of power over them. Such knowledge is…purposeful, it has aims” (“Queerer Bodies” 37). If you do not look or act in accordance with one sexual category, then you are considered to be an abnormal impossibility, and society attempts to call you out and place you within a mainstream sex role. Society’s conviction of the sex binary has resulted in the unnecessary treatment and surgical intervention on functional intersex infants and children. Such repair and reconstruction is meant to ensure that these children maintain normal appearances and lives in society, but in reality it has a far greater negative, than positive effect.
One damaging consequence of repair and reconstruction is that doctors and parents may choose a sex for a child with which the child does not identify, as they grow into their own. When children grow up and learn that they their penis or vagina was reconstructed based on non-conclusive information and without their consent, they are likely to experience anger, confusion, and emotional trauma. Questions of what sex and gender a person truly is and feels comfortable with, will surface as part of a process including doubt, curiosity, and deep personal investigation.
In addition to the many emotional and psychological issues surgery can induce, many harmful physical and sexual consequences often result from surgery. Surgery can produce intense scaring, frequent infections, and the abnormal appearance of genitals (Hypospadias). Many of these results are lifelong, and no low-cost or simple fix is presently available. Treatment on infants is also done without the foresight that these children will one day be sexual adults, who will want to be able to experience sexual pleasure. Many surgeries make it difficult for patients to become sexually aroused, and several surgeries, such as clitorectamies, deny people the ability to achieve an orgasm.
One poignant example of the negative effects surgeries and treatments have on functioning intersex children is found in the story of Max Beck. After years of attempting to conceive a child, the Beck’s had finally succeeded; but much to their dismay, their child was intersex. Max was born with, “‘a rudimentary phallus’ and ‘fused labia-scrotal folds,’” which were not sex distinguishable and made it extremely difficult to determine if Max was a male or a female. As the doctors recommended, the Becks chose to raise their child as a girl, removing her gonads, performing various surgeries, and eventually giving her hormone therapy and a vaginoplasty. While these treatments were meant to allow their child, who they named Judy, to fit into society and live a “normal” life, they only left her confused and uncertain, about her sex and gender identity. "What was I? The doctors and surgeons assured me I was a girl, that I just wasn’t ‘finished.’…I knew I was incomplete…I wandered through that labyrinth…with the gender identity and desires born of those medicalprocedures. I began to experience myself as a sort of sexual Frankenstein’s monster." Judy’s doctors and parents believed that they were saving Judy from a life of abnormality and expulsion from society’s acceptance. In reality, they were aiding her negative self-image and self-esteem, by not making decisions based on the potential emotional and sexual implications such treatment would have on her later in life.
Large portions of her medical history were discovered when Judy was in her late twenties. Just a few of the many devastating effects such information had on her were a deep feeling of betrayal by her doctors and parents, depression, and an attempted suicide. Judy later transitioned to a man, Max, who lived a happy life with his wife and child, until his recent passing. Unfortunately, many similar stories do not end in a life of happines.
It is not the shape or construct of one’s body that determines who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Foucault illustrates this point clearly when he states, “nothing in man—not even his body—is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition, or for understanding other men” (Queerer Bodies 33). In most cases, it is our body that does not fit the image of who we truly are, which causes problems of self-recognition. Reconstructing the genitals of functional intersex infants is damaging to children later in life for physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual reasons. It is now recommend that functional intersex infants be raised, under the premise of one chosen gender. It is also recommended that they only receive reconstructive surgery when and if they elect for it at a later age, when they determine which sex they prefer and feel most comfortable portraying. For a country that prides itself on being a melting pot of various types of people, we are conversely allowing the sex binary to stimulate prejudices and destructive actions upon those who transcend gender lines.
Beck, Max. “My Life as an Intersexual.” NOVA Online: Sex Unknown. PBS. October 2001. http://www.pbs.org
“How Common is Intersex?” Intersex Society of North America. 2008. http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency.
“Hypospadias: Parent's Guide to Surgery.” Intersex Society of North America. 2008. http://www.isna.org/node/81.
Wilchins, Riki. “All Together Now: Intersex Infants and IGM.” Queer Theory. Gender Theory. Alyson Books, 2004.
Wilchins, Riki. “Queerer Bodies.” GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond The Sexual Binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare
Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Alyson Books, 2002. 194-200. Print.