Intersexuality and the Belief of Two Sexes
Society has created two sexes that are believed to be the two “true” sexes and the most natural: male and female. Sex and gender are the ultimate divider within our society. The difference between sex and gender is that sex is your biological anatomy and gender is the behaviors you exhibit within society. Intense socialization occurs throughout the lifetime beginning at birth, to ensure individuals properly integrate the appropriate habits and attitudes of their gender. Gender appropriate behavior becomes so normalized within our lives that being masculine or feminine becomes a part of our identity. Depending upon if we are male or female our entire lives are shaped based on this distinction. This is the gender binary: two genders believed to be absolute with no tolerance for deviation from the expected gender appropriate behavior. What happens when a child is born who biologically doesn’t fit into a male or female category? In a culture that believes in only two genders, a child who biologically cannot completely integrate into one of these genders will face extreme repercussions. This is a result of the heavy influence the gender binary has within our society and the place it has on molding the foundations of our identity.
Intersex individuals are born with genitalia that are somewhere in-between male and female genitalia. Because they don’t have definitive genitalia their sex is in question throughout their lives, especially at birth. The gender binary creates intense pressure on the doctors who encounter ambiguous genitalia into assigning the child either male or female, regardless if the child biologically doesn’t belong to either category. According to the Intersex Society of North America, a system known as the Hopkin’s Model was created in the 1950’s instructing doctors to mask an intersex child’s in-between gender by assigning them male or female. This includes subjecting the child to surgeries to modify their genitalia, instructing the parents to raise the child in accordance to that assigned gender and often-times concealing the sex from the child as he/she emerges into adulthood. This practice is an attempt to conceal the presence of a third sex and ensure the child becomes integrated into their assigned gender at an early age. (What’s Wrong with the Way Intersex has Traditionally been Treated). This process is known as Intersex Genital Mutilation or IGM within the intersex community because physicians are essentially mutilating the child to preserve the gender binary. Intersex genital mutilation results in both, psychical and psychological repercussions to those who undergo these procedures that leave an intersex individual with a lifetime of repercussions.
Howard Devore identifies as intersex and experienced the consequences firsthand of being assigned a gender at birth and surgically altered to fit into that gender. “I underwent 16 surgeries over the period of 23 years, the majority of which occurred between the ages of 0 to 12 years” (Devore). This is a substantial amount of surgeries for someone who was biologically completely healthy since birth. To “correct” Howard’s genital abnormality he spent the majority of his childhood summers in hospitals being subjected to surgeries that doctors failed to explain to him. These surgeries often left him returning to school with a tube emerging from the genitals into a sac which was concealed beneath his clothing (Devore). Not only is this subjecting the child to physical trauma but psychological too. In a world where the concept of a third sex is so threatening to the gender binary, no action is too far-fetched to preserve the dominance of male and female genders.
Cheryl Chase underwent IGM when she was a child and has experienced the many consequences of having her genitals surgically altered, especially during her adolescence. When Cheryl was first born doctors thought she was a male with an abnormally small penis and unusual urethra which prompted them to change her sex to female. Then her clitoris was seen as abnormally large for a female which impelled physicians to perform a clitorectomy, the surgical removal of the clitoris. As a result, Cheryl has harbored a deep shame for her abnormal genitalia and a skewed body image when she was an adolescent. In Cheryl Chase’s story Affronting Reason, she recounts the horrible nightmares she had about her abnormal genitalia. “I often woke from a nightmare in which my life was in danger, my gender in question, and my genitals were somehow abnormally deformed, spilling out of me like visceral organs” (210) These disturbing nightmares illustrate the traumatizing affects that IGM had on her and the damage to her self-esteem. Cheryl describes trying to steal glimpses of other women’s genitals to discern how abnormal her genitals were. The knowledge that her body was so deformed that it had to be surgically corrected at birth led an undue source of stress and trauma on Cheryl.
IGM often results in the individual unable to experience sexual pleasure as well as intense shame surrounding sexual encounters as evidenced in Cheryl’s story. One of the most dilapidating consequences of Cheryl’s clitorectomy was her inability to experience any sexual pleasure. In her adolescence she had heard of women experiencing orgasm through masturbation but was unable to find any source of pleasure surrounding her genitals because of her clitorectomy. This knowledge created a source of stress surrounding sexual encounters, “When a lover puts her hand to my genitals for the first time, the lack is immediately obvious” (211). This quote demonstrates how every time Cheryl is confronted with a sexual interaction she is also confronted with exposing her surgically altered body to a partner. This transforms what should be a pleasurable experience into an encounter filled with the shame and fear as a result of the genital mutilation Cheryl was subjected to.
Intersex Genital Mutilation is a harmful practice that not only mutilates otherwise healthy individuals, but also causes psychological consequences. In a society where the gender binary infects every aspect of our life, anything that is outside is labeled as abnormal. This stigma is forced upon intersex individuals to such an extent that their genitals are mutilated because their very existence questions the foundations of what it means to be male or female. The practice of IGM is based on social norms, not medical needs and denies intersex individuals their constitutional right to live a life in the pursuit of happiness. As such, IGM should be outlawed and doctors discouraged from immediately forcing a newborn into a male or female category, surgically or otherwise.
Chase, Cheryl. “Affronting Reason.” Genderqueer: Voices Beyond the Sexual Binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002. 156-160.
“Intersex Genital Mutilation”. 24 May 2008. Online Video Clip. Youtube. 6 March 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Twe8p0R8tms
“What’s Wrong with the Way Intersex has Traditionally Been Treated” Intersex Society of North America. http://www.isna.org/faq/concealment