Rethinking the Sex Binary
Why are my breasts so small? I’ve tried everything! I’ve even resulted to just staring them down in the mirror and sending telepathic waves urging them to pick up their growth rate. And why do I have boyish hips and curves in all the wrong places? But I can always false advertise I suppose: push-up bras to accentuate the girls, corsets to unnaturally cinch in my waist, and stilettos to elongate and sculpt those legs. And when the occasion demands it, there’s always flipping off that light switch— and they say diamonds are a girls best friend.
Struggling with one’s body image, especially during adolescence, is a common experience for many that transcends gender lines. Images of ideal bodies and advertisements promoting products that will enhance your looks and improve your physique are everywhere. At a striking young age individuals become aware of what their body is suppose to look like and cognizant of their flaws or places in need of improvement. Adolescence and young adulthood is accompanied by a focus on physical appearance and the beginning of sexual exploration for some, igniting a whole new set of questions, curiosities, and uncertainties centered around the body and sexuality. Though insecurity and feelings of inadequacy regarding one’s body are common experiences for many, imagine how much harder the experience would be for individuals whose bodies don’t conform to male and female.
I have small breasts that I often wish were larger, but they are still breasts nonetheless. I have anything but an hourglass figure, which sometimes makes me feel unfeminine when I’m around curvaceous women. However, regardless of these flaws I see, and how much my body supposedly deviates from the ideal female form that is publicly displayed and worshipped, I’m still biologically female. Despite those especially trying adolescent years when I despised my body and felt unattractive and incomplete, I never was unsure that I was indeed female. But for roughly 1 in 2,000 individuals born with genitalia that is neither fully female nor male, uncertainty surrounding their biological sex is profoundly real(Wilchins 72).
The hermaphrodite, as interesexuals are most commonly referred to as, is not a figment of the imagination, a product of some peculiar porn fetish, nor a spectacle more appropriate for a circus than real life. Your best friend, your lover, your sibling may be intersexed; your child might even be born intersexed. For the intersexed, there is no light switch, cosmetic product, or activity to perform that will make them “real” men or “real” women; in a society that recognizes only two sexes-male and female- they are reduced to an inconceivable anomaly. Intersexuality in humans is defined as unusual sets of physical or biological characteristics that differentiate male and female bodies. Though it is popularly believed that intersexuals are born with both complete sets of female and male genetalia, this is physiologically impossible. Rather, because the penis and clitoris are formed from the same tissue during embryonic development, intersexuals will not have both a fully functioning penis and clitoris, but rather a mix of sex characteristics that are not distinctly male or female.
As part of a response to the presence of intersexual bodies, the medical community adopted an ideological framework and practices that positioned intersexuality as unnatural and a social threat, whose end was keeping the sex binary intact. The decades after the 1950’s saw a surge in interest among academics and the medical community to surgically alter babies born intersexed to better adhere to socially acceptable bodies. Intersex activist Riki Wilchins labels this surgery as “Intersex Genital Mutilation,” or IGM. According to Wilchins, “IGM refers to cosmetic genital cutting that is performed solely to make intersex infants resemble normal males and females. The definition of IGM does not include the small fraction of surgeries that are performed to cure functional abnormalities, urinary obstruction, and recurring infection”(Wilchins 74). Consequently, IGM is practiced on infants not to make them physically healthy and functional human beings, but to make them socially normal and acceptable. The American Academy of Pediatricians cites that they are “deeply concerned with the emotional, cognitive, and body image development of intersexuals, and believe that successful early genital surgery minimizes these issues”(Qtd. In Wilchins 74). Parents of intersexed infants following the surgery are often further advised to hide the intersexed condition from their child, giving reasons that include emotional disturbance, mental illness, and negative effects on gender role development and sexuality. But upon listening to Cheryl Chase’s story and those of other intersexuals, we may question if the purported benefits of IGM outweigh the unquantifiable costs. By exploring Cheryl Chase’s personal narrative, “Affronting Reason”, and focusing on the development of the self and the impact of corrective medical procedures, I seek to shed light on the profoundly intimate impact the sex binary has on the lives of those who fall outside of it. Further, we can use Chase’s story to question if the current ways we understand and categorize bodies is problematic.
Cheryl Chase’s story illustrates the emotional and physical costs of infant intersex surgery. One consequence is that she grew up with a deep sense of shame about her body. Born with “a typical vagina and outer labia, female urethra, and a very large clitoris”(Chase 207), Chase was raised as a boy with what was considered to be a very small penis. At 18 months old, doctors suddenly decided that is was actually a very large clitoris, and thus Chase’s “true sex” must be female. Consequently, her clitoris was removed to make her genitalia conform more closely to female. Chase recalls, “my parents were so traumatized by the appearance of my genitals that they allowed no one to see them”(207). At age 10, Chase was told her “clitoris was enlarged, so it had to be removed. Now everything is fine. But don’t ever tell anyone about this”(Chase 210). Such secrecy served to ingrain in Chase a sense of deep-seeded shame and disgust with her body. She writes, “I have been unable to experience myself as totally female. Although my body passes for female, women’s clothing does not fit me…when clothing doesn’t fit, I am reminded of my history”(Chase 211). Such daily experiences, that to most women would be merely an annoyance, serve to constantly remind Chase that her body is abnormal, embedding insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. In a society that understands biological sex as a natural given, where only male and female bodies are comprehensible, Chase’s body is an anomaly, serving to instill in Chase a profound sense of shame and repulsion about her body. She reflects, “as a woman, I am less than whole”(211), further illustrating her awareness of her body’s incompleteness and that her understanding of her body is grounded in a sense of deficiency. Though it is complicated enough to understand your body even when it adheres to the norms, it is even more difficult for someone like Chase whose body doesn’t.
Additionally, Chase’s story highlights how her understanding of herself as a sexual being has been compromised by her damaged sexual response, another consequence of infant intersex surgery. She reveals, “it wasn’t until I became a young adult that I was able to make the connection between the removal of my clitoris and my feeble sexual response, my inability to experience orgasm”(Chase 210-211). Chase’s surgery has taken from her the ability to be a fully functioning sexual being and feel something so fundamental to human experience that most people take for granted. Additionally, Chase expresses that her intimate relationships with women further brings attention to her body and its sexual abnormalities, writing that “when a lover puts her hand to my genitals for the first time, the lack is immediately obvious to her”(211). Thus, though intimate experiences with her lovers should bring pleasure and happiness, they are instead accompanied by a profound awareness of physical and sexual inadequacy, and a lack of sexual fulfillment. Whereas insecurity and feelings of inadequacy are common for many during sexual exploration, Chase’s inability to feel sexual pleasure and abnormal genitalia has deeply compromised her understanding and perception of her body as a source of pleasure. Further, because Chase’s damaged sexual response has prevented her from enjoying sexual satisfaction and intimacy that is fundamental to both female and human experience, issues surrounding body image and sexual development are greatly exacerbated for Chase, whose body does not conform to the ideal.
Because Chase’s body deviates from what normal women’s bodies are supposed to look like, her gender identity and sexual identity are also challenged. Chase writes, “I simply do not feel myself a woman (even less a man). But the hermaphrodite identity was too monstrous, too Other, too freakish for me to easily embrace”(211). Within our society, bodies are primarily organized by genitalia, with sex playing a significant role in how we understand ourselves and how others perceive us. Most people don’t pause when asked the simple question, “are you a man or a woman?” But for Chase, because her body is not fully female, her understanding of herself as a woman is problematic. Though issues centering on body image and identity are common for most people, few people are uncertain about something so fundamental as their sex, serving to intensify, isolate, and stigmatize Chase’s struggle with her gender identity. Further, her identity as a lesbian is also challenged because she does not understand herself as a whole woman. I am a “medical anomaly, patched up as best the surgeons could manage. I had an article from a medical journal stating that only 12 ‘true hermaphrodites’ had ever been recorded”(Chase 211). Chase’s awareness that she is defined as a ‘medical anomaly’ and that few bodies like hers exist highlights her degraded and compromised sense of self as a woman and as a lesbian. Because gender identity and sexual identity are significant aspects of one’s understanding of who they are, Chase’s writes, “when I interact in daily life with others, though, I experience a strange sort of bodily dissociation; my perception of myself is as a disembodied entity”(Chase 213). Thus, though community’s can provide emotional support and a sense of shared experience and unity, Chase shows how her inability to identify fully as a woman and lesbian has instilled both a sense of detachment from her body and from others with whom she could find shared experiences. Chase writes, “I have been mutilated, left to wonder and to search for the truth in utter silence and isolation”(211), exposing the profound sense of aloneness and lack of identity she experiences because her body does not conform to what normal women’s bodies look like.
Intersexual bodies force us to question the validity of recognizing only two sexes; such bodies radically challenge dominant beliefs that only two sexes exist naturally. But many questions remain, centering around appropriate medical treatment, the best way for intersexuals to be raised, and if children should be made aware of their medical history. Though these questions are quite complex and may not have any straightforward answers, it is essential that we position the needs and interests of intersexed children at the forefront of any conclusions. As Chase’s story illuminates, IGM surgery causes many of the problems for intersex people, rather than minimizes them. Because IGM surgery is performed to make bodies conform more closely to male and female, it is essential to acknowledge the impact the sex binary has on the emotional and physical well-being of those born intersexed, and their ability to develop as fully functional sexual beings with whole identities. Further, we may question if intersexed bodies are inherently abnormal and in need of correction, or if they are only judged broken within a social world that denies them legitimacy. Perhaps it is the sex binary and our social systems that creates only a limited lens through which to view the human physical condition that “produces emotionally abused and sexually dysfunctional intersexuals”(Chase 213), in the first place. Consequently, we may question if our current binary system of classifying sex accurately encompasses the natural variety bodies come in and fosters a safe and meaningful environment for human emotional and sexual development.
One solution is that children born intersex should be acknowledged as a third sex rather than being surgically altered to adhere to socially acceptable bodies. By creating a third sex category, intersexual bodies would no longer be perceived as unnatural or abnormal, and thus the justifications for IGM surgery would lose their validity. Therefore, consequences of the surgery that Chase’s story illuminates, such as body image development, damaged sexual functioning, and identity could be mediated, if not eliminated.
Chase, Cheryl. “Affronting Reason.” Genderqueer: Voices From Beyond The Sexual Binary. Eds. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, Riki Wilchins. New York: Alyson Books, 2002. 204-216. Print
Wilchins, Riki. “All Together Now: Intersex Infants and IGM.” Queer Theory. Gender Theory. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2004. 71-82. Print