Welcome to my research project, glad you took the bait.
My project centers around surgeries on intersex infants, and the problems that follow them through adulthood.
Before I flush your brain with information, take this quick survey to find out how much you already know about intersexuality, and find out what others know as well.
Guesses are OK, and hopefully once you’ve read what I have to say, you’ll be able to pass with flying colors.
A Quick Quiz:
Try the quiz without the answers, and check yourself with the corrections below:
Here is what other people responded. How accurate were they?
I am researching the problem of intersex surgeries and their complications. This is a compelling and relevant problem on account of the abuse and non-consensual surgeries that have been/are still being performed on intersex infants at birth. I am drawn to this problem by my surroundings. Living in liberal California I have grown up alongside the modern rights movements of our age, but was only recently shown the path of the intersex right movement, and wondered why I had heard so little. This project’s purpose is to educate students worldwide about intersex rights.
Intersexuality, as a word to describe non gender-conforming genitalia, was popularized around the 1920s. Before this time, nonconforming people were called ‘hermaphrodites,’ which came from the name of the multi-sex greek god Hermaphroditus.
The problem with surgery (the problem that I am investigating,) begins in the 1960s, with the idea that the idea that psychological gender is determined by outward appearance, and thereby a wave of surgeons performing feminizing and masculinizing surgeries upon nonconforming infants. In many early cases, parents were not consulted.
In the 1990s, the Intersex Rights Movement gained some political momentum, and in the early 21st century, some legislative actions were taken to protect intersex rights.
What creates gender: nature or nurture?
pc: Rachel Dauby
Considering that intersexuality is a birth ‘defect,’ it has always been around; the ways that intersexuality has been dealt with, however, have changed. The farthest back that documented intersexuality can be traced is to Sumerian and Greek myths, where those with non-conforming biology are accepted and sometimes even held above other members of society. Come the arrival of modern religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, intersex laws become more obscure. In some faiths, most notably Southern Asian, intersex people are accepted as a third gender, while in others they are forced into choosing male or female, and in still others, may choose from a variety of categories with which to adhere.
Christianity, a founding American religion, forced intersex people to be assessed and assigned to the sex which “prevailed,” according to the Decretum Gratiani, a set of legal texts by the Roman Catholic Church in the 12th century. In Puritan America, intersexual people mostly stayed hidden. The case of Thomas(ine) Hall, a person born with both sets of genitalia who frequently switched genders to his/her benefit, was taken to court in Jamestown in 1629. It was determined that Thomas(ine), originally christened as a female and raised as such, was supposed to simultaneously dress as a man and a woman, pay fines to the church for fornicating with both sexes, and publish him/herself as both a man and a woman. Few other cases like this one (that were documented) were brought to court, but of the ones that were, the intersexual was convicted of a crime, thus beginning the culture of blaming the body for being nonconforming.
Below is a TEDx talk that gives insight into the world of intersex anatomy, by Alice Dreger: (2)
And here’s a video by Buzzfeed to let you know what life as an intersex person is like: (1)
Surgery, the issue that I chose to investigate, shows up when doctors began performing forced gender-conforming surgeries in the 1960s. John Money, a surgery researcher at Johns-Hopkins Medical Hospital, popularized the use of gender-conforming surgeries through the famous John/Joan case of 1965-2004. In this case, a normal male child was born John, but during a botched circumcision, his penis was irreparably burned. Money proposed to John’s parents that he “feminize” John, essentially turning his genitalia outside in. When the parents agreed and the surgery was deemed a success, pediatricians and surgeons all over the United States adopted the practice, but instead of operating on damaged children, they operated on intersex ones. In many cases of itersex infants, parents were not consulted before the surgery was performed. Now, don’t get me wrong, in some cases surgeries are required, for instance cases where bodily functions are blocked by abnormal organs. The practice of operating on healthy intersex babies, however, quickly became a problem.
The problem, simply stated, is that many people who had had sex reassignment surgeries as infants are unhappy with the risks and side effects of the surgeries today. These side-effects can include pain, scarring, loss of sensation, sterilization, and psychological disorders. As was unsurprisingly found in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, “large numbers of intersex adults are dissatisfied with the results of childhood genital surgery; the study’s authors recommended that surgical decisions be postponed until adolescence or adulthood, when the patient can give informed consent” (Guterman). In correlation to the growing groups of seething post-operation intersexuals, civil rights groups such as the ISNA (Intersex Society of North America), The OII (Organisation Intersex International), and the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group Australia (AISSGA) are formed. These groups have struggled to work together for the cause of intersex rights, however, because, similar to religions of ages past, they all want intersexuals to do something different. Some groups call for intersexuals to choose a gender with which to identify and want them to be given the same rights as are shared by others of their chosen sex, while some groups want acceptance of a third gender, and some call for the complete abolition of gender altogether.
Protests against non-lifesaving gender reassignment surgeries and for intersex rights began in 1996-7, when the John/Joan case was brought back to light after Milton Diamond and Keith Sigmundson interviewed the patient of the surgery (then called David Reimer) and discovered that, upon discovering his medical history, he immediately asked to have male sex reassignment surgery and to identify as a man. He later married a woman and adopted children, but ultimately committed suicide in 2004 after a series of difficult family events. This grand expose gave rise to more protests, leading the struggle for intersex rights into the twenty-first century.
The most obvious solution would be a (country-wide or worldwide) ban on infant cosmetic intersex surgeries. This would require a band of committed social rights activists and lawyers that work together to pass this legislature.
A secondary solution to work towards a more permanent one is increasing publicity about the prevalence of intersex babies and the risks of surgery. If parents are educated about intersex babies, panicking about “abnormal” genitalia would be less common, and would lead to less spur-of-the-moment normalizations.
Along with educating parents, educating rising doctors is important as well. Petitioning medical schools to include a full unit on intersex issues would clear up a lot of misinformation that parents get from pediatricians who rarely deal with intersex babies and pressure the parents into the only solution they know: surgery.
Organizations to Follow:
Intersex Society of North America: http://www.isna.org/
Free & Equal: United Nations: https://www.unfe.org/intersex-awareness/
Thoughts? Comment your ideas, feedback, and things you learned below:
Akhnaton-II. “The Definition and Types of Gender.” DeviantArt, DeviantArt, 2017,
Dennis, Riley J. “‘Intersex People Are a Small Anomaly & Shouldnt Be Considered When
Discussing Bio Sex‘Okay Then Same for Redheadshttps://T.co/gVJgRNWd8W Pic.twitter.com/FRfI3eOoe3.” Twitter, Twitter, 9 July 2017, twitter.com/rileyjaydennis/status/884160556063576064.
(2) Dreger, Alice. “Is Anatomy Destiny?” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, TED Conferences, LLC,
Dec. 2010, www.ted.com/talks/alice_dreger_is_anatomy_destiny/transcript#t-124467.
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Who Grappled with the Concept of Gender.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 5 July 2015, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/the-story-of-john-money-controversial-sexologist-grappled-with-the-concept-of-gender-1.3137670.
Guterman, Lydia. “Why Are Doctors Still Performing Genital Surgery on Infants?” Open Society
Foundations, 30 Jan. 2012, www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/why-are-doctors-still-performing-genital-surgery-on-infants.
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(1) “What It’s Like To Be Intersex.” Buzzfeed, YouTube, 28 Mar. 2015,
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