Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Sunday Book: Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex - Alice Domurat Dreger

Thought I would mix it up a bit this week and write about a non-fiction book. What can I say? I'm crazy like that! I read Alice Domurat Dreger's Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (I know, catchy title) for my dissertation but I think that books about 'sex' and 'gender' and gender theory are interesting and important reading for everybody. Am I right? I can just feel you all clicking over to Amazon right now, thinking 'I must have this now'...

That said, if you are after a book about gender, or even, in fact, a book about hermaphroditism, I wouldn't recommend this one. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, and it would be a perfectly adequate introduction to the subject but there are better books out there. In fact, if you are after such a book I would highly recommend Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto Sterling which is in the below pile of some-of-the-interesting-books-about-gender-that-I-have-read-recently. It is more in depth, more thorough and more analytical and wider reaching, in my opinion. They are both well written, interesting books though. I read the AFS book on a romantic holiday with the boyf the Christmas before last. He totally enjoyed me constantly butting in with exciting facts about different intersex conditions and the horrific politics of the medical management of intersexuality. It totally didn't ruin the mood. What is good about the ADD book is her historical research and her use of case studies to examine the ways that 19th century medicine 'dealt with' hermaphroditism (as it was then). She has examined every recorded case of hermaphroditism in European medical literature from 1800-1915 (roughly) and it is fascinating to see how external social pressures shaped medical thinking about ambiguous bodies.

By the way, if you think this isn't relevant to you then you are wrong. The way that society and the medical community react to intersexuality is massively indicative of the way that we think about and view gender. Reading ADD's book it is shocking to realise that in many ways the 19th century had more flexible ideas about gender than we do today...

Some facts about intersexuality:
  • The sex vs. gender dichotomy is drivel. Physical, bodily 'sex' is just as cultural as gender. It would be better defined as 'biological gender', leaving 'sex' as the act of. There is no stable or definitive definition of biological gender - ADD's book demonstrates how medical definitions have changed through recent history (appearances > gonads > chromosomes > genitals...). None of these are reliable indicators of gender.
  • XX and XY are just the beginning, there is XXY, XXYY, XXXY, XO...
  • Cheryl Chase, the founder of ISNA (the Intersex Society of North America, sadly now defunct) claims that ‘about one in a hundred births exhibit some anomaly in sex differentiation and about one in two thousand is different enough to render problematic the question ‘Is it a boy or a girl?”. That is crazy! I think Down Syndrome is about 1/800.
  • Current medical management (although it is slowly beginning to change - a bit - thanks to lobby groups like ISNA) of intersexuality is entirely and shockingly genital. If a baby has a penis that is too small/a clitoris that is too big/ambiguous genitals that wouldn't measure up to 'normal penis standards' they will be 'made' into a girl. 90% of babies born with ambiguous genitals are assigned female (and given 'corrective' surgery such as clitorectomies) because...
    • "It is easier to dig a hole than build a pole" (actual quote).
    • Men have penis, women don't have penises - that is how gender is defined. Nothing to do with female genitals, only the presence/absence of male genitals.
    • Female pain and sexual function is undervalued - these procedures often require repeated surgeries throughout surgery and leave women with severely decreased/nonexistent sexual function.
  • Very few intersex conditions are medically dangerous (CAH is and undescended testicles have an increased cancer risk) - ambiguous genitals are abnormal not diseased. They are surgically 'corrected' because society has a tragically narrow view of 'acceptable gender'.
  • Unnecessary, intrusive and often harmful surgery on babies and children under the age of consent is wrong.
Sorry, got a bit carried away there but this is something I feel very strongly about. Also, for anyone more generally interested in gender theory I would really recommend Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw or My Gender Workbook. Her light, often comic tone takes a bit of getting used to but her content is killer.

On a lighter note, I hope that you all had lovely weekends.

Chuck x


  1. This review comes at a brilliant time - my friend at uni has picked her dissertation subject as focussing on the sexual revolution (it sounds vague to me but she knows what she's on about) I'll definitely be forwarding your post to her for a recommendation to read and with book references too. Thanks doll! jazzy ♥

  2. I really could have done with this list a few years ago, when I did a seminar on gender studies in Elizabethan erotic poetry (?!?).

    On another note, an excellent fiction novel about an intersex person is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, which is balanced but gets a wee bit sensational towards the end.

  3. Heart gender studies. Middlesex is actually the focus of my dissertation - this is all reading for it!