Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Medicalization of Intersex Bodies in the 19th Century



With the advent of the 19th century came an unprecedented period of advancement. The Industrial Age, along with advancements in chemistry, biology, medicine and various other sciences ushered in a new world. But with great advancements come great responsibilities. The human race certainly progresses at an alarming rate thanks to various discoveries and innovations, yet ethics, unfortunately, seems to progress at a much slower rate. This was certainly the case regarding medicine in the 19th century.

The medical establishment was male dominated in the 19th century. Women were barred from attending medical school and it was a long, hard fight for the few women who managed to break into medicine. The advent of Feminism and research on the issue of Homosexuality gave rise to the reactionary response of the male dominated medical community, to clearly define the essential differences between males and females. Homosexuality was deemed perverted at that time, and went under the term “inverse.” The medical establishment focused its energy on politicizing sexual ‘innate’ differences and wished to eliminate Hermaphroditism, which had no place in the binary view of the sexes which, in turn, kept everyone ‘in their place.’ Therefore, Herculine Barbin’s sexuality, for example, ‘had to be remedied’ as to ensure it wasn’t inverted, thus explaining hir attraction to women as heterosexual in nature.

Anne Fausto-Sterling presents a prime example of an intersex individual, Levi Suydam, who was examined in 1843 by a physician and deemed to be male, this allowing him to vote. Since voting rights, inheritance rights, wages, and numerous other rights were not equal between men and women, a change in sex status made a world of difference to the standard of living as well as the space (male space vs. female space) that an individual occupied. This constituted significant difference in the 19th century than it does now, due in great part to various equal rights laws which have since been passed although much work still lays ahead in order to truly level the playing field in sex/gender rights and dynamics.

           

            It is interesting to note that the medical establishment of that era placed a great deal of importance on the reproductive organs in determining the sex of an individual. Women were seen as having to bear children, thus needed a functioning uterus and fully formed vagina. Males, in turn, had to have a penis and ejaculatory discharge in order to be identified as male. The physicians, who administered Herculine’s autopsy, noted that zie had a penis, a vagina which ended in a cul de sac (i.e. no cervix and no uterus), and ejaculatory discharge, therefore, they concluded that zie was male (Foucault, 128). No mention was made as to whether hir ejaculatory fluid was found to contain spermatozoa or not. It is quite plausible that hir ejaculate contained no sperm, since sperm only makes up about 5% of ejaculatory fluid; it would require closer examination to detect sperm (Davis, 1947).

            The medical authorities stamping ‘female’ or ‘male’ on the identities of intersex individuals continues to this day, although not as fervently as in the 1800s. The continuation of this medical practice throughout the 20th century was due in large part to the strict division of sex-roles in post WWII suburbia. Common medical practice was to assign a sex onto a newborn infant with ambiguous genitalia. Genital surgery was routinely performed on such infants, often without the knowledge of the parents. This was done to protect the parents and the child from the ‘anguish’ of having to be a ‘sexual freak’ (Fausto-Sterling, 23).

The operative question is whether this ‘anguish’ is that of the individual, or the anguish of society at large coming face-to-face with the fact that sexes exist on a continuum, as opposed to existing on a black and white binary with no variation. Intersex individuals have been documented in various societies worldwide; including numerous Native American societies, known as Two-Spirit individuals, as well as Hijras in India, for example. These societies allow intersex individuals to play an active role in their societies, a role which is also useful to the society at large. The derogatory term ‘berdache’ has been bestowed onto the intersex Native Americans, but each nation has a different term for them in their own language. The Navajo nation, for example, uses the term ‘nadleeche’ which translates into “someone in a constant process of change” (Jacobs, 103). 

 There is currently a movement to cease the needless medical practice of sex assignment at birth. This out-dated and cruel practice is slowly being phased out across America. The United States is currently in flux regarding sex roles. With the rise in stay-at-home-dads, male unemployment rates higher than that of women, and fathers finally being allowed into the traditional woman space of the birthing chamber, sex roles are being reinvented and reconsidered as we speak. The current scientific view is that these children can decide their sex once they are older based on how they feel and how they identify.

 

Work Cited:

Taber’s Encyclopedic Medical Dictionary (Ed. 19), Venes, Donald, ed, F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia, PA, 2001

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