Intro to Intersex

While researching our movie, I came across an issue that I had never thought too much about, but I think it is important and relevant to the subjects present in our movie. Intersex (learn more here) is a description of a person who does not fit neatly into either the category of male or of female.

Although exact data on this doesn't exist, 1 to 3% is a good estimate for how many people fit into the intersex category (although generally .1 to .2% is the number of children born where the medical community would consider that the child needs specialist medical intervention), and that is a significant number of people. The uninformed public often think of this issue in terms of  the poor strange hermaphrodites that have an ovary, a testical, and both male and female genitals.  The possibility that your child would be born that way seems to terrify people. This was most recently and prominently expressed in the movie BABY MAMA in which Tina Fey's character read about the possibility and spread her terror to both her sister and Amy Poehler's character. Just for your knowledge, the range of intersex possibilities is broad, and for instance, the "hermaphrodite" type of intersex condition is one of the rarer types.

The truth is that when you become informed, intersex conditions are not really scary.  However, it is understandable that parents find the prospect of having an intersex kid daunting. Parents often wonder how a child who is not strictly male or female could cope in our society? Until only very recently, any kind of intersex condition was "corrected" without question as soon as possible by medical professionals. For many intersex individuals, this means that at birth a decision was made by medical professionals as to which sex they should be. The surgical and/or hormonal changes are then administered to the patients, often as infants and often continuing throughout their lives. The child rarely has a say in this. Some live happily with the decisions that were made on their behalf, but some do not. Some simply wish they had gotten a say in the matter.

There's some good arguments out there that these kinds of sexual ambiguities are not that problematic - and that no medical interventions should be administered until the person can make a decision for him or herself. Take for instance the common intersex situation in which the clitoris is "abnormally" large or the penis is deemed "abnormally" small. I mean, if we come from a place that knows these smaller penises and larger clitorises are completely functional for receiving pleasure (because we do know this); and we come from a place where we know that sex can exist as a variety of different types of interactions - interactions that can be loving, hot and orgasmic as long as both parties have functioning sexual organs - no matter what those organs happen to look like. If we come from this mindset, then maybe there is no need to risk loss of penis or clitoral sensitivity just to look more like society thinks penises and clitorises should look.

We as a society believe and act as if there are two possibilities; male and female, and that anything else is simply an abnormality that should be corrected, just as we would correct a cleft palate or an improperly formed heart. I am not writing this to advocate abolishing all medical intervention for intersex individuals. I am only writing this to point out that intersex conditions are somewhat common, not as bad as they are made out to be, and the issues surrounding intersex conditions and the "correction" of them are probably a lot more complicated than most people realize.You probably know an intersex individual, and you may someday become the aunt, uncle, parent or grandparent of an intersex individual, so why not be a little informed. There is a growing community of parents, intersex individuals, and medical professionals (check them out here) that would like us to rethink how intersex individuals are viewed and treated. I would suggest to anyone that they check out the subject a little more deeply.

I came across this issue in a fabulous book called Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto Sterling. Intersex is only one aspect of this book that tells us effectively that viewing humans in one of 2 categories, male or female, is both socially impracticable and also scientifically inaccurate. If you're kind of a science nerd, you might just love this book.

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