Intersexuality and Gender Testing

Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling talks about the importance society places on understanding a person’s sex, gender, and sexual orientation.  Although this does not seem problematic at first, it becomes a problem when people are forced into one of two categories: male or female, masculine or feminine, and heterosexual or homosexual.  Those who fall outside of these groups are forced into one or the other by society.  For example, applicants (for jobs, college, etc.) are asked to identify themselves as either male or female.  For those that do not identify as either, there is no alternative answer.  This is just one way that society reinforces the “two-sex system.”  This system benefits “the state and legal system” but does not match with the interests of “our collective biological bodies” (31).

Take, for example, the case of Maria Patino, a Spanish athlete competing in the Olympics in 1988.  She was given a certificate by her doctor which stated what many others thought was already evident: “she was female” (1).  She was forced to take a sex test before competing, but failed to live up to the standards of femininity set up by the International Olympic Committee.  “Patino’s cell sported a Y chromosome… her labia hid testes within.  Furthermore, she had neither ovaries nor a uterus.  According to the IOC’s definition, Patino was not a woman.  Patino had a medical condition, andorgen insensitivity, which meant that her body could not detect testostorone.  When her body started producing estrogen, she developed “female form” (2).  She went on to fight this ruling and was reinstated by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.  She even “rejoined the Spanish Olympic squad” (2).

This situation is all too common, especially in different athletic instituions.  Just last year, Caster Semenya was forced to undergo sex tests.  At the time of the examinations, she did not know why she was being tested.  Only later did she find out that her gender was being questioned because her running time raised doubt that she was a female.  Overall, sex testing is a practice deeply embedded in history.  “Until 1968 female Olympic competitors were often asked to parade naked in front of a board of examiners.  Breasts and a vagina were all one needed to certify one’s femininity” (3).  Now, sex testing is much more advanced and takes into consideration chromosomes, hormones, external and internal genitalia.  This type of testing reinforces the “two-sex system” and marginalizes those who do not fit into either category.  The two athletes I mentioned were not allowed to compete as women, but they were not allowed to compete as men either.  Because they were born as neither male or female, society marginalizes and punishes them.  These great athletes were not allowed to compete simply because their sex did not meet traditional standards and definitions.  This is incredibly problematic, but it does not seem like change is coming.

Caster Semenya

It is important to make a distinction between sex and gender.  The most updated definitions say that sex is “biological, physical, and genetic,” whereas gender is “social, economic, political, and cultural.”  Sex and gender do not always match, but our society tends to associate femininity and masculinity with physical sex.  Society places a great deal of importance on the two-sex system and gender roles; this becomes evident in the way that intersexual babies are born and the way all children are socialized.

Fausto-Sterling discusses the three different ways that intersexual babies can be “treated”: prenatally, surgically, and psychologically.  The logic behind these forms of treatment is that something is wrong with these children that requires medical attention and fixing.  Prenatal therapy gives the parents the option to abort, treat, or ignore congenital adrenal hyperplasia.  If a fetus has developed CAH, doctors are able to diagnosis this before birth and allow parents to decide what to do next.  However, the data on this type of therapy is not extensive enough to lead to any conclusions about whether or not this is beneficial.  Fausto-Sterling makes a great point when discussing this therapy.  Prenatal diagnosis is perfectly acceptable because it gives parents and doctors time to prepare and learn about intersexuality.  On the other hand, prenatal therapy implies that something is wrong with the child and creates a greater stigma surrounding intersexuality.  This technology has the potential to eliminate CAH from the world, but would this be good or bad?  Our understanding of sex and gender can be transformed by learning about these different conditions, but eliminating them from our world would only marginalize those that do not have a traditional gender identity.

The text also discusses the surgical approach to intersexuality.  When a child is born with ambiguous genitals, doctors are quick to assign the child a “correct” sex, meaning male or female.  They come to this decision by examining their genitalia, chromosomes, and hormone levels.  Following this, they operate on the child and create “appropriate” genitalia.  This approach bothers me for numerous reasons.  First of all, this decision is not one that should be taken so lightly.  Although parents and doctors may have the child’s best interest in mind, I think it is important to understand the child’s situation.  If parents/doctors choose to operate on the child, the child should be informed about the surgery when they are old enough to understand.  However, another option is that parents not operate and wait until the child is old enough to decide what they would like to do.

For all children, socialization plays a key role in the way that gender identity forms.  I think it would be really beneficial if society was able to understand gender as a fluid continuum rather than a dichotomy.  The “two-sex” system is not beneficial for society as a whole, but rather for the government and different social institutions.  “Whether one falls into the category of man or woman matters in concrete ways” (31).  Some examples of this include marriage, voting rights, and the military draft.  The “two-sex” system is the easy way out, but it is not based on reality.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. mohammed Adawulai
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 04:48:01

    very informative! “Only later did she find out that her gender was being questioned because her running time raised doubt that she was a female”. this makes me wonder, and maybe i don’t know,but is there any limit to the running time of women that is scientifically proven? if no, then why would they question her ability and talent? this is one of the many issues that has been overlooked in our society today. and i like how u clarified the difference between sex and gender, and how these two things don’t always converge. i think it is important that everybody acknowledge the difference. i think the solution to this problem is simple, should there be any question with regards to a person’s sexual orientation, all that needs to be done is to find out which of the genitals is the person not only possessing, but using. that is my opinion. and when u said that children should be allowed the opportunity to decide whether or not they would like their genitals operated, don’t u think the procedure would be more difficult one’s the person grows up since the organs are well developed and rooted? i was wondering. but you absolutely nailed this topic and added to my knowledge.


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