Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

From Social Construction to Social Justice: Transforming How We Teach about Intersexuality

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

From Social Construction to Social Justice: Transforming How We Teach about Intersexuality

Article excerpt

Intersex is technically defined as a group of medical conditions that involve "congenital anomaly of the reproductive and sexual system." In other words, intersex people are those born with physical conditions that result in atypical internal or external reproductive anatomies or chromosomal anomalies (Koyama 3). Intersex is thus not a single diagnostic category but includes a wide range of conditions and syndromes such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (enzyme deficiency resulting in overproduction of androgen and virilization in genetic females) and androgen insensitivity syndrome (inability for the body to respond to androgen in genetic males, often resulting in female appearance), just to name two. The estimated frequency of intersex conditions varies depending on how the definition is applied, but it is assumed that one in two thousand babies in the United States (or approximately five babies per day) are born visibly intersex, prompting early diagnosis and treatment.

Today, the standard treatment for intersex conditions involves surgical and hormonal interventions that are designed to alter the appearance of the body so as to make it more visually "normal," but do not necessarily address any particular health issues (although these may also be present). These surgeries are often performed in early childhood, when children are too young to understand or consent to what is being done to them; such children are rarely told the truth about their medical histories even after they grow older (Dreger 16).

Even though doctors have performed these surgeries for the last fifty years, there is little evidence that they are effective and safe in the long term; on the contrary, several recent studies have confirmed that early surgical treatment on genitals often results in psychological and sexual problems rather than better social adjustment (Alizai et al. 1588; Creighton 219; Creighton et al. 124; Zucker et al. 300). The social power and authority of the medical establishment combined with fear and lack of awareness in the general public allows these surgeries to go on unquestioned, inflicting lifelong pain on those defined as intersex.

In 1993, several intersex people created the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), the first advocacy group for people with intersex conditions, to connect with other intersex people and to take back control over their own bodies. ISNA states,

We believe that intersex is not something so shameful that it has to be concealed medically and socially. We believe that intersex people have the right to know all the information currently available about conditions we experience, and determine for ourselves what is done to our bodies .... We oppose the idea that eliminating our physical differences is the way to address social issues we may encounter; rather, we believe in addressing social difficulties intersex people may experience through social and psychological interventions. (1)

Intersex in Women's Studies: Where We Are Now

There has been a growing interest in and attention to the topic of intersexuality in women's studies in recent years. To investigate how intersex issues are being integrated into women's studies classrooms, we conducted a small internet-based survey of twenty-four self-selected scholars in spring 2001 on how they teach about this topic in their courses. Invitation to participate in the survey was distributed through academic mailing lists that deal with women's studies, queer studies, and other related fields. Responses were collected through a specially designed Web site and were analyzed for themes. While not relying upon a controlled research design and primarily exploratory in nature, the preliminary results of this pilot study nonetheless confirmed our prediction that intersex existence is understood and presented largely as a scholarly object to be studied in order to deconstruct the notion of binary sexes (and thus sexism and homophobia) rather than as a subject that has real-world implications for real people. …

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