Davis, Georgiann. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis

By Holmes, Morgan; Bastien-Charlesbois, Janik | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Davis, Georgiann. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis


Holmes, Morgan, Bastien-Charlesbois, Janik, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Davis, Georgiann. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis. New York and London: New York University Press, 2015. 218 pp., $28.00 paper (9781479887040)

The goal of Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis, is not entirely clear. Though its declared focus is on the development of intersex activist movements in the United States of America, author Georgiann Davis' neglect of established criticism of DSD--both of its problematic development, and of its dangerous implications in clinical applications effectively makes for a peculiarly parochial text rather than one meant merely to be geographically specific. It is as though there is no world of thought, no medical profession, nor an activist milieu beyond U.S. borders. For example, the central observation that ... DSD terminology [...] is potentially dangerous to the intersex community," appears first on page 21, but has been made more forcefully in prior scholarship, and by activists around the world (through the Intersex Forum supported by ILGA, and through the largest international network of activists/advocates, OII.). Davis largely neglects these contributions in activism and scholarship.

The American focus promotes a methodological approach that narrows and obscures the significance of the data gathered, explained, and analysed. Hence, for example, a reader new to the field could easily be forgiven for thinking that the Accord Alliance and the ISNA are distinct groups of people when, in fact, the 2008 re-naming of ISNA as Accord Alliance simply shifted the mission and priorities of what the ISNA had become since the adoption of DSD language in 2006 at the urging of ISNA leadership. Access to the Accord Alliance would not actually constitute a broadening of populations surveyed by Davis, and yet this point is rather obfuscated in the description of the purported 5 groups that Davis chose to study.

Few scholars have interviewed as many intersex(ed) people as Davis (N=36); however, Davis' lesser involvement and familiarity with intersex groups that actively focus on human rights has produced a glossing over of important nuances present in activist refusals of pathologization, reducing multiple positions to a simple opposition of views: the adoption of medical nomenclature/rejection of intersex versus the rejection of medical nomenclature/adoption of intersex.

Meager attention to the history leads to an observation on p 78 regarding biological essentialism at play in recommendations for sex assignment that Davis assumes would not be present in a constructivist view of sex/gender. Yet the protocols that John Money developed in the 1950's-1970's promoted the very same surgical approaches now justified using essentialist views and DSD terminology.

Undoubtedly, the book offers a contribution in the analysis of interviews with clinicians and surgeons, but beyond demonstrating that the adoption of DSD was a strategic move to maintain medical power in the face of challenges from intersex activists, Davis' conclusions reveal little we did not already know after 20-plus years of critical intersex scholarship and activism. The contribution is, then, more confirmation than revelation.

Resorting to the "biocitizenship" concept to describe the first position is doubly problematic. Neither the author nor those Davis relies upon have grounded their understanding of the root concept "citizenship" in the rich academic conversation surrounding it, creating a standalone concept that departs from oft shared political underpinnings. Davis' focus on liberatory transformation should lead her to align (bio)citizenship with its deeper political reading. However, the first position which Davis privileges has more to do with "bioconsumership", since interests and actions are individualized, or limited inside the institutional frames and rules set by medical professionals.

As for the second position in the opposition Davis sets up, while many who reject medical nomenclature do indeed avoid seeking medical care, it cannot be said they all do. …

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