The need for sex categories

I just read this interesting comment:

It is impossible to discriminate on the basis of sex if you can’t tell what sex a person is. In one famous psychology experiment, doctors would hand an infant to an unsuspecting volunteer in a room where they could be observed, and leave for a few minutes. The infants had white diapers and no indication of whether they were male or female. Most of the volunteers were unable to interact with the infants, and in their need to know if the infant was male or female, so that they could say either, “What a big strong boy you are,” or “What a pretty little girl you are,” tried to peek under the diapers (link here).

If people don’t even know how to interact with babies without knowing their sex, no wonder socialization is so strong! No wonder we are so trapped in our sex/gender roles that we can’t even imagine a world where we are more than just “men” or “women.”  No wonder so many genital mutilations are done on babies that are born intersex: it is too much of a threat to have people out there who do not fit the TWO categories we have created.



Intersexuality and genital mutilation

Female circumcision (also known by the value-laden term female genital mutilation) is one of the practices that has been repeatedly used by the west to criticize and label Arabs, Muslims and Africans as barbaric, uncivilized and against female equality.

First of all there is the fact that 1. not all Arabs perform it so it’s not “Arab” and 2. not all Muslims perform it and in countries where it exists people from all religions perform it, so it’s not “Islamic” and 3. not all Africans perform it so it’s not “African.” Second of all, I found out yesterday, to my great surprise, that female circumcision actually exists in the west as well. YES! Uh-oh. Does this mean that the west is also uncivilized, barbaric and against gender equality?

When I say the west I don’t mean Arab/Muslim/African immigrants living in the west. I mean actual white people. What is even more shocking is that the practice is performed by the medical profession. Yes. Science. The objective, neutral, value-free, perfect science. And yes, Doctors. Intelligent, kind, only-want-the-best-for-us but don’t ask them to explain anything because medicine is complicated, doctors.

In my class on gender and sexuality our professor started explaining about intersexuals: people born with male and female genitalia, or unclear genitalia.  Around the world these people account for 2% of the population – more than albinos, for example, and I’m sure we’ve all seen albinos at least once, so we’ve probably also seen intersex people.

Anyway, in the US (beacon of hope and freedom), doctors will perform the following operations on babies who are born intersex:

  1. If the clitoris is too big, they will cut it off/shorten it;
  2. If the penis is shorter than 2.5 cm, they will remove it, and turn the baby into a female;
  3. If a vagina is too small, they will enlarge it to allow for penetration.

These surgeries are known as “corrective surgeries” or “intervention” and are carried out on the majority of the intersex babies born in the US – that is 65,000 people per year!

Okay. Deep breath.

First of all, how is number 1 different from female circumcision? The only reason doctors carry out this procedure is because a big clit just looks ugly/disturbing! There is no other reason.

Second, if you’re an unlucky boy who is born with a small penis, you might actually get turned into a girl!

Third, talk about girls being seen as sexual objects: if your vagina is too small then it will actually be enlarged just so it can be penetrated!

So throughout the lecture I was thinking that this was something western doctors used to do in the past (because of course I’ve been taught to think that anything disturbing related to the west only happened in the past), but apparently it is something happening today. TODAY. (I wonder if this happens in Europe?)

65,000 people.

Since the rise of modern medical science in Western societies, some intersex people with ambiguous external genitalia have had their genitalia surgically modified to resemble either female or male genitals. Since the advancements in surgery have made it possible for intersex conditions to be concealed, many people are not aware of how frequently intersex conditions arise in human beings or that they occur at all (Alice Dreger).

Many intersex people do not know that they were intersex at some point, because doctors and sometimes parents hide this information. Many go through life feeling confused, ashamed, different because they don’t know what happened to them.

The reason behind these “interventions” (often done without parental consent/approval), is that it is dangerous to science and society for there to be people who do not fit into the two created categories of “male” and “female.”  If the genitalia are not clear, they need to be changed. If the genitalia do not fit into our (socially constructed) ideas of acceptable/unacceptable then we need to change them.

And what’s scary is that we admire doctors and science so much that we don’t even question them! How many parents would doubt the doctor when he tells you that your baby needs to have “corrective” surgery. Doctor knows best right? Science knows best. It can’t be wrong and it can’t be loaded with values.

Now I know there are differences between the magnitude of female circumcision and the practices mentioned here, but how much of a difference?

As a friend of mine said, anything in a hospitalized, medical, scientific setting is sanctioned.

The Intersex Society of North America writes on its website:

The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is devoted to systemic change to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female.

I think what pisses me off the most is that the west still has the balls to criticize practices in the east when they do the same thing…what, it’s okay if its in a hospital? Would it be ok if Egyptians cut off big, ugly clitorises if it happened in a hospital and was performed by doctors?

I’m also pissed at the fact that we don’t hear about this. We are constantly hearing about genital mutilation in the global South – constantly. We are constantly being made to feel ashamed of what’s happening in our countries. How many people even know about these operations performed on intersex people? How many Americans are made to feel bad about them?