Archives for posts with tag: dreger

In the section “The Age of Gonads” in Alice Dreger’s Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, the author discusses the period of time in which the concept of sexual dimorphism grew prevalent in scientific, medical, and even popular thought about sexuality. During this period of time, for example, it became very difficult to be labelled a “true hermaphrodite,” one with a near-perfect balance of male and female characteristics. Instead, intersex people were labelled pseudohermaphrodites–or male pseudohermaphrodites and female pseudohermaphrodites.

It is obviously really problematic and hurtful when a whole system of belief deems a person or type of person abnormal. However, this injustice is further complicated when such a system then attempts to take away a “hermaphodite’s” identity category in such a way that reifies sexual dimorphism. As we’ve discussed in class, this is only one of many ways binary thinking about sexual bodies can harm actual individuals.

Over the break, I watched this 1960 movie called The Leech Woman. Here’s the IMDB summary: “An endocrinologist in a dysfunctional marriage with an aging, alcoholic wife journeys to Africa seeking a drug that will restore youth.” The associations that the film makes between femaleness, race, and degeneracy is so over-the-top, it’s hilarious. The stock footage of African people chanting and running around with spears was a sort of funny but grotesque example of how people hold each other up to reductionist, binarized constructions of race, sex, sexuality, class, gender–the list can go on and on as usual.

It also made me think about how people can become so indoctrinated with binarized beliefs about each other that movies like The Leech Woman can be made in earnest. How is it that people become so afraid of the unknown under such systems of belief? How can binarized, oversimplified thinking about others leech our understanding of each other as human beings and allow us to see each other as grotesque caricatures who are not worthy of being understood as fellow humans?

We have all questioned binaries. Many of us are gender majors, and it’s our bread and butter. And, I think that we can all agree that usually binaries suck–like leeches! (Ha.) Anyway, I guess that, for me, this film was just a mirror that reflected how sheerly ridiculous male/female, feminine/masculine, good/bad, etcetera binaries can be. And, sure, we can laugh at this stuff, and it’s a step in the right direction. But, how do we go about dismantling harmful systems of belief–or at least fixing the damages they inflict?

Thanks for letting me ramble… Y’all should really check out this movie, it’s pretty great.


Reading Alice Dreger’s book, Hermaphrodites, and her discussion of memoirs from Herculine Barbin, was very eye opening to me and made me realize the struggles and obstacles that intersex individuals had to overcome, and still have to overcome, within society.

While watching the puppet show about the memoirs of Herculine Barbin, I knew that Barbin wasn’t going to be very well received by the public. But what surprised me was the scene in which Barbin was figuratively placed in a Petri dish, and being pointed at, taunted, and examined by various physicians and medical professionals. This was significant for me because it brought to my attention that intersex individuals were very rarely treated like actual human beings. Instead, they are put into Petri dishes and are looked at as a scientific specimen that needs to be examined, and classified.

The process of looking at intersex bodies and classifying them proved to be a difficult task for physicians to accomplish in Dreger’s book. Physicians simply did not know what they were looking at when analyzing the tissue of intersex bodies. Instead of thinking as intersex individuals as a possible third sex, physicians continued to think in dimorphic matter and would ultimately determine their sex based on whether the individual’s genitalia were composed of ovarian tissue, or testicular tissue.

In addition to reading Dreger’s book, I also spent some time exploring the website for the Intersex Society of North America. The entire website is very informative and clearly defines their goals and purposes, but I found a lot of interesting debates and questions on the Frequently Asked Questions section of the site. I found the discussion of handling intersex children to be the most interesting, because those situations need careful thought and care, especially on the parents’ part, and the doctors. But no matter what is decided by the child’s parents, it is the duty of the parents to ensure that their child is raised in such an environment that is not hostile, and that won’t draw attention to the child’s differences.

-Aubrey Merrell

Somehow on Thursday we managed to find ourselves talking about the curiosity kids have when they’re in their teenage years. We talked about how kids that are home-schooled are usually sheltered to the point where they’ll do just about anything to know what’s going on outside of the world they know. I couldn’t help but relate this to my high school years because I went to a Pre-Professional Ballet Performing Arts Conservatory my junior and senior years of high school. I’d go to public school until noon and then I’d drive to the conservatory for the rest of the day/night  to take ballet classes. The conservatory offered academics but I was already set comfortably with my friends and life at my public high school so I just came after the academic portion of the day was complete. I was the only one who traveled from another school so my life at public high school was a mystery to everyone at the conservatory. Boys, dances, co-ed lunches…everything that I had understood to be everyday life was so intriguing to these girls. I’d fulfill their curiosities by telling them about the latest drama at our school or who was caught kissing someone’s boyfriend in the back hallway. They hadn’t ever experienced anything like a public high school before and so they had no idea what to even think about it.

Just as my friends at the conservatory hadn’t any idea of what public high school was like, our society used to not have any idea about intersexed individuals at all. In class we talked the concept of visuality. This process of actually looking at intersex bodies was what seemingly sparked an explosion of human hermaphrodites. Dreger talks about on page 25 how because gynecology was flourishing as a sub-discipline, midwifery was becoming less and less popular. With the devalorization of  midwifery and home births, medicine was becoming more and more apparent in the births of children. The medical community was much more apt to catching these “disorders of sex development,” so intersex conditions weren’t going as unnoticed as they had previously been. The idea of a hermaphrodite violates the logic of sexual dimorphism and this makes our culture and society uncomfortable. Unfortunately, instead of developing a nonsexually dimorphic understanding of bodies, the medical community chose to create pseudo hermaphrodites and completely over-medicalize these conditions.

The over-medicalization of these conditions, I believe, is what has made the stigma around these conditions so negative. Wouldn’t it be so much better to treat these intersex conditions just as normal and everyday as let’s say high blood pressure? It’s something that some people have to deal with but it’s no reason to make someone feel uncomfortable or ashamed of it. America is a society of the motto, “more is better” so….shouldn’t being intersex and having more sex organs be in fact seen as a good and impressive thing? It’s definitely something to think about.

Jenna Wise

Caster Semenya sparked an immense amount of controversy after the 2009 World Championships when she received criticism concerning whether or not she had a “physical condition” that enabled her to surpass her competitors. Questions were then raised about her gender and suspicions arose because of Semenya’s outstanding athletic ability and her masculine appearing physique. It was eventually discovered that Caster Semenya had an intersex condition. It was up to the medical establishment to determine what they thought to be her “true” sex, a discovery which was prompted by societal skepticism. This example of an intersex condition relates to the story of Alexina/Able in Alice Domurat Dreger’s “Hermaprodites and the Medical Invention of Sex.”

These cases are similar in that neither individual was aware of their condition until later in life, chiefly due to the curiosity of others, including “medical men.” While Caster Semenya was led to the medical determination of her “true” sex through societal coercion, so too was Alexina/Abel. Alexina/Abel sought the “truth” concerning her sex to explain her sexual attraction to Sara, a concept that could not be explained by the other women living in the convent with Alexina/Abel and Sara. According to Dreger, “A combination of a weighty conscience and a painful abdomen finally led the tormented Alexina to a series of priest-confessors and medical men, the result of which was a consensus that Alexina was a man, a male who had been mistaken at birth for a female, and that therefore her legal and public identity ought to be “rectified” to match her “true sex” (Dreger 18).  By contrast, Caster Semenya still identify’s as a woman. Both cases led to the medical “discovery” of each person’s “true” sex, male for Alexina; not “totally” female for Caster. Abel eventually committed suicide, whereas Caster Semenya still participates within the framework that first scrutinized her. The outcomes of each individual’s “true” sex determination were different, but both individuals were subjected to the societal and medical scrutiny that was placed upon their bodies.

– Sophie Reynolds