Letter to The Sciences RE: The Five Sexes

The following letter was published as Chase, Cheryl. 1993. Letters from Readers. The Sciences, July/August, 3.

As an intersexual I found Anne Fausto-Sterling's "The Five Sexes" [March/April] of intense personal interest. Her willingness to question medical dogma on intersexuality is unique and refreshing. I understand that she has not had the opportunity to meet with any "corrected" intersexuals; I believe that I can provide some perspective on the experience. Surgical and hormonal treatment allows parents and doctors to imagine that they have eliminated the child's intersexuality. Unfortunately the surgery is immensely destructive of sexual sensation and of the sense of bodily integrity. Because the cosmetic result may be good, parents and doctors complacently ignore the emotional pain of the child forced into a socially acceptable gender, his/her body violated by the surgery, and again during frequent genital examinations. Many "graduates" of medical intersex corrective programs are chronically depressed, wishing vainly for the return of body parts, and suicides are not uncommon. Some are transexual, rejecting their imposed sex. Follow-up of adults to ascertain the long term outcome of intervention is conspicuously absent.

I find myself forced to wonder whether a concept of sexual normalcy that defines the sex organs of up to 4% of newborn infants as "defective" is not itself defective. Intersex specialists are busily snipping and trimming infant genitals to fit the Procrustean bed that is our cultural definition of gender. Ms Fausto-Sterling has been wrongly informed that few intersexuals escape medical intervention. Those I have located have told me that they feel most lucky to have escaped with their bodies intact. How did their parents shepherd them through the mine field of puberty? Generally, in the culturally sanctioned way: with embarrassed silence.

Medical dogma on sex assignment of intersexuals centers on the "adequacy" of the penis. Because a large penis cannot be constructed from a small one, female assignment is preferred. Because a large clitoris is considered "disfiguring", extensive surgery is employed to remove, trim, or relocate it. While a male with an "inadequate" penis (small, but with normal erotic sensation) is considered tragic, the same individual transformed into a female with reduced or absent genital sensation and an artificial vagina is considered normal. The capacity to inflict such monstrous "treatment" on children, who cannot consent, is ultimately a clear expression of the hatred and fear of sexuality which predominate in our culture.

I must take issue though, with the terms true, female pseudo-, and male pseudo-hermaphrodite. They are inheritances from Victorian medicine, and without prognosticative value. They reflect the Victorian belief that human sexual nature rests entirely in the gonads, a concept of gonadal determinism belied by the relative success of intersex medicine in sex reassignment.

I encourage intersexuals and those close to them to write to ISNA, where we are assembling a support group and documenting our lives.

Cheryl Chase
Intersex Society of North America