Intersex and the Environment: The Politics of Nature v. Culture

It’s complicated for a person who cares about intersex, as I do, to grapple with the growing body of scientific evidence that environmental pollutants are producing an increase in genital and reproductive anomalies in animals and possibly even in humans. I have always understood intersex differences to be “normal” variations. We know that intersex has always existed (it’s discussed in the Talmud, for instance); and we need to recognize that not all bodies match conventional expectations or fit neatly into the sex binary. At the same time, I deplore the way that toxic chemicals, which have multiplied astonishingly in our world since the mid-twentieth century, are polluting our environments and causing harmful changes to our bodies. Intersex isn’t inherently a problem, but what if it was caused by one? How can I argue that intersex is a normal divergence in sex development and at the same time abhor the toxic degradation of our earth, which seems to be afflicting us, transforming our bodies in “unnatural” ways?

The intersex rights movement has had its share of controversies, which turn on our collective understanding of “difference.” Most recently, as I’ve written about here, Germany has proposed to allow parents of babies born with ambiguous genitals to opt for an undesignated category of gender on their birth certificates. We have yet to see if this move is a step forward in allowing more gender fluidity, or if it will subtly coerce parents to choose infant genital surgery for such children so that their babies’ bodies can more easily conform to the traditional categories of girl and boy.

Germany. (Wikimedia)


The question of infant surgery has also been in the news recently. The lead intersex legal advocacy group in the U.S., Advocates for Informed Choice, has been working tirelessly to convince parents and physicians that because infant surgery is nonconsensual (and often does more harm than good) it should be postponed until affected children are old enough to make their own decisions about their bodies. This does not mean that selecting a gender should be deferred as well; parents can still choose a gender based on various medical indicators and then consider surgical options as the child matures and can participate in that decision.

Both of these issues—permitting third gender categories and allowing babies to grow up with ambiguous genitals—share an implicit premise that being born intersex is a “natural,” or neutral, if somewhat uncommon, occurrence that should be out in the open and discussed. In fact, intersex adults have often remarked that their biggest problem in life was not their genitals, per se, but rather the shame and secrecy that accompanied them. If being born intersex represents just one more variation among humans, then surely we should all become accustomed to that reality and listen to what intersex adults have to say about their own lives and how to best respond to these births. Here the disability rights movement has much to teach us as well: we need to drastically expand our interpretation of “normal” to include a wider range of bodies.

Gender Bending Chemicals

But what if intersex births aren’t just happening “naturally,” but instead are increasing in frequency because of the proliferating chemicals that are polluting our environments?  Rachel Aviv has written in the New Yorker (February 10, 2014) about the herbicide, atrazine, developed by Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agribusinesses, and its negative effects on the sexual development of frogs. Biologist Tyrone Hayes, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been studying the endocrine system of frogs and has noticed an alarming increase in their genital anomalies because of exposure to contaminants, including atrazine, that end up in streams and lakes. Humans also ingest trace amounts in our drinking water; we’re not amphibians, but could this kind of exposure to atrazine also be affecting the hormone levels and genital development of human babies?

desPLEX. (DES Daughter/Flickr)

Back in the 1950s, exposure to the chemical DES (diethylstilbestrol) caused increased rates of reproductive cancers in women who took this drug and in their daughters’ bodies as well. As Nancy Langston explains in Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES, even though the government knew about the dangers of DES in laboratory animals, it approved its use for women suffering from repeated miscarriages as well those experiencing symptoms of menopause. The nation’s supply of livestock was also exposed to DES, as farmers injected cattle and poultry with this synthetic hormone to produce fatter animals and more meat. In turn, the animals’ waste carried the damaging effects of estrogen into the broader environment, causing hormonal and toxic side effects among agricultural workers and others.

If exposure to certain chemicals causes genital and hormonal anomalies, then this complicates the politics of intersex. We might never know if intersex conditions are “natural” or if they’re due to human-manipulated environmental factors. We don’t even know what a “natural” body really is. Of course, intersex differences have been around for a long time, but so has environmental degradation. In the ancient world, for example, tanning was so noxious an industry that it was relegated to the outskirts of town, where it would mostly afflict the poor.  We can readily imagine that this “odiferous trade” and other environmental pollution has affected reproductive systems for a millennium, though we cannot know for sure how, how much, or how frequently.

In fact, the nature v. culture binary (where “nature” is pure and “culture” is toxic) is as illusory as the rigid male v. female binary. We unavoidably alter our environments simply by living in them, and it is impossible to clearly distinguish the natural from the human, or to discern which human variations over time are natural and which are the result of our bodies’ adaptation to new, human-caused environmental conditions. As the environmental historian Linda Nash has written recently, our changing material worlds “have altered the very possibilities of being human in particular times and places.”[1]

Save the Frogs! ©

Biological and environmental historical research thus raises difficult questions, including: how are we to assess the human consequences of changes we produce in our environment, including changes to sexual development and gender expression, without resorting to problematic cultural notions of what is “normal” or “natural”?  How are we to make political and moral sense of synthetic compounds such as DES or atrazine that might be shifting the range of what is biologically normal?

My point, then, is twofold. First: no matter the cause, intersex people born with genital and reproductive anomalies exist, and we’d all do well to embrace difference and stop subjecting bodies to harmful medical interventions by “virilizing” or “feminizing” ambiguous genital tissue that doesn’t look “normal.” And second: we need to stop polluting the environment, and hold accountable those who do so, not because it could increase the incidence of intersex, but rather to avoid the environmental destruction and unknown devastation that will ensue in our future, when our bodies’ resiliency – and the planet’s as well – might fail.

Elizabeth Reis is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[1] Paul S. Sutter et al., “The World With Us: The State of American Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100: 1 (June 2013): 94-148, quotation on p. 135.

Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.