Health and Wellness
What’s Truly Outrageous About Intersex?

What’s Truly Outrageous About Intersex?

On August 5, the World News Daily Report published an article that has been circulating on my Facebook newsfeed every day since: “Hermaphrodite Impregnates Self, Gives Birth to Hermaphrodite Twins.”

Never mind that at the bottom of the webpage, the World News Daily Report publishes the following disclaimer: that it “assumes all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content. All characters appearing in the articles in this website — even those based on real people — are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any person, living dead or undead, is purely a miracle.”

Most readers don’t make it to the bottom of the page, apparently, and even among my intersex circles and the rest of my educated friends on Facebook, people are wondering: “Can this be true?”

No, it’s not true. This isn’t how intersex works.

And not only that, people with intersex traits are no longer called hermaphrodites. That word conjures up images of mythical creatures, not real human beings.

This kind of spurious article dredges up old myths (physicians from the 18th century debated these same possibilities about pregnancy) and has the potential to divert people’s attention away from the reality of intersex people’s lives and the struggles they face.

What is the point of an outlandish story like this? Are readers supposed to imagine a person having sex with themselves and speculate how that would feel? Are they supposed to flinch at the thought of unusual bodies? What is entertaining here?

If you want to read something truly outrageous about intersex, please read the recent Human Rights Watch report about unnecessary genital surgeries issued a few weeks ago.

What’s more appalling than this sensationalist satire is that even today infants and young children born with intersex traits are subjected to “normalizing” surgeries that do not have any medical rationale. They are performed for cosmetic reasons, so that babies’ genitals can look “more normal,” but they have devastating physical and psychological consequences.

Intersex activists have been trying to get physicians to stop performing these surgeries for at least 20 years and some are listening. The Human Rights Watch report brings these efforts to a much broader audience.

If you want to read actual people’s stories about what happened to them as children, when medical professionals intervened to “help” but actually did harm, you can read the many stories written by intersex people themselves, such as the one by InterACT’s executive director Kimberly Mascott Zieselman or the interview with the supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele.

What they have endured (and what countless intersex children still experience) isn’t tabloid satire, but recognizing our culture’s insistence on making bodies “normal” at all costs should shock you just the same.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Hasting’s Center Bioethics Forum (August 15, 2017).

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.