Tag Archives: teaching

Book Review: Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis

20 Jul

book review

The question of intersex is one that challenges not only the medical community, but our entire society, encouraging us to see gender and sex (and even sexuality) as more complicated and nuanced than we might regularly imagine. The very existence of intersex bodies demands a decoupling of gender from bodies, and a dismantling of essentialist, binary views. Georgiann Davis’s new book, Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis (2015, NYU Press), explores the role of language, medicine, and gender structures in shaping the experiences of intersex people (alternatively, people diagnosed with disorders—or differences—of sex development, DSD).

In particular, she studies the linguistic shift from ‘intersex’ (or hermaphrodite, and variations of these terms) to the new diagnosis common within medical circles, ‘DSD.’ Her key argument, amply demonstrated by interviews with members of the intersex community, doctors, activists, scholars, and parents, is that the language used to describe intersex bodies has important ramifications for the lived experiences of intersex people.

There are several important findings to support this argument. She shows historically that the medical community was primed to accept this terminological shift, at least in part to reassert their power over intersex bodies. John Money, a doctor famous for his claims that ‘nurture’ would always win over ‘nature’ in gender identity, sullied the medical community’s relationship to ‘intersex.’ Money lost credibility after encouraging parents of a male child to raise him as a girl after a botched circumcision left him mutilated. “She” eventually committed suicide, and the suicide was taken as evidence that his innate male gender could not be replaced by feminine gender socialization. This seemingly mismanaged case of sex-gender identity, along with increasing pressure on the medical community by feminist and intersex activists, meant that doctors’ authority over the diagnosis was publicly questioned. When the new diagnostic term ‘DSD’ was proposed, doctors jumped at the chance for a fresh start.

Allowing the medical community to determine the public understanding of ‘intersex’ or ‘DSD’ has important ramifications. For example, the medical community perpetuates biologized understandings of sex, gender, and the body. These understandings are used to justify medically unnecessary surgeries to “normalize” the genitalia (often at the expense of sexual sensation, and almost always at the expense of the patient’s sense of autonomy and self-determination). When coaching parents on how to raise their intersex child, doctors often encourage enforcing gendered expectations—discouraging girls from tomboy behaviors, and encouraging boys into more vigorous activities. In particularly upsetting passages, Davis exposes doctors’ sexual expectations of intersex women in particular, surgically shaping women’s bodies for penile-vaginal penetration.

Davis also documents that the language shapes intersex individuals’ experiences, beyond surgical intervention. Based on her interviews with intersex people, she finds that those who embrace the ‘DSD’ terminology have a more positive relationship with their doctors and parents—in Davis’s terms, they have better access to biological citizenship than those who use the more politicized term, ‘intersex’—but have a more troubled sense of self. She explains that this is likely due, at least in part, to the stigmatizing effect of seeing oneself as ‘disordered.’ In contrast, those who utilized ‘intersex’ had a more positive sense of self and a better relationship to their gender identity and sexuality, but often found themselves at odds with doctors. The terminology is a source of trouble within the intersex community as well, leading some activists to be at odds with one other over wording, something that concerns Davis because in-fighting may take away from more important battles.

Ultimately, this book is an important read for gender and sexuality scholars, as well as medical sociologists. Davis deftly challenges binary categories and the power of medical diagnoses. Her writing is engaging and, at times, personal—she shares her own experience as an intersex person, describing intimate conversations with her parents, problematic medical episodes, and her activist-academic desires. The book would also work well in advanced undergraduate classes or graduate seminars on gender, sexuality, and bodies, but I would highly recommend implementing it in classes aimed at non-sociology majors. For example, I’d love to see this on syllabi for medical sociology classes, which are frequented by pre-med students, who are an important but likely overlooked audience for this book. As teachers, we can also be activists, shaping the minds of our students who, in this case, will be the next generation of doctors encountering intersex bodies.



Amanda Kennedy is a contributor and founding editor of Masculinities 101.

On Teaching Inequality, Privilege, and Masculinities

13 Jan

With the Spring semester about to begin, I am deep in “course prep” mode. This semester I will be teaching American Society, a staple in the sociology department. I generally teach this class as a course on inequality, specifically debunking the myth that our society is a classless, egalitarian society. I divide the course into four segments on class, race, gender, and sexuality, with the final component of each segment working to tie these categories together and introduce students to the theory of intersectionality. We explore how science, medicine, family, religion, popular culture, media, education, and public policies (like marriage, health care, and immigration law) both create and propagate inequality. And we talk about whether institutions like these, which are often used to preserve the status quo, can instead be used to fight inequality. By the end of the semester, students are able to explain how social identity categories operate in the United States, and accurately link these categories to existing problems of inequality. It is my favorite course to teach, and generally students seem to enjoy the provocative discussions that emerge out of the readings and lectures.

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The Challenges of Teaching Feminism as a Male-Identified Teacher

16 Dec

(Source: Canadian2006 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0/r GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Our own Cliff Leek has recently talked about the tension, struggles and challenges of being an ally to movements of the marginalized. Those of us located on the ‘privilege’ side of different axes of inequality and oppression (like race, class and gender) face the challenge of how to become (and stay) active and effective allies without reinforcing the very inequalities we are trying to fight, and trying to speak truth to power without claiming to speak for the movements we are aligned with. As Mia McKenzie points out in her critique of the term ‘ally’: “actions count; labels don’t”. In other words: We don’t become ‘allies’ just by some act of will or by declaring us as such. Instead, being an ally means a continuous process of becoming one. This call for action and constant reflection has, of course, implications for those of us who are male-identified but teach about gender in the classroom. We face unique challenges that we need to find pedagogical answers to if we are to stay true our feminist and anti-racist commitments.

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