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Book Review: Bodies in Doubt by Elizabeth Reis

March 30, 2017
Amy Gill, Contributor to The CSPH

Sometimes, pop culture gifts us with sexuality media. The CSPH takes a look at Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex from Elizabeth Reis.

Bodies in Doubt

Possible triggers for readers of this history include the discussion and use of the historical language of intersex, including such terms as ‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘monster.’ The author uses these terms as a discussion of historical views of intersex individuals, and in no way advocates their use.

It used to be believed that “maternal imagination” was to blame for any intersexuality or disabilities in children. Mothers were encouraged to abstain from any impure or unusual thoughts, for fear that it would affect her unborn child. This thinking was largely a result of religious values and an ignorance of anatomy, especially of females. Any child of unusual birth was considered a monster, and contributed to legends, mythology, and fear of women.

Reis discusses a history of social commitment to heterosexuality. Intersex individuals had to claim total male or femaleness, typically based on who they were attracted to. Their personal identity did not matter, as their relationships had to reflect heterosexual values, as the institution of marriage was more important than an individual’s happiness. Sexual urges also had an effect on gender identity. If the individual had sexual urges, they took on a male identity; a lack of sexual urge led to a female identity. Intersex people also produced a fear of the ability to change gender, and thus disrupt the patriarchy; the fear of changing gender also led to a fear of changing race, which would completely upend the power structure of society.

Debates eventually arose on the concept of mind over matter. Some argued for gonadal importance, while others pushed for psychological testing to determine gender. Mentally healthy individuals were heterosexual individuals, and there were differing opinions on what aspect of an individual made them heterosexual. Ambiguous genitalia eventually came to be classified as a medical emergency.

While this history is an infuriating read due to the past treatment of intersex individuals, it is also an important one. Knowing our history can help us to learn how to handle our future, and fix the problems of the present. Bodies in Doubt is a lesson in the treatment and discussion of gender, and provides a glimpse at different attitudes and ideas about gender to help us decide how we want to talk about it.

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