Illustrative image for What s Truly Outrageous About Intersex

Bioethics Forum Essay

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 and found here.

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 this one by InterACT’s executive director Kimberly Mascott Zieselman (here) or this interview with the supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele, shown above  (here).

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.

Elizabeth Reis is a professor in the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York and the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex. Follow her on Twitter @lzreis.

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  1. Great article except, there are many of us whom do share ourselves publicly as Hermaphrodites, True Hermaphrodite. Please don’t diss those of us whom have strong beliefs and Pride in ourselves. Another thing is that all those stories from history some claim as mythology were at one time accepted beliefs to explain that there are people who are not just male or female. By the way we are also in the bible, stories shared by many different faiths. So we are not new, we have always existed. Final comment. There are also many of us who were not children, but adults whom have had nonconsensual surgeries performed on us and it is very tiring seeing advocacy consistently only mention infants, toddlers, children. Your leaving leaving out the most important intersex people whom are able to make decisions about our care but we are not being asked by doctors instead subject to their opinions, personal beliefs, or their desire to publish a rare medical case history for personal gain, medical recognition.

    Words of wisdom from an intersex True Hermaphrodite, Desert Storm Army Veteran whom was allowed to serve in the United States Army 1989-1993 whom also had a court ordered gender change from intersex Female to intersex Male in 1983 at 12 years of age. Oh and I’m 11B10 Infantry and had a descent military career until my 3rd lower back injury, honorable discharge, 4 years of service.

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