Intersex in history

Anyone who writes will know that feeling when something you worked on ends up not being used. I was asked to write 500 words on this topic and of course that was nowhere near enough – but I did what I was asked, listened to and welcomed feedback, and then was cut. So here it is, in a slightly expanded form (the advantage of blogging on one’s own!).

Genesis 1:27, in the NRSV translation:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

It’s a verse which turns up in many discussions of gender and sexuality. But ‘male and female he created them’ may work fine for the powerful, indeed foundational, myth of Adam and Eve, but in the real world it comes up against the realities of the body: not every body fits neatly into the ‘male’ or ‘female’ category. Some would argue that clear sexual distinctions were intended in Creation and that anything else results from ‘the Fall’, while others would point to the Biblical category of the ‘eunuch’ as being neither male nor female. I hadn’t met anyone in the former group until I took part in the Shared Conversations – a bit of an eye-opener for me, not least because there were clearly people there who talked about ‘the Fall’ like it was an actual historical event. At the other end of the spectrum, it was interesting some years after that experience to write a sermon on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch and to reflect that, whatever we understand by being a eunuch, what matters here is that Philip accepts the invitation to join the eunuch in his ‘personal space’, the chariot, and does not reject him in any way.

Just looking around us today, we can see that as well as some women being taller and stronger than some men, there are less obvious parts of the body which can vary considerably between individuals. At birth, the most obvious sign is the genitalia, but how large does a penis have to be to lead to the announcement ‘It’s a boy’? Because binaries rule, the tape measure has been brought in here; so, under 1.9 cm currently brings the diagnosis of ‘micropenis’, leading to some children being given hormones and others, surgery. Nor is this only about the visible body. The tissue of the gonads is also relevant, and it is possible to have both an ovary and a testis. A person may appear female but not have a womb. As well as hormone levels varying, so do chromosomes. We may be XX-female or XY-male, but it’s possible for a body which appears female to have XY chromosomes or even for one individual to have some XX and some XY cells.

Historically, people who had some characteristics of each sex were called ‘hermaphrodites’, and before the ‘Age of Gonads’ began in the nineteenth century the focus was on the external organs, alongside some interest in body hair and in preferred activities. The person to read on the shift to gonads – testicles and ovaries – is Alice Domurat Dreger, whose work is briefly summarised here. Before this, however, in the eighteenth century some claimed that all such individuals were ‘really’ male but with a small penis, while others thought they were ‘really’ female but with an enlarged clitoris; I’ve written about this elsewhere. I see this as reflecting the strength of people’s desire to fit everyone into one of just two categories. Today, the most likely label is that a person has ‘variations in sex characteristics’ (VSC). This is a biological category and it’s important to realise that it has nothing to do with whether the person identifies as male or female, or with their sexuality. ‘Disorders of sexual development’ (DSD) was also used but this has shifted in favour of the more neutral ‘Differences of sexual development’.

The risk of saying anything about people with VSC is that, not being one of them, I may have no right to comment. But I’m a historian, and there’s a history here, and perhaps my role is to inform people of that. I think it’s important to acknowledge that even in relatively modern times there’s a disturbing history of how ‘hermaphrodites’ – the term that was then used – were put on public display as curiosities for close inspection, as well as being the object of scientific discussion; in 1714 the poet Alexander Pope wrote of his pleasure in seeing a hermaphrodite displayed for a charge of one shilling. This person was the child of ‘a Kentish Parson and his Spouse’, the advertising handbills announcing the display of ‘her personal curiosities’. Pope visited with a priest and a physician who, like him, both inspected and touched the person’s genitals; he writes of ‘the surest method of believing, seeing and feeling’. The priest decided this was a man, while the physician concluded that this was a woman. Does the use of ‘her’ in the advertisements suggest that this was the person’s own gender identity?

The fascination shown in this story is only one part of the history of VSC: the other part is revulsion or fear. The divine being Hermaphroditus combined external features of both sexes, but at the same time real people with anomalous bodies of various kinds were seen by the ancient Romans as signs of the gods’ displeasure. As with other attempts to use the past, you could focus on the divine aspect of uniting two things in one body, or on the appalling treatment of those who don’t fit the categories. Moving to modern times, until very recently, as a result of the now-controversial protocols of the psychologist John Money, medicine responded by removing or reshaping tissue. What was lacking here was any sense that an individual may want their body to remain indeterminate in its sexual features. While much of the medical and legal literature concerns attempts to force individuals into categories, those individuals could also actively resist categorisation, but historically their sense of their own identity has rarely been taken into account.

Binaries rule, OK? But do they have to?






About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on
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1 Response to Intersex in history

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 29 May 2019 – Thinking Anglicans

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