Research

Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex by Elizabeth Reis

This review was originally written for the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health.

This book has been equal parts infuriating and fascinating. People have a history of being less than kind to those who diverge from the norm, and intersexuals are no different. Due to the historical focus of this book, and horrible treatment of intersexuals, possible triggers for readers of this history include abuse of social power, forcible surgery, and other intersexual issues, as well as the discussion and use of the historical language of intersex. The author uses these terms, stories, and social treatments in discussing historical views of intersex individuals, and in no way advocates their use.

I came across this book when looking through research articles for a paper on intersexuality. I ordered the book and immediately found it engaging and well-written. A good book makes you feel things, and this is a text one can easily get emotionally involved in.screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-7-30-11-am

Reis has research enough to back up her claims, but never lets her writing feel tedious or dry. Photos are included in the chapters; she discusses her feelings on this aspect, and her ultimate decision to proceed with their inclusion, showing readers the consideration put into writing this book. While you may not agree with some of her decisions, you can certainly understand her reasons for them.

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

Bodies in Doubt discusses a history of social commitment to heterosexuality through gender expression and marriage; intersexed individuals had to claim total male or femaleness. Throughout various time periods, this was based on everything from expression and attraction to biological factors such as bodily appearance and chromosomes. Their personal identity did not usually matter as much as other factors, as their relationships had to reflect heterosexual values since the institution of marriage was more important than an individual’s happiness.

Sexual urges also had an effect on gender identity. In the presence of sexual urges, the individual took on a male identity; a lack of sexual urges led to a female status. Intersexuals also produced a social fear of the ability to change gender or race, and thus disrupt the social order and power structure.

As debates shifted from the concept of mind to that of 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.

This history is an infuriating read due to the past treatment of intersex individuals, but it is also an important one. Knowing our history can help us to learn how to approach these issues in our future, and fix the problems of the present. Bodies in Doubt is a lesson in the treatment and discussion of gender and bodies, and provides a glimpse at different attitudes and ideas on the topic to educate our conversations on the matter.

Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex can be purchased online or from your local bookstore. This review was based on my interpretations of this literature. Curious about what else I’m reading? Check out my Goodreads profile and my bookshelf.

One thought on “Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex by Elizabeth Reis

  1. I can understand why this would be a confronting read! I’m really interested in non-fiction books that still explicitly include the opinions of the writer, and this one seems like exactly that.

    Like

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