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Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex by Alice Domerat Dreger

Synopsis

Punctuated with remarkable case studies, this book explores extraordinary encounters between hermaphrodites–people born with “ambiguous” sexual anatomy–and the medical and scientific professionals who grappled with them. Alice Dreger focuses on events in France and Britain in the late nineteenth century, a moment of great tension for questions of sex roles. While feminists, homosexuals, and anthropological explorers openly questioned the natures and purposes of the two sexes, anatomical hermaphrodites suggested a deeper question: just how many human sexes are there? Ultimately hermaphrodites led doctors and scientists to another surprisingly difficult question: what is sex, really? Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex takes us inside the doctors’ chambers to see how and why medical and scientific men constructed sex, gender, and sexuality as they did, and especially how the material conformation of hermaphroditic bodies–when combined with social exigencies–forced peculiar constructions. Throughout the book Dreger indicates how this history can help us to understand present-day conceptualizations of sex, gender, and sexuality. This leads to an epilogue, where the author discusses and questions the protocols employed today in the treatment of intersexuals (people born hermaphroditic). Given the history she has recounted, should these protocols be reconsidered and revised? A meticulously researched account of a fascinating problem in the history of medicine, this book will compel the attention of historians, physicians, medical ethicists, intersexuals themselves, and anyone interested in the meanings and foundations of sexual identity.

4 stars.

I’d had this book on my shelf for ages, but I wish I’d picked it up before. The accounts are tragic (in some cases), interesting and well researched, but more than that this is a book which makes one think. What does it mean to be male or female? When are where does a person become either a man or a woman, and more importantly does it actually matter? How much of our sex and gender are biology and how much is societal? All the cases discussed were French or British cases from the Victorian era – when the gender roles were very distinct, and sexuality was far more rigidly enforced. Homosexuality was illegal and it was ‘one sex, one body’. A woman was a woman, and she loved men, produced babies and was mild, retiring and gentle. A man was a man, and he loved women, was the breadwinner, stronger, more forceful. So what happened when these lines were blurred?

Biology is complex, and the biology of sex even more so. What happened to the people who were both male or female, or neither? Was assigning a sex and forcing that person to live according to those social mores, or even finding someone was actually the other sex and making them change for the good of the person or to ‘protect’ society?

The book is a good insight into the trials of medicine, social expectations and the often difficult lives of the hermaphrodites themselves, although with the exception of one of the people there were no diaries of the hermaphrodites themselves.

Changes in attitude, definitions, and advances in medicine shifted boundaries, but many of the intersex persons had sad, confused lives – being forced to be a gender they did not identify with. Some lived as they chose, and damned what the doctors thought, and some ignored the ‘advice’. But it wasn’t easy.

Many of the issues are still relevant – fortunately Britain is more open-minded these days. There are equal rights in marriage for all, gay people, and intersex people can live (relatively) free lives without fear of prosecution or ostracism. But there are still discussions on transgender, sexual and gender identity and ‘normality’.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in the development of science, medicine, identity, social issues and Victorian history.

 

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