Intersexual Genital Mutilation
In North America & Europe
Sexual/gender variations. Work by Anne Fausto-
Sterling & John Money. Intersex support groups
Sexual and gender variation:
Western society has traditionally oppressed sexual minorities. Every child is expected
to be conceived with XX or XY chromosomes, grow up to be either a man or a woman, to have
internal and external sexual organs which are clearly male or female, and to be sexually
attracted to members of the "opposite" sex when they mature. For reasons of
ignorance, religious teaching, and/or fear, we have tended to force people into the
traditional heterosexual male or female role. But, as in so many sexually related topics,
a two-mode "either/or" model is insufficient. Consider:
||Homosexuals: male or female adults who are attracted to members of the same
gender; about 5% of the population.
|Bisexuals: male or female adults who are attracted to persons of both/all genders;
about 3% of the population.|
|transgender persons: adults who
appear like a typical male or female, but who are convinced that nature has
played a terrible trick on them. They feel that they are a woman in a man's
body, or vice versa. Their numbers are unknown. Estimates vary widely.|
|Transexuals: transgender adults who have undergone hormone
therapy and/or surgical procedures in order to make their body more
closely resemble the sex that they identify themselves as.|
|Intersexuals: individuals who are born with anatomy or physiology which differ
from cultural ideals of male and female." 1|
About Anne Fausto-Sterling:
Anne Fausto-Sterling attempted to categorize intersexuality in a 1993 article.
She introduced three sexes in addition to male and female:
|Herm refers to "true hermaphrodite" -- a person born with
both ovarian and testicular tissues and internal reproductive organs.
||Merm is an intersexed person with their sex chromosomes following a XY (nominally male) karyotype.
|Ferm is an intersexed person with a XX (nominally female) karyotype.|
These categories have not been well received by most intersexed people.
She has written of her vision of a more accepting future:
"At birth, instead of hearing the inevitable pronouncement of "boy"
or "girl" new parents might excitedly await a much expanded range of
possibilities. Herms, ferms, and merms, being the rarer birth events might come to be seen
as especially blessed or lucky, having as they do the best of all possible worlds,
sexually speaking. Herms, merms and ferms might become the most desirable of all possible
mates able as they are to pleasure their partners in a variety of ways. Furthermore, the
existence of three additional sexes would open up possibilities for the rest of us. It
would become difficult to maintain a clear conceptualization of homosexuality, for
example, and perhaps its current contentious status would fade from view. If we envision
the world in fives instead of twos, it would also be more difficult to hold onto rigid
constructions of male and female sex roles. ...Should we have only two sexes? -- my answer
would be a resounding no."
About Dr. John Money:
John William Money (1921-2006) was a psychologist and sexologist at Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. According to Wikipedia, he was:
"... well-known for his research into sexual identity and biology of
gender. Money identified several influential concepts and terms during his
career, including gender identity, gender role, gender-identity/role, and
He was very highly regarded as a world-class expert in his field. He received
many international awards.
One of his early specialties was intersexuality. He
developed the concept that a person's gender is not simply defined by their
genitalia, but also by one's self-awareness and social assignment. He taught
that gender among very young children is plastic, and only becomes rigid later in
life. In a very famous case, in 1965, he persuaded a family
to have one of their twin sons castrated and raised as a girl.
Infant genital surgery:
Partly as a result of his research, many physicians began recommending that the ambiguous external genitals of intersex infants be
surgically modified so that the child will grow up appearing to be a
"normal" male or female. Sometimes, the infant have an enlarged or protruding
clitoris; others will be born with a "micropenis".
In about 90% of cases, intersex infants have undergone genital surgery to make them appear as a "normal"
female. One surgeon explained: "You can make a hole, but you can't build a
pole." 4 Surgery involves removal and
remolding genital structures, and may involve the addition of parts taken from
elsewhere on the body.
Physicians now attempt to preserve structures that have concentrations of
nerves, so that sexual feeling will remain. But they cannot guarantee that their
patients will ever be able to have orgasms in later life. Such care was not
always taken in the past.
These operations are usually performed shortly after birth, at the age of 6 weeks to 15
months. 5 They are sometimes done later, during childhood or
Intersexual activist groups:
There is increasing opposition to these operations. Several activist and
support groups by and for intersexuals have been formed. 1,6,7
They generally oppose genital surgery on intersexed people, particularly when it is done
at an age where the individual cannot make an informed choice. Nathalie Angier
"The debate raises difficult questions about who has the right to
decide what ranks as esthetically acceptable genitalia, whose interests are
being served by surgical intervention and whether one's sexual identity is
so entwined with the appearance of one's genitals that it is worth
subjecting infants to a major operation to assure visual concordance between
one and the other."
The Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act does permit genital
surgery if it is "necessary to the health of the person on whom it is
performed." Activists are now trying to modify the law, so that it cannot
be performed without the informed consent of the individual. This would effectively eliminate the possibility of genital surgery on intersexual newborns and infants.
Cheryl Chase, founder of the Intersex Society of North
America commented: 1
"[North] Africans have their cultural reasons for trimming girls' clitorises, and we have our cultural reasons for trimming girls' clitorises.
It's a lot easier to see what's irrational in another culture than it is to
see it in our own."
With regard to the proposed change in the law, she
"That would break the pediatricians' argument that they do this to
prevent psychological and mental trauma for the child...We don't expect this to be
finished up in six months, but we're not going to go away, and we have more passion than
Some pediatricians defend the practice of infant genital surgery. Dr. Anthony A.
Caldamone, head of pediatric urology at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, RI said:
"I don't think it's an option for nothing to be done. I don't
think parents can be told, this is a normal girl, and then have to be faced
with what looks like an enlarged clitoris, or a penis, every time they
change the diaper. We try to normalize the genitals to the gender to reduce
psychosocial and functional problems later in life."
Dr. Justine M. Schober, a pediatric urologist at Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa. has
"The truth is, genital surgery is being done, but we don't know
what the outcome of it is, sexually or otherwise. We don't have any
David Thomas, a pediatric urologist at St. James's University Hospital and Infirmary in
Leeds, UK conducted a scouting study. It involved only about a dozen intersexual
individuals aged 11 to 15 who had been subjected to genital surgery. Results were not
encouraging. 8 Dr. Thomas reports: "
required some additional vaginal surgery...The results are indifferent and frankly
Estimates on the number of intersexuals in North America range from 1 in 50 to 1 in
2000. Intersexuality is sometimes caused by their DNA, sometimes by rare hormonal levels
during pregnancy, and sometimes by unknown causes.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- The Intersex Society of North America maintains a home page at: http://www.isna.org/ They have a FAQ, which describes their newsletter and other materials on
- Anne Fausto-Sterling, "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are not enough",
The Sciences, 1993-MAR/APR, 1993:20-24. Responses were printed in the JUL/AUG issue. The
article was reprinted on the New York Times Op-ed page on 1993-MAR-12.
- "John Money," Wikipedia, 2009-JAN-07, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
- Melissa Hendricks, "Is it a Boy or a Girl?", Johns Hopkins Magazine,
1993-NOV-10 to 16.
- Nathalie Angier, New Debate Over Surgery on Genitals, New York Times, New York
- Intersex Voices is a Web site supporting intersexual persons and their families.
See: http://www.qis.net/~triea/inter.html (Apparently offline)
- Genital Mutilation Survivors' Support Network (GMSSN) has a German and English
web site at: http://www.sonic.net/~boedeker/gmssn/index.htm [Apparently a broken link]
- Anne Scheck, "Early Vaginal Reconstruction for All Intersex Girls?," Urology Times of Canada, 1997-APR. Available at: http://www.doctoc.com/
Copyright © 1998 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally published: 1998-MAR-16
Last updated on 2011-APR-24
Author: Bruce A Robinson