|| Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex
||Alice Domurat Dreger
||Harvard University Press, ©1998
79 Garden Street
Cambridge, MA 02138-1423
This 268-page book begins with a description of an 1886 encounter between
Sophie, a 44-year-old domestic servant who had just married her first husband
but "could not accomplish the conjugal act," and a physician,
Professor Michaux. Professor Michaux examined Sophie and quickly ascertained
the nature of the problem Sophie, contrary to what she had been led to believe
all of her life and to what her husband believed was really a man. She had
a small penis and no vagina and her labia were really a divided scrotum.
Professor Michaux tried to tell the incredulous Sophie that the problem
was not her anatomy, but her understanding of her anatomy, but Sophie could
not believe what she was hearing. Finally, Professor Michaux said to the
stunned Sophie, "But my good woman, you are a man!" Sophie went
away and did not return.
Alice Dreger explores the history of encounters between
born with ambiguous sexual anatomy and the medical and scientific community.
The body of her book, which contains 24 photographs and is illustrated with
case histories, traces the history of the biomedical treatment of hermaphrodites
in France and Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The author describes the phenomenon of hermaphroditism and how ideas of
what constitutes being a male or a female have changed over the years. She
shows how doctors have been uncomfortable with hermaphrodites and have tried
to find ways to ascertain a person's "true sex" and minimize the
number of cases that were designated as "doubtful sex."
Along with this, the ideas about sex, gender, sexuality, and identity have
been formed and changed. Over time, doctors became the accepted authorities
in matters of what constitutes sexual anatomy and identity. The current
medical treatment of hermaphroditism, now called intersexuality, often involves
controversy among medical practitioners and between medical practitioners
and the people involved.
In the epilogue, Dr. Dreger addresses three issues: (1) the present-day
medical treatment for intersexuality, which calls for the creation, as soon
after birth as possible, of a "believable" male or female anatomy
through plastic surgery and hormonal therapy, and the silencing of any doubts
which the parents might have; (2) how this treatment maintains many vestiges
of nineteenth medical theory and practice; and (3) the present time in which
intersexuals themselves are challenging this treatment and the rigid cultural
categories behind it. The epilogue is illustrated with compelling case histories
of several present-day intersexed persons and the frequently disturbing
medical treatment they received as young children.
This carefully documented and well-researched book should be read by anyone
who is interested in sexuality, sexual identity, intersexuality, and medical
history and ethics. It is clear and well-written and should appeal to lay
people as well as to professionals.
Reviewed by Hollida Wakefield, Institute for Psychological Therapies.