Monday, September 25, 2006

The Intersex Baby

Yesterday's NY Times Magazine had a nice article on the debate surrounding whether to construct (literally) a physical gender for intersex babies. I linked to a lot of information on the subject in a previous post; this article lays things out much more cleanly.

Medical convention has traditionally held that the phallic structure must be at least 2.5 centimeters long on baby boys and shorter than 1 centimeter for girls. And since it’s easier to surgically construct a vagina than to make a penis, children with anatomies that fell in the middle were almost always raised as girls.
Did you know that your clitorus had to conform to length maximums?

It seems the real issue is summarized here:

[W]hom are these operations serving? ... The vast majority of adults — parents and doctors included — find intersex bodies, especially sexualized intersex bodies, unsettling. Karkazis, the medical anthropologist, heard from clinicians she interviewed of numerous cases of parents who initially decided against surgery but changed their minds when their children started to explore their own sex organs, often around the age of 2. “Masturbation in little girls with clitoromegaly” — abnormal enlargement of the clitoris — “is a situation I’ve encountered quite a few times, and that’s actually pushed many parents toward surgical intervention,” one doctor told Karkazis. “The little girl was masturbating, and the parents just fell apart and were back in the office the next week for surgery.”
This is about adults' discomfort with sexuality. Which is not to say that an intersexed child would not face rough years in the middle school showers. But the interviews and data reported in the article at least, indicate that children whose bodies are left alone emerge more emotionally, psycholigically and sexually whole than those who have surgically constructed (or otherwise altered) sex organs.

One person, however, did not have an operation, and she alone looks fit and confident, sitting with great posture and seeming at home in her body. She grew up in a Catholic family, and when she first saw another naked woman up close, at age 12, her initial thought was, What’s wrong with her?
The good news (as reported in the article) is that last month the American Academy of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics published a consensus statement by the 50 members of the International Intersex Consensus Conference. Their recommendation was to assign intersex babies a gender as early as possible, but not to do surgery to conform the physical appearance of the body to that gender. This leaves open the possibility of a child's more easily changing gender as she or he grows up.

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