Kessler, S.J. 1998. Lessons from the Intersexed.

Kessler, Suzanne J. 1998. Lessons from the Intersexed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Use intro as a selection for gender class –

Introduces congenital adrenal hyperplasia  – notes that intersexuality presents problem to “objective” and dichotomous gender system; Kessler comments that transsexuality maintains gender binary. Intersexuality commonly referred to as hermaphroditism – entertainment and pornographic appropriation. Surgery often performed in infancy, but intersex identity remains. Current modes of treatment often diagnose and act upon genital markers of sex, instead of comprehensive modes of analysis. Assumptions about gender and gender assignment surgeries – the absolute dimorphism of genitals, the need to make those who blur these lines conform to the dichotomy, gender becomes dimorphic because genitals, genitals are essential markers of gender (and sex), and the right of medical authority to operate based on these assumptions. Promotes use of “variability” instead of “ambiguity” when referring to genitals – ambiguity operates on understanding of dichotomy, and centralization around a “norm” of genital size and shape. Though socialization and notion of gender identity has been relatively beneficial one – gender identity has been used by medical professionals to defend the expedited surgery and clarification of varying genitals. Medical professionals interviewed attest to “losing credibility” if later on the gender assignment was not fully undertaken or “successful”, and that parents “need” to be able to consider a child a girl or boy. (These interviews were performed in  1985 – how has this viewpoint changed?) Treatments and assessments can take months, and judgments often rely upon the “successful” uptake of hormones, bodily responses. Institutional promotion of assignment – New York state must have birth certificate filled out in 48 hours, but do not need it submitted until thirty days. Phallocentrism expressed by doctors – assessments based upon “good enough” penises – and the desire to fulfill heterosexual intercourse – “normality” pressed.  Often, in adolescent counseling, intersexuality and chromosomal issues are skirted, noting that gonads or organs did not develop correctly, instead of saying why.  Definitions of ambiguous genitalia are equally as ambiguous. Genital surgery as lifesaving, improving quality of life, and aesthetic, however, most literature describing procedures make claims of morality and note deviance of organs – amputation, offense, skinning, malformation, etc. Tables of measure have centered around the penis; clitoral measures were not introduced until 1980s (Lee 1994). Medical texts have been more accepting of labial variety rather than penile/foreskin variation. Scrotal variation usually unconsidered. Genitoplasty as all surgeries – clitoroplasty, phalloplasty, labioplasty as specified. Success considered on basis of appearance, sensitivity and sexual responsiveness, size – all based on assumptions of heterosexual attraction and sexual function – or in modes of demonstrating culturally-appropriate displays of genital-based gender accomplishment (ie – pissing contests amongst boys). Increased activism and advocacy amongst intersexual-identifying has led to medical and cultural recognition – leading doctors away from interventionism and more into non-invasive treatments. FGM’s and anti-circumcision actions’ increased association with genital assignment surgeries. Promotion of intersexual identity – gendering and “coming out”?  “Cultural genitals” – genitals  to which a “person feels entitled to and/or is assumed to have” (Kessler and McKenna 1978) – gender attributions based on these assumptions, modes of queerness emerge, requests for identifiers beyond the binary. Rejects the notion that “there is no sex, only gender, and what has primacy in everyday life is the gender that is performed, regardless of the flesh’s configuration under the clothes” (90) – notes that ignorance of body’s presence in gender performance is shortsighted. Gendered language in the cosmetic surgery surrounding genitals – beautifying women’s genitals, and making men’s genitals more “useful” or “potent”  – what impact does this industry directed towards non-intersexuals have on intersexual persons?  Varying degrees of advocate alliance between transsexuals, trans*, GLB(T)Q’s, etc.


Kessler, Suzanne J. and Wendy McKenna. 1978. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Lee, Ellen Hyun-Ju. “Producing Sex: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Sex Assignment Decisions for Intersexuals.” Unpublished senior thesis, Brown University. April 1994.


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