I went to Camp Betty a while back now, and have been meaning to blog about it since. Billed as a “three-day festival celebrating and unpacking sex, sexuality & gender against a backdrop of radical politics and DIY action,” Betty wasn’t all that for me, but I loved the “Intersex 101” workshop run by some intersex activists from Australia and beyond.
I loved the fact feminism was regularly mentioned as part of the ways in which gender oppression (against intersex people) might be challenged. I loved it because I learnt lots, being woefully ignorant about the kinds of experiences intersex people have in the world, and I felt humbled because it was probably the only workshop I went to where I discovered a new to me way of treating other human beings with the utmost disdain.
By that I don’t mean I’m some sort of pain groupie – I’m not, these revelations made me cry – but that I’m pretty familiar with most of the ways gender and sexuality oppression happens. So workshops about trans hatred and same-sex domestic violence, for example, were awful, but not really new to me.
Anyway, the Intersex workshop, and a definition:
Intersex people are people who, as individuals, have congenital genetic, hormonal and physical features that may be thought to be typical of both male and female at once. That is, we may be thought of as being male with female features, female with male features, or indeed we may have no clearly defined sexual features at all.
Basically, intersex people confuse our binary world – not with behaviour, though perhaps that too – but with anatomical differences from medical ideals of female and male. Their very existence proves that our binary world view is flawed. But this flaw has, increasingly since the 1950’s, been “put right” by medical professionals with cosmetic surgery and treatments designed to make sure all the external bits of children and infants “look right.”
Many believe such medical response should not be performed on children and infants, due to the psychological and physical damage such treatments cause. Since the 1990s, hundreds of intersex people all over the world have come forward to say these treatments should be stopped until intersex people are old enough to come to an informed decision.
What I found even more disturbing though, were some medical interventions being trialled here and now in Cornell University by Professor Dix Poppas. Professor Poppas cuts off bits of little girl’s clitorises which are “too big.” Then, in front of their parents, he engages in “follow-up clitoral sensory testing” – he uses a vibrator on girls as young as six to see if they still have any feeling in their butchered clitoris. Of course, if they don’t it’s a little late, but that doesn’t seem to worry the medical profession, as he’s one of New York Magazine’s Doctors of the Year for 2011.
Let me be very plain about this. This is sexual abuse. It should be being shouted from the rooftops by those who care about sexual violence. How this procedure was ever ethically approved is completely beyond me. And the idea that a clitoris can be too big? Sounds like binary-supporting, woman-hating, pleasure-phobic nonsense to me.
If, like me, you find this completely repulsive, feel free to join intersex activists in telling Cornell University.
Then there is the dexamethasone controversy. Dex is being given, now, to pregnant women in US, to make sure their daughters, if they have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, do not develop “ambiguous genitalia.” It’s not being given to mothers of sons with CAH, because it does nothing to impact on the other characteristics of CAH – it just makes girls “ambiguous genitalia” nice and womanly.
These treatments haven’t been medically approved. In fact, there’s some ethical concerns because giving dex to pregnant animals leads to birth defects. Early studies with people show brain cell death.
Dr Maria New is one of the world’s experts in CAH apparently, and the most enthusiastic cheerleader for pregnant women being given dex. Turns out she also writes papers on women with CAH, not only about “ambiguous genitalia,” but on them finding other women sexy in higher numbers than average. One of her collaborators also talks about CAH girls not being interested enough in getting married or playing with dolls. Hell, why wouldn’t you prescribe something which might cause brain damage if it’s going to result in fewer queers/unnatural women, right?
These are human rights issues beyond doubt. “Intersex 101” was open in it’s invitation for non-intersex people to support the struggles for intersex people to have autonomy over their bodies.
And I love their slogan “Everybody equal, nobody left behind.“