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Between The Sexes: The Hypocrisy Of Society And Gender

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Between the Sexes: The Hypocrisy of Society and Gender

Stephanie Lane Sutton

Being born intersexed assumes a great problem - parents and doctors struggle to figure out which sex to list on the birth certificate of newborns with genitals that are not clearly male or female. However, the issue which most assume is a biological conflict is actually indicative of a deeper social issue: the idea of gender identity. Being born with genitals that are neither male nor female poses little, if any, threat to health - the great issue is deciding if the infant is a he or a she, when their sex indicates neither. Gender identity is so ingrained into society there is little question as to whether it is biological to most people. However, the existence of intersexed persons, as well as those who transcend the typical notion of sex and gender in other ways, points out the flaws in this thinking.

To begin to understand the idea of gender construction, it is necessary to understand that there is a difference between that which is biologically "normal" and that which is "natural." It is not exactly understood how one becomes "intersexed," but it is unlikely that it occurs because of any sort of genetic mutation. The most commonly accepted theory is that is has to do with chromosomes that yield both XY and XX characteristics, rather than exclusively one or the other. This happens due to both genetic and prenatal conditions. Scientists and developmental biologists understand as much about this phenomenon as they do the reasons why a child is born with male or female genitalia. The important thing to understand is that this process happens as naturally as any other gender development - intersexed people have existed since the beginning of humanity and does not occur due to outside environmental conditions. Despite the fact that intersexuality is natural, it is not considered normal - it is here that it becomes a social issue, rather than a biological one.

Industrialized societies, especially those in the Western hemisphere, insist that there is little difference between gender and sex. Indeed, most people assume the terms are synonymous. "Sex" refers to biology which cannot readily be changed - sex organs, chromosomes, and hormones. "Gender" refers to that which is "masculine" or "feminine." It is purely social, and can differ from culture to culture. One study conducted by Margarette Mead in the 1930s among three tribal societies "found a different pattern of male and female behavior in each of the cultures she studied, all different from gender role expectations in the United States at that time" (Francis). These studies suggest that gender roles that are considered "universal" are only prevalent in industrialized countries which are able to readily communicate and exchange cultural ideas; in other areas, gender roles are constructed in and of their own society, without influence of outside factors - this challenges the idea that gender traits are inherited biologically. Today, in secluded communities in Papua New Guinea and the Dominican Republic, an intersex condition allows for some children to appear female and be raised as such in youth, and then identify as male at puberty when male sex characteristics became apparent (Haas).

Intersexed persons make up only about .2%-2% of the human population, but there is a significant amount of persons of other differentiations of the traditional male and female biological plans that exist. Transgenders are another deviant from the traditional conception of gender, and statistics say that there may be as many as 1 out of every 500 people who identify with a gender other than their sex (Olyslager). Homosexuality and bisexuality also deviate from these traditional conceptions (as can evidenced by stereotypes of femininity and masculinity in the identity of gays and lesbians); studies suggest that 10% of the American population is "openly" gay (Cliff Notes). Since there is so much shame associated with fitting either into the traditional conception of male and female, it is likely that these percentages are much higher. These statistics suggest that at least 12.2% of the human population is not easily defined as "male" or "female." By comparison, there are at least as many people of befuddled gender identity than there are people of African descent in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau). Worldwide, these percentages estimate to equal about 15% of the population.

Numbers alone can show that the rigid structure of gender is no small problem. However, one need only to look at the treatment of intersexed newborns to know that this social flaw is deeply harmful. When a child is born intersexed, doctors pressure the parents into surgery immediately, citing a risk of cancer. In actuality, the procedure is done carelessly and with little regard for the patient's wellbeing and mental health. "Some [intersexed patients] complain that they were assigned the wrong sex at birth. Others are more upset about the secrecy and shame of their condition often elicited from their family. ... Surgery can interfere with the ability to achieve sexual gratification, can cause chronic incontinence and the cancer risk may be exaggerated" (Gorman, pg. 2). The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) cites that this issue is one mostly propagated by social standards; "We understand intersexuality primarily as an issue of stigma and emotional trauma. In our culture, sexual variation which blurs the line between male and female is stigmatized. Intersexuality is so highly stigmatized that, until recently, the phenomenon was little known outside related medical specialties" (Chase).

The emphasis of social necessity overrides the choice of the infant, which is both morally backward and irresponsible. "Physicians perform the surgeries so that intersexed children will not be psychologically harmed when they realize that they are different from their peers. Physicians remove external signs that children are intersexed, believing that this will prevent the child and the child's family from questioning the child's gender. However, intersexed children may very well feel more confused about their gender if they are raised without any explanation about their intersex condition or input into their future treatment options" (Haas). A surgery that not only

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