The substance of ‘sex’

 Personal opinion – 16 May 2012

Marama Davidson

 I want to start a conversation about loving our babies who are different. The difference I am referring to has me pondering sex as in gender, sex as in relationships, and sex as in sensual intimacy.

Recently I watched the documentary Intersexion. The opening scene throws us a unique circumstance around childbirth where we see the words; “When a baby is born, the first question we ask…….Is it a boy or a girl? What if it’s neither?”

The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) offers the following definition of the term “Intersex”:
 “Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia.

So a baby may be born with ambiguous genitalia, or the ambiguity can remain hidden until a later stage. Also true is that people can go through their entire lives without ever knowing that they are intersex. The anatomical difference can go undetected but might account for things such as infertility in an adult.

It is agreed that around one in 1500 to 2000 babies are born along the intersex continuum. I am writing this article as an outsider to the intersex community and strongly advise that I can never speak for them. My compulsion to begin this discussion comes from watching the Intersexion documentary, and acknowledging my own place of ignorance previous to viewing it. We should ALL be concerned and inspired by the stories that intersex people have to share. Any of us yearning for a brave new world must realise that we can measure our progress on how we uphold our most voiceless, our most invisible. The intersex community have been saying for a while now that they have a voice, and they want to be seen.

I came away from watching the Intersexion documentary reflecting on the substance of ‘sex’. How do we construct gender identity? What is really required for a pleasurable sexual relationship? How does each of us claim sensual intimacy? There are so many givens that we need to question and challenge of ourselves.

Once we question and challenge ourselves, we begin to understand how some of our assumptions and constructed norms have actually hurt people. In the case of many intersex babies, we have hurt them to a shameful degree. The medical response has largely been to convince parents that being born intersex is an illness that needs to be cured. Intersex children are often not told the truth about their circumstance. Parents are convinced by doctors that surgery is necessary, the sooner the better, for their child to grow up ‘normal’.

A crude decision is made on the child’s behalf as to what sex they should be, and their genitalia might be surgically altered. An example is where an oversized clitoris might be reduced. Perhaps an abnormally small penis is reshaped into a clitoris. Things are cut off, tidied up, snipped back and packaged all nicely the way we have come to accept things. What is often left behind is a person ashamed of who they are, struggling to accept the physical gender assignment that has been forced upon them. They feel different – wrong even – but do not know the truth about what surgical deeds have been done to them. It is a fine concoction of confusion and mostly can mess people up.

What really turned my privileged world upside down was listening to intersex people grieving their cases of sex and sexuality. How many of us take for granted the pleasures, the sensations and the emotional connections we experience in healthy sexual relationships? How different would those exploratory journeys have been if we had had our excitable bits surgically severed and un-nerved from the start? How uncomfortable are we even with our own supposedly normal genitalia – let alone having to offer up something, well, very different?

The stories of intersex people  that I have encountered so far, speak of the difficulties of negotiating gender, sexual relationships and sensual intimacy. The challenge is compounded by the rigid norms imposed on us. Glaring back at us is the need to support the path for intersex people to determine and define their identities for themselves. We should all be able to strive for experiencing the most fantastic aspects of the human condition. Being able to tick the ‘female’ or ‘male’ box, or neither, or both, should be arbitrary to seeking those experiences.

But we are a long way from this ideal. New Zealander Mani Mitchell, one of the intersex people featured in the documentary, cautions against a child being able to safely exist ‘in between’. Mani says we should assign a gender but to hold it gently, and to NOT stamp it with surgery. She feels that when children get older they can work out what they want to be, including if they want to be neither or both. Any surgery they opt for should be their fully informed choice. Mani’s advice also aligns with the recommendations from Intersex Society of North America (ISNA).
A note on surgery options in this country. Currently the medical policy allows for surgical gender assignment to be publicly funded up until the age of 16. After that age you are financially on your own if you opt for any surgery. It seems ludicrous to force our young people into a significant gender decision purely due to funding fear. A conversation is beginning with the Ministry of Health that I hope can bring about some improved service delivery.

For the rest of us, my hope is that we can all support parents to love their kids who are different. It is up to us in the village, to remove the power and sway that the medical response has over the dignity of our children. After all they are only playing to what we in the village will collectively accept as sexually normal. There are some shining lights in Intersexion. We get to hear of children whose parents outright refused the proposed surgical treatments for their intersex babies. For whatever reason, those parents were able to give the best healing ‘treatment’ of all – full acceptance.

If there is any shame, it is ours. We all continue to perpetuate a dual and binary notion of gender and sex, where we should instead be talking along a continuum. Where we are on the continuum may be fixed, or we should be free to slide along it as we choose. We also have a responsibility to connect people to each other. Bringing our intersex whānau into our communities, linking intersex people to other intersex, joining intersex people to other ‘outsiders’.

If you can watch the documentary Intersexion, you will appreciate the no fuss approach it takes to letting people just tell their stories. It is stunning. I am thankful for the opportunity it has given me to learn about the issues. Our biggest responsibility remains, and that is to truly love our babies who are different.

Marama Davidson

(Te Rarawa/Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Porou)