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"Five Sexes"

in response to inquiry

Forum: WMST-L
Date: 09/22/2000

At 6:06 PM -0700 9/22/00, Alexandria Robynn wrote:

Hi. I was wondering if anyone could help me identify the research paper that discussed the existence not of two sexes but of multiple sexes--I believe 5 or 6 were identified based on biology/anatomy, not sexual preference (ie not gender). I believe this paper came out in the early 90's. Thanks for your help.

I think what you are talking about is Anne Fausto-Sterling's _The Five Sexes_ which was published in March/April 1993 issue of _Sciences_.

That being said, I have something to say.... It's gonna be pretty long.

Theree of the "five sexes" that Fausto-Sterling talks about are "merm," "ferm," and "herm," which are simplified terms otherwise known as "male pseudohermaphroditism," "female pseudohermaphroditism" and "true hermaphroditism," referring to subcategories within what doctors call "hermaphroditism."

However, the use of these terms have been challenged by intersex (which by the way is the preferred term by far) activists because:

- The term "hermaphrodite" has mythical roots and tend to trivialize or erase their existence.

- Also, this medical category has been used for so long to unnecessarily medicalize and mutilate the bodies of intersex people. Because intersex activists want to depathologize their bodies, many of them do not use this medical term to describe themselves. (Some intersex people reclaim this word just like others reclaimed "queer," but people who are not intersex should not use the word "hermaphrodite" or any of its variation when referring to people without a very good reason.)

- "Hermaphrodite" has been used sell so-called "chicks with dicks" pornography. It has acquired a certain image that most people do not want to be associated with, and the pornographic production of "hermaphrodites" have nothing to do with real people.

- The categorization of herm, ferm and merm is based on some absurd criteria established by genital-area shape and function, and is completely irrelevant to the lives of intersex people except that it is used as a justification for abuse (which by the way frequently has the same lasting effect as all other form of child sexual abuse).

- The very idea that one's sex can be objectively identified *is* the source of the oppression against intersex people. Trying to use the genital to define one's sex is inherently oppressive to intersex people, whether the options include two sexes or five sexes.

- Lastly, the medical terms "pseudohermaphroditism" and "true hermaphroditism" are challenged because they imply authenticity and ranking of intersex people.

I am very frustrated with how feminist, queer and postmodernist scholars exploit intersex existence merely for its sensational (and deconstructionist) value without considering the real-life implications for intersex people and the issues they are facing. Such actions do not educate the society about its oppression and erasure (both physical and social) of intersex people - it only further mythologizes them.

Thankfully, Fausto-Sterling came around in her new article, _The Five Sexes Revisited_ (_Sciences_ July 2000), in which she quotes Suzanne Kessler's criticism and concedes to Kessler. She wrote, quoting Kessler:

"The limitation with Fausto-Sterling's proposal is that ... [it] still gives genitals ... primary signifying status and ignores the fact that in the everyday world gender attributions are made without access to genital inspection.... What has primacy in everyday life is the gender that is performed, regardless of the flesh's configuration under the clothes."

I now agree with Kessler's assessment. It would be better for intersexuals and their supporters to turn everyone's focus away from genitals. Instead, as she suggests, one should acknowledge that people come in an even wider assortment of sexual identities and characteristics than mere genitals can distinguish. Some women may have "large clitorises or fused labia," whereas some men may have "small penises or misshapen scrota," as Kessler puts it, "phenotypes with no particular clinical or identity meaning."

So - I can't stop anyone from using _The Five Sexes_, but I really hope that everyone would also use _The Five Sexes Revisited_ as well, or better yet, use _Lessons from the Intersexed_ (1998) by Kessler or _Intersex in the Age of Ethics_ (1999) by Alice Dreger. You can also read a lot of information about intersex people at the web site of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA)

Emi Koyama - Putting Emi Back in Feminism since 1975.