My work has been a counterpoint to the view that the role division between men and women is largely predetermined by human evolutionary history. My approach to understanding gender often challenges established norms. For example, I assert that human sexual development is not always dichotomous and that gender differences fall on a continuum, not into two separate buckets. One way to understand this is through the eyes of human beings born with anatomical characteristics of both sexes. Another is to understand how scientific understanding of the biology of sex and gender has itself been shaped by the culture which produced it.
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The emerging recognition that people come in bewildering sexual varieties is testing medical values and social norms. Chase, an activist for intersexual rights, had been invited to address the May meeting of the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society LWPES , the largest organization in the United States for specialists in children's hormones. Her talk would be the grand finale to a four-hour symposium on the treatment of genital ambiguity in newborns, infants born with a mixture of both male and female anatomy, or genitals that appear to differ from their chromosomal sex.
The topic was hardly a novel one to the assembled physicians. Yet Chase's appearance before the group was remarkable. Three and a half years earlier, the American Academy of Pediatrics had refused her request for a chance to present the patients' viewpoint on the treatment of genital ambiguity, dismissing Chase and her supporters as "zealots.
It had done my s street-activist heart good. In the short run, I said to Chase at the time, the picketing would make people angry. But eventually, I assured her, the doors then closed would open. Now, as Chase began to address the physicians at their own convention, that prediction was coming true. Her talk, titled "Sexual Ambiguity: The Patient-Centered Approach," was a measured critique of the near-universal practice of performing immediate, "corrective" surgery on thousands of infants born each year with ambiguous genitalia.
Chase herself lives with the consequences of such surgery. Yet her audience, the very endocrinologists and surgeons Chase was accusing of reacting with "surgery and shame," received her with respect. Even more remarkably, many of the speakers who preceded her at the session had already spoken of the need to scrap current practices in favor of treatments more centered on psychological counseling.
What led to such a dramatic reversal of fortune? Certainly, Chase's talk at the LWPES symposium was a vindication of her persistence in seeking attention for her cause. But her invitation to speak was also a watershed in the evolving discussion about how to treat children with ambiguous genitalia.
And that discussion, in turn, is the tip of a biocultural iceberg--the gender iceberg--that continues to rock both medicine and our culture at large. In that article I argued that the two-sex system embedded in our society is not adequate to encompass the full spectrum of human sexuality. In its place, I suggested a five-sex system. In addition to males and females, I included "herms" named after true hermaphrodites, people Date: July From: The Sciences Vol. Publisher: New York Academy of Sciences.
Document Type: Article. Length: 3, words. Access from your library This is a preview. Get the full text through your school or public library. Accessed 4 June
How Many Sexes Are There?
Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens. In Levi Suydam, a year-old resident of Salisbury, Connecticut, asked the town's board of selectmen to allow him to vote as a Whig in a hotly contested local election. The request raised a flurry of objections from the opposition party, for a reason that must be rare in the annals of American democracy: It was said that Suydam was "more female than male," and thus since only men had the right to vote should not be allowed to cast a ballot. The selectmen brought in a physician, one Dr. William Barry, to examine Suydam and settle the matter. Presumably, upon encountering a phallus and testicles, the good doctor declared the prospective voter male.
THE FIVE SEXES, REVISITED
Western culture is committed to the idea that there are only two sexes. Legally, too, every adult is either man or woman, and the difference is not trivial. It means being available for, or exempt from, draft registration, as well as being subject to laws governing marriage, the family and human intimacy. But if the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are defying nature.