Friday, October 30, 2009

Dr. Oz Takes On Intersex

Dr. Oz had a segment on intersex, "When the Sexes Collide," on his show, Dr. Oz.. I can't say I'm crazy about the segment's name, as it serves to promote the humans-can-be-hermaphrodites myth, but the segment's heartfelt nature and generally good overview of many issues facing intersex individuals and their families almost justifies the dubious name. :)

Check it out here. I'm sorry it's not embedded in this post; I think the embed code might be buggy, although it could certainly be an error on my part. Still, check it out!

I'm really glad the Dr. Oz stated that intersex individuals USED TO BE CALLED "hermaphrodites." While this technically isn't true due to lack of intersex visibility, resulting in mainstream confusion as to what the &*@#$ it is, this is how it SHOULD BE! Great job on that, Dr. Oz!

Dr. Oz basically takes the audience through human fetal development from the 6-week stage, when the fetus has not developed body parts generally thought of as "male" or "female." Thus, that fetus isn't on a M or F developmental track yet. The word is out as to what its biological sex will be!

Oz specifically cites that intersex is often linked to what the body does with testosterone - either that the body makes more or less testosterone than is typical, or the body makes it but can't use it. While this certainly isn't the case in many forms of intersex, where testosterone doesn't play a (prominent) role, he's still putting some good information out there.

He then asks the guest psychologist and intersex activist, Dr. Tiger Devore, how parents are to raise their children - as male or female? (This question will most definitely be explored in future posts, so we won't get into all the nitty gritty controversies right now.) I LOVE that Dr. Devore stated that intersex children should be given the choice to wait until they are older and have formed a "sexual" identity (probably meaning gender identity, but okay) before any genital surgeries are performed. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT, and will also be discussed extensively in the future.

It is interesting that Dr. Devore states that such individuals my choose to identify as male, female, or "something in-between." Although sometimes my gender identity is "intersex," many intersex individuals don't feel this way. Many intersex individuals don't think that "intersex" can even BE a true gender identity, since these individuals feel that biologically, all individuals are male or female....just with some added biological complexities (e.g., in terms of gene sequences, atypical hormone levels, etc.). I have been thinking a lot about this, and want to post on this sometime soon-ish, especially since I seem to support a minority view among intersex individuals. (I wonder how minor? Hmmm...)

The issue of surgery is also addressed, as it should be. Dr. Oz asks Dr. Devore how surgery affects [external genital] function. Devore states that surgery can render the gentials functional (Me: "Um, not most of the time...") or non-functional (Me: "There ya go!"). He specifically mentions that metal cutting into flesh will leave scar tissue, which "doesn't leave good sensation, and so they may be less functional than if they'd been left alone." Better yet, the following exchange:

Oz: But it is possible for- for someone who's born intersex to have a very functional, full sex life.
Devore: Yes. And to have ambiguous genitalia. (huge smile)
Oz: Despite that.
Devore: (still smiling) Absolutely.

I'm unsure how much network politics played a role in this, but I was hoping he'd be blunt and state that genital surgery may leave individuals unable to orgasm, and that leaving the genitals alone - yes, even ambiguous ones (*GASP*) - may allow intersex individuals to enjoy such sensations.

Of course, intersex individuals' experiences were recounted on the show, as well. I love that one intersex woman, Janet (last name not stated), featured on the show had had two children. A common misconception is that intersex individuals are, by definition, sterile, when this is not neccessarily the case. (This totally dependens on one's form of intersex. Janet is a person with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.)

Janet addresses something very important. Dr. Oz remarks that her upbringing must have been difficult, having perceived that she was different as a "little girl." Janet explains, however, that bodies aren't much talked about in general, and voices that it's often not uncommon for intersex individuals to be unaware that their own bodies deviate from the norm. In other words, that if bodies aren't discussed to establish a baseline for what "normal" is, then intersex individuals have no indication that their own bodies are different from anyone else's until they are informed by a medical doctor. (All too often, this doesn't occur until later in life, and often due to seeking medical help when such individuals encounter fertility problems.)

One thing I didn't like is that Dr. Oz states that Betty, a woman whose child is intersex, is "going through it," before asking Janet to advise Betty on child-rearing an intersex individual. Rasing an intersex individual may pose unique obstacles to parents, due to a lack of dialogue about sex and biological variation, gender identity, the stigma associated with discussing bodies and gentials in general, etc. However, stating that a mother is "going through it" implies that raising an intersex child may be akin in some ways to having birthed a baby dragon - that everything might go up in flames at any moment. It's really important to keep in perspective that male, female, intersex, the child you are raising is a CHILD. A HUMAN CHILD. A HUMAN BEING. You are not raising an individual from another species that you can't relate to, that makes no sense to you, that is foreign to you in every way. You are not raising an intersex child. You are raising a child, a person, than happens to be intersex.

Another thing I didn't like is that Dr. Oz stated that many women, like those in Betty's position, might feel ashamed by their intersex children. I understand that shame is prevalent due to lack of awareness and understanding of intersex; I simply wondered why he singled out mothers. Would not fathers and other guardian types not be interested in these individuals' care?

Betty's thoughts and testimonials are really amazing, on several levels. She identifies these surgeries as unnecessary, and not just the surgeries, but the separation and isolation that goes along with it. She values that her child is physically healthy over the fact that he has atypical sex anatomy. She is proud to keep her child's genitals the way they are, specifically citing that "...he might change his mind in the future, and I'm just glad I haven't screwed anything up for him." I hope all intersex childrens' parents are as committed and loving as Betty's words indicate she is.

Lastly, Dr. Oz asks Betty if she knows any other parents of intersex children. "No, I don't, but I wish I did," she says, her eyes raising to the ceiling. IT IS SO IMPORTANT FOR BOTH INTERSEX INDIVIDUALS, AND THEIR LOVED ONES, TO HAVE A SUPPORT SYSTEM. And this is something that is not NEARLY talked about enough among individuals who are intersexed, or have loved ones who are. This may mean other intersex individuals/parents to talk to, supportive family members or friends, or professionals that are experienced working with intersex issues. (Sadly, professional therapy is not always an option, depending on one's socio-economic status. Free or low-cost therapy may be available in certain areas. These would definitely be worth searching for if working with a professional is the right choice for you and/or your loved ones.) Betty states how she was uncomfortable talking about it, and how many people just don't want to talk about it "because it's a taboo subject." And she's totally right. This isn't a justification, but an accurate appraisal of the situation right now.

Perhaps the best quote of the whole piece is from Janet. "Who that child is, is in his brain." Every person has the right to define who they are, and what that means. If we could all just internalize that one lesson, then I think that we will have breached that first step in resolving innumerable issues, far beyond intersex alone.

The second-best quote? Perhaps also from Janet. "Your child is well-loved, and that is the best you can do for your child." Sex, gender identity, surgery options looming in the future. These are not things parents should have the right to make. The INDIVIDUAL alone should be allowed to make these choices. This is a great reminder that parents who may feel powerless and overwhelmed at the thought of "choosing" a sex, "choosing" a gender identity, choosing whether or not surgery should be performed....that these are not choices of theirs to make. And that NOT making these choices does not render them powerless. These parents are powerful in their love and support for their children, regardless of their sex, gender identities, or wishes to decline/pursue surgeries. Their children don't need them to choose these things. They just need love and support. That IS powerful parenting. Anything else is controlling and inappropriate.

Overall, I enjoyed watching this segment. No, it wasn't perfect. No, it wasn't totally accurate all the time. But I think that if more mainstream coverage of intersex looks like this - and increases in frequency - then some big steps will be made in the right direction, in generating awareness of intersex and activism to safeguard individuals' rights and health.

THIS is more what it should look like. Good job, Dr. Oz. :)

[Off-Topic Side Note: Has anyone else noticed that I have TONS of things I want to talk about in each post, that I reluctantly must defer to other posts in the future? *Sigh* There's just so much complexity to dissect and understand! AND IT'S SO IMPORTANT TO DO SO!]

Appreciation to my mother for alerting me to this segment. Thanks, Mom!

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