Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fear of the Unknown or Unheard Of Affects Perceptions of Intersex

Humans are verifiably stuffed with misinformation.

One experience regarding this that sticks out in my mind was two years ago, when an acquaintance vehemently denied that vegan diets were healthful. I had recently switched from my 3-year-long laco-ovo vegetarian diet (i.e., I still ate eggs and dairy products) to veganism (i.e., I excluded eggs, dairy products, and any other animal products from my diet). This acquaintance was unsupportive of veganism, and warned me to be careful that my body would not "shut down." I discussed the research I had done before becoming vegan - both reading scholarly sources and talking to long-time vegan friends - before both deciding to commit to veganism, and to ensure that my transition would be safe and healthy. After hedging a bit, she stated that even if my own body reacted fine, raising vegan kids was totally unsafe. Confused, I responded that I had read accounts of parents raising healthy kids on a vegan diet, and that their own health was often better than their omnivorous peers. My elaboration wasn't well-received, though - my acquaintance had had enough. She shut down and said, "No, I've heard that you just can't do that." She excused herself pretty soon after and joined another group of people to have other conversations.

Now, this post doesn't really have anything to do with my dietary choices persay. The broader point I want to make is that humans often speak very authoritatively on subjects about which they haven't heard much at all, and whatever they've heard doesn't necessarily mean that information is accurate.

There's evidence of this kind of thing all around us. Someone tells me with absolute certainty that someone's birthday party is on a particular night, when their party is actually the day before or after. Individuals are more than eager to offer advice on how to treat certain kinds of sickness, using methods that might be outdated or just plain incorrect. People gossip about so-and-so's relationship with whoever-the-hell and shit-if-I-care as though they were present for these individuals' collective interactions, whether these people are those that they know in real life or are celebrities.

People like to talk authoritatively about things because it makes them feel smart and knowledgeable.

The desire to feel smart and knowledgeable aren't bad in and of themselves. The desire to know is what leads us to gain information so that we are no longer ignorant about something. Learning what we already know about something and formulating our own views on our subjects of interest enables us to make sense of our dynamic world, and keep track of the massive, ever-changing amount of information about it. If we didn't try to make sense of anything happening around us, we would likely feel very overwhelmed.

Problems set in when, instead of going out, seeking knowledge, and formulating opinions, we just take others' word for it regarding unknown subjects. Instead of turning to the Internet, library books, and/or individuals highly knowledgeable on various subjects (including those with lived experience), most of us seem content to absorb colloquial information we hear in passing from others (who very likely have themselves gained this information colloquially from others, in passing). The result is that information is traded, but this information is not accurate (or maybe only partially so); ultimately, what is spread is more misinformation and ignorance.

So, what does this have to do with intersex activism? The desire to be knowledgeable about sex and gender overpowers the desire to truly understand. Many people are very, very uncomfortable with the idea that bodies don't fit firmly into "male" or "female" categories. Many people don't like wondering what one's biological sex means if it's "ambiguous." Does this mean this individual will be homosexual? Does this mean intersex kids will act unlike the stereotypical little girls or little boys they consider ideal? Many individuals consequently don't like the idea of leaving intersex infants "un-fixed" by not performing genital mutilation surgery, or performing other so-called "treatments," so that they're "really" boys or girls afterward.

In order to understand intersex, people would need to question whether or not one's sex actually has anything to do with one's gender, gender role (including gender presentation and performance), sexual orientation, and sexual behavior. Many individuals don't know that others have made distinctions among these things, and that these factors don't necessarily influence one another. Such individuals would also need to question what intersex is, whether intersex is truly a medical issue, and whether performing "treatment" without the individual's consent is ethical.

Doing these things would not be terribly difficult. Sources exist on the Internet, in libraries, and in the form of intersex individuals (some of whom are loudmouths like me, that greatly desire to generate awareness and discussions about intersex issues) that could be used to educate and inform one's perspective on intersex. But people's long-standing beliefs die hard simply because these ideas are those they grew up with, those that they were comfortable with, those that they assumed were inviolable, without exceptions. It's just another case of, "No, I've heard that you just can't do that" - whether "that" is identifying a certain way, refusing to be medicalized and "treated" when it's unnecessary, and a host of other things. Ultimately, these ideas are so scary because if such a socio-cultural fundamental - "Males and females only exist" - can be incorrect, then what other taken-for-granted things are incorrect?

It's too much for many to question foundational beliefs and systems in our societies. I don't think that this is an excuse not to, but I think that anxiety over being unknowledgeable informs why intersex is still largely unheard of, misconstrued, and unaccepted.

What do you think?


  1. We grow up being spoon-fed convenient half-truths like "Don't talk to strangers" then have no problems getting older and talking to strangers. We're used to getting the watered-down version of things when we're little. But we don't want to accept that "People with labias inherently have these other sex-related traits and are women with no exceptions while people with penises inherently have these other sex-related traits and are men with no exceptions" is one of them. But it is.

    It wouldn't surprise me if our sex-negative culture is possibly to blame here- people don't want to talk about sex with their kids. Any kind of sex. It's not that common for people to be able to comfortably talk about non-intersex sexes without resorting to euphemisms and being overly nervous. Then trying to get into something they probably don't really understand... Not an excuse, but I don't think it helps.
    And it's probably the same thing as homophobia and transphobia and general fear of anything different. I'm sure someone thinks that teaching kids about intersex people will turn them intersex. Or even worse- teach them to embrace people who are different than them! We can't have that!

    Schools need to start teaching intersex along with the "normal" sexes, and get rid of the implications that assigned sex determines gender. All I got was, in AP Bio, ONE paragraph on Turner's Syndrome. That was IT. And nothing for trans stuff. Although the way we teach sex-based biology is also incredibly very trans-erasing and made me nauseous.

  2. Yeah, having a culture that is embarrassed to talk about sex and sex organs is a barrier to discussing intersex. Many people are acutely uncomfortable even referring to private parts - there's a reason "Oprah's Vah-jay-jay" became such a popular meme a few years back. A greater willingness to discuss sex and sex organs could definitely help people feel more comfortable talking about intersex, in certain senses.

    Yeah, it would be great to provide resources to children to educate them about intersex, transgender, and all forms of sex-and-gender identity that aren't scary or threatening, but are just the way people are and that's beautiful. If inidividuals don't know what intersex is, it's possible they think it could be "catching."

    I didn't learn anything about intersex in high school, or even barely in college. Any mentions of intersex in college I initiated, and they were always very brief, and in the sense of, "Oh, yes, there are anomalous exceptions to the ruel, I guess, but for OUR PURPOSES..." I didn't have the guts to bring up intersex in high school, and certainly not before that. Any time we talked about Turner's syndrome, it was always in discussion how atypical numbers of chromosomes can affect what individuals' bodies are like. The word "intersex" was never attached to that, and certainly none of the social/human rights repercussions around it. Education definitely has a long way to go in incorporating information about sex and gender into greater discussions about human biology.

  3. In highschool I knew about chimeraism so pointed out on a quiz that a person can have more than one set of DNA. The response was that it was too rare to mention, or something like that, I'm sure bringing up intersex would be the same. "We don't want to confuse people, and there are so few of those people that they don't deserve being acknowledged!" :|

  4. Yes! There is definitely the pervasive idea that since intersex is considered "too rare," that somehow it means that it doesn't count. Um, if intersex exists, then there are clearly exceptions to your rule that you have to account for. I think you totally should've gotten points for that! :)

    Additionally, intersex is actually not rare. It is rarely DISCUSSED, but it is not rare, just atypical. There are lots of us out there, although we don't have exact numbers due to the difficulties in who-self-identifies-as-intersex, who-is-identified-as-intersex-by-clinicians, and the fact that we don't have accurate censuses being distributed trying to get accurate numbers. A rare trait is often described as being less than 1% of a population. Even our shoddy, inaccurate figures indicate that more than 1% of the human population may be described as intersex - some estimates even up to 6% or higher that I've seen! On statistic I like states that even based on our understimating data, the number of intersex individuals in the human population exceeds the number of red-haired individuals, but we don't consider red-haired individuals to be "rare"!

    In short, outliers count and are important! :)