Sunday, August 14, 2011

InterSEX.

Having sex can be fun and great and wonderful, but it can only be these things when all parties involved are comfortable and consenting with what’s going on. Intersex individuals may have particular needs and concerns that are uncommon for others when having sex, and understanding how to make an intersex partner comfortable may require some additional knowledge and communication. These points below are not applicable to all intersex individuals, but may give you an idea of some things to discuss before getting down to ensure that a good time is had by all.

Intersex individuals may not be entirely comfortable with their bodies. Yes, many (perhaps even most) individuals in some populations struggle with body image, but it’s important to understand that the origin of such uncomfortableness come from different places. Common body image issues stem from certain kinds of body forms that are lauded as damn-near-perfect and made prominently visible in the media and entertainment industries, bombarding us at every turn - i.e., white, thin, with "conventionally attractive" facial features = a certain suite of traits most commonly found in a subset of white individuals. Those whose bodies don’t closely resemble these idealized forms may feel a host of negative feels about this.

Intersex individuals may experience these common body image issues, which serve to judge and provide the standard with what attractive and the most highly-valued bodies look like. Intersex individuals may, on top of this, also experience body image issues surrounding what "NORMAL" bodies look like and/or how they are supposed to work. Now, that's kind of a bullshit statement, because when you say, these bodies as best, you're normalizing them. But what I mean isn't the your-body-is-not-ideal-and-therefore-not-so-normal kind of normalcy, but the people-can't-conceive-that-your-bodies-even-exist-are-you-SURE-this-is-for-real kind of normalcy. There's a lot of pressure tied in with sex as it is - "Are you having it?," "Is it good?," "Are you good in bed?," "Are you sexually attractive enough?" Things get more complicated yet when you throw in, "Does my body look normal?...Will my partner(s) find my body attractive, regardless?," "Does my body work like it's expected to in sexual situations?...How will my partner(s) react if it doesn't?," and "If my partner(s) don't know I'm intersex, (when) do I want to disclose that?...Does planning to have a short- or long-term sexual relationship change my answers?"

Let's take on the last questions first. Intersex individuals may choose to disclose their intersex or not disclose it before sexual encounters, especially they are not planning on having an extended sexual relationship with their partner(s). It is important to note that not disclosing one's intersex is not being dishonest - it simply means that that intersex individual decides to to share that part of themselves with their partner(s). For example, individuals hoping for a one night stand together aren't likely to sit down together beforehand and have an hours- if not days-long conversation, staring soufully into each others' eyes, and disclose every aspect of their personal being so that prospective partners can decide whether or not to sleep with someone for one night only after hearing their whole life story. People don't necessarily disclose their entire selves to anyone, and even individuals who know us best may not know every last, single thing about us. Or people who have disclosed every aspect of themselves may not have shared every detail with a given individual - that knowledge of their whole selves is spread across people they know, have talked to, have confided in, have shared with. People pick and choose what they wish to tell others, and what they choose to tell may be highly dependent on context. It's no less dishonest to decide not to disclose one's intersex status than it is to fail to report what you had for lunch on Oct 13, 2007 or that thing you did with the thing that one time. People decide what to share of themselves with others. Deciding not to do so can't be deemed dishonest unless people consider that thing to be offbeat and bad in some way, and thus "withholding" this information was a deliberate act to deceive. Being intersex isn't bad. The reason intersex people may choose to withhold this isn't because they view their intersex as bad (although some may that have had this ingrained by years of medical "treatment"), but it may be that they know that other people may not understand what it is, and/or they don't want to get into a lengthy conversation and explain Intersex 101 and risk getting asked invasive questions (again), and/or THEY WANT TO ENSURE THEIR SAFETY. It is well-known that transgender people for some time have been blamed for being deceptive by not disclosing their transgender status, only to have a (potential) sexual partner verbally and/or physically assault them. You have to do what you have to do to be safe. Sometimes intersex individuals won't disclose their intersex status before having sex, and that is okay and perfectly within their right to do so.

If an intersex individual DOES share their intersex with (potential) sex partners, then the bottom line is that consent and communication are key, as they should be in any sexual encounter and/or realtionship to keep it healthy. There are some things that intersex individuals may want to discuss before having sex (again) that are relevant to the sexual experience to be had. The importance of listening and communicating respectfully can't be overstated, since it's sometimes scary to share this shit!

Intersex individuals may want to share the fact that their bodies don't always look garden-variety in various aspects. This may mean explaining their form of intersex, and what features they have and/or don't have. For example, it's very common for people with AIS (androgen insensitivity) like me to have very small nipples that pretty much don't grow since childhood. I'm really self-conscious about that when having sex sometimes, and it's something I'd want to disclose before having sex. Just to get it out there, on the table, because otherwise I'm just gonna be thinking about it and wondering if they notice and are reacting to it. I just wanna talk about it beforehand so that I'M comfortable. It has definitely been helpful when partners complement your body, let you know they find you attractive, and communicate verbally and non-verbally that they desire you. Compliments and showing that they think you're super-hot? Definitely can help put someone's omg-are-they-gonna-think-my-body's-freaky?-o-meter at ease.

This may also lead into discussions of what these body parts do and/or don't do, and thus what intersex individuals want or don't want to do during sex. Individuals with various intersex variations may want to explain the form of body parts. AIS individuals planning to engage in penetrative sex, for example (using whatever body parts or toys - we're not making penis-assumptions here!), might want to discuss the fact that, without a uterus, the vagina is "blind-ended," or ends in a sac of tissue that doesn't go up to the cervix, and thus there's a back wall to the vagina. Sometimes, there can be pain with certain kinds of contat with that back wall, and an intersex individual might want to give partners a heads up. CAH individuals might want to talk about what is called alternatingly by medical folks as an enlarged clitoris/hemipenis (although individuals may have different terms, since they can describe their own bodies however they want!) and their erectile capabilities. (Clitorises of any size have muscle tissue for erectile capabilities, but erections may be more visible with larger such-structures.) Individuals with the MRKH variation, where individuals do not have a vagina, may want to discuss that penetration would not be possible, although that most certainly doesn't mean that penetrative sex couldn't happen, and certainly doesn't mean that sex can't happen! There are SO MANY different ways one can have sex. This whole heterosexual, penis-in-the-vagina thing? Is just one way to do it. All other forms of sex are just as valid, and just as much sex as the glowing hetero standard of intercourse {*insert choir of angels here and rays of white light*}. The same goes for individuals with the aphallia variation, where individuals do not have a penis. Sex can totally happen - these individuals just might want to talk about what sex could/would look like with partners.

Individuals that have gone through medicalization may not want to do certain kinds of things during sex, or may only want to sometimes, or only in certain contexts. Some of this might be due to the fact that certain sex acts are potentially triggering for these individuals. For example, with all the dilator stuff I experienced, I sometimes don't want penetration, and need to decide if that's what I want to do on my own terms, and know that I can consent to and reserve consent to it at any time (just like any other sex acts!). Remember that, like any individual that experiences triggers, partners should be attuned to watching for signs of triggering, and communicate if their partner indicates verbally or non-verbally that they are uncomfortable. Check in. Be attentive and patient. Talk about things. A good place to get started in thinking about issues of consent is Cindy Crabtree's (of Doris zine fame) Support zine. This zine is geared toward individuals that have survived or are working through sexual abuse trauma, and so is not geared toward intersex individuals, but we have discussed how intersex individuals that have gone through medicalization have often had similar experiences as those that have experienced other forms of sexual abuse. It's also worth noting that individuals one has sex with may have a history of abuse, regardless of their intersex, so it's just good to be aware of this stuff in general. <3 Individuals who have had surgeries performed on them may also have different needs. It is known that individuals that have had clitoral surgery may, post-surgery, experience diminished or no pleasurable sexual sensations when responding to stimuli, or sensations experienced might be painful either sometimes or all the time. They may also possess scarring from the surgery, and may be self-conscious of what their genitals look like post-surgery. (Ironically, it's much less common to hear of individuals reporting they were self-conscious of their genitalia BEFORE surgery. HMMMMM.) Individuals that had vaginoplasties may experience a range of experiences having sex post-surgery since, depending on the kind of tissue used (e.g., bowel, skin), the vagina may have a more or less "typical feel" or be more or less stretchy if one cares about penetrative sex. (In the extreme case for the latter, vaginal stenosis may occur, where the vagina closes partially or completely, making penetrative sex difficult, if not impossible. This would require - you guessed it! - MORE SURGERIES. This is yet another reason such surgeries shouldn't be performed on infants and children, who are still growing. If surgery is to be performed, it should be by the intersex individuals themselves, as adults, when they understand everything and want it and can CONSENT to it.) Some of the after-effects of these surgeries are also legitimate health concerns - which is ironic, since the surgeries are performed not to track health but to conform to social norms about sex and gender and bodies, but can create health problems themselves. (Does this seriously make sense to anyone?!) For example, vaginas may prolapse (= extrude out of the body partially or, in more severe cases, entirely) or grow HAIR inside them (which may happen if the tissue used to make the vagina possessed hair follicles, e.g., skin from someone's arm). These are all things that an intersex individual may want to talk about before having sex. Or not. Let's also not forget the fact that, like any group of individuals, some intersex individuals may identify as asexual, and will want to have sex infrequently, seldom, or not at all. In this case, some of this stuff might not be super-applicable to intersex indviduals who want romantic relationships with little to no sex involved. But aren't ya glad you know anyway? :)

In general, consent, communication, and respect are necessary components for having satisfying sexual experiences. Ask if it's okay to ask questions. Be honest, and discuss honestly and openly. Take concerns and dialogue seriously, and listen to what is being said. Evaluate what is comfortable and desirable together, and then go have lots of fun! Keeping these things in mind will result in healthy sexual encounters. And yay for that!

FACT: Sociocultural Norms Influence Scientific Thought.

I am a scientist (-in-training) by profession, and think about biology a lot. Other than the fact that bio is just fun (duh), I think about the relationship between intersex and normal, biological variation in what bodies look like and how they function.

I am currently working in a research collection far away from my home, NYC. One thing I've been noticing is my frustration over the biological specimens I'm using, and how they don't conform to what they "should" look like, making my job as a researcher more difficult. I'm supposed to take this measurement, but this bump or groove or whatever may be worn down, or in a slightly different location, or did something wonky and looks strange, or is just plain missing in the specimen because it broke off (more likely) or just didn't form. I have been tracking my anxiety looking at some of these specimens and going, "OMG, NOT AGAIN. WHY WON'T THESE SPECIMENS JUST LOOK NORMAL? WHY WON'T THEY BEHAVE?"

And I've been thinking about how stupid that is.

These specimens I'm working with are the way they are because they are the products of evolutionary history/trajectory, environmental factors, genetics, growth and development, and just plain ol' individual idiosyncracies. There is not a right or a wrong way for bodies to be or to exist. They just are. When I'm frustrated, it's not because the "strange" specimens I'm working with are effing up the measurements I'm trying to take - it's because any measurement you try to standardize won't work for all specimens, because there's just too much diversity in body form for any one measurement to work for every specimen out there. When I'm frustrated, it's not because that bump or groove should look like this or that so that I can easily classify it as X, Y, or Z - it's because X, Y, and Z are arbitrary categories researchers made up to make it a little easier to describe those bumps and grooves, knowing that the forms of these bumps and grooves are on a continuum or sometimes outside these continuua, and can't easily - or sometimes at all - be classified as X, Y, or Z. As a researcher, I've gotta make judgment calls, do my best, be honest about what I can and can't say, describe how I did what I did and recognize that others may do it differently or disagree. All it means is that there's yet more research to be done that spins off this stuff.

I guess I'm just kind of surprised that, since I think about this stuff only ALL THE TIME in terms of intersex, I would be reminded that biological forms aren't wrong, or strange, or bad. They just are. What may be wrong, or strange, or bad - if anything - is the fact that the standards we use to categorize and describe things will always have some element of subjectivity, a place where you have to draw the line even if no lines really exist in nature, dividing things up into neat little categories for our convenience. Nature is messy, and biology - the study of nature - is thus messy as well, because you can't easily study something that doesn't lend itself to be easily understood and described. That's one of the reasons I love biology so much, actually - endless variation, nothing is for certain, things change all the time. The best. But these things sometimes mean that DOING biology can feel like the worst, especially since career scientists' futures of doing biology (or whatever branch/es of science they're doing) hinge on ugly things like getting grant proposals funded and flashy results and beautiful, clear-cut conclusions that might make its way into fancy, exclusive journals. There's a lot of pressure for things to work out, to make sense, to have more rules than exceptions. But nature is full of exceptions. The specimens I've seen are proof of that.

Socicultural researchers have also long noted that science in itself is not an exact science. How scientists conceptualize, explain, and describe biological phenomena is not unbiased or entirely objective, but partially a product of cultural norms and ideas. One of the most infuriating examples for me, as an intersex person, is the staunch assertation that biological sex is a categorical variable. A categorical variable is any sort of trait that can be easily lumped into one of two or more categories - for example, whether something is present or absent. It can't be kindasorta there or more there than not there. No. If something is present, it's present. If it's absent, it's absent. No questions. Categorical variables are in contrast to continuous variables, where a trait isn't just described as this or that (or also the other thing, etc.). There is a range of variation and any attempts to divide up this variation into categories will be arbitrary, although it's not uncommon for scientists to do this if they want to force a continous variable into a categorical one for ease of analylzing something.

All right, all right. Fine. Categoricatinuous whatever. The reason it's so infuriating that sex is still considered a categorical variable is because well, it's not. I don't think there has been a single science course I took in college that I didn't raise my hand once a semester in response to the inevitable sex-is-one-or-the-other-categorical-stuffystuff and specifically asked about intersex individuals. My response has never been anything other than, "Oh, well, that's really rare, and that would be an exception to the rule." Um, okay. Doesn't that then mean that if there exceptions, that the RULE NEEDS TO BE MODIFIED? Dismissing the fact that intersex people exist to make nature less messy and complex makes biology less ACCURATE. I always knew, sitting in those classrooms, just by virtue of existing, that the sex-is-categorical thing just simply was false. There are tons of nit-picky topics that I've discussed throughout my science training in college and grad school that have highlighted, if nothing else, that there are SO. MANY. variables to consider, that things are super-complex, that if you're doing it right, you can't just gloss over stuff that's inconvenient to you. But that's exactly what science does when it's pretty much universally acknowledged that I apparently don't exist since biological sex must be a categorical variable. Scientists' insistence that biological sex is categorical comes from sociocultural ideas about what sex is, and how one defines it and where sex is located in the body. These things may differ among groups of people and change over time, but the fact that these sociocultural ideas heavily influence upholding this inaccuracy can't be ignored. Just because scienctists largely don't recognize that sex is categorical doesn't truly erase me. Um, I'm still here, guys. *waves*

I am more conscious now how ridiculuous it is to place value judgments on the specimens that are "thwarting you" in trying to complete your work. But even so, I think that these assumptions that things must be or look or function a certain way are the basis for why we discriminate, why we refuse to try to understand, why we fail to examine the assumptions we're making instead of writing off the bodies and beings that are causing cracks in our shitty paradigms that aren't real and don't explain the reality of what's actually out there. We need to accept and try to understand the diversity we're seeing and not write it off. When we write off these bodies and beings, we do a lot of harm. And that's not something I want to participate in, and need to be conscious about.

In / Visibility.

I've got identity on the brain, so it seems. The idea of identity and how identity is a composite of our knowing ourselves internally, others' interactions with us, and situational context is pretty amazing, and I love thinking about it. Within these concepts, I have been thinking more about identity and visibility - that who we are may be related to how we present ourselves, or how others read us causes them to identify us as X, whether these assumptions are correct or not.

I think about visibility a lot because I actually have like, no visiiblity as an intersex individual, no visibility as a genderqueer individual, and arguably little to very little visibility as a person who's queer in terms of sexual orientation. (I've been told that the fact that I present with assymetrical hair styling (yay for the side-bun!) helps others to identify me as lady-loving, as well as the small ear gauges I now have, even though I dress pretty femme-y or tomboy femme-y. Hmmmm....) Visibility, I'm learning, is both important to me, and not important to me. I want to be visible to others in different ways. I want people to know what intersex is - duh! - which is part of why I do the work I do. I don't care to walk down the street and have someone immediately identify me as intersex - something that wouldn't necessarily be desired by intersex individuals who don't identify as intersex, and also something that would be super-difficult to try doing anyway since there's many intersex variations. Just like any arbitrary way we try to lump people together, WE DON'T ALL LOOK THE SAME ANYWAY. What I want in terms of identity is just to be able to say to someone that I'm intersex, that it wouldn't be so much coming out, that it would just be, "Oh, okay, cool," and understood the range of things that that could mean in my particular case. In terms of queer visibility in general, when I first realized I was genderqueer - and then something later I've thought about when I realized I had a fairly strong preference for female-bodied/-identified individuals - I had the urge to present as really androgynous and be a fabulous occasional genderfucker and all that good stuff. After thinking about it for a while, though, it wouldn't have been authentic. I LIKE wearing skirts. I LIKE flowly femme-y cardigans. I LIKE wearing adorable ballet flats everywhere. Don't get me wrong. I just as much love my shitty, shitty loose-fitting gender-neutral T-shirts that say things on them that make no sense whatsoever (yay for thrift stores!) and my black clunky vegan sneakers and pulling my hair into a bun (side-bun?) without combing it really. These things don't necessarily fit stereotypical understandings of what a femme looks like, but when I wear them, I still want to wear short jean skirts and other more femme-y things. I needed to face that, at this time in my life, I present as femme or tomboy femme. And this means that I'm not going to get the dyke nod walking on the street, and I'm not going to be read as particularly anything much but a white, straight, cis-gender biofemme, and only one of those assumptions is accurate.

I would like to be more visible, in terms of more mainstream/conventional people understanding what various identities mean, but have also accepted that intersex isn't visible in the mainstream, and this is why we need people to have conversations about it and discuss it and actively try to raise awareness. Because I know this isn't on mainstream radar, it doesn't always hurt as much when I am not visible in these ways, because I expect more that, for now, it just isn't going to happen until more work is done. I am more bothered that I am not/very infrequently recognized by members of the communities I identify as a part of, in terms of intersex or various forms of queer. For queer identities, I am more or less accepting that there's not much I can do. I have realized it's dumb to alter my appearance to something inauthentic, that's not really me, so that I'm more visible. Even if I don't feel that I am immediately IDed as part of a group I identify with, I have been myself the entire time. I have always identified as This Claudia. And that is more important than "looking the part" if how you are and want to present doesn't fall in line with typical ways to present and perform. By being myself, I'm not as visible, but by presenting and performing authentically, I am also expanding the range of what people-that-identify-as-X present and perform like, and that's pretty cool. I also need to recognize that I have privilege because, even though it wouldn't be authentic, I technically have the OPTION of presenting some ways that other members of various queer communities can't. For example, there are a bunch of hairstyles that are thought of as stereotypical dyke cuts, but these styles are often not possible or desirable to do or maintain for some people of color. I have to recognize that even if I'm in the same boat as being mostly invisible, I still have privilege in that I can more easily be visible in some ways if I chose.

For intersex, I think it's trickier yet. People with bodies that may be considered intersex by some may not identify as intersex. Those that do identify as intersex in some way may not be comfortable sharing these identities. Those that do identify as intersex AND are comfortable sharing intersex identities don't just necessarily randomly do it freely and to anyone in public. Especially since there's so many intersex variations, it is basically impossible to ID intersex individuals, even as an intersex person. And that is a major bummer for me. There's things people talk about and write about that focus on identifying members of Group X (or at least (stereo-?)typical versions of them). Check out Krista's (hilarious) blog, Effing Dykes as an example for identifying queer ladies. (To illustrate, her tagline reads, "YOUR GIRL GAYDAR SUCKS. LET ME HELP YOU." If that's not to-the-point, I don't know what is!) There's no blog out there, though, that's talking about how intersex individuals often present as X, Y, and Z. There's no Effing Intersex with hand-dandy ID-ing tips & tricks. THERE'S NO WAY FOR INTERSEX PEOPLE TO RECOGNIZE ONE ANOTHER, and if there are intersex individuals out there that say they can, my guess would be that it wouldn't be very accurate. If we wanted to identify each other, how would we do it? I mean, we could all be super-1990s riot grrrl or something and decide that if intersex-identified people want to ID each other, we could marker up our hands with happy, colorful symbols. Get together and standardize, HEY, EVERYONE, IF YOU IDENTIFY AS INTERSEX AND WANT TO BE VISIBLE TO ONE ANOTHER, TRY DOING THIS. But this limits personal choice and results in inauthenticity. How could we really do that? Part of me is tempted to make shirts akin to what people of other identities have done - "NO ONE KNOWS I'M ---," like Original Plumbing magazine has done to raise awareness for transsexuals. (Sidenote: OP is so good!) I don't think that we should try standardizing anything, that isn't what I'm going for. (Although I really might want to make a T-shirt, anyway, just cuz I'd like it. Anyone interested, ha?)

I have learned later in my life that there were actually other intersex individuals that I came into contact with, but didn't know it until much later. I would've loved to know that, would've loved to have been able to share and talk and discuss and process stuff. But I didn't. Part of this is because, as we have learned from shared personal experiences, those people who have been shuttled through the medical stuff - and that is the vast majority of us - have it ingrained in them that this isn't stuff you talk about, and/or are traumatized by these (non-consenual) experiences and can't talk about them. Even those who would not have had these experiences are not going to be dancing in the street screaming to everyone they're intersex. Whether we're not visible to one another because we don't want to be visible or whether we do and don't have a clear way of signaling to one another, the result is that it's pretty common to feel like you're the only intersex person in the world. It also doesn't help that the Internet and medical journals and books and news specials and documentaries are chock-full of numbers and statistics claiming hard-line figures for how many of us there are, when these are actually more speculations since it's been pretty much impossible to get accurate stats on how many of us there are, as we've previously discussed, giving us NUMBERS to calculate how freaking few of us there supposedly are and increasing feelings of isolation.

I want to be able to have bunches of intersex friends to talk with and hang out with and feel some solidarity with. I know a few now, and am SO SO lucky to be friends with these awesome individuals (HI, THERE!), but it would be great to expand my circle. Do you all feel kinda lonely? Are you bugged by the lack of visibility, not just in the public sphere, but to one another? I have been bumming about this, and wanted to know what you all thought.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Oh No, I'm Writing a Post About Facebook.

I was hoping I wouldn't be doing that. But this shit is important!

This petition I've linked to, from All Out, is trying to get Facebook to change its profile settings to include more options for gender. I would argue that the same should be done for sex, as well, although this petition isn't lobbying for that. Blank fields for everything!!

There's links to testimonials and perspectives from individuals stating why they want Facebook to change their settings options, too, which are great - I think it's important to share stories and experiences from the people who are affected by Facebook's limited options, putting faces and names to this issue instead of just being a group of nameless, faceless, genderblobs.

Check it out, and sign it if you agree this issue is important! <3

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Menstruation.

I was thinking the other day that, being female-bodied, there’s a lot of stuff you’re expected to know about menstruation that you might actually have no clue about.

I remember being 8 years old, in 3rd grade, and all of a sudden, I had boobs. Like, can’t-miss-them-boobs. I had to get a bra. There were no training bras. It just happened. My chest exploded over night, and there was no going back. I still just wanted to play Girl Talk and run around pretending to be international spies outside, but I knew my body was on some irreversible adult trajectory now. Huh.

So, I had the boobs thing down. Fine, whatever. A concurrent step along with OMG What Are These New Things Impeding Basic Bodily Movement was menstruating. Oh, how everyone wanted their periods. I had learned from the pediatric endocrinologist at Hershey I visited that I wouldn’t be doing that (why – my intersex – I didn’t learn until years later at Johns Hopkins), and was perfectly happy not to do so most of the time. Sometimes a general feeling of, “Awww, I’m missing out on something, even if I don’t really want to do it, but I kinda wanted to have the option anyway,” overtook me, as it did at various points of my life regarding both menstruation and childbirth. Mostly, though, there were few tears shed over my not menstruating. Since then, I’ve also realized that that perspective wasn’t quite accurate – you can’t miss out on something that your body was never supposed to do in the first place, as I described in a recent previous post.

What DID shock me a little was that even though I didn’t and would never get my period, I look female, and was thus assumed to be getting it soon, if I didn’t have it already. There was a whole list of things that I needed to know regarding menstruation that I had never anticipated until I was already in the moment, and had to think of something to say. Usually, I lied (sadly, in retrospect) since it was drilled into me that people didn’t know what intersex was, and wouldn’t understand, and it’s personal and does not need to be shared (especially since it was pawned off as a medical condition), and that if shared I’d open myself up to much misunderstanding and ridicule. (It’s worth noting that these perceived negative reactions have not come to pass talking with people in my adult life, barring some uncomfortable questions out of ignorance and not true malice.) Here are some things I can think of, as follows below. Note that all of my testimony focuses on conversations with mostly cisgender women; not all individuals who menstruate are either women or cisgender, and while I don’t menstruate, many other intersex individuals do depending on their form of intersex and individual variation.




1) My First Period story. Girls and women I know sometimes shared “the first time I got my period” stories. Well, I didn’t have one. I think I said something about getting it when I was 11 (since most girls were running around chanting didyougetitdidyougetit around that time), and went to the bathroom at school, and saw blood. Yeah.
2) This Is What A Period Feels Like. Sometimes in college, friends would be feeling crappy and mention that they were having their period. It would often devolve into a discussion about what their own menstrual process was like, or the range of things a menstruating person may experience (“My friend gets THE WORST periods EVER explainexplainexplain.”). The fist time this happened, I panicked, realizing that I had no effing clue what having a period was actually like. I fear all the things that could’ve come out of my mouth, unawares, sounding like an intersex version of The 40 Year Old Virgin (“Uhhh, my uterus feels like a…bag of sand?”). I knew some things from just being around my Mom and sister (like, bloating and feeling cramps), but was astounded that things like people’s NIPPLES hurting could happen, or that people got unusual food cravings during their periods just like I’d heard might happen during pregnancy, or that periods could last anywhere from like, 3 days to HALF A MONTH. (I mean, FUCK, that’s a long time.) I just usually shut my mouth and said that my period didn’t last very long and wasn’t too severe.
3) “When Did You Get Your Last Period?” Any sort of medical examination as a female-bodied person is not complete until you’re asked at least once if you might be pregnant. That was a rather easy one to answer, saying, “No,” especially during my younger years before having sex. I was thrown for a loop when this easy-as-pie routine was altered to include the question, “When was your last menstrual cycle?” I had no idea this information was relevant, and it seemed invasive and irrelevant and weird. It wasn’t until later that I realized they were checking that patients were menstruating, and that they were menstruating on a more-or-less regular schedule. I had no idea what to say. Did it matter what day I chose? Did it mean something if I menstruated on the 12th versus the 14th of the month? Would I start menstruating on the same day every single month? Would it be suspicious if I didn’t? Was it better to pick a day during the start, middle, or end of the month? Did THAT mean anything? Would anyone look at these charts from all these appointments later and notice something was awry about my stated menstrual schedule, that what I was saying couldn’t possibly be true, and I’d be found out? I always just said, “The first of the month,” somewhat too brightly and a little too nervously for my own comfort, but was never asked about it. Smoooooooooooth.
4) The Entire Aisle(s?) of Menstrual Products. If someone was having their period, they might ask you if you had any Midol or pads or tampons on you. I learned that this was a thing in high school, and it wasn’t infrequent at college, either. What I encountered later was that sometimes women also shared what menstrual products they liked best. It was pretty much agreed that Midol was the best pain reliever, but there was a lot of individual preference as far as what kinds of pads and tampons were used. I knew that pads could come in different sizes based on flow, but had no idea that what size you used affected how well you could sit down without feeling like you were in a diaper. If you decided on that, then wings or no wings? If you didn’t use pads, tampons came with their own questions. Who knew that tampons were made of different materials, and that their “feel” made using them more or less comfortable? And what the hell was that string at the end for? – it seemed strange and wasteful to put a string on the end just so you could get it out of the package or whatever, right? Regardless of what you were using, did you want the scented ones or not? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.
5) I'm In On The In-Joke. Sometimes, women would make comments to male-bodied individuals assumed not to menstruate to the effect of, YOU'RE SO LUCKY YOU DON'T GET YOUR PERIODS, LADIES, AMIRITE? Um, I guessed they might be right, because the entirety of my knowledge about periods revolved around a kaliedoscope of different pains and aches you could have. But I always felt a little shame-faced when, after saying this, the women around me would all look at each other - me, included - with a look of we-know-what's-up solidarity. A solidarity that I actually couldn't share in but was assumed to. It was a strange thing to look at these women and think, "I look so much like you, but my body is different than yours. Looks? - similar. Functions? - different." For a while, I felt like an impostor, but realized later that just because other people READ ME as biologically female doesn't mean that I was somehow being deceptive by being nothing else than who I am. (= it's their problem for making assumptions, not my own problem that I exist.)




Talking about menstruation is actually one of my favorite things to talk about, ever. I’m fascinated by the intersections of people-assume-my-body-does-this and I-don’t-know-what-this-is-like, the complexity surrounding menstruation itself as a biological process, and the range of practices people profess in their experiences menstruating. Any of you intersex individuals out there got interesting perspectives and/or anecdotes to share?

Also, check out this perspective on beginning to menstruate later in life from fellow intersex activist Tricia over at Intersex Unicorn. It's hilarious. I died.