Sexing the Body

Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Note: This book feels quite outdated, and lacking in nuance or deep understanding of trans or non-binary or anti-gender perspectives.

Chapter 4: Should There Only Be Two Sexes?

In this chapter, Fausto-Sterling revisits her proposal in 1993 that there by five sexes, accounting for intersex variation. John Money responded directly to this proposal with horror and disbelief, despite his research acklowedging the reality of sex diversity. She reflects on how proposing a non-binary system seemed to have struck a nerve with many. She states her current agenda: (1) no infant genital surgery; (2) let physicians assign a provisional binary sex to the infant; (3) let the medical team provide information and counseling to the parents and child. A great deal of this chapter reviews medical literature on the harm of surgery and first hand accounts of intersex activists who have undergone surgery.

She starts with the ethics of intersex genital surgeries, arguing they do more harm than good, despite the views of medical practitioners. The physical harms include scarring, pain, and the impossibility of sexual enjoyment or orgasm. She accounts for this harm by reviewing the details of founder of Intersex Society of North America, Cheryl Chase's story. She reviews the history of medical practioners and family lying to children to force them to undergo life changing surgeries. She also accounts for the invasive sexual encounters children are forced to have with doctors to assess their "conditions" (pg. 86).

She proposes two paths: (1) continue to follow the status quo, including searching for a "cure" for intersexuality; or (2) embrace natural and cultural variability. She envisions a future of the "five sexes" as paving a path towards expanding male and female, or making gender differences irrelevant, dissolving the hierarchy between genders and sexualities. How the five genders would lend to this is not discussed.

Reminiscent in some ways of Repo's Biopolitics of Gender, Fausto-Sterling utilizes transsexual (the traditional view of trans identity) activist history as a way of viewing gender discourse. On one hand, she states that the fight for "sex changes" reinforced a binary two-gender system, though she acknowledges the lack of choice in engaging in this framework to access medical care. Further, trans medicalism has a history of still binary homophobia, including forcing couples to divorce for access to surgery so as not to result in a homosexual marriage. She notes that more modern transgender movements have embraced a more fluid gender discourse, advocating against mandatory surgeries and compulspory heterosexuality. Further, there are other cultures which offer gender categories beyond the binary. Fausto-Sterling uses these more expansive views on gender to question: "Is it so unreasonable to ask that we focus more clearly on variability and pay less attention to gender conformity?" (pg 108).

Fausto-Sterling points out, though, that simply having another gender category does not guarantee equality or a flexible gender system. She quotes Suzanne Kessler's response to her five gender system, which points out that it prioritizes genital constructions, despite that gendering is done to others without access to knowledge about genitals (pg. 110). Thus, Kessler believes in shifting focus away from genitals; Fausto-Sterling agrees and thus reconsiders the discrete five gender categories she discussed.