Elizabeth Reis on "Bodies in Doubt," Her History of Intersex in America

Historians in the News
tags: gender, medical history, intersex, history of sexuality

Elizabeth Reis is a professor at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York where she teaches courses on Medical Ethics, Reproductive Technologies, and Disability Studies. She graduated from Smith College and received her Ph.D. in History at the University of California, Berkeley. Reis is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of IntersexDamned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England; and the editor of American Sexual Histories

In Bodies in Doubt, Elizabeth Reis traces the changing definitions, perceptions, and medical management of intersex (atypical sex development) in America from the colonial period to the present. Arguing that medical practice must be understood within its broader cultural context, Reis demonstrates how deeply physicians have been influenced by social anxieties about marriage, heterosexuality, and same-sex desire throughout American history. This second edition has been comprehensively updated to reflect recent shifts in attitudes, bioethics, and medical and legal practices.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

Bodies in Doubt is about the medical management of people born with intersex variations (atypical sex development) from early America to the present. Most of intersex management, past and present, has been done in the service of erasing intersex traits and promoting heteronormativity. At the simplest level, a person is diagnosed with intersex (also called disorders/difference of sex development in the medical world) if they are born with sex-atypical genitals, gonads, hormones, or chromosomes, characteristics that upend the sex and gender binary upon which we have long insisted. People born with bodily differences that fall outside the bounds of “normal” have suffered tremendously, as physicians have tried to “fix” their bodies and their psyches to fit into a narrow conception of acceptability, most especially to prevent homosexuality.

Elizabeth Reis: To this day, physicians offer parents genital “repair” for their children with the misguided supposition that “fixing” their bodies will lead to happier lives, even though countless intersex adults have expressed the wish that medical authorities had not intervened. The surgeries themselves can cause scarring, incontinence, sterility, the need for ongoing hormone treatment and can sometimes be—in effect—sex reassignment surgery if one grows up to reject the gender surgically assigned in infancy. But even if everything goes “right,” such well-meaning efforts to alter children’s genitals violate their right to develop their own sexual identities without outside medical coercion.

In the second edition of my book, I added two new chapters and a new preface and introduction. In 2009, when the book was first published, not many people had even heard of intersex. Now there might be some misconceptions, but at least it’s on people’s radars. I think my book will appeal to readers who care about gender identity and sexuality as well as those who want to read about how our collective desire for “normal” bodies has encouraged medical intervention and surgical solutions, which have often done more harm than good. In fact, genital surgeries performed for cosmetic, as opposed to valid medical, reasons are today considered human rights violations when they are done on infants who cannot consent, and advocates are working to stop these procedures.

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