Fausto-Sterling:  “The Five Sexes” and “The Five Sexes Revisited”

(1)    According to Fausto-Sterling our society is committed to the view that there are exactly two sexes (and that everybody belongs to one or the other). This two-sex system is taken to be “natural.” [Note: This view has been called ‘the natural attitude about sex.’ See Hale’s essay].

(2)    However, as a matter of fact, the two-sex system does not work out so neatly. The existence of intersexual people challenges the view that the two-sex system is natural.

(3)    Fausto-Sterling suggests (somewhat “tongue in cheek”) that our society ought to recognize five sexes. Herms (“true hermaphrodites”); ferms  (“female pseudohermaphrodites”); and merms “male pseudohermaphrodites”). Herms possess one testis and one ovary. Ferms possess ovaries (lack testes) but possess some aspects of male genitalia. Merms possess testes (lack ovaries) but possess some aspects of female genitalia.

(4)     Fausto-Sterling argues, “Sex is a vast, infinitely malleable continuum that defies the constraints of even five categories” (34).

(5)    Fausto-Sterling observes that in our society that subscribes to the two-sex system, intersex infants are immediately put under medical management (hormonal, surgical) to ensure that they are assigned to one of the two sexes (male, female).  This effectively erases the existence of other sexes: Herms, merms, and ferms.  

(6)    Surgical intervention is often performed NOT because the intersex individual has a life-threatening condition. Rather, the decision has to do with (1) The view that there are two-sexes, and deviations from this are abnormal; and (2) A person who deviates from the two-sexes will experience a life of unhappiness (basically, because other people will be cruel to them). Note, however, that both of these are SOCIAL  in nature.  The surgery is cosmetic.

(7)    Genital surgeries are not performed with much attention to sexual sensitivity. Consequence of the  surgeries can include scarring, impairment of sexual function.

(8)    Fausto-Sterling recommends: (1) No unnecessary (cosmetic) surgery on intersex infants; (2) Physicians should assign a PROVISIONAL SEX (based on likelihood that the child will have the corresponding gender identity); (3) Physicians should provide full-disclosure and counseling.

Talia’s Point: There is a very STRONG analogy here with the example of the woman who seeks out electrolysis.

(A)   The woman seeks out electrolysis because she believes that it is “not natural” for women to have facial hair.   Similarly, intersex infants are subjected to surgical intervention because it is believed that their bodies are “not natural” (i.e., that the two-sex system is “natural”).  

(B)   These beliefs concern RULES and VALUES  - they are therefore cultural. They can be translated: “Women are NOT SUPPOSED to have facial hair” and “Intersex individuals are NOT SUPPOSED to exist.”  These beliefs are, alike, part of “the game.” But the game hides itself by pretending that these rules reflect “the way things naturally are.”

(C)   In actuality, these beliefs are FALSE in that it is natural (i.e., it happens on its own, through no cultural intervention) that some women have facial hair and that intersex people exist.

(D)   Perversely, CULTURAL  activities are undertaken to “restore” the individual to a “natural” state (e.g., electrolysis, surgery).