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Cheryl Chase is Absolutely Right

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine contained an article by Elizabeth Weil titled, “What if It’s (sort of) a Boy and (sort of) a Girl?” that outlined the debate about whether or not doctors should surgically change the genitals of intersex children to better match the gender assignment they are going to be given. The article doesn’t do a great job of really addressing the nuances of that question. For one thing, a large block quote spanning the first two pages of the article asks:

“Will a child grow up to have a better life if he or she has surgery? Or will that child be better off if he or she is loved and accepted, at least at home, exactly as he or she is?”

And then, unfortunately, it spends nearly no time actually describing the adult lives of intersex people, the difficulties in measuring the quality of life, and nearly escapes entirely without addressing the role of sexual pleasure in adult life, something which the genital surgeries being debated most certainly impact.

But the article does a nice job in its profile of intersex rights advocate Cheryl Chase and her work as founder of the Intersex Society of North America. Chase, and intersex adult herself, has spent the past decade talking to groups of doctors, parents, genetic counselors and anyone else who will listen, trying to convince them that they ought not surgically alter children for cosmetic reasons, and that children should be raised with love, and with a gender assignment, no matter what their genitals look like. She argues that these surgeries are most often done to make parents more comfortable, and that parents’ comfort should not come before the child’s chance at a healthy adult life. (Again, sex lives are not very explicitly mentioned, but that is certainly part of what’s at stake here.)

This would seem to be common sense. You can imagine the voice of the intersex infant if only it had a voice. Please don’t cut off my clitoris or reduce its size without my consent. Please don’t cut off my penis because it appears too small or my genitals are ambiguous, and please don’t try to create a vagina for me out of intestinal tissue. Please wait until I’m old enough to decide whether I’m happy as I am or want to change my body. But the infant doesn’t have a voice and the adults who will determine her care are prone to thinking about gender and sexuality and bodies in ways that are pretty inflexible and pretty bound up in the idea of that bodies and identities and labels must all neatly align themselves and they must fit a too-narrow two-category system.

I wrote a few months ago questioning the idea that gender is binary (that there are only two options and that they are opposites) and the idea that it is biological. Gender is about much more than genitals. And the appearance of genitals seems to take on a special kind of significance that the appearance of other body parts does not take on which is especially puzzling given how infrequently we show our genitals to others in this society.

There were a couple of things that I think the article missed and that I want to put out there. They sort of run underneath the narrative of the article in an unspoken kind of way, but fears about them are obvious in the framing of the article.

  • Transgender and transsexual identity occur in people regardless the external appearance of their genitals, regardless their chromosomal makeup. Surgery on an infant is not necessarily going to suit the identity that is formed as the child grows up.
  • There are no “perfect” genitals. The fact that we have a medical definition of the acceptable length of an infant penis should be shocking to us! Does the length have anything necessarily to do with the sexual function of the organ? Can it still get erect? Can it still transmit pleasure sensations? Can it still be a conduit for sperm, should that be so desired?
  • Attitudes can be changed and people can be taught how to challenge bigotry, so that the fear of what will happen to this child in the locker room at school, for example, should not be cause for early and potentially devastating surgical reshaping of the body.
  • Sexual health and sexual pleasure are important parts of human life and should not be relegated to some low or unspeakable status when determining a person’s health care options. This is true for adults (we should always be willing to ask how a given treatment is likely to affect us sexually, and then to consider those effects carefully before giving our consent to a treatment) but it is also true for children who are even more vulnerable because it is so difficult for us to acknowledge that they are sexual creatures.

For more information on intersex the ISNA web site’s FAQ page is a good place to begin.

For information on transgender, try the Gendertalk web site.

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Filed under Gender, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality

2006 Masturbate-a-Thon

Speaking of the goddess, Carol Queen, I encourage you to check out these links:

This one begins her narration of the recent Center for Sex and Culture-sponsored Maturbate-a-Thon held this year for the first time in the UK. Very exciting!

This link will take you to the Center for Sex and Culture itself. It was founded by Carol Queen and her amazingly kind, generous, not-to-mention brilliant partner Robert Lawrence and it’s a fantastic institution.

Carol, Robert, you rock!

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Sex-postive or Sex-radical?

I said I was going to seek your input, explicitly, and here’s why:

Language shapes how we think about issues. I love language. I agree with Chelsea Girl that “good grammar is hott.” I think semantics is sexy. I am fascinated by the nuances of word choice. (It should be no surprise that I’m generally more turned on by written porn than video porn.) And in this obsession about language and sex lies the root of my current dilemma.

Let me start by saying that Carol Queen is one of the smartest, sexiest writers I know, and it was her writing that introduced me to the term ‘sex-positive.’ I am convinced that she is a goddess! Her nonfiction explorations of sex and culture are brilliant and her erotic novel, The Leather Daddy and the Femme, is the hottest thing I’ve ever read. If Carol Queen says ‘sex-positive’ how can I possibly question the term myself?

And this, exactly, is my dilemma: whether or not to use the term ‘sex-positive’ to describe the kind of culture I hope to see created — to participate in creating — as the US struggles through its — our — cultural-sexual issues. I’ve used the term ‘sex-positive’ uncritically for years to describe a state of mind, of being, of culture, where no consensual sex, no sexual or gender identity or expression is stigmatized, criminalized or otherwise forbidden. What could be clearer? And how could I now be questioning that usage?

It started over breakfast when my friend Richard told me how much he disliked the term ‘sex-positive.’ Since I think of him as one of the more sex-positive people I know, I was surprised. I asked him why he disliked the term. He explained that he saw people divided not so much about whether sex was good or bad (in other words not so much over whether they felt positively or negatively about it) but over what kinds of sex they felt positively or negatively about. Then I thought about the introduction to the book I’m working on, where I uncritically use the term ‘sex-positive’ but where I also use a different set of terms. I describe those who talk about sex as belonging only within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage and as existing primarily for reproduction, and as a marital duty, and perhaps as a way of expressing intimacy and love between married people, as people who use a conservative sex narrative. People who are more flexible about sex, and think that people should be able to do whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes, but who would prefer to see sex expressed within the bounds of “loving relationships” (regardless of gender or marital status) use what I call a liberal sex narrative. I contrast both of these with what I, and others, call a sex-radical narrative that sounds exactly like what I defined above as ‘sex-positive.’

So: sex-positive, or sex-radical? There are good political reasons to use ‘sex-positive.’ It’s harder to argue with, first of all, which makes it, potentially, a more effective framing device. It captures the sense that sex is good without sounding frightening to people. Lots of people, before reading the definition I gave above, would identify as ‘sex-positive,’ so it is a term that resonates with a wide range of people. On the other hand, it is confusing because lots of people who like the sound of ‘sex-positive’ do not agree that all consensual sex, all gender and sexual identity and expression, is okay. That idea is really a rather radical idea. In that sense, ‘sex-radical’ is more descriptive, more accurate. But politically, it is more problematic. It does not have the advantage of resonance that ‘sex-positive’ has. It is immediately alienating to people who are turned off by radicalism of all sorts. In short, it has a ‘preaching to the choir’ problem.

I wrote in an earlier post about some sex toy and sex advice web sites that market themselves to a Christian-identified audience. These are sites that encourage a wide range of sexual expression but only within the very specific boundaries of a Christian marriage. They encourage exploration of BDSM fantasies, of dildo use, of talking dirty. People who are inclined to follow this advice may well think of themselves as ‘sex-positive.’ But they are certainly not the people I have meant when I’ve used the term. These folks, while valorizing the vibrator within their own bedrooms, also condemn pornography, condemn same-gender sex, condemn sex outside of marriage. They are positive in their attitudes about a very limited range of sexual options.

My inclination is to go with the more descriptively accurate ‘conservative, libereral and radical sex narrative’ language, and to use ‘sex-radical’ where I would have otherwise used ‘sex-positive.’ But I am mindful that ‘sex-positive’ is a much more widely appealing term and I hesitate to give too much ground to the conservative sex-narrative folks by using a term that may be alienating to people who otherwise agree with the underlying idea that no sexual and gender expression and no consensual sex deserves stigma and condemnation.

Of course I, myself, love the term ‘sex-radical’ and am an advocate of many radical changes to the dominant US culture and social structure.

What do you think? Sex-postive? Sex-radical? Something else altogether? (If this whole thing sounds like a foreign language to you, I encourage you to browse this Wikipedia entry for more background on the origins and use of terms like ‘sex-radical’ and ‘sex-positive.’ I don’t always recommend Wikipedia, but this is a pretty good entry.)

Submit your comments below or email them to me using the “Drop me a note” link.

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Yet another example of how our sexual orientation categories are inadequate

This morning’s New York Times editorial page contains a piece about HIV/AIDS in prisons. The idea is this: even though many men in prison don’t identify as gay or homosexual, they are still having sex with men and they need appropriate HIV/AIDS prevention education and materials.

The problem, identified by the Times, is that discomfort with the idea that men are having sex with men leads some prison officials to deny that it is happening. I would suggest that this does not describe the problem completely. Another part of the problem is that many people simply can’t believe that straight men have sex with men, too. After all, if you’re a man doesn’t having sex with a man mean that you’re gay? NO! Of course not. Certainly you can be “straight” and have sex with men, just like you can be “gay” and be married and have sex with your wife. Broadly defined identity categories rarely capture the variability of individual experience. This, I submit, is because the categories we use are inadequate.

Clearly men who think of themselves as straight sometimes want sex with men. Also clearly, or at least clearly to me, sexual orientation is much more about identity and self-definition than it is about the behaviors we engage in. This must be true because even celibate people have ideas about their sexual orientations.

What if, instead of thinking about sexual orientation in terms of a small number of categories that are supposed to capture some part of our deepest identity, we think about sexual orientation more literally: that is, how we are oriented to sex. What kinds of sex do we enjoy? What kinds of partners do we enjoy sex with, and not just gender-wise, but more even specifically than that. (After all, neither lesbians nor straight men are attracted to all women, just some women, and so on down the SO categories.) I recognize that this fractures sexual orientation into thousands of possible categories and that doing so wrecks havoc with identity politics, and that wrecking havoc with identity politics has some risks. But we need to take those risks right now. The Times editorial provides one good reason why.

If we could address questions like these openly, honestly and without fear of stigma, we could address public health questions like the one raised in todays Times editorial. After all, these men who think of themselves as straight but who have, temporarily, enjoyed sex with men, will get out of prison one day and go on to resume relationships with women or form new ones. These women, thinking of themselves as being involved with straight men, might well underestimate their risk of HIV, believing that their men were celibate during their prison time.

This is not a new problem. Sex educators have for a long time encouraged people to discuss their sexual histories with new partners. But our categories of sexual orientation get in the way, I think. For a man who really thinks of himself as straight to admit to sexual desires for another man, or to having been assaulted by a man, or even to just using another man for pleasure during a prolonged time away from women, the stigma attached to homosexual sex, and the fear of being labeled “gay” might override his desire to be honest with a new female partner.

Changing the way mainstream US society thinks about sexual orientation is not just an interesting thing to ponder theoretically. It is necessary for safeguarding public health.

(Risks and Complications of Reconceptualizing Sexual Orientation coming soon)

(Meanwhile, for a summary of the different ways that sexual orientation has been and is conceptualized, this wikipedia entry is a pretty good one.)

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A new “rationale” for opposing same sex marriage?!

This just in! The House of Representatives failed to find enough votes to pass a proposed amendment to the Constitution restricting marriage to one man and one woman. And this despite the introduction of a brand new rationale for opposing same-sex marriage: Peace in the Middle East!

According to the New York Times, today, Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey said that maintaining traditional definitions of marriage “is perhaps the best message we can give to the Middle East and all the trouble they’re having over there right now.”

Really. He said that.

I admit I’m puzzled and don’t know what he means, exactly. Is he saying that the best message we can give to the Middle East is that we’re increasing support for discrimination in the United States? Is he saying that the best message we can give to the Middle East is that we’re too busy trying to find ways to restrict access to marriage to pay attention to “all the trouble they’re having over”? Or, is he actually saying that the best message we can send to the Middle East is that we are becoming more sexually and socially conservative? If that is the message he thinks we should be sending, perhaps we ought to ask him what other “traditional” family policies he’d like to introduce or re-introduce.

We know he’d like to roll back abortion access (on his blog he calls himself a “pro-life” OBGYN) Perhaps he’d like to go back to a more “traditional” time when women could not own property, and did not have a right to their own wages? (Keep women financially dependent on men and divorce will decrease!) Would he prefer to adopt the Saudi policy of forbidding women to drive? There are, after all, many ways to limit freedom.

I wrote a few entries ago about the symbiosis between opposition to same-sex marriage and support for sexist gender roles. Representative Gingrey’s statement would seem to further support a connection between the two positions.

It may seem like a purely symbolic vote, today, given that the Senate rejected this amendment back in May, but it’s worth noting that 236 House members voted in favor of the amendment (187 voted against, 1 voted “present” and 9 didn’t vote), and that the supporters acquired 9 more votes than they had two years ago when they tried this the last time.

Retaining “traditional” marriage in the U.S. is not going to bring peace to the Middle East. I can’t imagine even Rep. Gingrey thinks that this vote has anything to do with helping to resolve the crises in the Middle East. But if this is part of an effort to move back to more “traditional” gender roles we all need to be paying very close attention because the effort isn’t likely to end with the marriage amendment.

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There is no “opposite sex”

A student of mine recently told me she was disappointed that I had not yet picked up my promise to address the issue of “opposite sex” which I’d raised in a previous post. The context was my ranting against the argument that only “opposite sex” couples should be allowed to marry because it is only in “opposite sex” relationships that children can be created and linked to their biological parents. So, here goes.

Why do I say that there is no “opposite sex”? I mean two things by this. First, in terms of the sheer biology of sex differences (the chromosomal, hormonal, and physical manifestations) there is more variety than many of us acknowledge or realize. We can frame these variations as “diseases” but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In framing these variations as “diseases” we are making (or supporting) a claim that there can be only two “normal” sexes. That is somewhat arbitrary and rests on another claim/assertion: sex is wholly a matter of ability to reproduce. At that level, it is true that reproduction does require two different kinds of people. But people do much more than reproduce, and so to make such a fundamental designation based on one activity that, while absolutely essential to the continuation of the species, does not any longer take up the majority of our lives, seems arbitrary. (Again, and to be clear, I am not denying that there are very real hormonal, biological, and genetic differences between people and that many of those line up, roughly, with the male/female division. But there is a great deal of variety within each category and to me that suggests that the two-category system doen’t correspond perfectly to the complexity of human life.)

That is sex. Gender is different and even less necessarily linked to reproduction. You can think of gender as the identity, expectations, positions, etc. that you are expected to take on depending on whether you were assigned as a girl or assigned as a boy. Again, the idea of “opposite” seems silly. How many different ways are there of being a girl or a woman? How many different ways of being a boy or a man? If there are many variations between girls and between women, and many variations between boys and between men, certainly there are a lot of women who are very similar to a lot of men, and so on. Do we need to divide the population into such dichotomous terms as “man/woman” given all that variety? Who benefits from maintaining that dichotomy?

Ultimately the people who benefit from the dichotomy are those who are privileged by the heterosexist system it supports, where straight, “normally gendered” people have more access to society’s resources than everybody else.

A few days ago I posted a link to a BBC web site where you can take a quiz to find out whether your brain is more male or more female. I wrote that when I took the quiz I scored exactly in the middle, and that on some “male-oriented” items I’d scored higher than the male average. The same thing happened on some of the “female-oriented” tasks. On others I’d scored below the average for men and the average for women. I’d be very curious to know how other people score. Leave a comment if you dare!

Meanwhile, back to linking everything to reproduction: What about those who choose not to reproduce? Or those who reproduce using medical assistance? Or those who are incapable of reproducing? Or those who raise children through adoption? Does it make any sense to divide the population based on reproductive capability any more? And even if we need to do so for certain purposes, does it make any sense to link so much social structure to those designations? Why can’t I simply carry a card that lists my blood type and reproductive abilities/preferences in my wallet? Why do I have to be pigeon-holed in so many other ways just because I have a functioning uterus and ovaries? (At least I think they function. I’ve never really tested them out!).

Gender is a complicated thing. It needn’t be dichotomous, which means that, to my mind, there is no necessarily “opposite” gender category. As for sex, that is also complicated and much depends on what we assume to be normal. If we assume ability to reproduce to be the standard for normal there may in fact be only two genetic/biological combinations that will allow for that. But there are in fact other genetic/biological manifestations of human beings. We are not all xx/fertile or xy/fertile. And being xx/fertile does not automatically link up to all the role expectations of girl/woman. Let’s expand our system a bit. We’ve got nothing to lose but our heterosexist institutions!

If you’re interested in other ways of understanding gender I highly recommend “My Gender Workbook” by Kate Bornstein (actually I recommend just about anything by Kate Bornstein). Gendertalk is a transgender resource site that maintains a long list of links broken down into categories (academic, activism, etc.). Bodies Like Ours is another good resource for information on intersex issues.

Be yourself!

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Filed under Gender, public discourse, sex, sex and health

Dr. John Money

I learned in this morning’s New York Times that Dr. John Money died on Friday.

Dr. Money was a well-known medical psychologist, most famous for his involvement in the sex-reassignment case of a toddler in the late 1960s. If you’ve taken an Intro Psych or Intro Sociology or Sociology of Gender course you’ve probably read about the case. (It’s been mentioned in the Gender chapter of just about every Intro Soc text book I’ve ever used) This was the case where an 8 month old boy, one of a pair of twins, had his penis burned off during a circumcision. After many consultations, one of them with Dr. Money, the parents decided to go ahead and raise this child as a girl and began a long series of surgeries and treatments aimed at doing so. The story was variously hailed as a success and a failure, and in late adolescence the young girl requested reassignment back to male status. Living then as David Reimer, he married, adopted a child, and then a few years ago, tragically, committed suicide. (See this Slate piece about David Reimer’s suicide by John Colapinto (author of a book about David’s complicated life).

I wholeheartedly support people’s right to have their bodies reassigned to a gender that fits them, and for the work Dr. Money did that helped advance our capability to think about and perform such work I am grateful. But I am deeply troubled, and always have been, by the assumption that physical genitalia and gender identity have to match.

There was no reason to suspect, in the case of the infant who ultimately became David Reimer, that his gender identity was at all in question. There was only the assumption that since he no longer had a penis he could never be happy as a boy or a man. He would not even, necessarily, have been sterile (in that his testicles were not affected) though certainly he would not have been able to have ordinary heterosexual intercourse. By making him a girl, the ultimate cultural message being sent was this: an other-than-biologically-perfect penis disqualifies a person from being a good boy/man, but an other-than-biologically-perfect uterus, vagina, clitoris, etc. is just fine for a woman. It was, really, yet another sign that women are understood to be secondary, inferior, not as important. That as a woman this child would never be able to bear a child apparently troubled Dr. Money and others less than that as a man this child would not be able to easily father a child. That as a woman this child would probably have difficulty with orgasm and intercourse troubled them less than that as a man the child would not have had a normal penis.

We have advanced our technology to the point where people who are incapable of reproducing on their own can do so with the assistance of sperm donors, egg donors, in vitro fertilization, surrogates, etc. We have advanced our notions of family and sexuality to include single parent families, same sex parents, and so on (though, granted, not with the full legal status of the hetero-married family). I wish we would advance our understanding of gender so that it becomes, for once and for all, distinct from our physical bodies. Imagine the freedom in that. Even if many people still fell into gender categories that matched their physical bodies, the rest of us would be free to identify as we like. Instead of focusing on man/male and woman/female we could expand our categories to include the kinds of sex we like, whether or not we are willing/able/interested in reproducing, and the kinds of social roles that fit us.

I don’t mean to dismiss the ways that our hormonal, physical and genetic makeups influence us. But they don’t determine us and to the (possibly large) degree that they do influence us, there is a great deal of variety — much more than our two-gender dichotomy allows for. In fact, I recently took a “brain sex” quiz that indicated in my own case that I outperform men on some “male brain” tasks, outperform women on some “female brain” tasks, and don’t perform as well as the average man or average woman on other tasks. My ultimate score put me at 0, the exact center of the score distribution (apparently men cluster around 50 in one direction and women around 50 in the other direction). On many variables where there is a gender difference the variability within a gender category is greater than the difference between the average man and the average woman.

So lets let people choose their gender and lets let them decide whether or not their bodies and their genders need to match. And let’s not assume what a child’s gender is going to be as soon as we see whether or not it has a penis. I don’t have children, myself, and probably won’t, but if I did, I wish I’d have the courage to do what Lois Gould imagines in X: A fabulous child’s story and not determine the child’s gender. If asked on the street whether my child was a boy or a girl I wish I’d have the courage to say, “I don’t know. Possibly neither. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Fantasy? Perhaps. But these are my thoughts on the morning I read of the death of Dr. Money.

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Homophobia (gay panic??) is not a defense!

PlanetOut reported that legislatures in two states, California and New York, are considering ways to undermine the use of the “gay panic” defense in cases of violence against lesbians, gay men, and transfolk.

I’m certainly glad to read that, and I hope that the other 48 states follow, but the proposed legislation, at least in New York, does not go nearly far enough. According to the article, the New York proposal is modeled on the California legislation and revolves around the instructions given to juries when they are deciding a case. The article quotes language in the New York bill that would give juries this instruction: “Do not let bias, sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion influence your decision. Bias includes bias against the victim or victims or witness or witnesses based upon his or her race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

There are two problems. First, the instruction should, I believe, be worded much differently. Rather than instructing the jurors not to let their own biases get in the way of their decision making, it ought to instruct them not to let the biases of the defendants be seen as justification for their alleged crime. In this case the instruction could read, “Homophobia and heterosexism are not mitigating circumstances.” That would be much clearer!

The second problem is much harder to address, and it, too, is identified in the article through a quote attributed to California’s state senator Carole Midgin. No matter how you instruct a jury, it will be hard for them, especially when faced with prosecutors who are using homophobia as a defense, to ignore their own internalized homophobic reactions. She says, “The truth is, hate is taught. Intrinsically we permit it… We can’t pretend it ain’t real. There is panic. There is revulsion. I think we have our work to do.”

One way to work against bias is to reframe it to show how unreasonable it is. These “gay panic” defenses tend to be used in situations where a straight man (or group of men) feels threatened by the presence of a person he perceives to be gay or transgendered and even perhaps perceives to be “coming on to him.” He lashes out, allegedly out of fear/revulsion/panic, beating the crap out of the gay man (or, in the case that sparked the action in California, killing a transgendered person) and then his hatred and rage, framed as “panic” are used as an argument that he was operating under diminished mental capacity. This may not get him off altogether, but it may effectively be seen as a “mitigating circumstance” and get him a lesser sentence. But what if we turned the tables. What if a woman, after being hit on by a man, were to shoot him and claim that his actions panicked her to such a degree that she couldn’t control herself. Assuming he had not been stalking her, abusing her, or otherwise terrorizing her we would never allow that as a defense in court. Men need to be shown that being hit on is an annoyance and not an assault (or they need to start reframing their own come-ons!).

Even more importantly, we need to work constantly to root out the sources of that fear and hatred, intensely felt by some men, that apparently causes them to act so violently. Granted, it’s a tough problem. The dominant culture in the US is still pretty heterosexist. We need to expand the spaces for people to express their sexual identities openly so that homophobic people see that in most ways most gays, lesbians, and transfolk are an awful lot like them. Yet that is incredibly tough to do (and risky) when advances by non-straights into the “mainstream” seem to result in backlashes. The more the law protects sex/gender minorities, the braver we can be but the risks are still present. We need more than the law. We need allies who also call people on their intolerance. We need active support for a more open sexual culture. It’s a tough path but it’s a matter of basic civil rights and equality!

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