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Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex describes how intersex individuals have been medically treated in the US from the 1600s to present time. The book discusses the prevailing view (at any time period included in the book) of how intersex individuals were believed to best be medically treated, what was believed to be the cause of the condition, what decided what sex the person truly belonged to as well what determined successful treatment.
The book includes patient descriptions, photographs and illustrations. The great majority of information regarding the patients is statements and descriptions from doctors, potentially very biased information as the doctors assumed most of their treatments were successful.
Reis goes through time showing the reader how the intersex condition (previously called hermaphroditism) were historically believed to be warnings by God, the result of maternal imaginations, sometimes the result of race belonging (for example the view of colored women as overly sexual) and the result of homosexuality and much more. The belief in the abnormality of homosexuality and the belief in heteronormativity drove much of the treatment of intersex individuals. Doctors were horrified of the potential homosexuality of intersex individuals and treatment was aimed at ensuring that a person under treatment was identified and corrected according to heterosexual standards and in order to ensure heterosexual marriage and penetration.
The measures used to identify a person as either male or female (which usually "had" to be done as early as possible) depended not only on external and internal organs and genitalia, but also on the individuals' behavior and mannerisms. What often defined a person as male or female was evaluated according to the belief in strict gender stereotypical behavior as well as societal gender role expectations. A person was believed to be female if they displayed feminine features such as being short, having light hair and a fair complexion, a beardless chin, narrow shoulders or wide hips. If a person showed an aversion for bodily labor, a fondness for gay colors, a liking of poetry, music, drawing or writing letters they were regarded female, no matter how the person identified. A person was considered male if they displayed behaviors such as a liking of bodily labor, out door activities and sports and did not display characteristics such as neatness, compliance and passivity. What the individual under scrutiny preferred was not acknowledged until around the mid 1990's when it became more and more important to ensure a patients psychological health.
Reis argue that social desirability was more important than personal identification and surgery was dictated by social, not medical demands. Reis discusses race, gender and gender stereotypes to give a complete picture to the history of the treatment of intersex individuals. Reis successfully shows the reader how the treatment of intersex individuals have changed throughout history while emphasizing the impact of gender role stereotypes and how society attempted to create heterosexual and marriageable women and men. The book is a great example of how stereotypical notions of men and women were allowed to take precedence over individual preferences.
The book is truly captioning while also being very disturbing. The treatment of intersex individuals can only be described as a violation of these individuals' rights and the book is an honest account of how discriminated and badly treated intersex children and adults were in the past. Although much has changed for the better the condition is still much stigmatized. Reis does a wonderful job of presenting the information in a way that describes history without making the book feel like a history book. The book is both interesting and heart breaking and I doubt that any reader could walk away from this book undisturbed by what they have read. Therefore, I would highly recommend this book to any person taking or teaching gender classes or anyone who is interested in LGBTQ activism.
The only way this book could have been improved would have been by putting more emphasis on describing certain conditions in a way that is more suitable for the layperson. Although the major concepts are easy to understand, medical terms and the description of different conditions warrants some previous knowledge.
© 2012 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.