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Bodies in Doubt

An American History of Intersex

Elizabeth Reis

Publication Year: 2009

What does it mean to be human? To be human is, in part, to be physically sexed and culturally gendered. Yet not all bodies are clearly male or female. Bodies in Doubt traces the changing definitions, perceptions, and medical management of intersex (atypical sex development) in America from the colonial period to the present day. From the beginning, intersex bodies have been marked as "other," as monstrous, sinister, threatening, inferior, and unfortunate. Some nineteenth-century doctors viewed their intersex patients with disrespect and suspicion. Later, doctors showed more empathy for their patients' plights and tried to make correct decisions regarding their care. Yet definitions of "correct" in matters of intersex were entangled with shifting ideas and tensions about what was natural and normal, indeed about what constituted personhood or humanity. Reis has examined hundreds of cases of “hermaphroditism” and intersex found in medical and popular literature and argues that medical practice cannot be understood outside of the broader cultural context in which it is embedded. As the history of responses to intersex bodies has shown, doctors are influenced by social concerns about marriage and heterosexuality. Bodies in Doubt considers how Americans have interpreted and handled ambiguous bodies, how the criteria and the authority for judging bodies changed, how both the binary gender ideal and the anxiety over uncertainty persisted, and how the process for defining the very norms of sex and gender evolved. Bodies in Doubt breaks new ground in examining the historical roots of modern attitudes about intersex in the United States and will interest scholars and researchers in disability studies, social history, gender studies, and the history of medicine.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-viii

I am indebted to the readers at the Journal of American History and David Nord for their comments on “Impossible Hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620–1960.” I also appreciate the almost instantaneous and enormously helpful evaluations I received for the article that I published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, ...

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pp. ix-xv

What does it mean to be human? Since antiquity, philosophers have pondered such a question. We need not answer the question comprehensively, nor do we need to be philosophers to realize that among the essential attributes of humanity is sex. To be human is to be physically sexed and culturally gendered. ...

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A Note about the Illustrations

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p. xvii

Some contemporary intersex people oppose medical photography because of its tendency to expose and objectify, reducing subjects to body parts only. Intersex people who have been photographed unremittingly at doctors’ visits have at times felt exploited and have commented on the sense of shame that such scrutiny engenders.* ...

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1 Hermaphrodites, Monstrous Births, and Same-Sex Intimacy in Early America

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pp. 1-22

So wrote Dr. Alexander Hamilton in the mid-eighteenth century. His description of a possible hermaphrodite sighting is meant to be amusing and fantastical. A hermaphrodite? The very idea was preposterous, for such a creature was as mythical as a mermaid, he implied. But Hamilton’s far-fetched vignette hints at tropes ...

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2 From Monsters to Deceivers in the Early Nineteenth Century

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pp. 23-54

In each era, doctors interpreted hermaphrodites in a larger cultural context of ideas about women, about men, and about what was normal. In the colonial period, unusual anatomies were seen through the lens of monstrosity. Creatures with very atypical bodies were not human at all, ...

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3 The Conflation of Hermaphrodites and Sexual Perverts at the Turn of the Century

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pp. 55-81

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the controversy over whether hermaphrodites existed intensified. Doctors on both sides of the issue wrote of actual cases and tried to persuade colleagues of their interpretations of patients’ conditions. Despite their fundamental disagreement, ...

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4 Cutting the Gordian Knot: Gonads, Marriage, and Surgery in the 1920s and 1930s

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pp. 82-114

As the epigraph from 1898 suggests, there were no easy ways for patients and their families to determine the “essential distinction of sex,” though most doctors remained convinced that the presence of either ovaries or testes would provide the answer. By the first half of the twentieth century, ...

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5 Psychology, John Money, and the Gender of Rearing in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s

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pp. 115-152

By the 1940s, doctors were better able to shape people’s bodies hormonally and surgically. When ambiguously sexed patients arrived at their offices wanting to have something done to remedy their situations, endocrinologists, urologists, and surgeons turned to drugs and surgical procedures ...

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EPILOGUE. Divergence or Disorder? The Politics of Naming Intersex

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pp. 153-162

In the time that it took to write this book, the term “intersex” has come under scrutiny and is the subject of much debate from many quarters. The epilogue will analyze the current controversy, placing it in the historical context of over three hundred years of intersex management in this country. ...


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pp. 163-208


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pp. 209-216

E-ISBN-13: 9780801897382
E-ISBN-10: 0801897386
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801891557
Print-ISBN-10: 0801891558

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 15 halftones
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 551799826
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Bodies in Doubt

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Intersex people -- Identity -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Intersexuality -- United States -- History.
  • Gender identity -- United States -- History
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