- Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex
While many scholars might be curious about people with intersex conditions and what those embodiments may reveal about biology or the nature of gender, Bodies in Doubt by Elizabeth Reis turns an investigative and critical eye toward what the medical, juridical, and familial treatment of people with intersex conditions can teach us about broader cultural values. In other words, rather than being tightly focused on the bodies of people with intersex conditions, Reis instead chooses to examine cultural conversations surrounding people with intersex conditions. In doing so, she offers readers a broad-ranging yet thorough and provocative account of the history of intersex in America. With an interdisciplinary methodology, a theoretically informed perspective, and a clear vision of her project, Reis delivers on her promise to situate the “problem” of intersex not in the bodies of people with intersex conditions but rather within American social structures that often could not or would not accommodate ambiguity or flexibility of categories such as gender and sexuality.
Chapters 1 and 2 likely present the most new information to readers, especially readers familiar with modern treatment of individuals with intersex conditions. In spite of the challenges of writing about a period with limited historical records, Reis provides ample evidence through birth records of [End Page 181] infants with intersex conditions, sermonic literature, and juridical literature from as early as 1629. With this range of evidentiary texts, Reis provides a compelling picture of a time when those with intersex conditions were first positioned as monstrosities—signs from God often visited upon mothers who had failed to meet gender expectations such as abstaining from sex during menstruation—and later painted as cultural monstrosities who confounded categories of sex and gender assumed to be stable. One of the great strengths of Reis’s writing—her ability to deftly weave together what are sometimes disparate texts—becomes especially apparent in the second chapter when her eye turns toward the new republic as an emerging and changing nation where anxieties about social instability, deception, and fraud became linked to intersex, as more and more citizens worried that ambiguity or mutability threatened the larger social structure.
Continuing to show how intersex became a coffer of sorts for an array of cultural fears, chapters 3 and 4 expose how American society’s deep commitment to heterosexuality, in particular, heterosexual marriage, shaped discussions about the “problem” of intersex. Chapter 4 examines the 1920s and 1930s, when many doctors begin to advocate surgery on patients with intersex conditions to ensure that the duties of marriage could be carried out by engaging in heterosexual sex acts. Although many scholars are familiar with heterosexual norms as a part of the modern-day tension surrounding intersex, the sources Reis draws upon here are mostly from physicians, adding a new thread to existing accounts. Reis also showcases her commitment to providing the richest possible narrative of these discussions, however, as she is careful to include—in rich detail—the disagreements within the medical community. Thus, although it’s clear that Reis has a particular understanding of heterosexual norms as driving a great deal of the sociomedical conversation about intersex people and their bodies, she gives voice to both the proponents and detractors of early interventions such as surgeries.
In the last two sections of the book, chapter 5 and the epilogue, Reis turns her attention to Dr. John Money and his team from Johns Hopkins and the enduring controversies surrounding both the naming and treatment of intersex conditions. Although these chapters represent the best-known data, Reis rejuvenates the material through her careful analysis, as she details John Money’s dissertation work, the role psychology came to play in discussions of how to best treat intersex conditions, and why the switch in the 1950s to working with infants in particular represented a monumental change of course. As Reis notes in her epilogue, the activism begun in the 1980s was galvanized around arguing against early childhood surgeries, such as those...