From the Desk of Hilary Malatino: The Erasure and Exclusion of Intersex Bodies

Hilary Malatino is an assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Pennsylvania State University and core faculty in the Rock Ethics Institute. Their new book Queer Embodiment: Monstrosity, Medical Violence, and Intersex Experience is available now. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned as an intersex person, it’s that this world is not built for bodies like mine. From the most intimate interpersonal interactions to the myriad institutional modes through which sex and gender are regulated, this point is driven home time and again—brutally, relentlessly, with no significant reprieve in sight.

A recent case in point: last year, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) introduced a limit on blood testosterone levels for women with a difference of sex development (DSD), ushering in a new chapter in the ongoing saga of sex regulation in sport. This limit specifically targets 46XY women who have androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), meaning that they are resistant to so-called “male” hormones and thus develop, phenotypically, along so-called “female” lines.  AIS can be partial or complete, and folks who have partial AIS tend to have higher levels of bioavailable endogenous testosterone in their bodies. This new regulation only applies to runners competing in distances between 400 meters and 1 mile; it targets, specifically, Caster Semenya, the world-class South African runner whose strongest—and most beloved—event is the 800 meter.

Semenya has been at the center of debates about testosterone regulation in women’s sports for over a decade now, and has consistently assembled legal teams to challenge the efforts made by athletics regulatory agencies to directly manipulate her body. I wrote, in my recent book Queer Embodiment, about the forms of invasive sex verification testing and medical intervention that Semenya has been forced to undergo over the course of her career, arguing that “the notion that one’s sex is up for institutional adjudication is…the real human rights violation of the Semenya case” (73). What would sports look like if institutions like the IAAF ceased to regulate what “counts” as male or female – or, more radically, stopped using consistently shifting definitions of sex and gender to decide who can compete, where, and how?

As the most recent news about Semenya’s long battle with the IAAF broke, we also witnessed the passage of a spate of draconian rollbacks to reproductive autonomy here in the U.S. In nearly all of the mainstream reportage on these rollbacks, the implicit assumption was that they only impact women’s right to choose, and here, the category of women was explicitly cis-centric (excluding the reproductive capacities of trans men, women, non-binary, and intersex folks) and repro-normative (implicitly assuming the reproductive capacity of cis female bodies). It was yet another moment where it became all too clear that “common sense” understandings of bodily legibility hinge on simplistic and overdetermined understandings of what makes—and distinguishes—men and women. Which leads me to another question: what would reproductive justice look like if we decentered such cis-centric and repro-normative assumptions about embodiment?

It has long been obvious, at least to those of us that pay attention to such things, that biological sex is infinitely more complicated than a strict binary understanding would lead us to believe. For normatively sexed people, this awareness might manifest as curiosity or abstract recognition of the realities of sexed bodily diversity. For intersex folks or, in alternate parlance, folks with differences of sex development (DSD), this awareness is intimate and often quite difficult to bear. Once we understand that our bodies disrupt and confound the constitutive criteria for maleness or femaleness at the supposed “realest” level possible—that of the biological—a cascade of other questions follow. I chart some of these questions, phrased in the register of the personal, in the prologue to Queer Embodiment, as they are the questions that came to animate not only the book, but my life, as I grappled with what it meant to be intersex:

What was wrong with conventional understandings of sex, if a being like me could be produced? What did being intersex mean in terms of my sexuality? Could I still be heterosexual? Homosexual? Bisexual? Did any of these sexual identities pertain?…Was there a way of being a person that didn’t rely on also being either male or female? Was I human? What was human? What were these biological entities called men and women? What was this phenomenon termed biological sex? On what grounds was it distinguished from this other phenomenon termed gender? If I was intersex, could I also be a woman or a man? If so, how? Through what understandings of gender, sex, the natural, the socially constructed, was this rendered either possible or impossible? (19-20).

This final question about impossibility is, at its core, what Queer Embodiment grapples with. I trace (some of) the epistemological, scientific, and political routes through which intersex forms of embodiment have been excluded, elided, and erased, rendered both illegible and impossible. From the late nineteenth century memoirs of a French “hermaphrodite” to the mid-20th-century archives of medical sexology to the contemporary regulation of gender in sport I show how, time and again, intersex bodies are made a problem to be addressed, a pathological condition to be cured, a form of deviance to be tamed, rather than an incitement to transform social institutions and modes of knowledge to capaciously include us. I’m interested in exploring how we can organize effectively to shift the stranglehold such simplistic conceptions of sex have on how embodiment, intimacy, and social belonging are understood. Queer Embodiment is dedicated to thinking the generative conditions for what may seem, currently, to be the impossible: a world where sex and gender differences cease to violently structure our interactions with one another, and the world at large.

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