Translated by Curtis E. Hinkle with permission from the author.
Ponders the most important and recent developments concerning the definition of sex.
There are scientific claims which maintain that language produces and constructs our world. What this means is that if there is not a word for something, then it does not exist in reality, and by extension, that if people do not identify in a positive manner with the word used to define their sex and sexuality or an aspect of it, they have identity issues.
Hermaphrodite is a word that strikes many as strange. If so, then I would have to say that nature is also strange: within the natural world the “necessity of being” socially sexed is not reinforced and confirmed in the same manner as in our discourse; rather, scientific discourse about sex and sexuality has not managed to go beyond the literary text to the experiential reality of some human bodies or, more specifically, the reality as experienced by some people as a result of their body.
The figure of the hermaphrodite originated from the mythical figure created by the fusion of the son of Hermes and Aphrodite with the nymph Salmacis, and for centuries has symbolized the union of the feminine and the masculine in one body. This idea served as the basis of Theodor A. Edwin’s introduction of the first classification system in the 20th Century to describe the condition of a person with both male and female reproductive organs, and also was the basis for later studies such as those of the Spaniard Gregorio Marañón, who contributed to establishing the links between psychology and endocrinology.
More recently the term intersex has been used. A rather large number of sex variations exist which overlap one another in various gradations on a spectrum with male at one end and female at the other. Nevertheless, in human beings, the male and female of the species are the two extremes of a continuum. This means that our sexual identity (including our gender and orientation) in addition to the biological component is symbolized and denoted by our social relationships, our culture and by the relationship that I, myself, have with my own self as being male or female, or at some other point on the continuum with male at one end and female at the other. Let us remember that one’s morphology (or phenotype) was for centuries the main element which defined the two sexes.
Intersex is not just about our bodies, states Curtis E. Hinkle, “but also about how we perceive ourselves within those bodies and gender identity is a crucial part of everyone’s identity. To erase the importance of gender to the individual intersex person is to reduce that person to only the physical aspects of their body, neglecting the more important part of the equation, their own perception of that body and themselves, as opposed to how others perceive them within their social environment.”
It is very common to consider that intersex means that a person has both genital organs. Curtis E. Hinkle considers that that is probably one of the most common misconceptions about intersex. Intersex usually has nothing to do with the genitalia of the person, much less having two sets. There are intersex people with a penis and a vaginal opening. However, there are no documented cases of a person being born with fully developed male and female genitalia. The vast majority of intersex people have genitalia that look pretty typically male or female with a small minority having atypical genitalia. As a matter of fact, the quaint, pseudoscientific term “true hermaphrodite” can refer to a person with totally typical male or female genitalia.
In current usage the words hermaphrodite and intersex were synonymous and used interchangeably. This worried scientists who specialized in sex variations and in October 2005, in Chicago, there was a meeting that took place in which the decision was made to change the terminology for intersex conditions, and to include hermaphroditism within a more generalized and all-encompassing concept: disorders of sex development (with DSD as the English acronym).
In the conference, organized by the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and Lawson Wilkins, its counterpart with headquarters in the United States, a group of 50 experts decided - by consensus! - to abolish hermaphroditism.
This has nothing to do with the disappearance of what we formerly agreed to call true hermaphroditism (when a person has both testicular and ovarian tissue). Nor have pseudohermaphrodites disappeared (a female pseudohermaphrodite being a person with ovaries and a more male phenotype and a male pseudohermaphrodite being a person with testicles and a more female phenotype), rather, what has changed is the manner in which we must refer to them, according to Javier Flores in his article “La muerte del hermaforidta”. (The death of the hermaphrodite).
According to Flores, this conceptual change proves that 21st Century Western medicine is predominately the result of genetics as the main criterion for determining the sex of an individual. Being a woman or a man was originally based on the form of the body. Then, with the beginning of the 20th Century, functional criteria were incorporated; the gonads with their internal secretions were given a privileged place. Now, both the anatomy and the hormones secreted by the gonads have taken a back seat, and everything is seen through the lens of genetic determinism.
Therefore, true hermaphroditism has no reason to exist and we must refer to it with the name “ovotesticular DSD”, a term which, in Flores’ opinion, is rather ugly when compared with true hermaphroditism, for whom “esthetics is also about scientific truth”. The weight of genetics is even clearer in the new nomenclature for pseudohermaphrodites since a female pseudohermaphrodite must now be called “46, XX DSD” and the male pseudohermaphrodite must be called “46, XY DSD”, thereby eliminating the endocrinological connotation and linking them with genetics.
In the new classification two new independent categories arise from hermaphroditism: one deals with “men” who have two XX chromosomes which we must now refer to as “46, XX testicular DSD”, and “men” who have XY chromosomes but a female phenotype, which are now to be referred to as 46, XY complete gonadal dysgenisis”. This is important, because in 1993 Anne Fausto-Sterling, a specialist in molecular biology, shook up the academic community by indicating that there were not just two sexes (male and female), but five, and therefore, in her opinion, it was also necessary to include true hermaphrodites and the two categories of pseudohermaphrodites. Therefore, if one follows the reasoning of Fausto-Sterling, and agree to the new classification, there would neither be two nor five sexes, but seven.
At this stage of science, if there is no scientific evidence for something which can be explained by genetics, then we are led to wonder if we are males or females of the species, since not all of us know what we have in our bodies; and if we add to this that our identities are determined culturally and socially, we would be able to affirm that sex is a concept which is as all-encompassing and vast as number of individual human beings trying to define it and that the most important point is not the label that others impose on us, but the one that we decide we are, which involves an exercise of self-determination and taking on the responsibility of being who we wish to be.