Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes by Gerald N. Callahan, Ph.D.
(Chicago Review Press)
As some of you may have noticed, my flow of book reviews has slowed to a trickle over the past few months. It’s not because I don’t love what I do! I’m applying to graduate programs, you see, and I’ve been eaten up by applications and entrance requirements. As a result, it took me two whole months to make my way through a 160-page book, and I’ve done barely any non-personal-statement writing at all. Hopefully, though, I’ll be able to pick up the pace after the holidays.
The aforementioned 160-page book is Gerald N. Callahan’s Beyond XX and XY, which was sent to me right after the controversy over Caster Semenya’s gold medal erupted. The book, with a focus much more frank and progressive than most media out there, seems at first glance to be a good primer for non-intersex people who need a basic education about the range of human sexual development. “My purpose,” Callahan writes in the introduction, “is not to convince you that we need to imagine more sexes, because the concept of five sexes would be no closer to solving the problem than the idea of two sexes is.” Instead, he says, society needs to reexamine its very concept of sex, and ditch the binary system we’re dealing with now. He starts the book with a brief history of Western ideas of sex, highlighting Classical and Renaissance theories that male and female genitalia are identical, with only different positioning (males wear theirs on the outside and females on the inside), and explains early medical attitudes towards intersex conditions that mandated as little involvement from the parents or patient as possible. He stresses that bias and preconceptions influence science more than scientists care to admit – and doesn’t exclude modern medicine and research from his critique. He even censures bans against same-sex marriage (“Never mind that it is impossible to define exactly what a man or a woman is”) and acknowledges that Fallopian tubes probably weren’t first discovered by Gabriel Fallopius.
Unfortunately, although Callahan seems to have noble intentions, most of the book fails to really deviate from popular ideas about intersex conditions. First off, he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that intersex or non-gender conforming people might read the book, and habitually refers to cisgendered non-intersex readers as “us” and the subjects of the book as “they.” Although “we” accept that gender is socially constructed, “sex remains inviolate to us – boy/girl, black/white.” Even if the intended audience is people new to intersex issues, would it hurt to be a little more inclusive? This tone reaches a nauseating climax at the end, when he begins to expound upon all the favors intersex people do for “us,” and explains that “we should be grateful” because “they have shown us that we can untie the knots that bind us to our own preconceptions and begin to live freer lives.” More disturbingly, in the middle of the book Callahan presents a string of stories about the trials and tribulations of intersex individuals, highlighting accounts of rape, assault, depression, and suicide. What was horrific and unjust in the real lives of his interviewees turns into lurid sensationalism on the page – and it’s hard to even see what point he’s trying to make about sex and gender. He follows up this chapter with a series of graphic descriptions of sexual reassignment surgery, making it seem as if a whole swath of the book was designed more to satisfy non-intersex readers’ morbid curiosity than to lead to a greater understanding of intersex.
Other chapters are more level-headed, although not very groundbreaking. Callahan discusses the development of sex in utero, various types of sexual activity in the animal world, and some cultures that are more welcoming to non-gender-conforming people than the West is. I suppose this is all information that would be useful to someone with no knowledge of intersex issues, but it doesn’t offer much more than, say, a trip to Wikipedia.
So is this book a useful introduction? On the one hand, any media that challenges harmful and nonsensical ideas about sex must be at least somewhat useful. On the other hand, I wonder if this book’s portrayal of intersex people and their bodies does more harm than good. It fails to make a convincing case for why people with non-conforming bodies don’t need to be “fixed,” but does make sure that non-intersex readers know all the steps that go into constructing a penis. I commend Callahan’s goal of educating readers about a widely misunderstood range of anatomies – but this book never quite gets there.
Coming up when I get my life back: food justice, Wal-Mart, and Merilyn French!
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