Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Intersex Peep Show

No, You Can't Look in My Pants

Since I started coming out publicly as intersex, I've been asked by some people I've barely or never met to show them a photo of exactly what I keep between my legs. This is a very odd question--consider how you'd react if you received this request from some stranger. It can be disconcerting and creepy to realize that someone you don't know is thinking about your genitalia, requesting a photograph.

So no, I don't spread my legs for strangers. And motivation doesn't matter much to me in answering requests. Some people ask because they're kinksters. Don't get me wrong--I support everyone's right to their consensual kink--but I have not consented, and they don't get to play. Other people ask because of simple intellectual curiosity, and I support intellectual curiosity too. But I am not a specimen any more than I am a porno spread. I'm a person, entitled to my dignity.

Recently somebody contacted me wanting me to describe my genitals and my surgical history so zie could feel confident I was really intersex and not some poser. And while I empathize with intersex people feeling used or misrepresented, the answer remains no, you don't get to look in my pants to perform your gatekeeping.

But How Can We Not Discuss Intersex People's Genitalia?

This is an entirely different question than asking to see my. . . jonk. You're right, it seems odd to discuss intersex status without discussing genitals. I do want to point out that we discuss male experience, female experience, and the experiences of androgynes and genderqueer folk all the time without discussing their genitals. We don't ask to verify what they've got down there before discussing their gendered lives. And what defines intersex experience isn't genitalia but the social reaction to our bits--the way our very existence seems to create a crisis for medical professionals, families, and ordinary folk. There's no need to discuss our genitalia to address that social reaction.

But. I do think we should, as a society, discuss genitalia. How they come in a wide variety of configurations, a spectrum not a binary. We need to be aware of variation, not just in the genitalia of those of us labelled intersex, but those considered unproblematically male or female. Lots of nonintersex people feel anxiety about whether their genitals are "normal," or too small, or too loose, or too asymmetrical. We should know what genitals really look like. And a picture does paint a thousand words.

What's Wrong with Pictures of Genitals

The photos and illustrations of genitals most people see are highly problematic. They do injury both to the viewer and the person being viewed. Mostly, we're exposed to two sorts of pictures: either pornographic images, or medical ones.

I'm strongly opposed to censorship, and I stand up for the right of people to produce and view porn, but most of it is terrible. I'll mention two of the reasons why: first, most porn does harm to the viewer by showing a single "idealized" vision of the human body, and secondly, it harms the models (especially the female-assigned ones) because they are viewed by our sexnegative society as whores and perverts. From an intersex position, the representations of "us" as "hermaphrodites" in most porn are actually usually photos of nonintersex male-to-female trans people financing their transitions by filling the demand for images of "chicks with dicks." In a world where sex transitions are both costly and not covered by medical insurance, and where trans people suffer profoundly from employment discrimination, I empathize with the "herm" porn models. But the fetish market that they feed gives people a very skewed perspective on the lives of intersex and trans folks, and this peep show teaches people very little about what intersex people's parts look like.

Then there are clinical medical images, of two varieties. One are the sort of illustrations we see in educational contexts. For example, buy a package of tampons or condoms, and you'll find instructional illustrations included. Intersex genitals are never pictured, but really, few people's genitals look like the images you see. The illustrations in the tampon packages are almost always hairless with tiny symmetrical labia minora--they look prepubescent, and prepubescent people don't get menstrual periods. The penises in the condom illustrations are all circumcized, erect at a high angle, and look more like a hot dog than a human. Clinical educational illustrations seem designed to make ordinary people feel anxious about their genitals, their small penises and large clitori,
their veins and moles and asymmetries and hair.

Still, at least nonintersex people see illustrations that somewhat approximate their bits.

If you want to see what intersex people's genitals look like, you have to turn to another sort of medical image: the clinical photograph. And the photographs range from depressing to truly appalling. Generally they're photos of children, taken without their consent. Sometimes you can see that the child is being held down. Orifices are stretched open by adult hands, foreskins are pulled up in the jaws of forceps, and ruler scales cut into delicate skin. The photographs are utterly dehumanizing--people reduced to "disordered" genitals and treated as specimens, with as much consideration as a doctor would show a biopsied sample of a tumor. It's as much horror show as peep show. Intersex children are treated as freaks, forced to spread their legs, and hurt without their consent--and because it's done in the name of Science, it's supposed to be OK.

It's not OK.

My Complicity, My Shame

The lack of education about intersex genitals is harmful in multiple ways, and one of them is that it makes us into peepers, and collaborators in the abusive treatment of intersex children.

I grew up knowing I was genitally different, but unsure of what it might mean. By my early teens I was looking through medical journals for pictures that might tell me more. I'll post sometime on my academic research on teratology, the branch of medicine that deals with "birth defects"--suffice it to say for now that I've looked at a lot of medical images of intersex people. And I can try to justify it in terms of personal need and academic critique, but in the end, I'm complicit. Not that I've ever sent a stranger an email saying "Can you send me a photo of your privates?" But I've contributed to maintaining the market for exploitative and abusive medical photography of intersex people.

What Can Be Done?

It seems to me that there is a real need for a collection of cruelty-free, nondistorted images of intersex people's bodies, including our genitals, for people to view. I imagine that illustrations would be best. There may be people out there with various intersex conditions or "DSDs" who would be willing to be photographed by a respectful ally for a public image gallery, but I suspect most people, like myself, would be very wary of the idea. Drawings would avoid the issues of shaming or disrespectful use of our bodies. Ideally, they would be nonidealized. They could be warm rather than clinical, human rather than dehumanized.

I'm going to try my hand at it. I'll see if posting a drawing turns my blog from the intersex roadshow to the intersex peepshow--I certainly hope not. But it does seem like an important project to me.

The image in this post is a manipulation by me of a photograph provided under a Creative Commons license by just.Luc here.


  1. I've actually been approached several times- online, SL, RL... by people who are into the kink factor, and by people who honestly don't understand. I've had to "sadly" inform them all that just because I am what I am, I do not have a penis and a vagina.. I do not have "great sex," because of some twisted notion in their heads.

    I've been so busy and not logging into SL for a while because I was writing a paper for a class with quite a bit about my "status" in it. Actually dealt with a panic attack right in class- but my classmates and instructor were wonderful and helped me through it. I still have nooo clue what will happen when that paper is read and graded. Not sure I want to know either.

    I've recently started a little thing I call "shaping." I have no idea how long it will take, as I'm currently recovering from some nasty stuff- but I'm working on getting my body down to a reasonable size. I'd like to be able to use exercise to shape my body to look more the way I'd like it to. ^_^ It's about time anyway. Anything physical makes my head shut up so it's always a bonus.

    Anyway.. I really love the picture in this post.. so pretty. <3 And I'm ready to do that interview any time you are- my stress seems to be gone for a while- thus I'm not bonkers :P

    ~ Eunis

  2. I was playing games online however for reading this post more interesting thanks for the share please do keep it going great job....Loveing this.

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  3. I've read a few blogs written by intersexed persons, and they all seem to feel exploited somehow. Why? Are the zillions of photos of vaginas and penises exploitation of men and women? Having both female and male genitalia IS odd and's the exception. So what? Of course those who study the human body are going to want to see the genitals of someone who's intersexed. what? What's wrong with that? They're looking at penises and vaginas too? And regarding those who aren't in any medical or scientific field who want to see them out of curiosity...well, what's wrong with that? Since when curiosity is evil?

    "Clinical educational illustrations seem designed to make ordinary people feel anxious about their genitals, their small penises and large clitori, their veins and moles and asymmetries and hair."

    -- No, they're not. They're not designed to make anyone fell anything. No one can MAKE you feel anything. If you feel anxious or insecure, those are YOUR emotions. These illustrations are designed to be as simple and clear and generic as possible so that the tampon or condom user focuses on the instructions on how to use the item vs. noticing how small or large a clitoris is, or how much hair or little hair there is.

  4. @Anonymous..

    I do not even want to know what had to have happened to you to have made you so clearly... emotionally stunted.

    I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for trying to marginalize me, yet again.

    Oh, and that was sarcasm btw... I just don't know if you understand that...

  5. What if your looking because your almostt sure you might be intersex because thats why I looked on here

  6. i am intersexed, i have what would be my ball bags, a tinny testicle with tubes but everything else is female. But the problem is in my head im sort of mixed, im a lesbian with a bit of straight man there.