Monday, August 20, 2018
Nonconsensual Intersex Surgery as Physical Conversion Therapy
Today, most people think of conversion therapy as a discredited practice of the past. Back in the bad old days, being "homosexual" was considered a mental disorder that psychologists tried to cure. But being gay was depathologized by the American Psychological Association back in 1972, and today, same-gender couples are socially accepted and have the constitutional right to marry. A small number of evangelical Christian "therapists" still attempt conversion therapy on LGBT people, but they are considered quacks by the medical profession and most of American society. The days of conversion therapy are seen as basically over.
They are not.
I am going to argue to you that "corrective," "normalizing" surgeries performed on intersex children who cannot give or withhold consent are conversion therapies. They are motivated by the same constellation of ideas that produced conversion therapies aimed at LGBT people. And they take place way more often than most people think. Conversion therapies are alive and well and being imposed every day on unconsenting children in the U.S., harming them.
Mainstream medical practitioners in America today distinguish between LGBT conversion therapies and intersex "corrective" procedures. They frame conversion therapies for sexual or gender identity as wrong because they now agree there is nothing pathological about being queer, trans, or gender-nonconforming. These are minority identities, and trying to "cure" them is akin to doctors attempting to cure people of identifying as Jews or Muslims. It is not the place of the medical profession to impose the majority religious or sexual ideology on patients, and doctors who try to do so are violating professional ethics.
Intersex status, on the other hand, is pathological according to contemporary Western medicine. Physical sex variations are medically classified as "disorders of sexual development." It is the job of doctors to cure disorders. They sat that intersex people are born with tragic malformations, and we will live as social outcasts unless the medical profession heroically steps in to save us by converting our abnormal intersex bodies into endosex-appearing, normal bodies.
A Brief History of Conversion Therapies
The mid-20th century was the heyday of conversion therapies. This was an era of conformity, of faith in medical authority, and of optimism that social ills could be cured by science. It was taken as an article of faith that doctors should seek to convert deviance to normalcy. Funds were directed to developing a wide array of innovative medical interventions toward that end.
A key arena for the development of therapies was producing "normal sex." This midcentury umbrella term encompassed a wide array of matters related to sex, gender and sexuality. The goal was to ensure "natural sex relations." According to the scientific ideology of the time, evolutionary biology required that humans come in two opposite sexes--dominant, competitive men and gentle, nurturant women--who would be drawn by heterosexual attraction to form stable marital units, the necessary basis for parenting. The survival of humanity was believed to require bodies of binary sex, people who conform to binary gender stereotypes, and compulsory heterosexuality.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the medical profession made great investments in developing and institutionalizing conversion therapies, both psychological and physical. These therapies became mainstream and widespread. Doctors aimed to cure "hermaphroditism and pseudohermaphrodism" (i.e. intersex status), "sexual deviance and transvestism" (i.e. LGBT status), and gender nonconformity (under many labels, including "sissy boy syndrome" and "neurotic penis envy").
The therapies doctors developed were deeply interventionist--often traumatizing and painful. To be converted from deviant to normal was seen as a positive outcome that justified a steep personal price. People with nonconforming sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions were often institutionalized. Some were given electroconvulsive shock treatments. Many were treated with aversion therapies--for example, being given painful shocks, perhaps to their genitals, while being shown same-gender erotica. These "treatments" amounted to torture, and while they could not change people's identities, they could render people incapable of arousal or of sexual relationships. Today, we see such an outcome as tragedy, but at the time, being incapacitated by panic and nausea when triggered by sexual arousal was viewed as better than being able to engage in same-gender sexual relations.
In this same time frame, "corrective" surgeries on intersex children became the norm. The goal of these surgical, hormonal, and other interventions was to produce a person who appeared endosex and was capable of engaging in penetrative penile/vaginal intercourse. Sexual sensation, freedom from pain, and issues of gender identity were dismissed as irrelevant. The goal was to enforce "normal sex" by creating a person who appeared to be of binary sex, was gender-conforming, and who had heterosexual intercourse, whatever the costs. This was very much in line with the painful treatments being imposed on LGBT people at the time.
Prettying Up Conversion Therapies
After the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the rise of second-wave feminism, conversion therapies came under attack for enforcing compulsory heterosexuality and gender conformity. Lesbian and gay advocates successfully got homosexuality removed from the DSM, the "bible" of psychological diagnoses, in 1972. And supposedly, since then, nonconsensual conversion therapies became a thing of the past.
But in reality, conversion therapies persisted--they just put on an acceptable mask. Homosexuality was no longer classified as a mental illness, but being unhappy about being gay was (this was "ego dystonic homosexuality"). So therapists could still practice conversion therapies on LGB people, so long as they got the patients' consent--or, if they were minors, their parents gave consent and told the therapists their children's "homosexual tendencies" were causing depression.
Meanwhile, mainstream sexual orientation and feminist advocacy organizations of the 1960s-1980s largely ignored or actively opposed trans people's rights. So being trans remained classified as a mental illness, "gender identity disorder." A small number of fortunate trans women and a tiny number of trans men were able to use this diagnosis to access gender transition services during these decades. These individuals had financial resources, bodies that doctors deemed would not be visibly trans after hormonal and surgical treatment, and a demeanor and gestural repertoire that would be gender-conforming after transition, in accordance with the ideology of natural sex/gender binarism doctors were still enforcing. But most trans people were refused access to transition services by medical gatekeepers. Having failed one or more of the enforced gatekeeping criteria, they were instead treated with conversion talk therapies intended to resign them to living in their birth-assigned genders.
As for physical intersex conversion therapies, to the extent they appeared at all on the radar of progressive political activists in the post-Stonewall decades, it was in a positive light. Dr. John Money became something of a celebrity in this period. Money performed intersex "normalizing" surgeries, but became most famous for "treating" one of a pair of identical twin baby boys. This child was the victim of a botched circumcision, in which he lost the head of his penis. Money gave that infant sex reassignment surgery and had the parents raise the child as a girl. In his reports on the case, Money claimed that by enforcing strong gender stereotypes in their parenting, the end result was that the identical twins became a happy girl and a happy boy, both of them gender-conforming. In fact, that was not the case--the surgically reassigned child was never happy, gender transitioned back living as a boy in his teens, and committed suicide in his 20s. But in the 1970s, feminists and progressives saw the case as a cause célèbre, because it was framed as illustrating that gender is socially constructed and not some natural or innate matter.
Money became so famous as a result of this that his paradigm for the treatment of intersex infants became universal in the West. Money held that visibly intersex children should receive genital reconstruction as early in life as possible, so that their parents would raise them as "normal girls and boys," producing well-adjusted heterosexual women and men. So unlike sexual orientation conversion therapies, which had to become much more polite and consensual, intersex conversion therapies actually became more invasive, ubiquitous, and less consensual.
The Spread of Resistance to Conversion Therapies
In the final years of the 20th century, advocacy movements for sex, gender and sexual minorities pushed back at the persistence of conversion therapies. Sexual orientation advocacy organizations did this overtly. They fought active campaigns against the idea of conversion therapy for LGB people, and in 1987 "ego dystonic homosexuality" was removed from the DSM. Conversion therapy aimed at LGB people was officially disclaimed by the American Psychological Association.
Trans advocates also overtly pushed back at conversion therapies. They focused particularly on the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood. There being no protocols for social transition for children at the time, children given the "GID of Childhood" diagnosis were all treated with conversion therapies. Some of these children we'd recognize today as trans kids, but often the youths being "treated" had never expressed a trans identity--they were your classic feminine boys and tomboys, or LGB teens whose parents opposed their sexual orientations. Many were institutionalized against their will by their parents. And punitive aversion therapies, often involving physical punishments, were commonplace. The goals of these treatments were to produce complete conformity to the child's assigned binary gender. Trans advocates pushed back against this, and were joined in this instance by LGB and feminist activists.
Trans groups were also engaging in other advocacy efforts that amounted to fighting conversion therapies, but were not framed as such. Trans people were struggling against the gatekeeping by doctors that kept so many trans-identified people from accessing transition therapies. They were pushing for a different pathway to accessing transition services--one now called the "risk reduction approach," in which a patient signs a declaration attesting to their gender identiy and is then allowed to access services after some simple screenings. This advocacy was pushing back at the channeling of a majority of patients wishing to gender transition into cisgender conversion therapies instead of their desired transition treatments. Success in this advocacy let to the bypassing of extensive medical gatekeeping, which in turn led to rapid growth in the number of people accessing transition services. Especially empowered were those who were excluded in the past because they had nonbinary gender identities, would be LGB or gender-nonconforming after transition, and/or would remain visibly transgender after accessing hormones and the surgeries they desired and could afford. For many, conversion talk therapies were replaced with access to transition services.
This pushback against conversion therapies in the 1990s led to the burst of trans visibility in the 21st century. But intersex people still remain largely invisible.
That's because our fight against conversion therapies lags decades behind LGBT battles on these issues. The first major intersex advocacy group wasn't even founded until the 1990s. Having heard no intersex voices of protest, most endosex progressives entered the 21st century thinking of intersexuality as vanishingly rare, and of infant genital reconstruction as some cool proof of the flexibility of gender.
21st Century Intersex Advocacy
Most people today remain unaware of how common intersex status is. I explain its prevalence here: about 1 in 150 Americans is diagnosed with a "disorder of sex development." The fact that people aren't aware of how commonplace intersex status is illustrates the effectiveness of repressive conversion therapies. The very point of intersex surgeries performed in infancy without our consent is to render us invisible. For decades, the treatment paradigm included keeping our medical histories secret from us--lying to us about the nature of our treatments to hide our intersex status even from ourselves. For decades, our parents were told that if anyone learned of our secret, our lives would be ruined, so we must be taught never to talk about our differences. There's been more openness in the last decade--but doctors' diagnostic categories themselves continue to seek to convert us to endosex by concealing the nature of our differences. Rather than being told we are intersex, these diagnostic terms often label us "boys with a penile deformity" or "girls with clitoromegaly." We're told these are embarrassing issues, but ones doctors can cure for us with a few simple surgeries, so nobody will ever know and we'll never have to have the embarrassing problem revealed.
We live in a culture of shame and stigma in which intersex people are still taught that if our variance becomes known, potential friends and mates will be repelled and we will be doomed to lives of isolation. Doctors present us with a solution: physical conversion therapy to erase our physical sex variance, and silence about this ever having occurred. And it works, at least on one level. Few contemporary Americans are aware of how many intersex people are all around them.
But conversion therapies continue to come at a severe cost. For us, these include physical costs: the loss of sexual sensation that accompanies so many infant genital reconstructions; pain; infections. We are forced to show our genitals over and over to strange adults who poke and prod us, and then we are expected not to talk about it, which is a great training regimen to make us vulnerable to sexual abuse. And there's the fundamental issue of agency and self-determination over our physical sex characteristics. For those of us who don't grow up to identify with the binary sex we were coercively assigned at birth, there's the betrayal of knowing our bodies once better matched our identities, but then doctors cut off parts of us with which we identify, and our parents just went along with it. And even if we are in the majority that do grow up to accept our assigned binary sex, all intersex children whose genitals and gonads are surgically altered have endured a forced sex change--something our society would find horrific in endosex children, but accept in our case--and that is very hard to deal with.
And the thing is, conversion therapies never solve the fundamental problem. The problem is that the patient is a member of a stigmatized group. Even if a perfect conversion of a patient to endosex, to cisgender identity, to heterosexuality, or to gender conformity were possible, it only allows that specific patient to escape a social problem that persists. The real solution is to end stigma and discrimination against the minority group, so that every member of the group benefits.
Rather than reducing stigma and discrimination, conversion therapies strengthen them. They naturalize the discrimination and blame the victim.
The young intersex advocacy movement has tried several approaches to addressing the social problems we face. We've formed support groups. We've tried to work with doctors, hoping that if we are polite and educated and assimilated and attractive, they will listen to us and at least delay surgeries to allow children to mature enough express an opinion about whether they want them. The medical profession has been happy to co-opt us and present their uninterrupted intervention practices as having our seal of approval. We've tried confronting doctors individually. They call us atypical malcontents who received outdated surgeries, while they present current surgeries as cutting edge and advanced, with zero data to show any improvement in outcomes. We've tried analogizing infant genital "normalizing" surgeries to the cultural practices Western doctors call "female genital mutilation" and deem barbaric. Both are medically unnecessary cosmetic practices meant to make our bodies appear culturally acceptable to potential mates that traumatize us and deprive us of sensation. This convinced the U.N. to call for an end to unconsented-to medically unnecessary infant genital reconstructions, but basically only tiny Malta banned the practice. In the U.S. and most wealthy industrialized nations, medical interventions continue unabated. Doctors just frame every surgery they do as medically necessary to correct "disorder."
Doctors will only stop performing infant genital reconstructions to enforce their ideology that bodies must conform to binary sex expectations when parents stop consenting to it. In the 21st century we've been trying to educate the population about intersex issues, so parents will cease consenting. But it's been hard to get traction. One problem is that the medicalization of sex variance turns every conversation about intersex issues into a complex story of 17 diagnostic categories, and what each means, and how to evaluate twisted medical claims that surgeries they perform are necessary to enhance fertility (which they mostly reduce) or prevent cancer (which occurs at rates way, way lower than breast cancer--and we don't preemptively remove all breasts like doctors want to remove all internal testes and ovotestes). Medical terminology confuses most average people, and we are trained to defer to medical authority, so listeners often give up trying to process what we are saying.
That's why I suggest we make clear what intersex surgery is. It is a conversion therapy. Doctors say it's necessary to cure disorder and prevent stigma. But they said exactly the same thing about LGBT conversion therapies, until social movements made them relinquish these (lucrative) practices. LGBT conversion therapies were practiced in service to the ideology of "natural sex;" the same is true of intersex physical conversion therapies. But homosexuality is not "unnatural;" same-sex sexuality is found throughout nature. Trans identities are not "unnatural;" gender-crossing is found throughout history. And intersexuality is not "unnatural;" empirically speaking, sex is naturally a spectrum and not a binary.
The public doesn't have to enter a debate about multiple complex medical treatment paradigms any more than the public needed to read psychological journal articles comparing the efficacy of different aversion therapies.
The simple fact is that no person should ever be forced to endure a conversion therapy. No intersex child should be forced to have medical interventions to convert their bodies to appearing endosex. Genital reconstructions should only be performed on mature people who ask for them--whether intersex or endosex, cis or trans.
Having an intermediate phalloclitoris is no more inherently medically dangerous than having a penis or vulva. The danger that comes with having intermediate sex characteristics is purely social and comes from living in a society that discriminates against people whose bodies don't conform to binary sex expectations. The way to protect people from that is to ban the discrimination, not to try to conceal an individual's nonconformity so that that one individual escapes the discrimination.
Stop nonconsensual intersex surgeries. They are conversion therapies, and they are wrong.