Doubting sex

Doubting sex: Inscriptions, bodies and selves in nineteenth-century hermaphrodite case histories

Geertje Mak
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt155jh15
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  • Book Info
    Doubting sex
    Book Description:

    An adolescent girl is mocked when she takes a bath with her peers, because her genitals look like those of a boy. A couple visits a doctor asking to ‘create more space’ in the woman for intercourse. A doctor finds testicular tissue in a woman with appendicitis, and decides to keep his findings quiet. These are just a few of the three hundred European case histories of people whose sex was doubted during the long nineteenth century that Geertje Mak draws upon in her remarkable new book. How did people deal with such situations? How did they decide to which sex a person should belong? This groundbreaking analysis of clinical case histories shows how sex changed from an outward appearance inscribed in a social body to something to be found deep inside body and self. A fascinating, easy to follow, yet sophisticated argument addressing major issues of the history of body, sex, and self, this volume will fit advanced undergraduate courses, while challenging specialists.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-429-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. FIGURES AND TABLES
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book started with a single question. Ten years ago, when I was writing my book on masculine women on the European Continent in the nineteenth century, I found to my utter surprise that in narratives about passing women who sometimes lived as men for years the issue of an inner sexual identity wasneverraised. Not one text wondered about or discussed the possible inner motives of the woman involved, pointed to early childhood boyish inclinations, discussed the difficulties of transvestism in terms of identity, or tried to explain the passing in a more or less psychological way. Only...

  6. I INSCRIPTION
    • [I Introduction]
      (pp. 17-18)

      The first part of this book discusses a rationale of sex – sex as the category to which one belongs and is entitled – which is probably the least evident: the rationale of sex as inscription. The other two rationales, sex as the truthful representation of the body, or sex as the truth of the self, are much more familiar to modern Western readers. The argument in this part is therefore a partially negative one: it tries to make space for this more unexpected rationale of inscription by showing how, in many cases, neither the body nor the self determine how a...

    • 1 SECRECY AND DISCLOSURE: THE POLITICS OF CONTAINMENT
      (pp. 19-42)

      Sex, as the category each of us is entitled to, should correspond to the sex of our body. There is no doubt this rationale for the category of sex is primordial. After all, its logic determines everybody’s sex from birth, when the genitals are immediately checked and the baby is subsequently inscribed as either female or male. If there is doubt concerning someone’s physical sex – at birth or later in life – the question arises to which sex the person in question belongs. In such cases, further inspection of the body seems in order to decide that question. Consider, however, the...

    • 2 EARLY SEX REASSIGNMENTS AND THE ABSENCE OF A SEX OF SELF
      (pp. 43-65)

      In the previous chapter, I tried to determine the rationale behind the category of sex in view of the fact that it was apparently not self-evident that a doctor should examine the body if someone’s physical sex was in doubt. As the case histories show, after the initial sex assignment at birth, sex became so intricately interwoven into the social, moral and legal fabric, that doubts about an individual’s sex affected the entire community. Policies of containment therefore seem to have prevailed in communities in which hermaphrodites were known from birth. In that rationale, bodies were under constant surveillance from...

    • 3 HERCULINE BARBIN
      (pp. 66-90)

      Many readers will be familiar with the existence of the memoirs of Herculine Barbin in one form or another, re-edited as they were by Michel Foucault in 1978.¹ And they might have wondered how this autobiographical text, found in 1868 upon Barbin’s death, relates to the rationale of sex as the inscription of a person in a social and moral order as deciphered from medical case histories. After all, Foucault clearly speaks in terms of ‘identity’ in introducing the memoirs in their English translation. He labels them as ‘memoirs that were left by one of those individuals whom medicine and...

  7. II BODY
    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 91-94)

      The historical development of a rationale of physical sex as the basis for sex assignment, unravelled in this part, will turn out not to be a straightforward history in which physicians became increasingly good at diagnosing people’s physical sex. First of all, as has been asserted time and again in gender and queer studies, a body does not gain significance from itself. As Judith Butler has persuasively argued, a body only begins to ‘matter’ as soon as it is ‘read’ by a discourse. This pre-existing discourse, with its binary categories and hierarchies, and with its system of inclusion and exclusion,...

    • 4 HOW TO GET THE SEMEN TO THE NECK OF THE WOMB
      (pp. 95-115)

      Anna Barbara Meier decided to disclose himself to his physician because he wanted to marry the woman he had made pregnant ‘out of genuine affection’. She had accepted ‘that she would have to make her masculine nature public and declare it in court’.¹ To that end, she had asked the physician to visit her house.

      Thus she called on me, as a doctor, as her medical confessor, to examine her discreetly as far as her peculiar constitution allowed, in order that I would provide a testament which would disclose and attest to her true masculine constitution. She declared her absolute...

    • 5 JUSTINE JUMAS: CONFLICTING BODY POLITICS
      (pp. 116-135)

      This chapter is about a woman, Justine Jumas, who refused to subject herself to a forensic assessment of her sex. Her husband Antoine Darbousse had instituted a lawsuit against her because he claimed, after two years of marriage, that she was not a woman. Justine Jumas appealed against the court of Alès’ order to have her sex medically examined and the order was reversed by the court of Nîmes. Then her husband appealed. All in all, the lawsuit and appeals which were dealt with in three different courts in the south of France lasted from 1868 to 1873. Several forensic...

    • 6 THE DISLODGEMENT OF THE PERSON
      (pp. 136-156)

      As we have seen, until about the 1860s, a regime of ‘bedside medicine’ dominated the primarily private clinical practices that dealt with cases of doubtful sex. Within these practices, sexual function was established by observing the outward appearance of the genitals and the body in general, calculating the physical aptness for coitus, and questioning hermaphrodites about their sex lives and drives. Doctors only made scarce, superficial attempts to establish the character of the internal organs of generation. The everyday understanding of sexual function therefore must have been quite close to its clinical establishment. In published medical case histories, such examples...

  8. III SELF
    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 157-164)

      As the modern Western world has grown accustomed to the phenomenon of transsexualism and – certainly in Western Europe – has institutionalized the physical, social and legal transformation of men into women, or women into men, the idea of sex being fundamentally anchored in the self has become a quite dominant rationale. The sex of self, then, ultimately legitimizes the infringement of the other rationales, of sex as a representation of the body and sex as someone’s inscription in society. The last part of this book is about the emergence of the first signs of a rationale of sex as a representation...

    • 7 SEX ASSIGNMENT AROUND 1900. FROM A LEGAL TO A CLINICAL ISSUE
      (pp. 165-184)

      Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the role of physicians in cases of doubtful sex mainly had to do with making decisions in cases in which a doubtful sex had caused social, moral or legal disorder. In such cases, the doctor primarily played a role as an expert witness in a conflict about rights. Even if no court was involved, a physician could play the role of an arbiter in moral or social conflicts. As we will see below, his power was restricted and his authority was not always obeyed, but even so his influence on the life...

    • 8 THE TURN INWARDS
      (pp. 185-204)

      If the category of sex refers to an inscription of/on a person, this implies a link to a sexed social body and to a sexed physical appearance. Physical appearance refers to a person’s physical looks and clothing, to the way a person urinates, to their physical aptitude for certain types of work and last, but not least, to sexual performance. Of course, these are not ‘just’ the person’s physical characteristics but are informed and structured by an existing gendered discourse. The reading of this outward appearance gives a person a place in the social, moral and legal fabric: it defines...

    • 9 SCRIPTING THE SELF. N. O. BODY’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY
      (pp. 205-224)

      The protagonists of N. O. Body’s autobiographyAus einem Mannes Mädchenjahren (Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years), published in 1907, and of Barbin’s autobiographical writings have a lot in common.¹ Both were raised as girls and only discovered that they were male in their twenties. Both had already had a passionate love affair with a woman for quite some time before the medical discovery of the error of sex. For both the breakthrough came after a confession of their life story, which in both cases led to a medical examination. Both had been more or less aware that there had...

  9. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 225-232)

    How did people come to be classified as a man or woman in cases in which doubt had been raised with regard to their physical sex? This book has shown how in practice different logics were at work to decide on a person’s sex (re) assignment: sex as inscription, sex as the body, and sex as the self. These logics often functioned simultaneously, sustaining, contradicting or over lapping each other. The balance between the different logics shifted over time, however. While the logic of sex as body remained the basic logic over the course of time, the logic of sex...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 233-265)
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 266-278)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 279-288)