Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


HIST 460/560, Winter 2007
Reading and Discussion Questions, Week 8

Alice Domurat Dreger, “Ambiguous Sex”—or Ambivalent Medicine? The Hastings Center Report 28 (May/June 1998):24-35.

1. Who was John Money? What was his approach to sex reassignment? What was the John/Joan case about?

2. What is intersexuality?

3. What ideas about the nature and nurture of sex and gender guide an approach to intersexuality that features surgical intervention shortly after birth? What alternative approaches can you imagine?

4. Why is Dreger critical of efforts to normalize unusual sexual anatomies?

5. What does she mean when she describes the basis of treatment protocols as “an anatomically strict psychosexual theory of gender identity”?

6. Dreger describes medical professionals responding quite differently to intersexed newborns who are genetic females and those who are genetic males. How does she explain this asymmetry? What assumptions about gender and sexual orientation are built into this difference?

7. What distinguishes anatomical variation from anatomical deviation? Do you think that the border between them needs to be clear? If so, why? If not, why not?

8. What ethical problems does Dreger identify with dominant approaches to intersexuality? What does she mean by “monster ethics”? Do you think that the ethics of treating intersexuality are different for medical professionals, for parents, and for intersexed individuals?

Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed (pp. 1-129)

1. Briefly outline the 20th-century history that Meyerowitz traces for the concept of sex.

2. What part did transsexuality play in distinguishing sex, gender, and sexual orientation? Explain how each of these relate to nature and nurture.

3. What is the difference between intersexuality and transsexuality?

4. Why does Meyerowitz believe that the early cases of sex change occurred in Europe? When did these occur?

5. Who was Harry Benjamin?

6. Who was Christine Jorgensen? What main point does the author make about the Jorgensen case in relation to the history of journalism and celebrity?

7. What does the history of sex reassignment surgery in the United States tell us about changing conceptions of selfhood in the post-1945 era?

8. What nature-nurture conflicts divided surgeons, psychiatrists, and psychologists in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s? How did these shape the relationships between doctors and their patients? How did the professional understanding of gender during these years compare with the feminist definition of gender that prevailed after 1970?

Elizabeth Reis, “Impossible Hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620-1960,” Journal of American History 92 (September 2005):411-441.

1. Why does Reis argue that the view of hermaphrodites as “impossible” persisted for more than three centuries in U.S. history, even as a variety of other beliefs about intersexuality changed?

2. “How nonconforming bodies are treated is a historical question.” Explain.

3. What perception of ambiguous genitalia prevailed during the colonial era?

4. How did worries about deception and fraud shape medical approaches to intersexuality during the 19th century? How does Reis link this anxiety to the evolution of ideas about racial categorization and identity?

5. How do you think that changing conceptions of nature and nurture influenced ideas about gender and sexual orientation? Did they make it easier or harder to imagine that identities and experiences might be ambiguous or unpredictable?

6. When surgical approaches to ambiguous sexual anatomies were first developed, what was their typical goal?

7. What differences does Reis document in cases that doctors categorized as predominantly masculine as opposed to predominantly feminine?

8. What does Reis identify as especially unusual and significant in the 1903 case of E.C.?

9. This article concludes that the enduring insistence on a two-sex model both humanized intersexed individuals and made them invisible. Explain.

10. Read the quote from John Money that Reis uses at the end of her article. What point does the author wish to make with it? What points about the nature and nurture of sex and gender was Money trying to make?