Surgically Shaping Sex: A Gender Structure Analysis of the Violation of Intersex People’s Human Rights

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Book Section

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Publication Title

Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, 2 nd Edition


Springer International Publishing

Publisher Location

Cham, CH



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We begin this chapter distinguishing sex from gender, while also showing that neither phenomenon is a simple two-category characteristic. We then offer a gender structure analysis (Risman in Gend Soc 18(4):429–450, 2004) of intersex in contemporary U.S. society to show how these binary ideologies about sex and gender problematically shape the lives of intersex people. At the institutional level of gender structure, we focus on how doctors routinely subject intersex people to medically unnecessary and irreversible interventions in an attempt to force them into the sex binary—a process that begins with doctors assessing the person’s gender identity, or attempting to predict it, if the diagnosis occurs at birth. At the interactional level of gender structure, we show how doctors present intersex as a medical emergency to the parents of intersex children. We explain that this style of diagnosis delivery puts parents in a panic and leads them to hastily consent to medical recommendations in order to “normalize” their child’s body so that they fit more neatly into sex and gender expectations. At the individual level of gender structure, we describe how doctors treat intersex in ways that disregards intersex people’s bodily autonomy while violating their human rights. However, as we explain in the conclusion, when intersex people age and learn the truth about how they were treated, they often fight back and crack the gender structure by joining the intersex rights movement in an attempt to challenge the institutional level of gender structure and, more specifically, how doctors harmfully approach intersex. We end with questions regarding intersex advocacy and a call for sociocultural scholars to center race in future intersex studies.


Intersex, Disorders of sex development (DSD), Intersex activism, Medical authority