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Bodies in Doubt

Paperback
, 240 pages

15 halftones

ISBN:
9781421405834
January 2012
$25.00

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Bodies in Doubt

An American History of Intersex

What does it mean to be human? To be human is, in part, to be physically sexed and culturally gendered. Yet not all bodies are clearly male or female. Bodies in Doubt traces the changing definitions, perceptions, and medical management of intersex (atypical sex development) in America from the colonial period to the present day.

From the beginning, intersex bodies have been marked as "other," as monstrous, sinister, threatening, inferior, and unfortunate. Some nineteenth-century doctors viewed their intersex patients with disrespect and suspicion. Later, doctors showed more empathy for their patients' plights and tried to make correct decisions regarding their care. Yet definitions of "correct" in matters of intersex were entangled with shifting ideas and tensions about what was natural and normal, indeed about what constituted personhood or humanity.

Reis has examined hundreds of cases of "hermaphroditism" and intersex found in medical and popular literature and argues that medical practice cannot be understood outside of the broader cultural context in which it is embedded. As the history of responses to intersex bodies has shown, doctors are influenced by social concerns about marriage and heterosexuality. Bodies in Doubt considers how Americans have interpreted and handled ambiguous bodies, how the criteria and the authority for judging bodies changed, how both the binary gender ideal and the anxiety over uncertainty persisted, and how the process for defining the very norms of sex and gender evolved.

Bodies in Doubt breaks new ground in examining the historical roots of modern attitudes about intersex in the United States and will interest scholars and researchers in disability studies, social history, gender studies, and the history of medicine.

Elizabeth Reis is an associate professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department and the History Department at the University of Oregon and author of Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England.

"An excellent book that treats its subject matter with care and respect, and which encourages critical thinking about the issues discussed."

"In telling her story, Reis has also provided an excellent collection of illustrations. For scholars and medical students, this pleasantly written history provides an opportunity to view examples of these unusual problems."

"An excellent history of attitudes towards intersex persons from the 17th century onward."

"Reis is an engaging writer... informative, engaging, and intersex supportive in tone. It might be most useful as a supplement in a university course on human sexuality or the psychology of gender. It is recommended to anyone interested in the sociological history of intersex, as one of the very few volumes on the subject."

"Offers much-needed voice to the much-silenced lives of intersex Americans... Reis captures their stories as told by a plethora of masculinist and authoritative treatises, including autopsies, legal records, and medical texts, and to a less extent autobiographies."

"Reis’s study is useful precisely because of her broad brush—it promises to broaden early Americanists’ conversations about sexuality and gender and could serve useful not only in courses on the history of sexuality, but in classes on medicine, gender, the history of bodies, and disability studies. Many important moments in intersex history receive more detailed attention elsewhere, but the author’s goals of extending our thinking about intersex to an earlier era and linking often separate moments and issues are well realized in this engrossingly readable overview."

" Bodies in Doubt is a thoughtful contribution to the historical analysis of intersex in the US and provides valuable insights for contemporary debates on the ethics of modern medical management of intersex. This linkage makes it an important read for gender scholars, medical historians and health professionals alike."

"In the end everyone would be well served by a society that accepts, not merely tolerates, ambiguity. Bodies in Doubt is a valuable, important book because it teaches this lesson well."

" Bodies in Doubt is the first work to present a comprehensive history of the ways that people and institutions have adjudicated the sex status of atypically sexed bodies in the United States. As such, it is a welcome addition to more contemporary studies of intersex and the history of sex/gender more broadly. Reis has meticulously researched a vast range of sources to discern instances in which physical bodies and/or inconsistently gendered behaviors have been the object of scrutiny, puzzlement, and often scorn. Reis' narrative is filled with rich detail and engaging questions that pull the reader along through an accessibly written monograph... One of the strengths of this work is that it presents such a wide range of cases that we can finally see that bodies, and social responses to bodies, really do vary not only across time and place, but even within any given context."

"Throughout Bodies in Doubt we can see how the understanding of intersex has reflected contemporary cultural concerns about sex, and abnormality."

"A thoughtful, engaging, and important addition to the growing body of scholarship that explores the interrelated histories of medicine, sex, and gender."

" Bodies in Doubt makes an important contribution to our understanding of early American cultural history. Reis's revelation of the ways that anxieties about perceived violations of sexual borders intersect with anxieties about racial 'mixing' should receive special attention... Reis's treatment of the overlapping medicalization of racial and sexual 'difference' also suggests the number of intersections with which one must reckon in telling the history of the medical management of atypical sex anatomies."

" Bodies in Doubt undoubtedly deserves a prominent place in the growing body of literature on intersex history and politics. One of Reis's main achievements is that she places present-day intersex politics in the context of a long and complex cultural history. Moreover, her discussion sheds light on the American history of intersex before the 1950s, a period that has not yet received much critical attention... Reis has unearthed a wealth of new American case histories that not only make for interesting reading but also offer fresh insight into the cultural construction of intersex bodies. Bodies in Doubt is an excellent and highly engaging introduction to the medical and cultural history of intersex. In addition, by raising awareness of the multiple ways in which intersex relates to other markers of human experience such as sexuality, race, or class, Reis invites further investigation and opens up a set of questions that might well prove central to intersex studies in the future."

"A highly readable, novel, and interesting history on this topic. Bodies in Doubt helps readers see how the understanding of intersex has reflected contemporary cultural concerns about sex, abnormality, and civil society. It is not often you find a book that is so scholarly and yet so readable."

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