Elevate Difference

Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes

I know a man who wears boots, shaves his face, urinates standing up, fucks women (his term), and still sometimes menstruates. In Between XX and XY independent researcher Gerald N. Callahan briefly and tidily introduces the flaws, silences, and prejudices of the Western sex-binary system expressed as male:masculine:man::female:feminine:woman. In so doing he also challenges the sex:biology::gender:culture equation, a half-baked, often feeble attempt by anthropologists, psychologists, biologists, and feminist and queer theoreticians to account for variations in sex and gender cross-culturally. Callahan presents case studies of infants, adolescents, and adults whose psyches, genitals, behaviors, morphologies, and internal organs and secretions don’t fit neatly into binary terms but must be made to anyway.

One chapter, “A Brief History of Sex,” will gently introduce sex, gender and sexuality to those who’ve never thought of either critically. He shows that sex-binarism often operates more to showcase medical skills, to alleviate parental fears, and to avert likely community scorn—in short, to preserve heterosexual, male-dominant norms—than to serve the immediate or future needs of the infants and sometimes adolescents whose flesh is carved and spirits wrecked. That any of them survive at all, much less thrive, such as my friend mentioned above, is testament to their strength and tenacity. Between XX and XY is useful also for its many clear and simply stated definitions of medical and surgical terms and procedures relevant to the study of sex, gender, sexual, hormones, and genitalia, although there are blips along the way (e.g., “clitorectomy” instead of “clitoridectomy,” “normal sexual intercourse,” and the like).

Nevertheless, as a reader I remain puzzled about the intended audience for this book. In the section titled “Children Who Change Their Sexes: 5-Alpha Reductase Deficiencies” Callahan pulls a classic bait-and-switch, devoting a single page to that topic before discussing in greater length species of hermaphroditic fish such as sea bass, clownfish, reef gobies, and the saddleback wrasse. Callahan could have actually discussed the so-called guevedoche syndrome (“balls at 12”) of the Dominican Republic, the fabled turnim man (male and female pseudohermaphrodites in a highland New Guinea tribe studied by Gilbert Herdt), the Pokot intersexual (studied long ago by Robert Edgerton), or even the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. Additionally, given the logic of his book, the section ought to have been titled: “Children Who Change Their Sex,” singular.

I think that Callahan’s reach many times exceeds his grasp. The eleven scant pages that comprise Chapter Eight, “Alternatives: Other Cultures, Other Sexes,” cover no new ground. Callahan fails to explore the politics of the yawning gulf between “MTF” and “FTM,” which are too loose acronymic glosses for “transsexual surgeries” that turn “male” to “female” or vice-versa. While discussing the problems that spotted hyenas presented to ancient Greeks, such as Pliny the Elder, and to mid-twentieth century field researchers—insofar as their genitalia are seemingly perfectly hermaphroditic—Callahan concludes that “In fact, except during copulation, female spotted hyenas completely dominate males.” This suggests that penile-vaginal intercourse inherently expresses male domination instead of mutuality or female engulfment.

Callahan makes passing reference to, but does little with, Thomas Laqueur’s path-breaking Making Sex: the body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. He cites Serena Nanda’s work amongst the Indian “neither man nor woman” hijras, but they have nothing to do with the XX, XY chromosomes of his title, and neither do the berdache, xanith, and nadle elsewhere. Callahan fails altogether to mention the works of Monique Wittig, Gilbert Herdt, Ann Fausto-Sterling, Will Roscoe, Bernice Hausmann, Walter Williams, Londa Schiebinger, Robert Edgerton, Nellie Oudshoorn, Don Kulick, and Julliane Imperato-McGinley, to name but a few. I would have liked him to situate his compelling case studies, told in correspondence, within the several score transsexual memoirs and manifestos that are easily available.

I feel bad for not being able to recommend the book very highly, for Callahan has a kind heart and has several useful things to say, but it doesn’t advance any new arguments, and it will probably annoy academic and research specialists.

Written by: Lawrence James Hammar, Ph.D., September 12th 2009

Thanks, RK, for taking the time to read my review (I only inadvertently saw that it had been posted). I mentioned Thomas Laqueur’s path-breaking Making Sex: the body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, and Foucault's Herculin Barbin is also quite intriguing and is set in a much earlier time period than mid-20th century U.S. Bernice Hausmann's Changing Sex should be right at the top of the list, and the chapter by Gilbert Herdt and Robert Stoller in their Intimate Communications is perhaps the most painful essay I've ever read about the alpha-5 reductase deficiency syndrome that Callahan mentions but neglects to discuss. Ann Fausto-Sterling's "The Five Sexes" (in The Sciences, 1993, March/April issue) is good. Londa Schiebinger's The Mind Has No Sex? is another must-read. At the top of the list is Nellie Oudshoorn's The Natural Body, which is a social history of endocrinology. I hope that helps. Of course, there are any number of fine memoirs of transexualism and transsexualism to read, too . . .



For those of us interested in this subject, are there other books you'd recomment?