warnings: medicalization of bodies (intersex, homosexuality), sexual abuse/harassment/assault, othering, privacy and sciencePrivacy In The Context Of Power
In her memoir, Intersex (for lack of a better word), Thea Hillman tells stories about her life and the challenges she poses to the sex binaried system. At one point, she decides:
I'm not going to tell people about my genitals anymore. It's no one's business what my genitals look like. And it doesn't make a difference. ... Let them guess, assume, imagine, fantasize... Some of them will get off on [those images]. Others may think [I'm a] freak. Others may be disgusted. And that's why I don't even want to wonder in the first place what others are wondering. Let them keep their thoughts private.
This raises important questions about privacy and personal information. Is it possible to challenge the sex binary through advocating acceptance and an attitude of 'minding your own business'? For that matter, to what extent should one mind one's own business? I argue here that the clinical disregard for privacy functions within the context of othering those who do not fit the 'normal' standard.
A concern for privacy and a spirit of acceptance have often worked against each other in sexual revolutions. A great deal of sex-positive activism centers around bringing the personal or private into the public sphere. In addition, the field of scientific inquiry would seem to work very definitely against any regard for privacy or minding one's own business. According to Alfred Kinsey, it is necessary to counter bigotry on the subject of sex through general sex education, and by debunking popular myths. The scientific data amassed in the field of sexology is relatively limited compared to other areas of science, as Kinsey noted. He argues that one of the main reasons for this lack is because of a popular unwillingness to have a "thoroughly objective, fact-finding investigation of sex." Again, this relates to the influence of prejudice and ancient mores (predominantly western and/or elite) on present attitudes about sexuality.
In undertaking massive surveys and studies of human sexual behavior, scientists such as Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson did not have great concerns for privacy. Sex experts have traditionally rationalized their work in the name of helping people. Hillman challenges this, though, referencing the intense amount of damage that has been and continues to be done to anyone who does not fit certain experts' definition of "normal". Kinsey may have aspired to a completely objective investigation of sex, but this has not often transpired very well in practice. It is questionable as to what extent this scientific objectivity is even possible.
Kinsey suggested that in researching sex, it is necessary to steer clear of all judgments about what is normal and abnormal. As he says, "Nothing has done more to block the free investigation of sexual behavior than the almost universal acceptance... of certain aspects of that behavior as normal, and of other aspects... as abnormal." One wonders, though, whether it is possible to completely break free of any preconceptions about normality. In her book, Sexing The Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling says that "components of our political, social, and moral struggles become, quite literally, embodied, incorporated into our very physiological being." If this is true, then there is no way to attempt to collect 'objective data' about sex without first recognizing that " 'experience... is not individual and fixed, but irredeemably social and processual.' " For example, medical research helped to give an identity and a name to people who engaged in sexual acts with the same sex. They became defined as 'homosexuals,' and homosexuality was created as a new disease, a new species of person, and a new identity category. Therefore, the experiences of 'homosexuals' were and continue to be affected and influenced by the discourse surrounding homosexuality. When queer people speak about our experiences, we are affected by the history surrounding the terms 'gay', 'queer', and 'homosexual'. Therefore, is not possible to study sex without realizing how social and historical forces have shaped sexual acts, experiences and identities.
Sexual science, as a discipline, emerged in the context of the ongoing drive in western society to classify human beings. This drive became especially pronounced from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries onwards, and focused on "debates not only about who was different and how they were different, but also about what would count as the ideal standard against which a panoply of Others ... would be measured." It is important to remember that classification has been and continues to be situated in the context of western imperialism. This demonstrates very clearly the power dynamic inherent in any discussions on classification or 'objective' differences between human beings.
It is not only in the classification between human beings that this power dynamic is visible, however. In her book, Nature's Body, Londa Schiebinger discusses how the classification of plants too was affected by eighteenth-century mores. She says, "One of the most striking elements of Linnaeus' system is that plant sexuality took place almost exclusively within the bonds of marriage." She goes on to say that:
Eighteenth-century interest in plant sexuality coincided with a keen interest in the exact differentiation of sexual character in animals and humans ... both were subject to the imperative to find and analyze sex (and gender) differences that dominated scientific communities in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Clearly, the tradition of sex expertise is rooted in oppressive, othering notions about bodies, people, desires and behaviors. Although Kinsey wished to separate and move beyond any prejudices and judgments about 'normal' and 'abnormal' behaviors, these judgments are imbued in the very language of sexual science.
For example, the language of the medical drive to 'study' and 'quantify' sexual (and other) behavior is fraught with assumptions. Using terms such as 'studying' and 'collecting data' imply that sex is something that can be quantified and explained. Kinsey mentions that often scientists have been reluctant to study sex because "human sex behavior was primarily a question of the emotions, [and] that no scientific study had ever succeeded in measuring the emotions". Can emotions be studied? Does 'studying' automatically imply 'measuring'? Scientists often try to 'measure' sexual behavior on a strictly material, physical basis because it is the only way in which 'data' can be amassed. This is indicative of the dichotomy between biology and social environment that is often created in scientific disciplines. This dichotomy is not true to life, though. As R.C. Lewontin et al argue in their book, Not In Our Genes:
... Mental states have an effect on the external world through human conscious action. While it may be true that at some instant the environment poses a problem or challenge to the organism, in the process of response to that challenge the organism alters the terms of its relation to the outer world and recreates the relevant aspects of that world. The relation between organism and environment is not simply one of interaction of internal and external factors, but of a dialectical development of organism and milieu in response to each other.
Though curiosity and fascination are necessary parts of human life, it is more important to recognize how a desire for knowledge is impacted by the power we have to access any such knowledge, i.e. our privilege or lack thereof. Scientists have traditionally ignored this problem. Fausto-Sterling tries to address this problem, "[exhorting] scholars to examine the personal and political components of their scholarly viewpoints". In a medical setting, doctors and scientists inevitably have more power over their patients, especially considering the (particularly western) social homage paid to scientific and medical fields. Hillman talks a great deal about this power dynamic. As a child, while she was being examined for any 'discrepancies' in her 'normal' sexual development, she would feel unbearably ticklish every time the doctor touched her stomach. She says:
And I felt bad. I would worry before each appointment that I wouldn't be able to stop myself from being ticklish. I would say sorry to him that I couldn't sit still. Only now do I see that this is the same little girl who apologized to the child molester, whom I was sure I had disappointed because I couldn't climb the tree in my skirt as he asked me to.
This is important because Hillman is recognizing a very frightening aspect of medical science: the 'trust' that patients are supposed to place in their doctors. Conventionally, we are supposed to trust our doctors because they know how to treat our problems -- they supposedly understand our bodies, desires and behaviors better than we do. If, however, doctors are affected by the political complexity surrounding bodies just as much as we (patients and/or laypeople) are, then this can no longer be true. Hillman realizes, as an adult, "The doctor was a nice man. I know this is true. But what I didn't know until now is that somewhere, hidden ... was ... a terrified little girl." She realizes finally that she had a right to be afraid. As patients, we have a right to be afraid when doctors and scientists 'examine' our bodies. Hillman was perfectly healthy, but she was 'treated' so that she would become more 'normal'. It was explained to her that she had a 'condition', a word that implies "something wrong, most likely uncorrectable, with the desire for normalcy implicit. ... Condition is also to train, groom, lick into shape. To habituate."
Our curiosities and fascinations often function within a process of 'othering'. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, when Hillman thinks about the possible ways in which people will react to her identifying as intersex, and the possible implications they will construe in their minds, she is treated as an object. She comments, "I picture some of them thinking I have a huge clitoris, dicklet, micropenis on my 'femme' body." Such curiosities, fascinations, possible constructions, are loaded with assumptions and judgments. It is not merely curiosity that leads people to wonder what Hillman's genitals may or may not be like. It is also part of the process of turning her (a child, a human being) "into a freak". Suddenly people's bodies are turned into objects, displays, strange anomalous facts.
This is not merely simple exploration. This is part of what Lewontin et al. call the "subject-object dichotomy" of hierarchical human social organization. This dichotomy produces alienation, and "that alienation is ... of direct political relevance. The alienated organism must accommodate itself to the facts of life. ... Thus, psychic maturation is seen as learning to replace wishes about the world with acceptance of its actual nature." In the scenario of 'anomalous' genital and sexual structure, this alienation occurs when people, such as Hillman, are forced to believe that they are not 'normal' men and women, and that there are, in fact, specific truths about maleness and femaleness. Hillman is told over and over that she is a 'success' because her 'condition' was detected so early on, and treated. Because her biology conforms to what a 'woman' is supposed to have (and not have).
The power dynamic between doctor and patient, 'normal' and 'abnormal' person, results in the imposed silence of the patient, of the 'abnormal' person. Hillman discusses this silence, remarking:
... They just don't want to hear the real stories... who wants the everyday details of someone's life when you can use people with intersex to fulfill erotic fantasies, narrative requirements, and research programs? People with intersex continue to be used to satisfy the interests of others... few of them [researchers, etc] are actually talking to people with intersex. ... What we have to say may shock and surprise you: We're not actually all that different. ... We like to decide what happens to our bodies and like to be asked about our lives, rather than told.
It is easier to believe that people with intersex, or people with any kind of 'difference', are 'abnormal'. This relates to how "individual scientists are inclined to believe one or another claim about biology based in part ... on whether the claim confirms some aspect of life that seems personally familiar." It is much easier to produce scientific 'evidence' that ratifies the sex and gender binaries and other oppressive systems, rather than evidence that challenges these systems. For such a challenge would also necessarily challenge the scientists' own lives.
In the context of power inequality, the desire for privacy cannot be seen as a reactionary social force. Hillman is a sex-positive activist, but she is also a survivor. She has realized that "being comfortable with sex doesn't mean sex is comfortable, and ... [there are] layers of shame hiding ... where only the sharp, cool tools of a doctor have been." So when she is asked to tell her story, asked to talk about intersex, sometimes "there's this raw aversion. ... this quiet no." The instinctual refusal that Hillman feels must be understood as a necessary defense against a system that will objectify and other her for being intersex. At the same time as she is an activist, educating people about intersex and trans issues, she is also profoundly vulnerable.
When asked to envision a world without violence against women, Hillman says:
I dream of women who hold their heads high because they live in a world where difference is embraced, rather than corrected, fixed, obliterated, or erased. A world where I learn from the women and girls around me about the myriad, multiple, varied and beautiful ways of being alive: joyful, silly, loving, and light.
To create such a world, it is necessary for scientists and other 'experts' to check their privilege. It is necessary for us as members of a capitalist, sexist, heterosexist, racist and ableist system to respect the intense vulnerability that comes from sharing private information that can be and often is systematically used against oneself. Only through recognizing the violence of systemic power structures can we truly allow our biology to free us. ( bibliography )