Anne Fausto-Sterling’s The Five Sexes
Exploring the Social Standards of Sex and Gender There are several sources that tell a person how to be a man or woman. Science tells us by recognizing the X or Y chromosomes. The media shows us through the physically ideal celebrities that grace the covers of magazines and flaunt their bodies in commercials. Sports, wrestling, cars, and blue for the boys. Dresses, make-up, painted nails, and pink for the girls. All of these sources, as well as others, have evolved into an expectation that has become institutionalized within society.
This expectation, is placement and belonging into the binary system of person: the man or the woman. In Anne Fausot-Sterling’s acrticles “The Five Sexes” and the “The Five Sexes, Revisited”, the binary system is exposed as being faulted. The author explores the harsh physical and psychological costs that come with the conforming to social standards. In order to understand this phenomena, an explanation of the “ideal” body, and how that is determined is needed. Also, an explanation of any deviation to what is “ideal”, and how those people are treated, are important in understanding society’s standards of sex and gender.Fausto-Sterling explains the ideal make-up of a man and a woman. “Males have an X and a Y chromosome, testes, a penis and all of the appropriate internal plumbing for delivering urine and semen to the outside world.
They also have well-known secondary sexual characteristics, including a muscular build and facial hair. Women have two X chromosomes, ovaries, all of the internal plumbing to transport urine and ova to the outside world, a system to support pregnancy and fetal development… ”. (“The Five Sexes, Revisited”2). In the idealized world, Fausto-Sterling points out how human beings are a “dimorphic species”, that is, two kinds.
Science takes into account the biological DNA sequence of chromosomes to determine male or female. The genitalia of a person, his/her biological parts, are the visible factors. This is reinforced by the celebrities whose ideal bodies’ are worshiped by society. But what about people who fall in between? Besides the genders male and female, there is also intersexed. Within that group of intersexed, there are subgroups.Fausto-Sterling explains this in her “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough”: Firstly, the term “intersex” is used in medical literature to describe the “so-called true hermaphrodite” (possesses one testis and one ovary), “the male pseudohermaphrodite” (possess testes and some aspects of the female genitalia, but no ovaries), and “female pseudohermaphadites” (possess ovaries and some aspects of the male genitalia but lack testes). I had no idea that there were subgroups to the “intersexed”.
Due to social conformity, along with the advancement of technology and surgical procedure intersexed persons are aimed to be “fixed” at birth. Although otherwise healthy, there is a need to perform surgery on the baby in order to remove certain sexual organs that don’t fit with the perfect idea of what a girl or boy should look like. This often leaves scars, and the psychological and emotional confusion along with it. “The Five Sexes Revisited” focused on the importance of therapy over surgery. Medical ethicist Laurence B.McCullough of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor Collefe of Medicine in Houston, Texas “contend[ed] that in the process of assigning gender, physicians should minimize what he calls irreversible assignments: taking steps such as the surgical removal or modification of gonads or genitalia that the patient may one day want to have reversed”. (4) It is a dangerous gamble to perform “corrective” surgery and assign a sex shortly after birth because although that child may grow to accept his/her gender identity, there is no guarantee.
The consequences of that gamble can cost the patient a lifetime of psychological trauma. The debate on the dangers/benefits of “corrective” surgery is strong no both sides. To argue in favor of it, one must remember how it was growing up. Children, more-so than adults, want to fit it. There really is, however, a yearning to fit in as a child growing up. As an intersexed child, fitting in would be nearly impossible because of his/her confusion of self.Sterling’s insights on what pushed people to surgically alter themselves in order to comply to what society has determined to be “ideal”.
The media constantly reinforces what a man should look like and what a woman should look like, and these, sometimes unrealistic, notions of ideal bodies, distorts people. It reflects how society forces people into a box, and judges anyone who do not fit into that box. These dilemmas stem from a society flawed sense of standard genders, and why a five sex system is a refreshing suggestion.Anne Fausto-Sterling’s notion of a five sex system stems from the culture in which we live. There is a cultural idea that mandates that there are only two standards, man and woman, and everything in between is a deviation that needs to be fixed. In “The Five Sexes, Revisited”, Fausto-Sterling makes an analogy to the placement of intersexed and transgendered people. She says that “masculine and feminine, cannot be parsed as some kind of continuum.
Rather, sex and gender are best conceptualized as points in a multidimensional space”.5) This is a fitting way to look at gender variation, unfortunately however, that is not the way society sees as the standard. This standard has been institutionalized within modern culture, and begins immediately at birth, and continues throughout life. Newborns are given a blue blanket if a boy, and a pink one if a girl. Bathrooms are either for men, or for women, with a cartoon figure to represent each. Passports, birth certificates, driver licenses, and other official documents, all require a declaration of male or female. There are no in-betweens.
While the introduction of five sexes is certainly a noble idea, its practicality is limited. In Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes Revisited”, the author postulated that 1. 7% of the general population is intersexed. That being said, introducing five sexes would call for a revamping of the infrastructures and institutions that were built on the binary system of sex and gender. The process would be costly and timely. Introducing the five sexes institutionally may seem out of reach, at least within the foreseeable future, however, its recognition certainly is not.Accepting the five sexes is progress.
It can be comparable to the institutionalization of segregation in the United States. Segregation, the separation of black and white, was so embedded into the culture and laws of the United States that nobody ever imagined it would be done with. But through the determination of civil rights movements, segregation became illegal. Through the same determination, LGBQT would be able to achieve the same sense of acceptance, but it won’t happen overnight, and probably not even in our lifetime.