Doubting sex

Inscriptions, bodies and selves in nineteenth-century hermaphrodite case histories

Author: Geertje Mak

An adolescent girl is mocked when she takes a bath with her peers, because her genitals look like those of a boy. A couple visits a doctor asking to ‘create more space’ in the woman for intercourse. A doctor finds testicular tissue in a woman with appendicitis, and decides to keep his findings quiet. These are just a few of the three hundred European case histories of people whose sex was doubted during the long nineteenth century that this book draws upon. The book offers a refreshingly new perspective on the relation between physical sex and identity over the long nineteenth century. Rather than taking sex, sexuality and gender identity as a starting point for discussing their mutual relations, it historicizes these very categories. Based on a wealth of previously unused source material, the book asks how sex was doubted in practice—whether by lay people, by hermaphrodites themselves, or by physicians; how this doubt was dealt with; what tacit logics directed the practices by which a person was assigned a sex, and how these logics changed over time. The book highlights three different rationales behind practices of doubting and (re)assigning sex: inscription, body and self. Sex as inscription refers to a lifelong inscription of a person in the social body as male or female, marked by the person's appearance. This logic made way for logics in which the truth of inner anatomy and inner self were more significant.

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