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The Medical Construction of Gender
(Case Management of Intersexed Infants)

This document is a precis by a member of the AIS Support Group of some published work by Suzanne Kessler Ph.D. of the Divison of Natural Sciences at the State University of New York, Purchase, NY 10577 with additional material by Milton Diamond Ph.D. of the Dept. of Anatomy and Reproductive Biology at the University of Hawaii Medical School, Honolulu, HI 96822.

The material is taken mostly from Suzanne Kessler’s article ‘The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants’ published in Signs, the Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Autumn 1990, with some material from a transcript of presentations by both workers at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) in San Francisco, Nov 9 -12th 1995. Kessler’s article contained many references in footnotes which are not included here.


The birth of intersexed infants has been documented throughout recorded time. In the late 20th century scientists can determine chromosomal and hormonal gender which is typically taken to be the real, natural, biological gender, usually referred to as the ‘sex’ of the infant. In spite of this, such biological factors are often pre-empted by cultural factors such as the ‘correct’ length of the penis, when doctors determine, assign and announce the gender of an infant.

Medical teams have standard practices for managing intersexuality based ultimately on cultural or social understandings of gender, and yet in the medical literature such [cultural/social] issues as post-delivery discussions with parents, and consultations with patients in adolesence, are considered only peripherally to the central medical issues of aetiology, diagnosis and surgical procedures.

Physicians hold an incorrigible belief in, and insistence upon male and female being the only ‘natural’ options even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary (i.e. the birth of intersexed infants). This paradox calls into question the idea that female and male are biological givens compelling a culture of two genders.

The Study

Dr. Kessler interviewed six medical specialists (1 clinical geneticist, 3 endocrinologists, 1 psychoendocrinologist and 1 urologist) in paediatric intersexuality (three men and three women) from different teams. All the specialists agreed that the current management of intersexed cases is based on the theory of gender proposed by John Money and colleagues from Johns Hopkins Medical Centre in the USA in 1955 (and elaborated in 1972).

John Money’s Recommendations

These are described (in Milton Diamond’s words) as follows:

Postulate 1:

The individual is psychosexually neutral at birth, so that, put in crude terms, if you put a baby in a pink room it will grow up like a girl; if in a blue room, like a boy [i.e. nurture is more important than nature in determining gender].

Postulate 2:

Psychosexual development is related to the appearance of the genitals [i.e. how they look]. If a child looks down and sees a vulva it will grow up like a girl; if a penis, like a boy.

Postulate 3:

Don’t allow any doubt [in parents or child] as to gender assignment. Genitals must be made to match the assigned gender a.s.a.p. and gender-appropriate hormones must be administered at puberty. Then child will develop gender identity in accordance with assignment regardless of chromosomal gender and not question his/her gender or request re-assignment at later age.

Postulate 4:

Don’t allow any change of sex after 2 years of age. The figure has some leeway; some people say it’s as early as 15 months, some say up to 3 years, some people say up to 5 years (consensus on upper limit is 18 months to 2 years). Some say it’s tied to the development of language – when the child develops language then they know what gender they are.

Kessler points out [as many others have also] that Money’s theory is based on only a handful of repeatedly cited cases, but has been accepted due to prestige of the theoreticians and its resonance with the then-held ideas, i.e. that gender and children are malleable, and that psychology and medicine are the tools used to transform them. One of Kessler’s inteviewees says: “A gender assignment made decisively, unambiguously and irrevocably contributes, I believe, to the general impression [my emphasis] that the infant’s true, natural ‘sex’ has been discovered, and that something that was there all along has been found. It also serves to maintain the credibility of the medical profession, reassure the parents, and reflexively substantiate Money and Ehrhardt’s theory.”

Money says that any surgical ‘correction’ to the genitalia should be done a.s.a.p. and stresses that in cases of male-to-female rassignment any reduction in phallic tissue must not be delayed beyond the newborn period lest the infant should have traumatic memories of having been castrated. Kessler points out that there is no corresponding concern that vaginal reconstructive surgery, often carried out much later, might be traumatic.

Kessler’s interviewees felt that if diagnosis, gender assignment and genital reconstruction were postponed towards the upper limit of 18 months to 2 years (cited in Postulate 4) it would cause negative parental response to the child, i.e. the parents need to know if it’s male or female.


Current thinking says that a premature gender announcement by an obstetrician at delivery, prior to close examination of the genitals, can be problematic and can lead to the need for backtracking by the child’s doctor in front of the parents (“I know how a mistake like that could be made, or not really a mistake but a different decision .......... I know what the obstetrician meant, but the way he said it confused you ..... I think this is a better way to think about it.......” etc., etc.) revealing the doctor’s efforts to protect the parents from concluding that their child is neither male nor female, and also to protect other doctors’ decision-making processes.

The practice in any intersexed condition is usually as follows. If the diagnostic tests show that the infant is genetically female (XX sex chromosomes), genital surgery to reduce the phallus size can proceed relatively rapidly, satisfying what the doctors believe are psychological and cultural demands. If however, the infant is determined to have at least one Y sex chromosome, then surgery may be considerably delayed due to the need for further tests to see if the infant’s body can make the male hormone testosterone and whether the phallus can respond to it sufficiently to enable the phallus to develop. If neither occurs, then the Y-chromosome infant is not considered to be a male after all. If the infant’s phallus responds to testosterone, the gender assignment problem is resolved, but possibly at some later cost, since the penis will not grow again at puberty. Money’s case management philosophy assumes that for an adult male a much smaller than average penis may compromise his manliness, but for a young boy it may compromise his essential maleness. Although these psychological effects have not been empirically documented, Money et al advocate the avoidance of both scenarios by reassigning many such infants as female.

The above practice suggests that for Money et al chromosomes are less relevant in determining gender than penis size and that, by implication, ‘male’ is not defined by the genetic condition of having one Y and one X sex chromosome, or by the production of sperm, but by the aesthetic condition of having an appropriately-sized penis.

Kessler points out that although doctors are anxious not to make a premature gender assignment, their language [to colleagues and parents] whilst waiting for test results (which can be several months) suggests that it is difficult for them to take a completely neutral position and to think and speak only of ‘phallic tissue that belongs to an infant whose gender has not yet been determined or decided’. They use words like “...... to see whether he can respond to testosterone ..” and “ ... this baby has an underdeveloped phallus, but we are fairly confident we can help this child look more like a boy ...”. The mere fact that the word ‘he’ and the phrase ‘underdeveloped phallus’ is used rather than ‘overdeveloped clitoris’ suggests that the infant has been judged to be, at least provisionally, a male. In the case of the ‘undersized phallus’, what is ambiguous [in the minds of doctors] is not whether this is a penis, but whether it is ‘good enough’ to remain one. If, at the end of the treatment period the phallic tissue has not responded, what had been a potential penis (referred to in the medical literature as a ‘clitoropenis’) is now considered an enlarged clitoris (or ‘penoclitoris’) and reconstructive surgey is planned, as for the [intersexed] genetic female [referred to earlier].

Deliberating out loud on the judiciousness of making parents wait for assignment decisions, one of the interviewees asked rhetorically “Why do we do all these tests if in the end we’re going to make the decision simply on the bais of the appearance of the genitalia?” This question suggests that the principles underlying doctors’ decisons are cultural rather than biological, based on parental reaction and the medical team’s perception of the infant’s prospects for societal adjustment given the way her/his genitals look, or could be made to look. Moreover, as long as ‘male’ is defined as the possession of a ‘good-sized’ penis, more infants will be assigned as female than as male.

Dealing with Ambiguity

Kessler points out that there is great pressure on the parents from relatives, friends etc. for a decision on the baby’s ‘sex’ so that during the waiting period doctors have to manage the parents’ anxiety. She goes on to explain some of the ways in which doctors try and steer patients through these problems:

1) Neutral first names, and use ‘baby’ rather than ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, write ‘child of ....’ on birth certificate instead of name etc.

2) Could tell friends you had twins (boy and girl) and later say that one died.

3) Evade questions by replying “Baby is having problems and we’ll get back to you when resolved.” (Kessler comments – “In short, parents are asked to sidestep the infant’s gender rather than admit that the gender is unknown, thereby collaborating in a web of white lies, ellipses and mystifications.”)

4) Parents taught that all fetuses have potential to be male or female. Doctors may use diagrams to show that nature uses the same anlagen [neutral template] to produce the external parts of the male and female.

5) Doctors stress normality of infant in other respects, to ease the blow and re-direct attention. Terms like ‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘abnormal’ are not used.

6) Doctors imply that gender of child is not ambiguous, but only the genitals. Use words like ‘undeveloped’, ‘maldeveloped’ or ‘unfinished’.

7) Reassure parents that ‘true sex’ will be found. Phrases like “Tests will help determine what the actual sex is” (Kessler’s emphasis). “We thought originally it was a boy because baby was ‘closed up down there’. We divided the closed skin and discovered that baby is in fact a girl (Kessler’s emphaisis).

The message in these examples is that the trouble lies in the doctor’s ability to determine the gender and not in the baby’s gender per se.

8) Finally, doctors tell parents that social factors are more important than biological ones (even though they are searching for biological causes). In essence, doctors teach parents Money and Ehrhardt’s theory of gender development. In doing so, they shift the emphasis from the discovery of biological factors that are a sign of the ‘real’ gender to providing the appropriate social conditions to produce the ‘real’ gender (my emphasis). What remains unsaid, though, is the apparent contradiction in the notion that a ‘real’ or ‘natural’ gender can be, or needs to be produced artificially. The doctor/parent discussions make it clear to family members that gender is not a biological given (even though, of course, their own [biology-based] procedures for diagnosis assume that it is) and that gender is fluid. Doctors used words like “There is an enormous amount of clinical data to suggest that if you sex-reverse an infant, the majority of the time the alternative gender identity is commensurate with the socialization, the way they are raised, and how people view them.”

The implication of these comments is that the gender identity of all children, not just those born with ambiguous genitals, is determined primarily by social factors, that the parents and society always ‘construct’ a child’s gender; in cases of intersexed infants, the doctors merely provide the right genitals to go along with the socialization. Of course, at ‘normal’ births, when the infant’s genitals are not ambiguous, the parents are not told that the child’s gender is ultimately governed by socialization. In those cases, doctors do treat gender as a biological given.

Social Factors in Decision Making

Most of the interviewees claimed that the personal convictions of doctors ought to play no role in the decision-making process. They say things like “It’s more to do with medical criteria (i.e. what is surgically and endocrinologically possible, in order that the child will grow up with genitals which will look look that of the assigned gender). I don’t think many social factors enter into it.” However, this particular doctor then said that social factors were extremely important in the development of gender identity, operative moreover from the moment the infant leaves hospital. In fact, doctors make decisions about gender on the basis of shared cultural values that are unstated, perhaps even unconscious, and therefore considered objective rather than subjective.

Money laid down very specific guidelines. “Never assign a baby to be reared, and to surgical and hormonal therapy, as a boy, unless the phallic structure, hypospadiac or otherwise, is neonatally of at least the same caliber as that of same-aged males with small-average penises”. Elsewhere, he and his colleagues provide specific measurements on what qualifies for a micropenis: “A penis is, by convention, designated as a micropenis when at birth its dimensions are three or more standard deviations [a statistical measure of scatter] below the mean [a kind of ‘average’]. One of Kessler’s interviewees claimed that although “the [size of] phallus is not the deciding factor .... if the phallus is less than 2 cm long at birth and won’t respond to androgen treatment, then it’s made into a female.”

These guidelines are clear, but they focus on only one physical feature, one that is distinctly imbued with cultural meaning. This becomes especially apparent in the case of an XX infant with normal female reproductive gonads [ovaries] and a perfect penis. Would the size and shape of the penis, in this case, be the deciding factor in assigning the infant as ‘male’, or would the perfect penis be surgically destroyed and female genitalia created? Money notes that this dilemma would be complicated by the anticipated reaction of the parents to seeing “their apparent son lose his penis.” Other researchers concur that parents are likely to want to raise a child with a normal-shaped penis (regardless of size) as ‘male’, particularly if the scrotal area looks normal and if the parents have had no experience with intersexuality. Elsewhere Money argues in favour of not neonatally amputating the penis of XX infants, since fetal masculinization of brain structures would predispose them “almost invariably [to] develop behaviourally as tomboys, even when reared as girls.” This reasoning implies, first, that tomboyish behaviour in girls is bad and should be avoided; and, second, that it is preferable to remove the internal female organs, implant prosthetic testes, and regulate the ‘boy’s’ hormones for his entire life rather than overlook or disregard the perfection of the penis.

The ultimate proof to these doctors that they intervened appropriately is that the reconstructed genitals look normal and function normally in adulthood. Although there is no reported data on how much emphasis the intersexed person him or her-self places upon genital appearance and functioning (my emphasis) the doctors are absolutely clear about what they believe is important. Another team of clinicians revealed their phallocentrism, arguing that the most serious mistake in gender assignment is to create an individual unable to engage in genital [heterosexual] sex. The equation of gender with genitals could only have emerged in an age when medical science can create credible-appearing and functioning genitals; and an emphasis on the good phallus above all else could only have emerged in a culture that has rigid aesthetic and performance criteria for what constitutes maleness. The formulation ‘good penis equals male; absence of good penis equals female’ is treated in the literature and by the doctors inteviewed as an objective criterion, operative in all cases. There is a striking lack of attention to the size and shape requirements of the female genitals, other than that the vagina should be able to receive a penis.

Kessler says that while the prospect of constructing good genitals is the primary consideration in doctors’ gender assignment, another extra-medical factor that was repeatedly cited by her interviewees was the specialty of the attending doctor. She then discusses the various biases. e.g. urologists (who are mostly male) liking to ‘make boys’. “They are not interested in dynamic processes, they’re interested in fixing and lengthening pipes, and not dealing with hormonal and certainly not psychological issues .....” Paediatric endocrinologists were said usually to opt for the easiest route – to raise the child as a female. The urologist who was interviewed mentioned the case of an adolescent who had been assigned as female at birth but who was developing some male pubertal signs and wanted to be a boy. The urologist explicitly links a cultural interpretation of masculinity to the treatment plan. “He was ill-equipped, yet we made a very respectable male out of him. He now owns a huge construction business – those big cranes that put stuff up on the building.”

Post-infancy Case Management

Most interviewees claimed that the parents were equal partners in the whole process, but they gave no instances of parental participation prior to the gender assignment (my emphasis). The doctor has acted as detective (gathering the evidence), as lawyer (presenting the case) and as judge (rendering the verdict). Parents are then encouraged to establish the credibility of the assigned gender publicly, for example by giving a detailed medical explanation to a leader in their community such as a pastor or family doctor, who will explain the situation to curious acquaintances. Money argues that “medical terminology has a special magic to laymen in such a context; it is final and authoritative and closes the issue.” He also recommends that the mother “settle the argument once and for all among her woman friends by allowing some of them to see the baby’s reconstructed genitals.” Apparently, the powerful influence of normal-looking genitals helps overcome a history of ambiguous gender.

Kessler says that some of the same issues that arise in assigning gender can recur some years later when at adolescence the child may be referred to a doctor for counselling. The dotor then tells the adolescent many of the same things his or her parents had been told years before. Terms like ‘abnormal’, ‘disorder’, ‘disease’ and ‘hermaphroditism’ are avoided; the condition is normalized, and the child’s gender treated as unproblematic. She puts forward a case reported by one of the paediatric endocrinologists interviewed, involving an adolescent patient with androgen insensitivity, as “providing an intriguing insight into the post-infancy gender-management process”. The patient was told at the age of 14 that “her ovaries weren’t normal and had been removed. That’s why she needed pills to look normal. ....... I wanted to convince her of her femininity. Then I told her she could marry and have normal sexual relations ..... [her] uterus won’t develop but [she] could adopt children.” The urologist interviewed was asked to comment on this handling of the counselling, and said “It sounds like a very good solution to it. He’s stating the truth, and if you don’t state the truth ... then you’re in trouble later.” This is a strange version of ‘the truth’, however, since the adolescent was chromosomally XY and was born with normal testes that produced normal quantities of androgen. There were no existing ovaries or uterus to be abnormal. Another paediatric endocrinologist, in commenting on the management of this case, hedged the issue by saying that he would have used a generic term like ‘the gonads’. A third endocrinologist said she would say that the uterus had ‘never formed’.

Technically these physicians are lying when, for example, they explain to an adolescent XY female with an intersexed history that her “ovaries ... had to be removed because they were unhealthy or were producing ‘the wrong balance of hormones’ ”. We can presume that these lies are told in the service of what the physicians consider a greater good – keeping individual/concrete genders as clear and uncontaminated as the notions of female and male are in the abstract. The clinician suggests that with some female patients it eventually may be possible to talk to them “about their gonads having some structures and features that are testicular-like”. This call for honesty might be based at least partly on the possibility of the child's discovering his or her chromosomal sex inadvertently from a buccal smear taken in a high school biology class. Today’s litigious climate is possibly another encouragement.

In sum, the adolescent is typically told that certain internal organs did not form because of an endocrinological defect, and not [the truth] that those organs could never have developed in someone with her or his sex chromosomes. The topic of chromosomes is skirted. There are no published studies on how these adolescents experience their condition and their treatment by doctors (my emphasis). An endocrinologist interviewed mentioned that her adolescent patients rarely ask specifically what is wrong with them, suggesting that they are accomplices in this evasion. In spite of the ‘truth’ having been evaded, the clinician’s impression is that “their gender identities and general senses of well-being and self-esteem appear not to have suffered”.


(Kessler’s conclusions are presented here in full)

Doctors conduct careful examinations of intersexed infants’ genitals and perform intricate laboratory procedures. They are interpreters of the body, trained and committed to uncovering the ‘actual’ gender obscured by ambiguous genitals. Yet they also have considerable leeway in assigning gender, and their decisions are influenced by cultural as well as medical factors. What is the relationship between the doctor as discoverer and the doctor as determiner of gender (my emphasis)? Where is the relative emphasis placed in discussions with parents and adolescents and in the consciousness of doctors? It is misleading to characterize the doctors whose words are provided here as ‘presenting themselves publicly to the parents as discoverers of the infant’s real gender but privately acknowledging that the infant has no real gender other than the one being determined or constructed by the medical professionals’. They are not hypocritical. It is also misleading to claim that the focus of doctors shifts from discovery to determination over the course of treatment (first the doctors regard the infant’s gender as an unknown but discoverable reality; then the doctors relinquish their attempts to find the real gender and treat the infant’s gender as something they must construct). They are not medically incompetent or deficient. Instead, I am arguing that the peculiar balance of discovery and determination throughout treatment permits doctors to handle very problematic cases of gender in the most unproblematic of ways.

This balance relies fundamentally on a particular conception of the ‘natural’. Athough the deformity of intersexed genitals would be immutable were it not for medical interference, doctors do not consider it natural. Instead they think of, and speak of, the surgical/hormonal alteration of such deformities as natural because such intervention returns the body to what it ‘ought to have been’ if events had taken their typical course (my emphases). The non-normative is converted into the normative, and the normative state is considered natural .The genital ambiguity is remedied to conform to a ‘natural’, i.e. culturally indisputable, gender dichotomy. Sherry Ortner's claim that the culture/nature distinction is itself a construction – a product of culture – is relevant here. Language and imagery help create and maintain a specific view of what is natural about the two genders and, I would argue, about the very idea of gender – that it consists of two exclusive types: female and male. The belief that gender consists of two exclusive types is maintained and perpetuated by the medical community in the face of incontrovertible physical evidence that this is not mandated by biology.

The lay conception of human anatomy and physiology assumes a concordance among clearly dimorphic gender markers – chromosomes, genitals, gonads, hormones – but physicians understand that concordance and dimorphism do not always exist. Their understanding of biology’s complexity, however, does not inform their understanding of gender's complexity (my emphasis). In order for intersexuality to be managed differently than it currently is, doctors would have to take seriously Money's assertion that it is a misrepresentation of epistemology to consider any cell in the body authentically male or female. If authenticity for gender resides not in a discoverable nature but in someone’s proclamation, then the power to proclaim something else is available (my emphasis). If physicians recognized that implicit in their management of gender is the notion that finally, and always, people construct gender as well as the social systems that are grounded in gender-based concepts, the possibilities for real societal transformations would be unlimited. Unfortunately, neither in their representations to the families of the intersexed nor among themselves do the physicians interviewed for this study draw such far-reaching implications from their work. Their ‘understanding’ that particular genders are medically (re)constructed in these cases does not lead them to see that gender is always constructed. Accepting genital ambiguity as a natural option would require that physicians also acknowledge that genital ambiguity is ‘corrected’ not because it is threatening to the infant’s life but because it is threatening to the infant’s culture (my emphasis).

Rather than admit to their role in perpetuating gender, physicians ‘psychologize’ the issue by talking about the parents’ anxiety and humiliation in being confronted with an anomalous infant. The doctors talk as though they have no choice but to respond to the parents’ pressure for a resolution of psychological discomfort, and as though they have no choice but to use medical technology in the service of a two-gender culture. Neither the psychology nor the technology is doubted, since both shield doctors from responsibility. Indeed, for the most part, neither doctors nor parents emerge from the experience of intersex case management with a greater understanding of the social construction of gender. Society’s accountability, like their own, is masked by the assumption that gender is a given. Thus, cases of intersexuality, instead of illustrating nature’s failure to ordain gender in these isolated ‘unfortunate’ instances, illustrate doctors’ and Western society’s failure of imagination – the failure to imagine that each of these management decisions is a moment when a specific instance of biological ‘sex’ is transformed into a culturally constructed gender.

Milton Diamond’s Alternative Recommendations

(not part of Kessler’s article)

At the 1995 meeting in San Francisco (see footnote on front page) Milton Diamond, who is one of John Money’s main protagonists, presented evidence from case studies (including one of Money’s original patients) to indicate that there is a biologically-based bias at birth towards a particular gender identity and that many intersexed patients are unhappy as adults with their assigned gender following surgical intervention based on Money’s criteria. Diamond puts forward some new recommendations for management, as follows:

Postulate 1:

An individual is psychosexually biased at birth.

Postulate 2:

Psychosexual development is related to, but not dependent on the appearance of the genitals. Transexuals are obviously the sine qua non of individuals whose genitals do not decide what and who they are.

Postulate 3:

Discuss openly and fully any doubt as to gender identity and orientation when doubt arises. One of the most traumatic things for intersexed people and others is the hidden secrecy that is continually fostered on them – that you can’t allow any doubt because that will just prejudice the outcome.

Postulate 4:

Change of sex [should be allowed] whenever it is by informed choice.

Recommendations for Sex Assignment:

If a child is unambiguously male or female and has a traumatic (accidental) loss of the genitals, maintain the original sex assignment. [Much of Money’s thesis was based on a case where a boy lost his penis during minor surgery aged 7 months and was reared as a girl. Diamond presented evidence that later this individual was severely unhappy with this and wanted to revert to being a boy.] Do not reassign, regardless of age. Do surgery as and when appropriate with minimum loss of [sexual] sensitivity. If micropenis, raise as a boy. If with clitoral hypertrophy [enlargement], raise as a girl. Do no clitoral resection. In cases of pseudohermaphroditism or hermaphroditism [with ambiguous genitalia] do full evaluation before deciding on course of action; if the chromosomal composition is uncomplicated raise child in the genetic sex; do only that surgery required for physical health; no cosmetic surgery unless with full informed consent. And that means, since the kid’s a baby, don’t touch the kid! Provide in-depth and prolonged counselling to parents and child, with full disclosure of situation and possibilities; be truthful, provide support group affiliation if available; discuss sex reassignment and different sexual orientation as options. Allow and fully support sex re-assignment whenever it comes about by voluntary informed consent.