Hermaphroditism, Intersexuality, Medicine and the Sexed Body

Principal Investigator: Dr Richard Cleminson

Medical discussions of ‘hermaphroditism’ involve a re-writing of the inter-relationship between the body, gender, biological sex and sexuality.

I am interested in exploring the period corresponding to the rise of ‘hermaphrodite science’ and its relationship to changing cultural perceptions of gender and emerging new medical technologies between the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, although this chronology is porous.

In many countries in Europe, the process of ‘medicalisation’ passed through several stages.

By the 18th century, the medieval notion of the hermaphrodite as a mythical figure had been rejected. Between 1890 to 1920, the hermaphrodite began to be accepted as a result of the ‘wrong’ sexual gonads having been assigned to the body. Then from the 1920s, hormonal theories and psychological frameworks begant to develop.

Building on work already carried out on the Spanish case, the project will analyse other European countries such as Portugal and England to test whether they followed these stages.

As medicine is not conducted in isolation, the study will also assess how doctors’ diagnoses were influenced by changing social perceptions of gender and sex.

Other objectives include the examination of the voice of those deemed hermaphrodites and the review of popular perceptions of the hermaphrodite in the press and in literature.

The project will also consider the processes involved in making the ‘male’ or ‘female’ body, its interior and exterior attributes, and physical and behavioural aspects of the ‘hermaphrodite’ aesthetically acceptable to both medical and social norms.

The methodology draws on a combination of feminist epistemology of science and Foucault’s work, which view the body and sex not as ‘natural’ or given categories but constructs made by discourses and technologies.