REVIEW: Surgeries in Search of Disorders: Intersex and Circumcision in American History


“Surgeries in Search of Disorders: Intersex and Circumcision in American History”
Elizabeth Reis, University of Oregon

New York University, 30 September 2009

Elizabeth Reis from the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and the Department of History at the University of Oregon kicked off our fall 2009 season of lectures and conferences with her talk: “Surgeries in Search of Disorders: Intersex and Circumcision in American History” on September 30th.  And it was a provocative presentation — part illuminating medical history and part indictment of practices that continue to be “medically unethical.”

Professor Reis’ lecture falls on the heels, so to speak, of the very passionate public discussion spurred in the wake of the gender testing of world class runner Caster Semenya after her gold medal victory at the World Championships in Berlin.  Working through an American context, Professor Reis’s ongoing project historicizes the American cultural and medical history of “intersex,” a cultural history that lands us right in the middle of the intense medicalization of the sexed body.  This history leads to what Reis terms “surgeries in search of disorders”:  the nontheraputic removal of otherwise healthy genitalia from unconsenting children — both routine infant circumcision and surgeries performed on infants with ambiguous genitalia.  This medicalization calcifies around the figure of Dr. John Money and his advocacy in the 1950s, and beyond, for the surgical management of (what has come to be termed) “intersex.”  Money was convinced that social gender could be dictated by genital morphology so long as surgical “correction” took place within the first two years of an infant’s life.  His medicalizing approach was widely adopted, with all too frequent disastrous results.  In Reis’ own words:  “What is normal about genital surgery on a newborn?”  What indeed.


For further reading check out her book Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex available from the Johns Hopkins University Press.

The lecture was followed by conversation with Reis veering towards religion, the use of words like “disorder” (the term adopted by the American Medical Association) versus “divergence,” and where we can place something like Simone de Beauvoir’s “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” in the debate.

Lezlie Frye, NYU American Studies graduate student (& former Reis undergrad student) and Elizabeth Reis

Please feel free to use the comment section below to continue the conversation.

by Lydia Brawner, NYU Performance Studies Ph.D. candidate