Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex

“Avoiding preachy judgementalism, Dreger shows how deeply ingrained are our assumptions about gender normality (sexual anatomy is destiny) and on how flimsy a basis they have been grounded. The book offers us all a lesson in self-awareness.”—Roy Porter, Nature

“Alice Dreger ascribes the growing visibility of the hermaphrodite to Victorian anxieties about gender-blurring social phenomena, including homosexuality and feminism, as well as to improvements in medical science. During the Victorian era, Dreger argues, a greater number of women gained access to gynecological care, and as a result, infant anatomy came under more professional scrutiny; medical journals of the period, widely accessible for the first time, publicized anomalous cases. Scientific knowledge of embryological development began turning the one-time monster or marvel into, in the words of the turn-of-the-century French doctor Xavier Delore, ‘a scientific matter and a degraded organism.’”—Emily Nussbaum, Lingua Franca

Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex is richly researched, detailed and fascinating.”—Angelique Richardson, The Times Literary Supplement

“To read this book is to become aware of the tremendous complexity of human sexuality and gender identity—beyond genitals, hormones, enzymes, and even chromosomes and genes. Behavior, feelings, and values blend with intellect and how each individual is sexually drawn to each other.”—Domeena C. Renshaw, M.D., JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association

“This engaging, well-written book will benefit scholars and lay readers interested in the history of sex, sexuality, gender, and medicine. The book traces the evolution of what makes a person male or female and shows how the answer has changed depending on when the question was asked and where it was asked. Dreger has succeeded in compelling the reader to ask the same question.”—Patricia Y. Fechner, The New England Journal of Medicine

“What makes [this book] important and provocative also makes [it] a little dangerous because [it] is so ahead of [its] time.”—Leonore Tiefer, Women’s Review of Books

“As biologists, we should treasure variation—if you doubt that for human sexuality, read this book.”—Jack Cohen, Biologist

From the jacket: Punctuated with remarkable case studies, this book explores extraordinary encounters between hermaphrodites—people born with “ambiguous” sexual anatomy—and the medical and scientific professionals who grappled with them. Alice Dreger focuses on events in France and Britain in the late nineteenth century, a moment of great tension for questions of sex roles. While feminists, homosexuals, and anthropological explorers openly questioned the natures and purposes of the two sexes, anatomical hermaphrodites suggested a deeper question: just how many human sexes are there? Ultimately hermaphrodites led doctors and scientists to another surprisingly difficult question: what is sex, really?

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