“From the 20th century, medicine became the gender police”

Author of a thesis in sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in 2019 on the medical care of intersex children, Michal Raz looks back on the contemporary manufacture of sexual binarity and its impact in interventions. early medical conditions suffered by these children without their consent. The decree of good practices of November 15, 2022 taken in application of the bioethics law of 2021 prohibits in principle sexual conformation interventions on intersex children, those whose body does not correspond to the classic definition of masculine and feminine.

Is recent legislation concerning intersex children going in the right direction?

The content of article 30 of the new bioethics law starts from a good intention to modify practices but remains in a pathologizing paradigm: intersex variations are “rare diseases” that must be “taken care of”. Doctors have been trained with a normative approach to bodies and, for them, the existence of intersex people does not call into question the sexual binarity. It is a postulate whereas it is the consequence of a process of intervention on the body which maintains the illusion of this supposed binarity.

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Has this notion of indisputable biological difference between men and women always existed?

Hard to say. Before European modernity, the theory of humours predominated. Developed by the ancient Greek physician Claude Galen (Ier century AD), it affirms a kind of continuum between the feminine – cold, damp but also inferior and sick – and the masculine – hot, dry and more accomplished. The American historian Thomas Laqueur showed, in his work The sex factory (1990, French edition by Gallimard in 1992), that, during this period, physical distinction did not necessarily stem from an exclusive binary rooted in biology. Medicine does not yet exercise authority in the matter and a great heterogeneity of positions emerges.

Later, in the sixteenthe century, the anatomy charts of Belgian physician André Vésale (1514-1564) depict vaginas as inverted penises. At the same time, the surgeon Ambroise Paré described the case of a woman whose male organs would have “emerged” by excess heat and following a sudden fall. We can imagine that it is a case of intersex, called at the time “hermaphroditism”, a term considered today as stigmatizing.

How then does this duality emerge?

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