This was the book that changed everything for me.
I was 19 when I first came up with the idea for my novel–the world, its history, and my main character. I decided that my protagonist could be intersex. I knew next to nothing about intersex people or the difficulties many of them faced and I realised that. So I used my university’s fantastic library resource and requested this book and another (Intersex by Catherine Harper, which I’ll make an entry about some time in the future) to learn more about the subject. Now, granted, I haven’t read this book since 2007, so the review will be rather fuzzy on exact details.
Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex highlights the history of clinical management of people with DSDs. The Victorian era was when gender disorders came under medical scrutiny, and there was a fascination with “monstrous hermaphrodites.” Doctors were obsessed with discovering what someone’s “true sex” was meant to be and ensuring that the patient’s gender conformed to this perceived judgement. Before the Victorian era, those with atypical genitals were displayed, but in the 19th century, science had advanced enough that doctors felt they could “fix” them. Many people with DSDs were photographed for medical texts, their faces never visible. Dreger tells the stories of the people behind the medical photos, as much as she is able. Herculine Barbin, for instance, who was born with male psuedohermaphroditism, suffered a tragic end.
Though rather jargon-heavy and a bit repetitive from what I remember, this was an excellent resource and opened my eyes to how people who didn’t fit the gender binary were treated in Victorian times, and it was one of the books that made me realise I had a story that I needed to tell.