Understanding sex and gender through the category of intersex

In this very special post by guest author Arpita Das (@ms_arpita), sex and gender are discussed from an intersex perspective. Arpita is a PhD researcher at the University of Sydney’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies studying intersex rights in India. Her research interests include gender, gender-based violence, sexuality, intersex issues, disability and sexuality, young people and sexual and reproductive health and rights, reproductive technologies and biopolitics.

“When I started my postgraduate degree in social work in India many years ago, the world became a new place with the introduction of the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Until then they had meant the same thing to me (actually sex also connoted other unmentionable things, therefore gender sounded better). During courses on feminism and learning about the women’s movement, we deconstructed these words and they started having different meanings — sex was something you are born with and was therefore biological, and gender was acquired and therefore social. Becoming a part of the women’s movement in India, this gave me a whole new lens to look at the world. In this way of understanding things, sex could not be changed (or so I thought), while gender could be constantly worked on and unlearned. This idea of gender made me understand that the restrictions that society puts on us as women and young girls, such as how to dress, how to behave, how to talk, how much to laugh (or not), skills of cooking, knitting and caring, are not mandatory and could be challenged.

My world was again going to change when in 2004 I attended the Sexuality Rights Institute organized by TARSHI and CREA and as part of the coursework, read Anne Fausto-Sterling’s seminal articles – The Five Sexes – Why Male and Female are not Enough and The Five Sexes, Revisited. In the first article, the author who is a biologist and a gender development activist, elucidated how the two-sex system was inadequate and did not take into consideration the full spectrum of human sexuality. She discussed the term ‘intersex’ which at the time the article was published in 1993, was used in medical literature to talk about various sub-groups. Read more via British Asian LGBTI