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Tuesday 28 March 2017


'Strange' Anatomies

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 21st April 2009

anatomies.jpg
When one investigates LGBTI anatomies, transgender and intersex bodies aren't the only surprises awaiting us in the past.

Leaving aside psychopathology in the twentieth century, it is possible to delve further back to view lesbian and gay bodies as they were conceptualised before the rise of modern evidence based medicine.

By the eighteenth century, male doctors had "discovered" the clitoris, which had previously eluded them because premodern, Aristotelian medical orthodoxy had literally overlooked it. No sooner had that happened when anxieties began to arise about the alleged 'consequences' of female self-pleasure and lesbianism. As a consequence, racist and homophobic discourses swirled around non-European women in general, and lesbians per se, in which both were viewed as 'hermaphrodites,' whowere capable of woman to woman penetrative sex due to 'clitoral engorgement.' It may sound amusing now, but clitoredectomy (female genital mutilation) was one of the prescribed 'cures' for such an imaginary 'pathology.'

Closer to our own time, gay male anuses were the subject of closer 'forensic' scrutiny back in the days of gay male criminality. This pelvic surveillance centred on the flawed concept of 'reflex anal dilatation', which went as follows. If one had apprehended a 'bona fide' gay man, one had merely to tap the muscles enclosing his anus and it would open up, disclosing a funnel shaped tube due to repeated muscle relaxation due to anal sex. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that (a) some gay men didn't include anal sex in their repertoire of desired sexual practices and (b) some straight men visited female sex workers to have strap-on penetrative sex and would respond accordingly.

Thus, it proved useless in 'apprehending' gay men, but feminist pediatrician Wendy Savage rehabilitated the anatomical sign for use in forensic child sexual abuse examinations of child rape, where it has proven far more useful for police and medical investigators in apprehension of abusers.

Reflex anal dilatation may have been a legacy of the 'third sex' phase of German LGBT activism during the Weimar Republic, when Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Jewish sexologist, sought to depict sexual identity as a 'physiological' outcome, and therefore latent within human bodies from birth. Sadly, despite his recurrent and prolonged reform advocacy, the Nazis crushed Hirschfeld's research institute and sent German gay men (and some lesbians) to the Nazi concentration camps, where five thousand perished during the Holocaust. Hirschfeld himself died in Paris, destitute.

While these anatomical politics of the past might provoke humour today, they also paved the way for more contemporary LGBT scientific investigations into neuroanatomy and genetics as the basis for LGBT identity, as well as transgender and intersex battles for standards of care in their particular medical contexts. In the case of reassignment surgery, transsexuals can and do use medical discoveries to reinforce their access to surgery and patient-centred care once surgery and post-operative care have occurred. In the converse case of intersex communities, it is the avoidance of premature surgical intervention and informed consent as to the physiological and psychological consequences of such surgery that are important. Some members of the intersex community denounce premature surgical intervention as "intersex genital mutilation," analogous to abhorrence of female genital mutilation in East African states to deny female self-pleasure.

Anatomy may not be destiny, but it has served as the basis for scientific inquiry, unwanted medical interventions and also LGBTI political and biomedical interventions alike.

Recommended:

Emma Donoghue: Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture: 1668-1801: London: Scarlet Press: 1994.

Patrick Higgins: Heterosexual Dictatorship: London: Fourth Estate: 1996.

Richard Plant: The Pink Triangle: New York: Henry Holt: 1986.

Vernon Rosario (ed) Sciences and Homosexualities: New York: Routledge: 1996.


Craig Young - 21st April 2009

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