Ninth day of intersex: Domestic violence

On the Ninth Day of Intersex we draw your attention to domestic violence and how that affects intersex lives.

What is intersex?

Intersex people are people who, as individuals, have congenital genetic, hormonal and physical features that may be thought to be typical of both male and female at once. That is, we may be thought of as being male with female features, female with male features, or indeed we may have no clearly defined sexual features at all.

What is domestic violence?

The Children’s and Family Court Support Service (CFCSS) UK <> sees it this way:

Domestic violence is patterns of behaviour characterized by the misuse of power and control by one person over another who are or have been in an intimate relationship. It can occur in mixed gender relationships and same gender relationships and has profound consequences for the lives of children, individuals, families and communities. It may be physical, sexual, emotional and/or psychological. The latter may include intimidation, harassment, damage to property, threats and financial abuse.

In Australia the Domestic Violence Crisis Centre in the ACT <> defines it in these terms:

Domestic violence occurs when a family member uses violent and/or abusive behavior to control another family member or members.

Domestic violence can include physical, verbal, emotional, economic or sexual abuse. For example: hitting, kicking, punching, choking, damaging property, yelling, insults, threats, bullying, withholding and controlling finances, unwanted sexual acts, forced sex.

Many intersex people are subjected to domestic violence because of our physical differences.

Violence against intersex at birth…

Intersex people are subjected to violent appropriation of their anatomy by parents and surgeons.

Our bodies are subjected to normalization surgeries because of parents’ homophobic fears. It is thought that if our bodies cannot easily be placed into the male or female category with certainty then our relationships, when we grow up, will somehow be “queer”.

Parents and doctors embark on this course of action without knowing and seemingly without caring how it will affect us in the long-term. Empirical research has shown that our sex lives will be adversely affected, that we will suffer psychological trauma and that we would do better without interventions.

Surgical interventions are as extreme a repudiation, short of death, of our rights and rejection of our differences as one can imagine. Intersex kids who are subjected to such interventions grow up knowing that they are defective and that their parents wanted something else… something “better”.

Violence against intersex as children…

If we have been subjected to surgery we are often subjected to sexual penetration with a plastic dilator to make sure surgically-created vaginas do not heal over. At first our parents do this to us then we are forced by our parents to do it to ourselves. Noncompliance will see us punished by parents and sent to psychologists or for psychiatric “treatment” because our unwillingness to subject ourselves to the pain of dilation and the indignity of it all is seen as a kind of madness, a type of insanity.

We will also be forced to take hormones and other drugs that reinforce any surgeries we have been subjected to. Our parents friends and peers will subject us to sex and gender reinforcing behavior. If we are thought to be acting in ways that are believed to challenge our sex assignment then we are punished and “encouraged” to change our ways. Stereotypical sex-appropriate toys and games are forced upon us.

Violence against intersex at puberty…

Our differences begin to stand out in ways that are impossible to hide. Our peers and siblings will ridicule our differences and parents will seek help from doctors to make us “normal”. At puberty, intersex teenagers often find themselves so loathed in their own home that they walk out. Those who stay can suffer major depressive illnesses.

To get some acceptance and avoid the torment of rejection many intersex teens pretend to go along with the reinforcements and the assignment. They hide their differences and pretend to be normal.

Their bodies and their histories become a deep and shameful secret never to be revealed. On those occasions when the facts slips out we are often shifted from one school to another in the hope that no one will learn our dark and shameful story.

Violence against intersex as adults…

Some intersex people only come to know of their differences as adults. When attempts at producing a child fail then intersex differences can be a reason for that failure.

When the fact that one is intersex is discovered partners often reject us for homophobic reasons. A male who thinks they have a relationship with a female will doubt the heterosexuality of that relationship if they discover their partner has XY – so-called “male” – chromosomes. The same is true for females who discover that their partner has so-called “female” chromosomes, imagining that the relationship is somehow lesbian.

Same sex couples are not immune from this rejection of intersex. Lesbian and gay individuals can also reject an intersex person if they are perceived to be somehow the “opposite sex” and that the relationship therefore is seen as being not truly same sex.

We just can’t win. In heterosexual relationships we are feared because we might somehow be “same sex” and in same-sex relationships we are feared because we might somehow be “opposite sex”. In a sex-obsessed society where the sex and gender binaries are paramount, intersex people lose every time.

The reaction of intersex in domestic relationships includes:

  • Fear of being outed by our partner.
  • Pressure to behave in a more male-like or female-like manner.
  • Pressure to take medications or subject ourselves to surgery to remove all traces of our intersex.
  • Punishments and physical violence when we fail.

We are more willing to accept second-rate relationships because we are raised to think of ourselves as second rate. We are more likely to be co-dependent and silent victims because we think we are lucky to have the relationship however violently exploitive and dysfunctional it is.

We are more likely to have a succession of dysfunctional relationships then being cast aside when our partners find we can’t change our being intersex and realize that they have to live with someone who just can’t stop being weird, queer, freakish.

What’s being done to address this?

Intersex people are more likely than most to be subjected to domestic violence from cradle to grave and yet there are no intersex-specific provisions in domestic violence counselling, refuges and emergency housing or training.

Gina Wilson
President, Organisation Intersex International Australia Limited (OII Australia)