In her visionary article, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Aren’t Enough,” Anne Fausto-Sterling engages a frequently ignored biological fact of intersexuality. Human intersexuality, as Fausto-Sterling teaches us, “is old news,” as it has been featured in various religious and legal texts, such as the Bible, the Talmud and the Tosefta. The ancient Greeks sought to explain the origins of this natural occurrence through mythological tales in which the body of a nymph fused with the child of Hermes, “the messenger of the gods,” and Aphrodite, “the goddess of sexual love and beauty”; hence the name hermaphrodite. This term has stuck with us in Western culture as a catch-all phrase and is often used interchangeably with intersex in “standard medical literature”.
As “old news” as it may be, we rarely hear about intersexuality. When we do discuss intersexual bodies, it is quite often met with contempt or fear, as it is human nature to fear what we do not know. There is an absence of dialogue with the very real existence of human intersexuality in our modern society. In writing “The Five Sexes,” Fausto-Sterling attempts to break through this wide-spread ignorance and open our minds to the concept of sexual variation. Our lack of knowledge is due to a concentrated and collective effort by our Anglo-Saxon legal system, gendered language and westernized medicine to “correct” these “abnormalities” and further establish a culturally constructed two-party sexual system, that’s [re]produced as legitimate in the name of modern science. These structural factors each play a part in our limited ability to understand and accept the gradations of sex in human biology. Anne Fausto-Sterling quite effectively forces our socially accepted views of a two-sex system into question, as she proposes alternative methods for the medical and ethical treatment of those born intersexed.
This text proves entirely culturally relevant today as it did during the time of its first publication in March/April of 1993. Legal documents such as birth certificates require[d] that as soon as an individual is born, they check off one of two designated boxes: male or female. Fausto-Sterling explains some of the contemporary reasons behind this requirement:
“today it means being available for, or exempt from, draft registration, as well as being subject, in various ways, to a number of laws governing marriage, the family, and human intimacy. In many parts of the United States, for instance, two people legally registered as men cannot have sexual relations without violating anti-sodomy statutes.”
It is apparent that social constraints over choosing a sex by our rigid definitions stem from an anxiety about human variation.
In order for these heterosexist systems of power to thrive, they must first divide us into two categorical boxes and then control our freedom to choose for our individual bodies. One might view this article’s intended message as a moral imperative to argue for recognition of multiple sexes. Fausto-Sterling contends that there are at least five sexes, with “many gradations running from female to male.” The purpose of this number five is to challenge the concept of a two-sex system, which is so deeply embedded in and throughout Western culture.
Towards the end, Fausto-Sterling admits that even the number five constrains the vast variance of human sexual biology that is policed so thoroughly by social processes.