Standing with Susie the Dachshund

DachshundWhat does Susie, a long-haired dachshund who was discovered to have an intersex trait, have to do with feminism? I’d argue quite a bit. Susie’s experience is a harsh reminder that our society still holds simplistic ideas about bodies.

Less than a week ago, the world was introduced to Susie, the dog who was allegedly “saved” when her veterinarian surgically erased her intersex trait. Intersex traits involve being born with either internal and/or external ambiguous genitalia. Historically, individuals born with intersex traits were referred to as hermaphrodites (a term today considered derogatory by some individuals in the intersex community).

In Susie’s case, she looked like a “normal” female dog. However, once on the veterinarian’s operating table for a routine spay surgery, it was quickly determined that she had internal testes rather than ovaries, as one would expect given her outward appearance. It was also discovered that Susie did not have a uterus.

Given the widely publicized description of Susie’s anatomy, it is likely she was born with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS)—a condition that I am personally familiar with having been diagnosed with CAIS when I was a child.

Susie and I share more than a diagnosis. We share a medical history filled with misinformation about what it means to be born with an intersex trait.

The veterinary office that operated on Susie informed her human guardian that they needed to surgically remove her internal testes because, “If they had been left in, the testicles would have turned cancerous.” My parents were told something similar when I was diagnosed, despite the fact that an intersex trait, especially CAIS, rarely poses a health threat. Still, the intersex trait was erased from our respective bodies.

Even if we pretend that the correlation between cancer and intersex traits is real, we must ask Why is it that we don’t go around removing breasts to prevent breast cancer? The answer is quite simple: Preventing cancer is not really the goal. Rather, the cancer rhetoric is used to justify surgical interventions, making it the darkest of lies.

Why do medical professionals seek to surgically erase intersex traits? Maybe it’s their ignorance about sex variability. But I doubt it. Doctors, regardless if one specializes in canines or human beings, are smart people. What’s more likely is that these medical professionals are acting on a dangerous combination of fear and authority. A body that challenges binary understandings of sex is scary to those who refuse to embrace natural biological diversity found across species. For years, many medical doctors reached for their scalpels to ease their fears and assert their authority over the body. They are experts on the body, after all. Veterinarians sadly seem to be following their lead, and Susie’s vet is no exception.

My concern has more to do with how the media describes Susie as being “saved” by the scalpel. This framing has implications for all of us, regardless of the size or shape of our genitalia.

We must actively stand against oppressive expectations imposed onto our bodies. If a dog that was born with a body that challenges ideas about sex isn’t accepted in society, how can we expect folks to embrace other natural biological diversities?

As a feminist, I stand with Susie. I hope you will, too.

Photo of a long-haired dachshund by Flickr user Soggydan under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. Martha Thompson says:

    What a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog! Thank you, Georgiann!

  2. Let me start with I am a feminist and I support the concept of gender diversity. I agree that male and female are not the only rigid options that we should ascribe to or for others. But I have an issue with those who disregard medical information, since I am also a medical student. There are numerous studies/cases that have shown that individuals with cryptorchidism do in fact have increased rates of testicular cancer. To ignore this is foolish and misleading to readers. I believe that a doctor’s role is to fully inform patients and caregivers of their options and associated risks, so the vet and doctor in the article were doing just that. It is fine if the patient knows the risk and wants to not have them removed, but it is inappropriate to chastise a doctor for providing appropriate information. Informing patients of real risks is a far cry from trying to erase intersex persons or animals.

    I believe that we are more than our genitals, where ever they are located. So isn’t the notion of needing to keep the undescended testicles as part of a person’s identity in support of the concept that we are our genitals? Or that they are flawed persons to begin with because of their “flawed” genitals? Aren’t these the very concepts that are trying to eradicate? Are these individuals different with or without their testicles? I think not. These people would still be the same beautiful human being they were before the surgery, just like we tell all patients who have a body part removed. Don’t we tell women who have had mastectomies or hysterectomies that they are still women? What about males who have testicles removed, are they still men? The same would be for a woman who has her testicle removed – she is stil the same woman.

    Each of us manages our health risks in our own way. Who is the author to judge those who make the conservative choice and have the prophylactic surgery? While I hope we are moving past the era of forcing children into strict gender roles, I can imagine that there are still doctors out there trying to do it still. Yet, as a future physician I take great offense with the idea that we are all trying to erase gender identifies every time and not acknowledging the real medical issues involved.

    • This is so wrong. Current leading international medical researchers and masses (100s) of anecdotal commentaries by intersex affected individuals highlight the miss leading uneducated approach and damaging treatment bestowed upon the unconscenting Patient snd the dire consequences this often has mater in life…. Removing gonads has in many cases created huge problems for the patient, physically, psychologically and emotionally; and artificial / synthetic hormones can and often do have huge detrimental consequences. Lethargy, memory loss, weight gain, increased risk of cancer, to name but a few.
      to help you out i would recommend the best advice I can give to you if you really want to learn contemporary Intersex medicine is to realise that a lot of medicine and text and opinion is out dated and the way forward is balanced fully consenting CARE – with peer support before the individual agrees. Gonad removal can have dire consequences for the patient. I don’t know many people that wouldn’t undo their gonadectomy!! Also consider there is an approx 8% chance of developing breast cancer but we don’t remove everyones breasst – just to be safe! Testicular cancer is far less according to many current research papers. Patients can be checked regularly. I hope this helps you improve your understanding.
      Regards.
      Holly Greenberry
      Intersexuk.

      • Thank you for your writing and your thoughts.
        When my daughter was 17 we learned of this, and we were immediatly told that she would need surgery, or risk getting cancer. My daughter is a Daughter, but sometimes I feel so badly that I did not ask her. The Dr. gave her no meds…..She is beautiful, married. but I worry how painful sex is to her…….I feel so badly

    • I think you need to read the article again. There was little judgement about the vet, save that some would consider the surgery intervention unnecessary, and that generally speaking there appears to be a problem with a lack of education and understanding in the medical establishment about the issue that needs to be resolved.

  3. Some do have their breasts removed to prevent cancer.

  4. In 1979 my doctoral dissertation reported the results of my research dealing with sex steroid hormones involved in “testicular feminization” (Tfm). When considering what the article’s author has written, a few facts should be noted. CAIS is not actually caused by the gonads, as was believed when the Tfm term originated–it is caused by the absence of androgen receptors in the target organs. Testosterone levels in my experimental animals were about 5 times that in “normal” males, but with no androgen receptors, development defaults to the female body type. It is difficult to tell whether the medical advice that the author’s parents were given led to the best choice, but the medical literature has shown that cryptorchid testes (within the body, not in the scrotum) have an incidence of 20%. When doing animal surgery on hundreds of these androgen insensitive males, I found that statistic to be true–even in young animals, a significant number had testes with tumor development. With the medical knowledge available at the time when the author was a child, the most prudent health recommendation was for removal of the potential threat–it had nothing to do with “erasing” intersex status or gender identification. It is not true that an intersex trait “rarely poses a health threat” and that it is the “darkest of lies.”

    The author’s distress does illustrate the psychological and social traumas associated with intersex states, of which there are many variations. It is very traumatic and important for the afflicted individuals and their families, especially because many of these states are genetically determined. Sadly, the author’s psychological trauma has affected her judgment toward medical aspects of her case. Fay’s comment is right on point. Over the 12-years that I spent on 3 medical school campuses and attendance at many conferences and seminars, I have never heard any researcher or medical practitioner discuss “erasing” intersex traits–the entire consideration has been about learning the biomedical aspects and promoting the medical welfare of human patients with these states.

  5. Georgiann Davis is not only a clear writer but, as an assistant professor in sociology, is also able to put her own medical experience into a sociological context. Thank you for sharing this, Georgiann.

    A couple of people have quoted figures for risk, so here’s a reference with properly nuanced data, Pleskacova J. et al, 17 June 2010, Tumor Risk in Disorders of Sex Development in Sexual Development Sex Dev
, DOI: 10.1159/00031453

    “The most numerous are patients with androgen insensitivity syndrome. The overall
    prevalence of CIS and invasive type II GCT (seminoma and nonseminoma) in this group is
    estimated to 5.5%. There is, however, an important difference between patients with
    complete and partial androgen insensitivity syndrome in whom malignancies occur in
    0.8% and 15%.”

    That’s a 0.8% risk with CAIS compared to a lifetime risk of breast cancer in women at just over 12%. that seems to clearly support Georgiann’s assertion on risk in her case. So what about people with higher levels of risk? Pleskacova again:

    Patients with gonadal dysgenesis (with either a 46,XY or 45,X/46,XY karyotype) seem to be the most endangered subgroup, although the prevalence in different series is rather incoherent, being reported in 15–100% of all cases [Slowikowska-Hilczer et al., 2001; Cools et al., 2006a]. After the rational interpretation of available data, Cools et al. [2006a] rated the total occurrence at 12% and possibly at more than 30% if gonadectomy had not been performed.”

  6. Nicholas says:

    When I read all of the medical-oriented posts above–which are almost completely devoid of social perspectives on the topic at hand–all I can think about is dear Michel Foucault. These posts ring of issues posed by Foucault’s “discursive formations” which are bound within a particular episteme. The medical posts are written under the pretense that medical evidence = truth (which is naive at best). The issue at hand is not about the risk of cancer. The real issue is about systems of power that exert their disciplinary power over us all–and most importantly OUR bodies.

    This segment from Georgiann’s post is, in my humble opinion, perhaps to most central concern:

    “Even if we pretend that the correlation between cancer and intersex traits is real, we must ask Why is it that we don’t go around removing breasts to prevent breast cancer? The answer is quite simple: Preventing cancer is not really the goal. Rather, the cancer rhetoric is used to justify surgical interventions, making it the darkest of lies.”

  7. Danielle McManus says:

    While I agree that there is a LOT of misinformation aimed toward the genderqueer community from doctors who revel in their ignorance and fear, I do disagree with “standing with” Susie. I work for a veterinary hospital. If we had opened the dog and found not a uterus, but testes, we would still have taken them out. As far as we’re concerned here in the veterinary world, in tact males and females ARE at higher risks of ill-health. Bunnies DO have a 50% higher risk of ovarian cancer if allowed to go through even one heat season, in-tact female dogs DO have a far higher risk of severe infection if allowed to “keep” their uterus, and male dogs DO have a higher risk of infection and other nasty health issues if allowed to keep their junk. It’s simply unhealthy to keep your dogs, cats, and anything else in-tact and they should ONLY be kept in-tact if you fully intend to breed them (and you better damn well know what you’re doing before you bring more animals into this world).

    While I can’t say for sure whether those testicles would have developed cancer, they absolutely would have caused that dog problems. Taking them out was entirely the right thing to do. I agree you should take issue with an article that claims, without scientific evidence, that it was the right thing to do because they would have become cancerous. That’s bad science and, as a recent ecology graduate, bad science pisses me off. But we should not take issue with this because it somehow ties in with the problems the genderqueer community faces. It’s a dog. It should have gone in for a spay the moment it reached one year of age (not 6 years old, as reportedly the dog was). And any veterinarian worth their salt would have removed the testicles before they did cause problems. Because in-tact dogs, cats, etc.. DO have problems and it’s SOOOO easy to avoid all of them.

  8. This article is the worst piece of garbage i have ever heard.

    to quote the author, “Even if we pretend that the correlation between cancer and intersex traits is real, we must ask Why is it that we don’t go around removing breasts to prevent breast cancer? The answer is quite simple: Preventing cancer is not really the goal. Rather, the cancer rhetoric is used to justify surgical interventions, making it the darkest of lies.”

    I believe the correct answer to her question is: BECAUSE BREASTS ARE NOT AN “INTERSEX TRAIT” THEY ARE NOT A MUTATION THAT HAS A VERY HIGH CHANCE OF BECOMING CANCEROUS that’s why. Gotta love these liberals and their oh so convoluted logic

  9. Guys, the dog’s balls were unusable.
    Plus, here’s another thing…it’s a dog. The dog doesn’t care if it’s female, male, both, none, Wookiee, or whatever else. Humans, however, do have the capacity to care about their gender identity. Human intersex person? Would probably be devastated if some part got removed. The dog? Probably went and rolled in something when it got home.

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