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Film Shows Surge in Support for Intersex Autonomy

Non-Consensual Medically Unnecessary ‘Normalizing’ Surgeries Should Stop

Over the past few years, there’s been a significant and much-needed increase in attention to the basic rights of intersex people. A documentary screening this week at the Human Rights Watch film festival in New York City, No Box for Me: An Intersex Story, tells two stories that show why that push is so necessary.

M is 27 years old. Deborah is 25. Like an estimated 1.7 percent of people, they were born with variations in their sex characteristics that differ from conventional understandings of male or female – often called intersex. For M, growing up intersex has also meant grappling with the fact that she underwent medically unnecessary surgeries to “normalize” her body as a child – before she could even understand what was happening to her. 

Intersex variations are medically benign, yet in the 1960s surgeons in the United States popularized “normalizing” cosmetic operations, such as procedures to reduce the size of the clitoris. 

These procedures are not designed to treat a medical problem and there is no evidence that such operations help children “fit in” or “function in society,” which some surgeons say is their aim. The operations do however carry high risks of scarring, loss of sexual sensation, incontinence, sterilization, and psychological trauma. And they continue today – in the US and around the world. Most recently, the European Parliament passed a resolution affirming intersex people’s rights to bodily autonomy and calling on governments to prohibit the non-consensual surgeries that have negatively impacted so many intersex people’s lives.  

In the film, when M meets Deborah online, she is introduced to new voices, language, and representations that help her understand who she is in more than just medical terms. At one point in the film, we “meet” Pidgeon Pagonis, an intersex activist and YouTube star from Chicago whom I met in 2017 to document their story. 

This tender documentary joins M, Deborah, and other brave young people as they seek to reclaim their bodies and explore their identities – revealing both the limits of binary visions of sex and gender and the irreversible physical and psychological impacts of non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants.

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