On Germany's new intersex law and the dangers of our gender-obsessed culture

Germany has become the first European country to pass a law that lets a birth certificate to be left blank in cases where the child is neither obviously male nor female, but it will take far more than a bureaucratic fix to remove the stigma of "abnormalit

A new law, which came into force today in Germany, provides that the box on a birth certificate specifying a child's gender should be left blank in cases where the child is neither obviously male nor female. This will, an Interior Ministry spokesman explained, "take the pressure off parents to commit themselves to gender immediately after birth" - thus allowing for greater delay before drastic, life-defining and perhaps mistaken surgery is carried out on an infant too young to decide for itself what it wants to be.

Such legal acknowledgement of the existence of intersex conditions, which have been known about for all recorded history, comes surprisingly late. Germany is the first country in Europe, and only the second in the world after Australia, to pass such a law.  (Australian law is in fact more advanced, allowing people a third option - designated X - on all official forms.)

Awareness of intersex issues has attracted some official notice elsewhere, but only fairly recently. This summer, the EU stipulated for the first time that intersex people should be included in anti-discrimination law, while earlier in the year the UN Special Rapporteur on torture called for a ban on "forced genital-normalising surgery". Yet intersex people remain excluded from our own Equality Act, and when the German proposals were first brought forward there was criticism from some that they would create a legally-defined "third sex". 

In the event, the new law has left some intersex campaigners unsatisfied. For them, the main issue remains the practice of surgical intervention to definitively assign gender and thus "correct" the apparent mistakes of nature. Intersex activists accuse doctors of interfering with nature, of making arbitrary judgements based on aesthetics or to fit cultural norms, of calling it wrong (in some cases, surgically-corrected "girls" grow up to identify as male, or vice versa) and of indulging in practices equivalent to the genital mutilation widely condemned when performed for religious or tribal reasons. Silvan Agius, for example, writes that "Surgical or hormonal treatment for cosmetic, non-medically necessary reasons must be deferred to an age when intersex people are able to provide their own free, prior and fully informed consent... The right to bodily integrity and self-determination should be ensured and past abuses acknowledged."

This is the core of the problem. On one level, humanity has become a great deal more enlightened since Roman times, when the birth of a "hermaphrodite" might be interpreted as an omen of war or natural disaster and the child was liable to be exposed, or since the Middle Ages when such an "unnatural" birth could be seen as evidence of the sin and perversion of the parents. Modern science recognises that biology in its infinite complexity doesn't care about the neatness of human thinking with its love of binary categories. Being of indeterminate gender is not in itself a disability. 

To a first approximation, of course, human beings come in two sexes, but contrary to popular wisdom (or bestselling pop psychology) men and women are not separate species and don't come from different planets. Biological sex doesn't even always come down to chromosomes, but rather results from the subtle interplay of genetics and embryology. There are physically normal-looking males who have two X chromosomes and physically normal-looking women with who are XY - though such extreme examples of sexual crossover are thought to extremely rare. (Typically, they only come to light when the people involved, who are sterile, show up at fertility clinics.) More common are children born with ambiguous genitalia - testes that might be ovaries, an unusually large clitoris that might, from another point of view, be an unusually small penis. 

How many children are intersex is a matter of dispute, and also of definition. One in 4,000 is a commonly accepted figure, but Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University has argued that it might be as many as one in 70. Taking a polemical stance on the issue, she has written that "male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum" and that "if nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits."

But the biology, and the experiences of intersex people assigned at birth to what they grow up to believe is the wrong gender, may tell a different story: that you can't arbitrarily assign decide that a child is a boy or a girl and expect it to conform to the cultural expectation. The problem with surgical intervention isn't just the theoretical one that it violates the integrity of the body but the practical one that the doctors might well make a mistake. The answer, say campaigners, is to hold off both legal gender assignment and surgery until the child is old enough to make up its own mind as to whether it's a boy or a girl - or something in-between. Yet such a child, in our gender-obsessed culture, is likely to feel confusion and face prejudice. The stigma of "abnormality" can cause deep psychological scars: every child has a right to feel normal, and social expectations of gender can make it difficult to feel normal in a body that is not unambiguously male or female. Tackling that will be a much larger problem than a simple bureaucratic fix.
 

From now on in Germany the gender on the birth certificate of a child who is not obviously male or female can be left blank. Photo: Getty
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.