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The spectrum of sex development: Eric Vilain and the intersex controversy
The geneticist built a career studying aspects of sex that make some people uncomfortable. Now things are getting uncomfortable for him.
As a medical student in Paris in the 1980s, Eric Vilain found himself pondering the differences between men and women. What causes them to develop differently, and what happens when the process goes awry? At the time, he was encountering babies that defied simple classification as a boy or girl. Born with disorders of sex development (DSDs), many had intermediate genitalia — an overlarge clitoris, an undersized penis or features of both sexes.
Then, as now, the usual practice was to operate. And the decision of whether a child would be left with male or female genitalia was often made not on scientific evidence, says Vilain, but on practicality: an oft-repeated, if insensitive, line has it that “it’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole”. Vilain found the approach disturbing. “I was fascinated and shocked by how the medical team was making decisions.”