Review: ‘Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the myth of two sexes’ by Gerald N.Callahan

Published by: Chicago Review Press

Publication Date: 1st November 2016

ISBN: 9781613736548


“On October 10, 1970, the day she was born, she was named Dorothy Maree Alaniz–a baby girl. Curiously, though, no one filled out a birth certificate that day. When the certificate was finally filed on November 5, the name on it was Rudolph Andrew Alaniz. Within less than one month after her birth, this girl became a boy.”

Every year in the United States, more than two thousand children are born with an intersex condition or disorder of sex development. What makes someone a boy or a girl? Is it external genitalia, chromosomes, DNA, environment, or some combination of these factors? Not even doctors or scientists are entirely clear. What is clear is that sex is not an either-or proposition: not girl/boy, XX/XY, switching between two poles like an on-off switch on a radio. Rather, sex is like the bass and treble knobs on that radio.

Between XX and XY provides a fascinating look at the science of sex and what makes people male or female. There are people born XXY, XXXY, or XXXXY, or with any number of variations in X or Y chromosomes, but those who do not fit into society’s preconceived notions about sex often face a difficult path in life.

Dr. Callahan explores why humans are so attached to the idea of two sexes, and examines our obsession with sex and sexual intercourse through the ages.


My Review

This is an excellent book on a complex but absolutely fascinating subject. Dr Callahan manages to explain the complexity of genetic and developmental processes to the general reader clearly and simply without oversimplifying. This is an area of human development that really requires greater understanding generally, it’s time to update the science curriculum to include intersex conditions, the wider spectrum of genetic possibilities beyond XX and XY and spread greater understanding of people with intersex conditions. It’s impossible to be gender essentialist if you know that people can have XXY or XXXY etc. karyotypes and a variety of genitals depending on developmental processes.

The case histories were very useful in exploring the actual effects these conditions have on people, especially those subject to reassignment and reconstruction surgery as babies. While studies from Johns Hopkins suggest most people are happy with their surgery, people involved in research with advocacy groups suggest otherwise and there is some criticism of the methodology used for the study. his book covers both sides of the discussion and encourages further research.

Mentioned in later chapters, the 2007 ‘Consensus statement on management of intersex disorders’ produced by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society and the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology concluded that all neonates must be assigned a sex and gender. The question hovering in the background but never answered is: ‘why?’. People are people, why not just let them be themselves? The only reason I can think for this idea is that it is convenient for everyone else because we don’t have a nice mental and linguistic box to put intersex people in. Not fitting in to the two pre-determined boxes of ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ confuses people and people don’t like being confused, it makes them scared and angry. So lets pretend the ambiguity doesn’t exist. That seems to be the mind set anyway.

I’ll step off my soap box now and talk about the writing: this book is very easy to read and the pages seem to fly by. While illustrations are limited those included are very helpful in explaining different conditions. There’s just the right level of technical language and explanation for the general reader.

Highly recommended.


This is my 1000th post. Who’s have thought it?

As next week is reading week (half-term to everyone else) you won’t be getting an update about uni but there will be another book review. I’m reading a new book about cybersexism at the minute called ‘Haters’ by Bailey Poland.





One thought on “Review: ‘Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the myth of two sexes’ by Gerald N.Callahan

  1. Sounds like something I really need to read. Gender identity is a subject that fascinates me. I’ve read a great deal about it from a cultural and psychological perspective, but I never knew there was a genetic aspect too.

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