Tilting the Ethical Lens: Shame, Disgust, and the Body in Question




Cheryl Chase has argued that “the problem” of intersex is one of “stigma and trauma, not gender,” as those focused on medical management would have it. Despite frequent references to shame in the critical literature, there has been surprisingly little analysis of shame, or of the disgust that provokes it. This paper investigates the function of disgust in the medical management of intersex and seeks to understand the consequences—material and moral—with respect to the shame it provokes.

Conventional ethical approaches may not provide quite the right tools to consider this affective dimension of the medical management of intersex, but we find in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality a framework that allows us a profound appreciation of its moral significance (Nietzsche 1887/1998). Understanding doctors' disgust—and the disgust that they promote in parents of those born with atypical anatomies—as a contemporary expression of ressentiment directs us to not focus on the bodies of those born with intersex conditions, which have been the privileged objects of attention both in medical practice and in criticisms of it, but moves us to consider instead the bodies of those whose responses constitute the motivating force for normalizing practices in the first place.