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Tuesday 14 April 2015


Comment: Causes Yet to Come?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 17th October 2013

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After the eventual passage of comprehensive transgender rights and comprehensive anti-bullying legislation, what else might LGBTI organisations achieve on the legislative reform front? 

1. Ban Intersex Surgery

At present, parents can be railroaded into premature surgical decisions to "correct" the anomalous genitalia of their infants without any requisite medical necessity. This may cause genitourinary complications in later life, and it may also cause intense trauma in the lives of such individuals as they grow older.  In 1994, the Bolger administration passed Section 204A of the Crimes Act 1961 to ban female genital mutilation, so why not further outlaw what some intersexed rights advocates refer to as "intersexed genital mutilation?"

Or is it the case that this could be remedied by the provision of stronger informed consent protocols in this context, as required by Right 7 of the Code of Health and Disability Consumers Rights, which mandates the provision of evidence-based informed consent to medical procedures. And as Elizabeth MacDonald noted in a constitutional law chapter two years ago, the evidence is now there that intersex surgery has destructive physiological and psychological effects on those who undergo it. So, should a future New Zealand government therefore outlaw it?


2. Parthenogenesis

Writing in  a recent New Scientist, Helen Pilcher helpfully summaries what zoology currently tells us. Pilcher discussed the recently observed birth of a daughter parthenogenome hammerhead shark from a single female parent. The traditional zoological view has been that parthenogenic births are rare, because many parthenogenic ova and resultant embryos spontaneously miscarry, or else turn carcinogenic. However, it may be quite common within several reptile, bird and fish species. It has been observed in turkeys, pit vipers and boa constrictors, as well as Komodo dragons. It doesn’t seem to be a result of male partner absence either, and some all-female species exist.

Unfortunately, though, these species have problems- low fertility and the inability to eradicate harmful genetic mutations reduce the prospects of species viability and ultimate survival over many generations, rendering them more vulnerable to specific diseases or habitat changes. Altogether, ninety species of birds, fish, amphibian and reptile female-only provenance exist, including the delightfully named Amazon mollies(!) (Poecilia formosa), the first such fish observed (1932). However, many require some sperm from males of related species to kickstart fertilisation and embryonic development, although DNA is mother-only (gynogenesis)- although some species filch DNA segments from sperm (kleptogenesis) to facilitate survival prospects. Another common problem amongst female-only species is the presence of haploid embryonic offspring and miscarriage.

And mammals? Our chromosomes have different and interlocking chemical imprints and without sets from both embryo and sperm, fertilisation doesn’t occur. Parthenogenesis has never been observed naturally within mammals. So, at the moment, this perennial lesbian feminist utopian science fiction staple seems beyond the scientific pale.

3. Polyamory

Before the Christian Right get overexcited and prepare to cut and paste this section of the article, I would suggest that everyone reading this calm down and have a cup of tea or coffee.

Apart from media monitoring organisations, there are no polyamorist rights groups that want immediate legislative reform to encompass ethical non-monogamy. As we are ourselves aware from our recent experience dealing with monogamous same-sex marriage equality and inclusive adoption reform, it takes considerable time to achieve legislative reform due to the time that it takes to secure funding and carry out duly rigorous research for the purpose of evidence-based medical and social scientific proofs for such claims to be made. Given that not even Canada, the Netherlands and Scandinavia have fully-fledged polyamorist spousal rights movements or lobby groups as yet, and they attained marriage and same-sex parenting equality several years before we did, I estimate that if this ever happened, it would be ten to fifteen years or so away at the minimum.

What does the research currently say? There isn't much of it. In Atlanta, Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist, has studied polyamorous families in detail since the nineties. Within polyamorous relationships, female participants share sexual power more equally with men – because women value interpersonal relationships and emotional contact with their  sexual partners, and find new ones more easily, which gives them leverage within their relationships.

In 2011, Canadian Simon Fraser sociologist Melissa Mitchell carried out an Internet survey of 1,100 polyamorists – the largest academic survey of polyamorists to date. She found that most polyamorist individuals (64 per cent) have two partners. Sixty one per cent of the women identified their two closest partners as both men and eighty six per cent of men identified their two closest partners as both women.

Most of the women in the sample identified as bisexual (at sixty-eight per cent), while bisexual men were less frequent (only thirty nine per cent) and exclusive lesbians or gay men were rare (only four percent identified as lesbians and three percent identified as gay  men).

Polyamorists spend more time with and feel more committed to their primary partners than their secondary partners, according to Sheff’s survey. However,  they may also find that secondary partners are more amenable to their sexual needs. Seventy per cent of the sample live with their primary partner and forty-seven per cent are married to them. The average relationship duration was nine years for primary partners and three years for secondary partners.

The Canadian survey is self-selected, so it cannot provide a representative sample, but Sheff says the Simon Fraser University  results line up with those of other studies, such as seventy-one focus group interviews that she made with Midwestern and Californian polyamorists over a thirteen year period (1996-2009). Sheff also notes that despite the importance of feminism to polyamorists, it’s not unusual for straight men to become involved because they believe that it will lead to “easy sex” or sex with more than one woman. However, straight or bisexual male swingers tend to  have a difficult time meeting the emotional demands of polyamory and are either turned off – or ostracised – by polyfidelity as a social norm within polyamorous relationships. In polyamorist relationships, common monogamous spousal dilemmas can result in particularly thorny dilemmas for participants, particularly if the community norm of polyfidelity has been implied to be infringed. 

According to a  2011 polyamorist  literature survey by Sheff and Corie Hammers, racial and class data on polyamorists and related groups was compiled from thirty six independent studies, and confirmed that sexual minorities largely consist of upper-middle-class Caucasians. Sheff concludes that lower socio-economic class individuals and people of colour cannot usually  afford to take the risks associated with defying social norms, which could lead to employment, accomodation, parental or other forms of discrimination against polyamorists, given that legal protection is particularly scarce for polyamorists. This provides community participation advantages for those with the financial resources to hire legal assistance. However, it also reduces the potential scale of mass mobilisation in the context of any polyamorist spousal rights social movement. 

Authors of polyamorist self-help literature view  it as a “choice” that is reliant  on ethical conviction, hard relationship maintenance work and personal endurance, rather than security conferred through relative affluence. Sheff notes that polyamorists don’t tend to discuss class or ethnicity within their ethical debates about their relationship option. Some individuals and families may participate covertly within non-monogamous relationships, but refuse to consider “coming out” and adopting an identity that could lead to further stigmatisation or experiences of discrimination. This is one of the reasons it is hard to estimate the scale of polyamorous social networks or communities– researchers are unsure about "closetry" in this contest.

I'd suggest that after the achievement of transgender rights and anti-bullying legislation, we sit down and debate the merits or otherwise of the aforementioned future legislative options.


Recommended:

Elizabeth MacDonald: “Provoking Law Reform: Feminism, Queer Theory and the Legislative Agenda” in Dean Knight and Claire Charters (ed) We The People: Victoria University Press and NZ Centre for Public Law: 2011: 251-7

 Hazel Glen Beh and Milton Diamond: “An Emerging Medical and Ethical Dilemma: Should Doctors Perform Sex Assignment Surgery on Infants With Ambiguous Genitalia?” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law: 2000.

 Catherine L.Minto and others: “The Effect of Clitoral Surgery on Sexual Outcome in Individuals who have Intersex Conditions with Ambiguous Genitalia” The Lancet: (2003) 361: 1252-1257.

 SM Creighton and LM Laio: “Changing Attitudes to Sex Assignment in Intersex” British Journal of Urology International (2004).

 Lisa Melton: “New Perspectives on the Management of Intersex” The Lancet (2001): 357: 2110

 Frouhke Slijper: “Clitoral Surgery and Sexual Outcome in Intersex Conditions” The Lancet (2003): 1236.

Helen Pilcher: “Look, No Dad” New Scientist: 02.03.2013: 34-36.

Jeff Fraser: “Polyamory: Three or Four or Five’s Company” Globe and Mail: 22.09.2012: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/polyamory-threes-or-fours-or-fives-company/article4560587/service=mobile



Craig Young - 17th October 2013

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