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Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes [Hardcover]

Gerald N. Callahan PhD
2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 1, 2009

“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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Combining passion with current scientific information, Callahan, an immunologist/pathologist at Colorado State University, explains why our conception of two sexes is more a social than a biological construct. He argues that there are no simple, foolproof ways to determine sex. For example chromosomal structure, XX for females and XY for males, is not fully predictive because of various genetic disorders that can play a larger role. Similarly, genitalia can be quite varied and represent a continuum of difference rather than two discrete points. Callahan does a good job of exploring intersex individuals, who are neither male nor female, and argues that they need to be accepted for what they are and not viewed as defective. Further, he provides provocative evidence that surgical gender reconstruction is often unsuccessful. Although Callahan attempts to make the case that some non-Western societies have a less bipolar view of gender, his abbreviated presentation is not very convincing. He is, however, persuasive that better understanding of and respect for sex and gender variability would be far healthier for the 65,000-plus intersex people born each year and society in general. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Callahan does a good job of exploring intersex individuals, who are neither male nor female, and argues that they need to be accepted for what they are and not viewed as defective."  —Publishers Weekly

"Immunologist Callahan takes a fascinating look at the biology and human experience of intersexuality, a state in between male and female."  —Discover Magazine

"Callahan's writing style is both accessible and engaging; it reads more like creative non-fiction, a la Malcolm Gladwell."  —Ms. Magazine

"This is a fascinating, easily understandable journey into why we are born male or female and examines our age-old obsession with sex."  —Fort Collins Coloradoan

"There are lots of interesting nuggets here—for example, Callahan's description of biological sex as a spectrum, not a binary system."  —Double X

"The book is really beautifully written, highly accessible, and visionary in its own right."  —Feministing

"This book takes readers through an alphabet of gender and gender variations. Callahan shows readers that rather than either/or scenarios, there have always been variations; his book shatters our society's take on pink and blue."  —

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press (July 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556527853
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556527852
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #584,003 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good primer on the complexities of biological sex July 19, 2009
If you've never thought beyond the concept of "opposite sexes" this is a really great primer. If you're a gender and sexuality nerd like me, you won't learn a whole lot of brand new stuff from this book.

Callahan spends a lot of time debunking the myth of the two sexes - there's slightly more in the book about that than there is about disorders of sexual development or intersex. If you're looking for a really in-depth read that focuses on intersex, this isn't that book. But if you're looking for some more general stuff about the science of the differences between men and women and genetic variations that will tweak your concepts of "men" and "women", this book is very much worth your time.

Callahan was able to write a very readable book that didn't bore me or confuse me at all, even when he writes about chromosomes and karyotypes and stuff. In addition to good content about human sexuality, he devotes a good amount of time to writing about hermaphroditic animals, which is fascinating stuff and will further erode your notions of a two-sex model. The case studies of intersex people included in the book are also engaging, though also pretty heartbreaking.

If you are up for something heavier, more theory-laden and more advanced about the differences among the sexes (see what I did there? implying that there are more than two sexes with grammar?), check out Anne Fausto-Sterling's Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men. That book was originally published in 1987, updated in 1992 - so some of the science is a little our of date, but it's a really great and challenging read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good for beginners March 16, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I chose this book because of its synopsis and the reviews of others, and am glad that I did. The author's style is very readable and he makes a very complex subject understandable. While its obvious that he has definite opinions on this subject, he does a good job of keeping them in check while he writes. Presenting the history of our understanding of sex along with the current state of knowledge brings an historical continuity to the book, which was helpful. Excellent footnoting and bibliography for those who wish to read further. All the different intersex variations become a bit difficult to keep separate after awhile, but I suspect that's more my unfamiliarity with the subject than his writing.

This is a good book if you want a primer on the subject of intersexuality, either for yourself or as a gift.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview January 31, 2010
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I suggest you have read some evo-devo before delving into this book. The premise is that gender is at least as malleable as eye color, body height and weight, and many other characteristics. Beyond that, there are many variations past XX and XY, and the current thinking is to place every child squarely into the XX/XY dichotomy. Additionally, recent medical practice has been to do so with or without consent of parents??? (no verification or sources of this) - a plea for acceptance of those that fall somewhere between these two endpoints - and an attempt at scientific explanation of how much diversity there is in between.

I recommend this book, even though I thought it could have been better written. The information is substantial and crucial to our understanding of gender.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars hermaphrodite finds missing pages! July 5, 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I am a hermaphrodite with Klinefelter syndrome and androgen insensitvity syndrome and I need to read every page of this book over and over, but I got to page one hundred and it went to page sixty-nine. Then the book goes to sixty-nine to one hundred and starts again on page 133. My medical records made by the U.S. Army found me to be a female hermaphrodite and I am trying to understand why I am now a female army officer. I will do what I can to help fix the problem and enrich the study of hermaphroditism which has three cases in my family. Jo XXY
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More About the Author

Since leaving graduate school in 1974, the author has pursued biomedical research, first as part of a Nobel Prize-winning team at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, and since 1984 in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at Colorado State University. All of this research focuses on the workings of human immune and nervous systems and the nature of human selves. In 2004, in recognition of his literary contributions to popular scientific literature, Dr. Callahan received a joint appointment in the Department of English at CSU and between 2011 and 2013 served as the director of the Graduate Creative Nonfiction program in that department. During his career, he has published more than 50 scientific papers in respected scientific journals and more than 70 poems and essays in literary journals as well as four popular-science books. He has received numerous awards for his science, his writing, and his teaching. These include three National Research Service Awards, designation as a Leukemia Society of America Scholar, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship, nomination for a Pulitzer Prize, and the Outstanding Science Faculty Award in 2012. Because of his literary accomplishments, Dr. Callahan is also the Director of the Creative Nonfiction Graduate Program in the Department of English at CSU. Dr. Callahan and his work have been featured in or on, among others: National Geographic Television, ABC Evening News, the Los Angeles Times,, the Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, Talk Radio Europe - Spain, Ms. Magazine, the New Scientist, Discover Magazine, USA Today, the Vancouver Sun, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Georgia Straight, the Rocky Mountain News, ESPN, Publisher's Weekly, Semana Magazine - Columbia, and EPOCA magazine - Brazil.

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Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes
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