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The University of Hong Kong
Debilitating to capacitate: Discourses of innate sex characteristics in Hong Kong hospitals

This study uses metapragmatic discourse analysis (i.e. analysis of talk about language use) to mitigate the appropriation of Southern ideas by the Global North, treating interviewees as collaborators who analyse language and bring their knowledge into dialogue with the researcher’s knowledge. The data is drawn from interviews with two Hong Kong Chinese doctors (a gynaecologist and a paediatric urologist) who work with intersex children and their parents. In analysing their metapragmatic narratives about ‘what they say, how and why,’ I draw on Jasbir Puar’s ideas about biopolitics as an ableist mechanism with the right to maim, which can debilitate any of us. Alternatively, it capacitates others. Biomedical professionals, regardless of diverse personal convictions, work in a relationship with their patients that reflects the relationship between biomedicine and political economy, one in which they are always potentially agents of biopolitical regulation. The doctors in this study report a reliance on scientifically outdated discourses to maintain a conversational boundary in which parents keep listening rather than despairing. There is a sense of a need to help manage parents’ emotions and therefore their perceptions of their child. Disorder is spoken of as a problematic framing and yet throughout their explanation, the intersex body is referred to as a manifestation of disease or illness, leaving little room for any non-medicalized interpretation. The doctors position themselves as capacitators of these babies. But to have a role to play they first must debilitate them. It is for their ‘welfare’.


Brian is an Assistant Professor in the School of English at the University of Hong Kong, as well as a critical sociolinguist researching the discursive performance of identities and embodiments at the intersection of ethnicity, gender and sexuality. His work on these themes sits within healthcare communication, sexuality education, computer-mediated communication, and the social construction of space/place. Methodologically, he draws on a number of traditions, including interactional sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and critical discourse studies. His teaching career has spanned more than 20 years across three continents and multiple sectors. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in recognition of attainment against the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and learning support in higher education.


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