A hermaphrodite describes a person who is born with both female and male physical characteristics. Increasingly, however, intersex is becoming a more popular description when referring to individuals of this congenital state. A hermaphrodite may be born with both sex organs or may be born with one main sex organ, but possess part of a second opposite organ. Beyond visible features, other physical characteristics may also cause a person to be defined as intersex, such as the chromosomal differences apparent in Klinefelter syndrome where a male is born with two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome.
The hermaphrodite label is not only applied to humans, but is often used to describe certain plant species, as well as other animals that possess both sex organs. Historically, humans born with this condition often undergo surgery during infancy. For all intents and purposes, surgery is intended to eliminate one of the sex organs and, thus, make the child anatomically either female or male.
Some, such as the Intersex Society of North America, consider hermaphrodite to be an outdated and inaccurate description of intersex individuals. Typically, it is used to describe people who are believed to be, physically, both female and male. People who are born with characteristics of both sexes, however, cannot be as easily depicted as completely female while also being completely male. Specifically, a person who some may refer to as a hermaphrodite may actually be born with an outwardly male appearance, yet possess female internal organs or vice versa.
There are a number of other congenital variations that cause some to shun the hermaphrodite label. For instance, a newborn girl may be born without a vaginal opening or may be born with an enlarged clitoris, which may appear to be a small penis. A newborn boy may be born with a scrotum that is shaped like a labia.
Another description, once defined as a true hermaphrodite, is applied to individuals born with sex glands that are made up of testicular as well as ovarian tissue. Today, doctors more commonly refer to this intersex condition as ovotestes. Some people may have two ovotestes or may have just one that is paired with another ovary. Infants born with ovotestes often appear to have normal looking female or male genitalia, while some appear to have genitals that appear to be a combination of both.
Medical science has discovered that individuals who may have at one time been described as a hermaphrodite can actually be born with multiple female and male sex organ variations. This has led to the more common usage of the term intersex by which such individuals are labeled today. Some people born with this condition, however, have chosen to embrace the former label, while others find it to be offensive.