What is Intersexuality?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Intersexuality is a state in which someone has sexual characteristics associated with both genders. Sometimes, intersexuality manifests in a very obvious form, as in the classic case of someone born with both male and female genitalia. At other times, intersexuality is much more subtle, and sometimes the condition isn't even recognized until after death, when an autopsy reveals unexpected findings. Estimates of the number of intersex individuals in the population vary, but usually hovers around one percent.

Children born with male and female organs often undergo surgery in infancy to make them either anatomically female or male.
Children born with male and female organs often undergo surgery in infancy to make them either anatomically female or male.

This condition is caused by some sort of interruption in fetal development which causes a deviation from typical sex development. Depending on the type of interruption, someone may be obviously intersex at birth, or signs of intersexuality may emerge later in life, such as in puberty or middle age. In some cases, intersexuality is discovered when a doctor attempts to get to the bottom of a medical problem, and it may come as a great surprise.

Clownfish can switch gender midway through life.
Clownfish can switch gender midway through life.

There is a great deal of controversy about the appropriate label for intersex individuals. Through the 20th century, the term “hermaphrodite” was used, but most people frown upon this word today, both because it is imprecise, and because it has offensive characteristics. Some people prefer to say “disorders in sex development” instead of intersexuality, while others prefer “variations of sex development,” to stress the idea that intersexuality is not necessarily a disorder.

Intersexuality is caused by some sort of interruption in fetal development which causes a deviation from typical sex development.
Intersexuality is caused by some sort of interruption in fetal development which causes a deviation from typical sex development.

Some activists in the field of human sexuality believe that intersexuality suggests that gender may run along a continuum, rather than being restricted to male and female identities. Some intersex individuals also support this view, choosing to abstain from surgery, hormones, and other corrective treatments because they see nothing which needs to be corrected about themselves. Intersexuality is also sometimes used as an explanation to explore the wide range of gender identities in the human race.

Signs of intersexuality may emerge during puberty.
Signs of intersexuality may emerge during puberty.

Whether or not one views intersexuality as a problem which needs to be corrected, or a natural genetic variation, it can pose some interesting challenges for parents. When children are born with obvious intersex characteristics, parents are usually asked to pick a gender for the child so that the infant can be whisked into surgery. Activists have suggested, however, that it might be better to raise the child as-is, allowing him or her to pursue surgery and other treatments later in life, if desired. While this option may seem better in the eyes of activists, it can place a heavy burden on parents, as human society is not gender-neutral, and an obvious intersex child could face formidable social problems.

An intersex individual may choose to undergo a sex change upon entering adulthood.
An intersex individual may choose to undergo a sex change upon entering adulthood.
Young people who are intersexed or struggle with gender identity often feel isolated from their peers.
Young people who are intersexed or struggle with gender identity often feel isolated from their peers.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

FGeorgDunham

I was born with what doctors call a micropenis, a penis so small that it cannot really be used for sex. The doctors wanted to cut it off and give me hormones to live as a girl but my parents luckily refused. I can still enjoy the pleasures of sex but I have to please any of my female partners with something besides my genitals. I've had male partners who actually like my little guy, so a lot of the issues I had were in my head not in my pants. Once I accepted who I was, a bisexual man with a micropenis, I was much happier. I wish that growing up people had understood this concept of intersex better and I wouldn't have felt so screwed up for the first 40 years of life.

anon165535

wow that's a very narrow view of intersexed people. I have been on hormones for 15 years and it was a decision I made for myself. As it turned out, after some surgery to remove cancerous organs, I have to be on HRT for the rest of my life.

To suggest intersexed people who happen to be queer or have had consensual surgical intervention are invalid is so outrageous I am lost for words.

Some intersexed conditions assure that some of us will develop certain cancers due to the orientation of internal organs. It's good that you can affirm yourself as a man in every sense, but for some of us its not that cut and dried and therefore for some, it would be life threatening to not be on HRT. --India

anon127989

I don't know of anyone with a Disorder of Sex Development who prefers the imprecise term "Intersex" who does not take some form of hormone therapy to enhance male or female characteristics, and I know a great many "Intersex" people.

Intersex as a term is insulting to me, I am male through and though "balls to bones" as the saying goes. That I was born with a congenital disorder is irrelevant, I am male.

Who I am in my head is much more important than who I am according to someone else's definition or terminology.

People who call themselves "Intersex" and take hormones to enhance either sex and claim being

"Intersex" is a natural form of being are deluding themselves, burying their heads in the sand. Intersex only exists as a disease state, in my opinion.

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