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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.