What Does It Mean to Be Intersex?

Learn the potential effects of this medical condition

Mother holding her baby hand
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Many people have heard of the outdated term hermaphrodite but are unfamiliar with the term intersex, widely used today to refer to people who do not have typical male or female physical characteristics. Get a better idea of what being intersex is with this definition of the term and review of the effects this condition has on the individuals born with it.

What Is the Definition of Intersex?

The term intersex is used to describe people who are born with unusual sexual anatomy, rather than people who have changed their sexual anatomy through surgery, hormones or other treatment.

These people are typically referred to as transgender, such as reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, actress Laverne Cox of "Orange Is the New Black" fame and writer Janet Mock.

There is a wide variation in the extent to which people are affected by being intersex as well as the degree to which intersex characteristics are problematic for them. Obviously, social acceptance plays a major role in how negatively having intersex characteristics affects people. Because medical professionals are not consistently well trained in understanding intersex issues, they do not always provide the best advice for the parents of a newborn with intersex characteristics.

Common Intersex Characteristics

Some of the ways people can be affected by being intersex include appearing to have a small penis (micropenis) -- either on a "boy" or a "girl" with a larger than usual clitoris. In addition, the person may appear to have a scrotum that is divided so that it looks like a labia or a labia that does not have a vaginal opening.

The urethral opening may not be in the usual place or may not have developed naturally at all, and the testes may be undescended so they are inside of the body rather than in the scrotum. This may affect people who appear either male or female.  Also, breasts may or may not develop as expected from the person's presumed gender.

Causes of the Condition

Some people are born intersex because they have unusual combinations of the X and Y chromosomes that typically determine gender. Moreover, some people's bodies don't respond to the messages of the sex hormones in the typical way, so they don't develop sexual characteristics in the usual way as a result.

Although rare, intersex characteristics can sometimes indicate underlying medical concerns, so if you or your child has any of these characteristics, it is important to see a doctor before problems develop.

The Impact of Being Intersex

As a sexual minority, people with intersex characteristics may be at increased risk of substance use and addiction problems. They may be subject to shunning, ridicule or other negative behavior from bigoted people or those who simply do not understand the condition. Unfortunately, for far too long, people with intersex characteristics, derisively known as "hermaphrodites," have been the butt of jokes or even circus show attractions.

Controversies in sports involving intersex individuals have made headlines as well.

South African runner Caster Semenya  and retired German tennis player Sarah Gronert, who identify as female, were both accused of having unfair advantages in their respective sports for having intersex characteristics. While the public at large still remains largely unfamiliar with such individuals, growing awareness about transgender people likely means that intersex individuals will be more accepted in the future as well.

Sources

Capital Health Region Addiction Services. Supporting Sexual Minority Clients. Professional Training Workshop, Victoria, BC, Canada. 2001.

Intersex Society of North America. What is intersex? Retrieved 2 July 2011.

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