What Is Intersex?

Baby being born

 

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What Is Intersex?

Intersexuality

Intersexuality is simply an overarching term that refers to human bodies that fall outside of the strict male and female binary. Generally speaking, the term refers to the many different conditions—often present at birth—that can affect a person’s reproductive or sexual anatomy. As a result, they may not clearly be either male or female.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, these conditions might include being born with "female" anatomy on the outside such as a vaginal opening, but having "male" sexual organs on the inside.

It might also present as a baby boy being born with a penis that, medically, is considered very small, or a baby girl being born with a large clitoris. Internally, an intersex person might have an atypical sequence of genetics where some cells have XX chromosomes (female) while other cells have XY chromosomes (male).

These are only a handful of examples; the intersex umbrella encompasses a wide variety of conditions and nuances. Also, while many times these anomalies are detectable at birth, sometimes intersexuality isn’t discovered until later in a child—or even adult’s—life.

Medical Diagnosis

Intersex is considered a medical identification.

“When a baby is born, the delivery doctor will assign it a legal sex. In many states, this is either male or female,” says Rachel Wright, a New York City-based psychotherapist who specializes in topics of modern relationships, sex, and sexuality. "However, if a person’s genitals do not fall within the typical male or female anatomy scope, then the doctor might identify that child as intersex at the time of their birth."

Rachel Wright, Psychotherapist

However, if a person’s genitals do not fall within the typical male or female anatomy scope, then the doctor might identify that child as intersex at the time of their birth.

— Rachel Wright, Psychotherapist

According to Planned Parenthood, in some cases surgery might be performed on the baby’s genitals so that they present more “normally” as male or female. Some children might also be given hormone therapy so they better “fit” into the binary. In cases where doctors and parents can't discern which side of the binary the child would most easily fit into, parents might ultimately choose to assign a sex to their child and raise them as such.

There’s growing activism around this topic. Some people feel it is not emotionally or mentally advantageous to push a child into either the male or female box if they weren’t born as someone who is clearly binary. In addition, intersex surgeries may result in significant scarring and fertility issues later in life.

As of June 2020, Portugal is the only OECD country that bans medically unnecessary treatments on intersex minors without their consent.

Identification of Intersex at Birth

While many intersex identifications are made at the time of birth, that isn’t always the case. It is not uncommon for someone to realize that they are intersex until later in life; this later identification seems to be more common around puberty or when trying to conceive.

According to InterAct, a person (or their parent) might discover they are intersex when they experience puberty changes too early, in unexpected ways, very late, or not at all. Adults who struggle with infertility might also come to realize they are intersex after medical assessment and identification.

In some cases, a person might not ever realize that they are actually intersex. This is more common when intersex presents through chromosomes or internal organs versus outward anatomy.

Gender and Sexuality

Wright is careful to point out that, just like non-intersex people, the gender they’re identified as at birth isn’t always the gender identity that they’ll grow up to have.

Additionally, just like non-intersex people, their sexuality—as in who they’re attracted to sexually—can run the gamut.

Again, intersex strictly refers to a group of conditions in which one's sexual development (genitalia, internal organs, and sexual hormone levels) diverges from the typical binary pattern.

How Common Is It to Be Intersex?

The answer here isn’t so straightforward. This is partly because there’s much subjectivity that comes into play in that delivery room and/or medical analysis.

For instance, one doctor may deem a large clitoris as relatively normal, while the other might feel it is too large to clearly identify the baby as “female” at birth.

The inverse is true regarding the size of a baby’s penis. There’s also variance in opinion regarding how many chromosomal anomalies are “required” before an intersex call is made.

“If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about one in 1,500 to one in 2,000 births,” states the Intersex Society of North America.

However, it’s important to note that these are only exceptionally noticeable cases where it is easier to make that intersex call. There are many more babies born with less obvious forms of anatomical variations.

Further, as we mentioned above, sometimes an intersex identification doesn’t occur until much later (if at all).

Wright says that general estimates predict that, in the United States, roughly 1% to 2% of the total population is actually intersex. This equates to about one or two people out of every 100.

What Does "Hermaphrodite" Mean?

Many might wonder if "hermaphrodite" is another name for intersex...the short answer here is no. Technically speaking, that term was once widely used in medical literature to refer to intersex people, but it is now considered stigmatizing, inaccurate, and confusing.

The word was actually derived from a Greek mythological character named Hermaphroditus, who had the formation of someone who was equal parts male and female. This is not representative of the intersex spectrum.

Many people consider "hermaphrodite" to be a slur. Sometimes intersex conditions are referred to disorders of sex development (DSDs), but InterACT discourages use of that term as well.

Can Intersex People Have Babies?

In many cases, intersex people are infertile. That said, whether an intersex person can reproduce ultimately depends on their specific condition.

Intersex people can—and do—have children. The reproduction basics need to be possible for this to occur, which typically includes the ability to have vaginal intercourse that results in implantation within a healthy womb.

If this isn’t possible, there are medical techniques and fertility treatments that can be employed, which range from in vitro fertilization (IVO) to surrogacy.

It’s important to speak to your doctor about your reproduction options if you are intersex.

A Word From Verywell

Intersex is a blanket term that refers to a wide range of sexual variations. These are typically present at birth, though they might be discovered later in life or sometimes not at all.

Stigma about intersex people has fortunately decreased over the years as more medical professionals—and the general population—gain a better understanding.

If you are intersex, it might be helpful to connect with others who are also intersex. We recommend joining a support group or community. InterAct Intersex Support and Advocacy Groups are located across the globe.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Intersex. Updated February 26, 2021.

  2. Planned Parenthood. What's intersex?. 2020.

  3. Newbould M. When parents choose gender: intersex, children, and the law. Med Law Rev. 2016;24(4):474-496. doi:10.1093/medlaw/fww014

  4. InterACT. FAQ: What is intersex?. Updated January 26, 2021.

  5. OECD. Over the Rainbow? The Road to LGBTI Inclusion. Published June 2020.

  6. Intersex Society of North America. How common is intersex?. 2008.

  7. InterACT. InterACT statement on intersex terminology. 2021.