Are People Either Male or Female? Can People Be Intersex?
People can be intersex. Society divides people into male and female, but there is no reliable scientific evidence for a binary categorization. Below we discuss non-binary gender as it relates to intersex. First, lets clarify what intersex is.
What is Intersex?
In simple terms, intersex describes people whose characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female at birth.
The reason we say “at birth” is because intersex describes the emergence of non-binary sex organs in the developmental phase (in the womb).
In other words, Intersex is different from Transgender and doesn’t specifically denote sexual identify or preference.
It isn’t just about “being born that way” on the inside (which is also a thing), it is more about literally being born with a mix of male and female features (internal or external).
A simple example of intersex is a hermaphrodite, but intersex is by no means limited to this.
In some cases intersex traits, like two clearly matured sex organs, are visible at birth, but in other cases they aren’t. Some babies may be born with ambiguous genitals, while others may have ambiguous internal organs (testes and ovaries).
XX and XY chromosomes exist, but they aren’t the whole story.
Instead, the XX and XY chromosomes and their related genetic and hormonal expression don’t always result in clearly defined typical male or typical female traits.
There is a huge variety of both external and internal sex traits that can occur despite an individual having a XX or XY choice in general. Furthermore, other biological and psychological aspects of sexuality and gender identity to make things even more convoluted and complicated (and thus generally, the classical binary sex and gender distinction is inaccurate).
It is difficult to estimate the exact number of people who are born with no conclusive evidence of being one sex or another, but intersex individuals may make up almost 2% of the population. That is about the same number of people as have naturally blond or red hair or green eyes and more than silver-gray or amber eyes.
The most common figure found in scientific research is that 1 in every 1,500 babies are born with external genitals that cannot be classified as either male or female. Even more people have non-standard sex chromosomes, non-standard internal reproductive organs, internal organs that are inconsistent with external ones, bodies that respond to sex-related hormones in unexpected ways, sex hormones that are either under or over produced or non-standard development of testes or ovaries. All of these are regarded as intersex conditions.
Some intersex conditions are present at birth, and others do not become obvious until puberty. Cecelia McDonald did not discover that she was intersex until puberty failed to occur. She spoke about her experience in her TED Talk, Intersex People and the Physics of Judgment. For an interesting table giving a breakdown of the frequency of various intersex conditions compiled by Brown researcher Anne Fausto-Sterling et al. based on medical literature from 1955 to 1998 and originally published in the American Journal of Human Biology. See[Cite] How Sexually Dimorphic Are we?[/cite] Sex, like gender preference and gender identity, is a myriad, not a duality.
There has been a longstanding effort to classify people as one sex or the other. In sports, especially in important events like the Olympic Games, officials have been striving to define their criteria for decades. People feared that male athletes “pretending” to be female would have an unfair advantage. However, after years of false starts, no reliable scientific measure could be found to determine sex. At present, Athletes Can Determine Their Own Sex in International Sports. There has been increasing acceptance of there being more than two sexes. Facebook, along with many other entities gives people a choice of male, female, or a custom designation.
It used to be common practice for intersex babies to be given sex assignment surgery soon after birth to fit them into one of the two existing categories of sex. This surgery, also known as sex reassignment, was often based on penis or clitoris size. A standardly structured penis of a newborn baby boy is typically 2.8 to 4.2 centimeters. Since a clitoris and penis, as well as the accompanying labia or testicles, are similar structures that develop before birth, identifying external genitalia can be a matter of guesswork based on size as much as anything else.
Most large hospitals now have teams of specialists who can be assembled as needed if a baby is born with an intersex condition.
FACT: Despite improvements, it is still common practice for the doctors to “fix” intersex children by reconstructing their genitalia or aborting a potentially intersex fetus. This can and should be seen as a human rights issue. Consider this mind-numbling disturbing paragraph from isna.org: “Abortion is routinely offered to women who are likely pregnant with children with intersex conditions, including Klinefelter’s Syndrome. Many surgeons maintain the paternalistic attitude that they should remove healthy testes from babies with AIS to “spare them the trauma later,” thereby denying these girls the opportunity to have a natural puberty and to come to know themselves, in a sexual way, free from surgical scars. Many endocrinologists press unnecessary–sometimes devastating–“normalizing” hormone treatments on patients who are otherwise healthy. Finally, doctors continue constructing vaginas in infants and young children, despite arguments by many medical professionals that early vaginoplasties fail too often and are unnecessary to begin with. By contrast, as in the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the LGBT rights movements, the goal of intersex advocacy groups is to have people understand intersex conditions as human rights issues. ISNA maintains as its fundamental principle the principle also fundamental to the women’s health movement and the LBGT rights movements: that one’s genitals are primarily for one’s own use, not for the comfort of others.”
Intersex Medical Issues
As society becomes more accepting of diversity, the medical community has moved away from surgical intervention toward waiting and allowing the individual to decide whether or not they wish surgery. Many intersex individuals who have had surgery as infants regret that their bodies were irrevocably changed without their consent. The 2017 National Geographic program, Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric, offers a long, but excellent, discussion with individuals of various genders and orientations. It is available on iTunes. During the program, an estimate was given that as many as one in ten intersex individuals whose parents decided on their sex and agreed to surgery during infancy bitterly regretted the decision and found that the sex that had been assigned to them was not the one they felt they should have.
Anatomy’s relation to sexuality is involved. Alice Dreger Explores it in her TED Talk about the relationship of anatomy to destiny. Being intersex is distinct from being transgender, even though the feeling of being in the “wrong” body is sometimes a commonality. The range of human sexuality is far greater than we ever imagined.
Most of us have some physical traits that are uncommon; we need to keep open minds and accept just how common it is to be in the minority. See How Rare Are Your Physical Traits to see some qualities that may make you a minority.
An intersex human or other animal is one possessing any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies.”
The science is there to support the idea that people can be what we call “intersex” and certainly, the science aside, free will and liberty speak to a person’s right to identify as intersex. So a skeptic can argue the science, although it won’t be easy as it is complex and conclusive, but identifying as intersex is a matter of individual liberty. With that said, there are some complexities in areas like sports, culture, and law that are still developing.
Author: Linda deSolla Price
Linda deSolla Price is the daughter of Derek de Solla Price, a physicist, historian, and Yale professor who was the first to formally study the History of Science. She holds...