When we talk about biological sex, we often discuss it in terms of what we have in our pants. However, there is a massive variety to genitalia and reproductive organs. A more accurate way to discuss sex is in terms of chromosomes.
In public school and health courses, we are only taught about *cisgender female and *cisgender male anatomical structures. However, reproductive organs exist on a spectrum of what is considered to be “normal”.
The term for someone whose reproductive organs do not fit into society’s expectations of what cisgender male and female anatomy look like is *intersex. There is an old medical term, “hermaphrodite”, that has been used as a slur and should never be used to describe someone who is intersex. It’s no longer a medical term and it’s no longer okay to use.
Intersex bodies encompass the entire middle portion of the spectrum. Being born intersex is more common than previously thought, and does not mean that anything is “wrong”. Around 1 in 1,600 people are born intersex. Many people who are born intersex are genitally mutilated at birth to try and “correct” that they’re intersex.
This isn’t medically necessary, it’s entirely cosmetic. It’s the parent’s choice whether or not to have this done, but many choose to do it because they assume something must be medically wrong with their child. This isn’t the case – being born intersex does not mean anything is wrong.
Much of the time when parents have these procedures done, it doesn’t line up with how the child grows up to identify. They try to hide the fact that their child is intersex from the child, and this only causes confusion and bad emotions down the line. I mean, wouldn’t you be upset if your parents decided to force you to be something that you’re not?
The following image is a visual representation of the chromosomal sex spectrum.
So… what does this look like in actual people?
We know that society expects a “male” to have a penis, testicles, a scrotum, and for a “female” to have a vagina, cervix, and uterus… but what if that isn’t the case?
One of the most common ways that intersex organs present is as a combination of what XX and XY looks like.
There are three common ways that intersex organs present. This includes a typical XX/female external presentation, but the person may not have ovaries, or testicles may exist in the place of ovaries. Another common on is typical XY/male external presentation, but the person may not have testicles, or may have ovaries in place of testicles. The last typical presentation of intersex organs is an enlarged clitoris, which may look like a small penis, and a smaller vaginal opening.
Those are just the three most common ways that the reproductive organs of intersex individuals can present themselves. There are many more ways that the reproductive organs can develop.
Cisgender – (adj; pronounced “siss-jendur”) a person whose gender identity and biological sex assigned at birth align (e.g., man and male-assigned). A simple way to think about it is if a person is not trans*, they are cisgender.
Intersex – (adj) someone whose combination of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal sex organs, and genitals differs from the two expected patterns of male or female. In the medical care of infants the initialism DSD (“Differing/Disorders of Sex Development”). Formerly known as hermaphrodite (or hermaphroditic), but these terms are now considered outdated and derogatory.
Often seen as a problematic condition when babies or young children are identified as intersex, it was for a long term considered an “emergency” and something that doctors moved to “fix” right away in a newborn child. There has been increasing advocacy and awareness brought to this issue and many individuals advocate that intersex individuals should be allowed to remain intersex past infancy and to not treat the condition as an issue or medical emergency.