What Is Intersex?

Variations in sex traits that aren’t typical for males or females

Intersex refers to someone with variations in sex characteristics that don’t typically fit male or female bodies. Those differences may be recognized at birth, or they become apparent later in life.

Close up of Hispanic newborn baby girl's feet
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Meaning

Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe people born with sex characteristics that don't fit the binary medical definitions of male or female. Sex characteristics include chromosomes, genitals, gonads, hormones, and other reproductive anatomy.

There are many ways someone can be intersex. In fact, there are more than 30 different variations.

Someone who is intersex may have genitals that aren’t clearly male or female. This can include having an enlarged clitoris that looks like a penis or having testicles that aren’t completely formed.

Someone else may have outwardly male or female genitalia, but their hormones or chromosomes are from the opposite sex. genitals that fall into the typical male/female categories, but the hormones or internal anatomy of the opposite sex.

Sometimes these variations are noticed at birth. At other times, they’re noticed in puberty when hormones cause differences to develop.

Recap

Intersex means your anatomy, hormones, or genes don’t fit into the usual categories of male or female. These differences could be noticeable at birth or during puberty.

History of Intersex

Intersex used to be called hermaphroditism. According to interACT, the advocacy group for intersex youth, many consider this an offensive term, so it should never be used to refer to an intersex person.

In the 1920s, physicians began performing surgeries on intersex infants to change their anatomy to either male or female. The practice became even more common in the 1950s. Parents were told to raise the child as the assigned sex, whether a boy or girl. Some children were never told about the procedure and didn’t discover that they were intersex until they were adults.

At that time, researchers claimed that an assigned gender would be better for the child’s mental health and sense of identity. That research has since been discredited.

In 1993, the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) was formed. Advocacy groups helped to highlight ethical issues regarding intersex. They stressed the importance of delaying surgery when not medically necessary so that children could be involved in the decisions later.

Through the 1990s, more people started talking about their experiences with being intersex. Groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations also helped bring attention to the rights of intersex people.

In 2005, a group of subject-matter experts coined the term “disorders of sex development,” or DSD, in place of “intersex.” Experts justified the need for this new terminology by suggesting terms like “intersex” and “hermaphroditism” were too stigmatizing and controversial.

InterACT continues to use the term intersex rather than DSD. According to their statement, they felt the term “disorder” labeled the condition as unhealthy. They suggest replacing “disorder” with “difference” in DSD.

Of course, it’s up to those who are intersex to decide whether to use intersex or DSD.

Today, awareness about intersex continues to grow. Medical professionals often work together as a team with the patient and the family to make the right decisions about treatment.

That may include delaying surgery until the child is older and able to make informed decisions. In some cases, it may include a non-surgical treatment, such as hormones or medication, that can be reversed.

Today, the American Psychological Association recommends that parents of children with intersex talk with their children about their differences in an age-appropriate manner throughout their lives.

Recap

In the 1950s and 1960s, surgeries for intersex babies became more common. Starting in the 1990s, advocacy groups began raising awareness of intersex and the importance of delaying surgery when not medically needed.

Statistics

Exact numbers are hard to track from hospitals. It’s estimated that about 2% of people are born intersex, based on work by Anne Fausto-Serling, PhD, and colleagues, who reviewed medical literature from 1955 to 1998.

About 1 in 2,000 babies, or .05%, are born with genital differences that are recognizable at birth.

Variations of Intersex

There are over 30 medical terms for different combinations of intersex traits.

46, XX Intersex

People with this condition have external genitals that appear to be male or unclear. However, they have female chromosomes, ovaries, and a womb. The clitoris may enlarge to look like a penis. The lower vagina may be closed.

The most common cause is congenital adrenal hyperplasia. In this condition, the body lacks an enzyme that’s needed to make the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Without those hormones, the body produces more androgens, which are male sex hormones.

46, XY Intersex

People with this condition have genitals that appear to be female or unclear. They have male chromosomes, but the testicles may be absent or not fully formed. They may or may not have a womb.

The most common cause is androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). With AIS, the body doesn’t respond correctly to androgens, male sex hormones.

46, XX Ovotesticular

In this condition, people have female chromosomes, but they have tissue from both ovaries and testicles. The genitals can look like a male, female, or a mix of both.

The exact cause isn’t known. Some cases may be linked to an X chromosome having genetic material that’s usually on a Y chromosome.

Sex Chromosome DSD

These conditions involve chromosomes that aren’t strictly male (XY) or female (XX). Some may have only one X chromosome (XO). Others may have an extra X chromosome (XXY).

Those with this condition don’t have any differences between their internal organs and external genitals. Around puberty, they may not go through usual sexual development. For example, people with female sex organs may not get their period.

Recap

Intersex includes about 60 different conditions. These can include congenital adrenal hyperplasia and androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Discrimination

Intersex people may face discrimination from others. This could be in the form of bullying or shaming, or it could mean being excluded from different services.

Because of these challenges, people with intersex conditions may experience feelings of loneliness, anger, or depression.

To help people connect, intersex support groups can be found for people of all ages online, including Facebook. A yearly conference called InterConnect is hosted in-person in the United States.

Advocacy groups like interACT can also help to provide information about legal rights for intersex people.

People may also face barriers when requesting to include “intersex” on birth certificates and other documentation. However, some states are changing their rules and allowing a non-binary designation on birth certificates.

Summary

Intersex refers to variations in sex traits and reproductive anatomy. Those variations don’t fit into what is normally classified as male or female. Awareness of intersex is growing due to the work of advocacy groups and human rights organizations.

A Word From Verywell

Some people who are intersex may want to change their bodies through surgery or treatment. Others may not.

As kids who are intersex grow up, it’s important to talk to them about their bodies and that their differences are natural.

Talking with supportive family and friends can help. Support groups can also provide a sense of community for intersex people, families, and friends.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can an intersex person reproduce?

    It depends. In many cases, people who are intersex are infertile, but that is not always true. If a person has a penis and produces sperm, they may be able to father a child. An intersex person who has a uterus and ovaries may be able to become pregnant and carry a child to term. 

  • Are intersex people asexual?

    Not necessarily. The two terms are used to describe different things. Intersex has to do with anatomy, genes, and hormones, while asexual refers to a person's sexual orientation.

    Asexual is a term that describes people who do not experience sexual attraction or have very little interest in sexual activity. Some people who are intersex identify as asexual, but many also do not.

  • What does hermaphrodite mean?

    The dictionary defines hermaphrodite as a person or animal having both male and female sex organs. The term is no longer used to refer to people, however, and is considered offensive.

    In science, the term is used to describe organisms that have both female and male sex organs. It is more commonly used to define plants than animals. Hermaphroditic animals are primarily invertebrates, like barnacles, slugs, and worms.

11 Sources
Verywell Health 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. Carpenter M. Intersex variations, human rights, and the International Classification of Diseases. Health Hum Rights. 2018;20(2):205-214.

  2. interACT. What is intersex?

  3. Harvard Medicine. The body, the self.

  4. Houk CP, Hughes IA, Ahmed SF, Lee PA; Writing Committee for the International Intersex Consensus Conference Participants. Summary of consensus statement on intersex disorders and their management. Pediatrics. 2006;118(2):753-757. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-0737

  5. interACT. interACT Statement on intersex terminology.

  6. American Psychological Association. Answers to your questions about individuals with intersex conditions.

  7. Jones C. Intersex, infertility and the future: early diagnoses and the imagined life course. Sociol Health Illn. 2020;42(1):143-156. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12990

  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. Explaining disorders of sex development & intersexuality.

  9. Elamo HP, Virtanen HE, Toppari J. Genetics of cryptorchidism and testicular regression. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2022;36(1):101619. doi:10.1016/j.beem.2022.101619

  10. Ceci M, Calleja E, Said E, Gatt N. A case of true hermaphroditism presenting as a testicular tumour. Case Rep Urol. 2015;2015:598138. doi:10.1155/2015/598138

  11. Griffiths DA. Shifting syndromes: Sex chromosome variations and intersex classifications. Soc Stud Sci. 2018;48(1):125-148. doi:10.1177/0306312718757081