Intersex Causes and Characteristics

Many people have heard of the outdated term hermaphrodite but are unfamiliar with the term intersex, widely used today to refer to people who do not have typical male or female physical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 this way.

Mother holding her baby hand
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What Is the Definition of Intersex?

Sex is not binary. The term intersex is used to describe people who are born with sexual anatomy that does not neatly fit into male or female categories. Intersex people differ from transgender people who may change their sexual anatomy through surgery, hormones or other treatment. Some examples of transgender people are reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, actress Laverne Cox of "Orange Is the New Black" fame, actor Marquise Vilson of "Disclosure", and model Indya Moore who also stars on "Pose".

While intersex people and transgender people are different, intersex people who are also transgender do exist. Public health researcher and advocate, Sean Saifa Wall, is an example.

Nonetheless, there is a wide variation in the extent to which people are affected by being intersex. There is also wide variation around individual feelings about their personal intersex characteristics. Social acceptance plays a significant role in how having intersex characteristics may negatively affect 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) or 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 be in a different 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. These conditions can affect people regardless of outward physical appearance. 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 unique combinations of the X and Y chromosomes that typically determine sex. Moreover, some people's bodies respond differently to the messages of the sex hormones, so they develop sexual characteristics uniquely.

Although rare, intersex characteristics can sometimes indicate underlying medical concerns. 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 what it means to be intersex. 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, both who were assigned female at birth, were accused of having unfair advantages in their respective sports for having intersex characteristics. Caster Semenya recently announced she is taking her battle against World Athletics to the European Court of Human Rights after she World Athletics required her to lower her natural testosterone levels to compete.

While the public at large still remains largely unfamiliar with intersex people, growing awareness about transgender people likely means that intersex individuals will be more accepted in the future as well.

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Article Sources
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  1. Indyk JA. Disorders/differences of sex development (DSDs) for primary care: the approach to the infant with ambiguous genitaliaTransl Pediatr. 2017;6(4):323-334. doi:10.21037/tp.2017.10.03

  2. Indyk JA. Disorders/differences of sex development (DSDs) for primary care: the approach to the infant with ambiguous genitaliaTransl Pediatr. 2017;6(4):323-334. doi:10.21037/tp.2017.10.03

Additional Reading
  • Intersex Society of North America. What Is Intersex?

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