Ten Misconceptions about Intersex


Curtis E. Hinkle, Founder, Organisation Intersex International & Hida Viloria, Chairperson, Organisation Intersex International

All of the following statements are false:

1. Intersex means that a person has both sets of genitalia.

This is probably one of the most common misconceptions about intersex. Intersex often has nothing to do with the genitalia of the person, much less having two sets.

There are intersex people with a penis and a vaginal opening. However, there are no documented cases of a person being born with fully developed male and female genitalia. The vast majority of intersex people have genitalia that look pretty typically male or female with a small minority having atypical genitalia. In fact, the quaint, pseudoscientific term‚ “true hermaphrodite” – which refers someone with ovarian and testicular tissue –  can refer to a person with totally typical male or female genitalia.

2. 1 in 2000 infants is born intersex.

This is one of the most common statistics given. It would be more accurate to state simply that in hospitals with gender assignment teams, 1 in 2000 infants is born with genitalia that are so atypical that the attending physician requests the help of the specialists in the team to assign a sex.

Most hospitals in the world have no gender assignment teams and most intersex people have typical genitalia. One should be careful to note that even in the majority of births with atypical genitalia, the doctor does not request any assistance from a gender assignment team even if one is available. Therefore, one can readily see that this figure gives the impression that intersex is very, very rare. It isn’t!

The most thorough existing research, by Brown University biology professor and intersex researcher Anne Fausto-Sterling, found intersex births to constitute 1.7% of the population.* However, given that only some intersex clinical patients’ records are used as data, the figure is likely to be substantially higher. For example,  Sharon Preves, Ph.D., author of Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self, who has researched the topic of intersex very thoroughly, states that, “The frequency could be as high as four percent.”

 * Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-07713-7.

3. When an intersex child is born, they cannot be left to grow up as is, but rather “something must be done”.

There are very few instances when a child’s intersex variation poses health risks that require immediate medical attention. Rather, intersex people, like all people, have health issues. For example, being a female is not in and of itself a health problem but there are health problems specific to females.

In the majority of cases where there are no health risks involved, we have witnessed that it is more beneficial to the intersex child to be allowed to grow up with their body intact. Preserving their bodies’ integrity allows intersex children to develop their own sense of sex and gender identity without the risk of irreparable damage to the formation of this identity.

The child can be raised with a provisional sex assignment of male or female and left to decide for themselves, as all other humans are given the right to do, if this sex feels right for them later on, and/or if they wish to make any cosmetic changes to their body to align it with their sense of self. Attempting to make these decisions for infants and children, while perhaps well intentioned, is playing a game of speculation with another person’s life.

4. Intersex is about homosexuality.

The underlying reasons for pathologizing intersexuality and suggesting treatments which are often barbaric are most likely a result of homophobia. However, there is nothing about intersexuality per se that would cause one to state that intersexuality and homosexuality are the same issue or that they are directly related.

There quite possibly are links but the physiological reasons are not fully understood at this time. What is important to understand is that many people with intersex conditions, just as those without them, sometimes identify as gay or lesbian. Similarly, many intersex adults find the issue of homosexuality irrelevant to our perception of ourselves. More and more intersex people are comfortable with an intersex gender identity which we feel is more accurate in describing how we perceive ourselves.

The socially constructed model of eroticism offered up by many cultures which divides people into homosexual and heterosexual erases our identity. Even bisexuality further perpetuates the idea of only two genders by the use of the prefix “bi‚” which means‚ “both.” There are people who are primarily attracted to androgynous people, to “masculine ” women or “feminine” men. And most important of all, what is the opposite sex of an intersex person?

5. Disorders of Sex Development, or DSD, is the preferred term for intersex.

All members of the Organisation Intersex International – OII – the largest intersex organization in the world, reject the label Disorders of Sex Development, or DSD, for the simple reason that we are not disordered, but different, and we refuse to accept medical language and views which pathologize us.

The fact that some intersex individuals choose to use this term to describe themselves, just as some homosexuals view their homosexuality as a disorder to be cured, does not discount the fact that the label is inaccurate and stigmatizing to the community as a whole.

6. Intersex is not about gender.

To many intersex people, gender is the main issue. In many countries around the world, there are no early surgeries to “treat” intersex bodies. These people’s main issues are often based on not being able to fit into either gender or growing up with a body incompatible with the gender in which they were raised.

The very theories used to support mutilating intersex bodies both surgically and hormonally are based on notions of gender which have been proven to be unreliable. According to theses theories, often espoused by followers of Dr John Money, gender is not innate to the individual. We have no proof of this. We do have quite a bit of proof to the contrary.

Intersex is not just about our bodies but also about how we perceive ourselves within those bodies and gender identity is a crucial part of everyone’s identity.

To erase the importance of gender to the individual intersex person is to reduce that person to only the physical aspects of their body, neglecting the more important part of the equation, their own perception of that body and themselves, as opposed to how others perceive them.

7. Intersex is part of the transgender movement.

No. Whereas individuals who are intersex might identify as transgender, the opposite is not true. Most people who are part of the transgender movement are not intersex.

To include intersex under the umbrella term  “transgender” overlooks our specific needs which often are medical reform, legal issues concerning which gender we are, health issues specific to intersex bodies and more importantly, the fact that most intersex people are not trans.

Many intersex people are perfectly happy with being men or women and more and more of us are quite happy being intergender and find the notion of trans totally foreign to our identity because we are rejecting binary sex and binary gender altogether and the prefix “trans,” just like the prefix “bi‚” mentioned earlier, keeps the binary well intact.

8. The intersex movement is an identity movement like the LGBT movements.

The Organisation Intersex International campaigns for full human rights for all people born with intersex variations. However at this moment many intersex people do not claim “intersex” as an identity.

Our diverse community includes people who identify as intersex males, intersex females, intersex, males, females, both or neither male nor female, men, women, herms, or sometimes, also, transgender.

9. Most intersex people were assigned female.

Many intersex differences in infants assigned male are often overlooked and the parents are simply told there is some work necessary for proper urination or that a testicle has not descended and so on.

In addition, in many parts of the world intersex people are assigned male if at all possible because it is deemed more socially desirable to be male.

When one reads about all the many variations underlying intersex, one realizes that a person born intersex is just as likely to be assigned male as female.

10. Intersex is a “condition” which can be cured.

Surgical “normalization” of intersex bodies is an attempt, like eugenics, to remove differences which some people have decided are undesirable, and it often creates problems which were previously non-existent.

To view intersex variations as “medical conditions” which can be cured justifies the barbaric medical practices we are often subjected to, such as genital surgeries and/or hormones which may be contrary to our own core identity, and psychological treatments for not wishing to comply.