Sexuality 101: Intersex

In the first article of our new series, Sexuality 101, we discussed the meaning of the acronym LGBTQIA – but what do the terms within it actually mean themselves? Perhaps the least discussed of these is intersexuality.

Intersex is a general term which is, according to the Intersex Society of North America, “used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male”. Whereas transsexuality is about gender identity, intersexuality relates to physical sexual characteristics, such as someone born female having an enlarged clitoris or no vaginal opening, or someone born male having a very small penis or a scrotum which has split and formed similar to the labia.

It’s much more common than many people believe, with around 1 in 1500 people having atypical genitalia, though the rarity of different conditions varies radically. To put that in context, the probability of giving birth to twins is 1 in 70 and the likelihood of getting a hole in one in golf is apparently 1 in 5000. So really it’s not that uncommon at all.

People have lived with intersex conditions throughout history, though there are very few records of them. But as the study of medicine and biology progressed towards the end of the 19th century, professionals began to take notice, though their approach was – and often remains – very conservative.

With the Victorian world build upon a two-sex system, intersex identities were generally not acknowledged, and patients were assigned either male or female gender identities instead; an intersex person with ovaries was classified as a ‘female-pseudo-hermaphrodite’, whilst a person with testes was described as a ‘male pseudo-hermaphrodite’. If a person had both ovarian and testicular tissue they were seen as a ‘true hermaphrodite’.

This kind of approach only intensified as science progressed. In the 1950s a team at John Hopkins University developed what became a popular approach, focusing on giving intersex children what was considered a “normal” gender identity, where body and identity matched. They would surgically construct genitalia for the children, usually creating supposedly female organs as this was easier, and then encourage parents to raise their child as this gender, regardless of their gender identity beforehand. This method also focused on giving a child a gender identity which would make them most likely to be heterosexual. Many professionals continue to construct vaginas and remove healthy testes in young children today, though there are also many people who live with the intersex genitalia there were born with without surgical intervention.

Medical approaches which have sought to remove intersex identities have contributed to the continuing invisibility of intersexuality in the modern world.  Though most of us can name a handful of prominent transgender celebrities, I expect we’d struggle to identify an openly intersex person. But that’s not to say they aren’t there. South African runner Caster Semenya hit the headlines in 2009 when she won the 800m at the Berlin World Championships in one of the fastest recorded times, and was subsequently investigated for her high levels of testosterone that are a result of her being intersex. With testosterone limits for female athletes set and then pulled down, Semenya will compete at this year’s Rio Olympics as a hot favourite, likely putting intersex issues in the news again. Outside of sport, Lili Elbe, the subject of Oscar nominated film The Danish Girl, was possibly intersex in real life, though cinema and history has remembered her as transgender.