From a medical perspective, the term intersex refers to a wide range of conditions where there is significant variation from the conventionally accepted “female/male” anatomy as viewed through a lens that assumes that biological sex takes only one of two forms. However, this is not true, as shown by the existence of these conditions, which can arise from genetic, hormonal, or other causes.
Naturally arising intersex conditions generally are not medical problems. The reason they have been framed as requiring medical, especially surgical, treatment are principally social reasons — the distress that physicians, family members, or others feel or anticipate the child feeling because of the difference from typical.
Even today, however, physicians regularly encourage parents of intersex infants to opt for surgical alteration to fit them into the socially accepted male or female body types. Tissue is removed or damaged in these procedures, and scarring always occurs. Especially since its function is not obvious to the surgeon, the tissue removed in an intersex child may have been crucial for their sexual sensation. Thus, those subjected to gender assignment surgery near birth or during childhood without their consent may experience negative emotional and sexual consequences later in life.
Children born with “ambiguous genitalia” deserve protection from forced sex assignment surgery. Control over their own bodies and any irreversible modifications to be made to their bodies belongs solely with them. Gender assignment is not therapeutic surgery. Rather than surgical alteration of their bodies, these children need a more accepting and supportive environment. That environment can be built by demystifying and de-stigmatizing intersex in our thinking and social norms.
We recommend that parents of children identified as intersex make contact with adults identifying as intersex and peer support from other parents prior to making surgical decisions. At the bottom of this page, you will find links to organizations where such support is available.
Some specific information about intersex:
- Intersex FAQ from the Intersex Society of North America
- How common is intersex?There are many kinds, some occuring as often as 1 in 1,000 births.
- Little research has been done to examine the long-term effects of intersex surgery on the recipients. In May of 2003, a study was published by Catherine Minto et. al. in The Lancet detailing the long-term impact of surgeries used to “normalize” the appearances of the clitoris in some intersex individuals. Not surprisingly, data show that sexual function can be compromised by clitoral surgery; in the study population, many of the individuals who had been operated on reported sexual difficulties and inability to orgasm.
- Management of Intersexuality by Milton Diamond, Ph.D. and H. Keith Sigmundson, M.D. contains considerable advice on the care and counseling for a number of intersex conditions. They emphasize referring to the conditions as “atypical” or “unusual” rather than as “abnormal” or “malformed.” They also state that decisions about hormone treatment and irreversible surgery should be deferred until the individual can make an informed decision.
Organizations and Resources
Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is devoted to systemic change to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with anatomies that someone decides is not standard for male or female.
United Kingdom Intersex Association (UKIA) is an education, advocacy, campaigning and support organisation which works on behalf of intersexed people.
Bodies Like Ours provides peer support and information for people born with intersex. Their mission includes elimination of the shame and secrecy of intersex births through education, awareness, and community.
OutQ, on the Sirius Satellite Radio Network, is the only 24/7, nationwide source of news, information, and entertainment specifically for the Gay/Lesbian Bisexual/Transgender community, their family, friends, and supporters. OutQ also has a news blog.