Intersex is a term for people who do not fit neatly into either category of male or female. It is a replacement for the more negative and stigmatizing term of hermaphrodite.

What is Intersex?

The concept of intersex challenges the traditional dichotomy of male/female. While most people believe that people are either male or female, the case is not always so clear-cut. About one percent of the population has a medical condition or genital appearance that renders their sex somewhat amorphous.

What Causes Intersex Conditions?

A number of conditions can cause a person to identify as intersex. These include:

  • Ambiguous genitals, such as an unusually large clitoris or unusually small penis. People with ambiguous genitals are usually chromosomally male or female, but identifying their sex at birth may be challenging, and some doctors may perform surgery on their genitals.
  • Chromosomal abnormalities that cause a person to have the chromosomes of one sex but either ambiguous genitals or genitals that resemble the other sex.
  • Botched surgeries. For example, a circumcision resulting in damage to the penis might cause a doctor to remove the penis and encourage parents to raise the child as a female.

Social Issues

Historically, people with intersex conditions have undergone surgeries, hormonal treatments, and invasive therapies. The Intersex Society of North America cautions against these invasive procedures, which can be traumatic and render a person infertile. The surgeries sometimes happen without parental consent or full information, and are usually done during childhood, without the consent of the child.

Sex, Gender, and Intersex

The distinction between sex and gender becomes increasingly salient among intersex people. Sex is biological identity as male or female, while gender is social identity. For example, a person born with male chromosomes and a very small penis might be biologically male. But if this person undergoes genital surgery, they might identify with the female gender. Intersex is also different from transgenderism, which occurs when a person feels that there is a mismatch between the sex he or she is assigned at birth and the gender with which he or she identifies.


  1. Intersex. (n.d.). U.S National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from
  2. Intersex Society of North America. (n.d.). Intersex Society of North America. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-10-2015

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