Intersexed Individuals: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Diane Davis
Studying the condition called 'intersex' can help you identify how this issue is identified and manifested. Explore this condition and test yourself with a quiz.

Definition

A variety of conditions that involve abnormalities of the external genitals, internal reproductive organs, sex chromosomes, or sex-related hormones are collectively referred to as intersex conditions.

Many experts and persons with intersex conditions have recently recommended adopting the term disorders of sex development (DSD). They feel that this term is more accurate and less stigmatizing than the term intersex.

Intersex Conditions

One out of every 1,500 babies is born with genitals that cannot easily be classified as male or female. When genitals cannot easily be classified as male or female they are called 'ambiguous genitals.'

Some examples of intersex conditions are:

  • Incomplete masculinization of the genitals in male infants caused by low levels of an enzyme
  • Incomplete masculinization of the genitals in male infants, in which cells do not respond normally to testosterone and related hormones
  • Male infants are born without a penis. This is called penile agenesis
  • Female-appearing genitals in infants with male chromosomes and in which cells do not respond at all to testosterone and related hormones
  • Incomplete masculinization and other anomalies in which male infants are born with an extra X (female) chromosome. This is called Klinefelter syndrome
  • Female infants are born with one, rather than two, X (female) chromosomes, causing developmental anomalies. This is called Turner syndrome
  • Female infants are born without a vagina. This is called vaginal agenesis

Sex Assignment

There are tests and examinations to determine exactly what condition the baby has. Determining the type of intersex condition is important, because some intersex conditions can be associated with medical problems that may require immediate medical attention. Examinations are done soon after birth because the parents of babies born with ambiguous genitals are usually eager to learn what condition the child has, so that sex assignment can occur without delay.

Sometimes surgery is necessary to correct conditions that may be harmful to the baby's health, but usually it is not medically necessary to perform surgery immediately to make the baby's genitals appear more recognizably male or female. At this time, there is very little research evidence to guide when surgery should be performed.

Many factors go into the decision of sex assignment when babies are born with ambiguous genitals. Factors taken into consideration when making sexual assignment are:

  • Preserving fertility where possible
  • Ensuring good bowel and bladder function
  • Preserving genital sensation

Research has shown that individuals with some conditions are more likely to be satisfied in later life when assigned as males, while individuals with other conditions are more likely to be satisfied when assigned as females. For still other conditions, individuals may be equally satisfied with assignment to either sex, or there may not be enough information to make confident recommendations. Doctors share this information with babies' parents as part of the process of deciding the most appropriate sex to assign.

Discovery of Intersex Conditions in Adolescence

Intersex conditions discovered later in life often become apparent in early adolescence. Since there are definite signs of puberty for males and females, the absent of certain signs may be the first indication that an intersex condition exists. For example, a girl does not menstruate. Medical treatment is sometimes necessary to help development proceed as normally as possible; for some conditions, surgical treatment may be recommended. Many intersex conditions discovered late in life are associated with infertility or with reduced fertility.

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