Intersex: What is It, and What It Means for Sexuality

In Depth

If some people are born neither male nor female, what does that say about our traditional views of sex and gender, and as these individuals will grow up to have sexual orientations, how can those orientations be defined? These are the questions asked by Michael Passaro in an essay which explores the possibility for a labeling system which validates and makes visible intersex individuals.

Lately I have been doing a lot of thinking about the gender and sexuality spectrum. I’ve discussed many things, from how we can and should define bisexuality, to whether sexual orientation should be a special class from other attractions. I will most likely do separate posts on each of these but one of the topics which interests me most is that of biological sex. What is sex? What are its defining characteristics? And how does it intersect with our many other characteristics and identities?

Lets start with the very basic. What is sex? Seems obvious to most. Sex is being male or female. Right? Well, yes. But maybe no. At least we can say that this is the widely understood use of the word. Let’s note that sex is not to be confused with gender. Gender is the social construct of categories of people and the behaviors and ways people are supposed to feel and relate to those categories/behaviors. But let’s explore a little bit into what it means to have a sex.

I suppose the simplest way to do this is to ask how do we know what sex you are? This is determined at birth by a doctor and is dependent on your developed sex organs. If you have a penis and testes you are male. If not, female. Simple right? We run into problem with this system when we encounter infants born with differences in their sex organs’ development so that they don’t really have a penis or a vagina or a clitoris. So which sex are these people? Well, doctors have decided in the past that they should be altered to fit into a binary system that cannot represent the form of the child.

As you can imagine, this worked for a time but soon came under scrutiny. People were slipping through the cracks. Because most of the children who were operated on were made into ‘girls’ these cracks were pushed open when people started to experience problems related to men’s health. This combined with the growing science around DNA moved sex’s definition to determined more by the the chromosomes contained within your cells.

This has led to even more interesting areas of what it means to be male or female. Almost everyone knows by the 7th grade that a female has two X chromosomes and a male has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. However like all things in life, things aren’t this simple. There are many variations that can occur. There are people who only have one X chromosome. People who are XXY or XYY. There are XXX people and there are XXY people. What do we make of these? If DNA is the defining factor and there are so many different possibilities why do we only have 2 sexes?

Science has created a circular loop. We look at your physical characteristics at birth, and if needed we look at your DNA, but if your DNA isn’t fitting into the XX or XY categories we then look at your physical development again.

I, and many others, propose that there is a false sense of security in there being only two sexes. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor in biology and gender studies at Brown University, put forward that there could be as many as 5 different sex classifications (in a thought experiment). There is growing recognition in the scientific field that intersex is a legitimate claim against a binary understanding of sex. Germany and Australia have officially recognized that sex may not necessarily be only male and female. Australia allows for a sex “X” and Germany allows for children to be born with an indeterminate sex (to be determined at a later time).

There are many issues to deal with for intersex individuals. Issues of gender, issues of recognition, issues of bodily integrity and many more. All of these are best addressed by those who are directly affected by such things. So I would like to look at what this means for the rest of us who are (think we are) conventionally sexed. What does this mean for our understanding of sexuality?

The most glaring complication is what this means for our understanding of sexual orientation. In general sexual orientations are in relation to one’s self and the object of desire. Namely, if they are your sex, or the ‘opposite’. This is complicated when we talk about sexual orientation in terms of gender instead of sex but let’s focus on sex. Because now we do not have a binary what does it mean to be ‘heterosexual’? What is the opposite of male? What is the opposite of intersex? This is further complicated dependent on the number of sexes we allow. Can only some people be heterosexual then?

A further complexity arises when we look at what it means to be bi/pansexual. Again, operating under the assumption of sex as the object of sexual orientation, bisexual and pansexuality are the same (because traditionally there is only two sexes). However with the introduction of intersex this changes. Do we then interpret bisexual to mean two sexes? Do we adopt the view of many bisexual activists and say its attraction to one’s own sex and others? Maybe this would depend too on how many sexes we deem there to be.

Lets assume there are 3 (male, female, and intersex). Is a bisexual person still the same as a pansexual one? A person who is attracted to their own sex and others? Or is it a person attracted to two sexes? Many people might say the latter. To those I raise this question: Suppose I am a male, and I am attracted to females, and attracted to intersex individuals. BUT let us also say that I am only attracted to intersex people who resemble females. What is my sexual orientation? I seem to be bisexual. Because technically I am attracted to two sexes. However, am I really attracted to intersex people or am I actually attracted to their female-ness? It seems inaccurate to say that I am attracted to intersex people as a whole because its really only some.

This seems to justify breaking sex down further than only 3 sexes. Lets say we adopt the 5 sex system put forward by Fausto-Sterling (or even more sexes). Now how do we deal with the bi/pansexuality issue? Does/should bisexuality apply to those who are attracted to 2, 3, 4 sexes (and on and on)? Or ought we have trisexuals, quadsexuals, etc.? I’m not sure.

For clarity’s sake maybe classification ought be specific to the number of sexes you are attracted to. But is it the same for a male to be attracted to a female and a male as it is for a female to be attracted to females and female-presenting intersex? I’m not sure. Maybe we ought overhaul our entire classification system? Maybe the number is not the important bit but the specific sexes we are attracted to. Is it better to have a more complicated but also more comprehensive/accurate system?

Its clear that the system that we have doesn’t work. We can’t decide how to determine sex, let alone tell how many there are. The current binary places people into tiny boxes and clearly others many. It has been used to justify altering infants bodies unnecessarily, not only dangerous for the child then but then altering their entire life (forcing them to take hormones and still have the risk of medical complications later). As for sexual orientations – as a classification system we need to make a judgment call as to what it is that is important. Is the defining characteristic the number of sexes your attracted to? Or is the sex of the person important? If all we want is simplicity then clearly numbers is the way to go but I would question the value of a classification system that doesn’t accurately reflect the diversity that exists.

Read more about sexuality here.

This essay was originally published at Issues of Humanity. Republished with Permission. Image via Shutterstock.

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