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The Basics of Intersexism
by TeenHelp July 12th 2016, 10:03 PM

The Basics of Intersexism
By Nicole (eumoirous)

The Intersex Society of North America defines intersexism as “a general term 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.” Typically, intersex individuals are born with ambiguous genitalia, however they can also appear a certain sex on the outside, but have the opposite sex’s anatomy on the inside. They are usually born healthy and do not require any medical procedures, however it is very common for parents and doctors to choose a sex for the newborns, and conduct surgical procedures to that end. This poses a problem for individuals born intersex as they do not have a say in which sex they are assigned, and many grow up as a different gender and experience gender dysmorphia. Gender dysmorphia is distress an individual experiences when the sex/gender they were assigned at birth does not match up to the sex and/or gender they feel they are.

Intersexism may not be as obvious as it seems. Usually, doctors decide what a person’s genitalia must look like in order for them to be considered intersex. Additionally, because biology can vary, intersexism appears on a spectrum. Some individuals do not find out they are intersex until puberty, and some may never be aware of it at all. Socially constructed norms about what males and females should look like influence who is considered to be "abnormal." Because of this, there are discrepancies between doctors' opinions of how to handle cases of intersexism. Data from the Intersex Society of North America suggests that intersexism occurs in 1 of every 1,500 to 2,000 births, however this number is difficult to determine as intersex is an umbrella term.

Many doctors, and parents too, feel that if a child is born intersex, they must be “fixed.” This is typically done with surgical procedures. To determine which gender the child may grow up to be, tests can be conducted to find hormone levels. However, there are cases where parents simply choose what sex they would like their child to be. The problem with these surgeries is that it is very difficult to undo the sex assignment if the child grows up feeling like a different gender. Without being able to give consent, many intersex-born individuals are stuck with a decision someone else made about their body.

To cope with gender dysphoria, many individuals who are intersex will dress as their preferred gender, start hormonal therapy, or if they are able, have surgery conducted. Gender dysphoria can be particularly difficult for intersex individuals who had surgery when they were younger as it may be impractical for doctors to reverse the procedure. Therapy can be helpful to work through emotions, and it can help build up a support system.

Intersex individuals can be at risk for certain medical conditions. It is important to see a doctor if you think you might be intersex. Potential conditions include:
  • Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome This condition occurs when an individual is resistant to male hormones and thus has some or all physical characteristics of a woman, but their genetic makeup is similar to a man's.
  • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia This condition reduces hormone production and can lead to limitation in a child's growth and development.
  • Klinefelter Syndrome A condition in which a male is born with an extra X chormosome. This can lead to lowered testosterone.
  • Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome This condition leads to ambiguous genetalia.
  • Swyer Syndrome This condition leads to an individual with physical female characteristics to not experience puberty.
  • Turner Syndrome A condition in which a woman is born with only one X chromosome. This can lead to delayed puberty and infertility.
The important thing to remember about intersexism is that people can have the condition but still be healthy. Many activists are working towards eradicating surgical procedures so that individuals born as intersex can make their own decisions about their bodies. Moreover, it is also crucial to remember the difference between sex and gender. A person’s sex involves biological features, and their gender is a social construct. It is difficult to determine what gender an individual may grow up to be, especially because gender occurs on a spectrum.
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