Who are Intersex People?
In our culture, there are two ways of looking at this question:
Way # 1: Anyone could be intersex.
(This statement is true in terms of current science.)
We used to think that sex is binary, a pole with “male” at one end, and “female” at the ‘opposite’ end. We used to believe that all the various ways of measuring sex would match up and be the same sex. We used to think that the way you told boys and girls apart was by looking in their pants. It turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. Science has replaced that binary with the idea of a spectrum of possibly overlapping male and female elements.
There are actually a number of ways to determine a person’s sex. Gonads, genes, hormones, internal structures yield precise, measurable data. The appearance of the genitals (pants check) and phenotype (general body shape) can only be assessed in terms of culture. These different ways of determining sex don’t always have to agree with each other, and show the same sex.
Whenever someone’s markers of sex do not all show the same sex, or overlap male and female elements in some way, this is termed an “intersex difference.” Some intersex differences create health concerns that require medical intervention, but science has conceded that most intersex differences are invisible and unsuspected.
In fact, so many intersex differences have been discovered by accident that science accepts that humans are simply not reliably or 100% sexually binary, and that the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ cannot be strictly defined anymore, because of this potential overlap in all people of male and female sex characteristics. Science also tells us there is absolutely no way of predicting or assessing who is intersex ‘by looking,’ or by virtue of a ‘pants check,’ which is considered the least scientific way of assessing sex, as the answer depends entirely on cultural expectations. Science concedes it’s not possible to categorically rule out an intersex difference in anyone, not even if you tested every single cell in their body, because the genes of human sex determination have even been shown to change their sex over time.
What this means is that anyone could be intersex, and not even know it. Even you.
Way # 2: Intersex people are rare and tragic individuals in whom something has gone wrong. Unless this mistake is fixed, they will never be able to fit in, find love or live a normal life.
(This statement is true, in terms of the preferred beliefs of our culture, but it would not be considered true for other cultures. Although this viewpoint is endorsed by medicine, it is not considered defensible in terms of biology or human rights.)
Our culture takes it for granted that males and females are separate and distinct classes of humans, easily told apart by looking at the shape of the genitals. This idea depends on a couple of shortcut assumptions, neither of which can be assumed to be true:
Assumption # 1: Genitals come in two basic shapes, “male” and “female.”
Genitals do not come in two basic shapes. Although most people’s genitals do tend to look the way our culture expects, they don’t always, nor do they have to. Like other determinants of sex, they can overlap or combine male and female elements. There is no precise line between male and female genital forms, and genitals can range over the entire spectrum between stereotypical male to stereotypical female genital forms. Even when they don’t look the way our culture would prefer, the underlying cause for ‘ambiguous’ genitalia can only ever be figured out 20% of the time. That doesn’t necessarily pose a problem, except in terms of our culture’s expectations for appearance and for social roles based on genital appearance.
Assumption # 2: a person’s genitals will match all their other markers of sex.
Nothing whatsoever can be assumed about a person’s other markers of sex from looking at their genitals. There are a number of different ways to measure sex. Genes, gonads, hormones, internal reproductive structures give quantifiable measurements. But classifying genitals and phenotype by appearance is the territory of culture, not biology, in terms of yielding useful data. The different ways of measuring sex don’t all have to agree with each other and be the same sex. Most often, intersex differences happen with no visible cues.
The pants check really only tells us how close or far an individual comes to our culture’s expectations for genital appearance, and nothing more. One can make no assumptions whatsoever about the other markers of sex based on a visual inspection of the genitals.
Most people’s genitals do tend to look like the far binary ends, where we find our culturally idealized forms. But not everyone’s genitals look like our culture’s idealized forms.