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Intersex Ignorance: Expanding the Gender Spectrum

Posted by Maddie Berkvam on

More likely than not, most children of the 90s – my recent interviewees and myself included – were raised to think of only two sexes existing in the world: boys and girls. Perhaps for some there was a familiarity with the LGBTQ community and for even fewer, an explanation given for intersex conditions. According to the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), ‘intersex’ is not simply a divergence from typical ‘male’ or ‘female,’ but rather, defines a broad span of physiological forms. In the U.S., the general public seems glaringly unaware of both the frequency and significance of the complex continuum that defines ‘intersex.’ Public education in this context is greatly lacking and as a result, the controversial issue of intersex surgeries is too often approached with ignorance and apprehension, despite its frequency. If our society embraced open discussions and fair presentations of information regarding people who are born intersex, there would be a vast improvement in acceptance and treatment of intersex conditions.

Contrary to popular belief, babies who are in some way intersex occur in 1 in 2,000 births in the U.S.. However, this fact inadvertently implies that a child is always deemed intersex at birth and in an unambiguous manner. In reality, significant grey area persists. Doctors habitually suggest determining a child’s sex by objective appearance or hormone levels. Unfortunately, hormones alone are “not enough to determine sexuality” and fluctuate considerably throughout a person’s life. The result of the vast majority of intersex infant cases are genital surgeries that “normalize” the sex, typically at the cost of sexual function and/or future psychological wellness.

This can lead to devastating outcomes in the futures of these infants born intersex. To take my interviewee’s knowledge as example, she pointed out that not only was she previously unfamiliar with the term intersex, but felt that if more people knew about its prevalence and understood the available options, it would be much easier to make decisions or empathize with what people who are intersex are experiencing. Furthermore, she surmised that genital surgeries should only be performed in the circumstance where it is found to be medically necessary – a right that most intersex infants are denied as a result of skewed portrayals by doctors. ISNA argues that this lack of knowledge among families not only violates the child’s right to consent but is also perpetuated by doctors who poorly represent their medical cases. An uninformed society presents perhaps the largest obstacle in the ongoing struggle for intersex acceptance.

While this concern has been acknowledged in relatively recent terms in the medical and intersex community, there is undoubtedly a need for more proactive solutions. My interviewee proved to be one (likely of many) example(s) of a cis-gendered person who did not see any reason to compare male circumcision, female circumcision, and “normalizing” intersex surgeries – a small but potent illustration evidencing a lack of societal dialogue. Nonetheless, physicians all too often alter a child’s genitals to “look more like the sex it is” in spite of harmful outcomes and cosmetic motivations. Although this does not speak for an entire community, most people who are intersex that report to ISNA argue that they would “rather be different than mutilated.”

Clearly, if we take the deficiency of information as the primary problem, education should be the jumping off point. In an interview, Waris Dirie urges activists and citizens to advocate not just for a change in physician education/medical decision-making but for “medical examinations in every school and kindergarten” where children are examined for FGM, sexual abuse, and physical violence. Surely many successful approaches exist and require only dedicated implementation, but that is precisely where we come to a standstill. We cannot afford to have ignorance and uneasiness shape such an ever-relevant, sensitive matter. Our attitudes moving forward will affect not only intersex individuals but also future generations of our society.

This article was written by Maddie Berkvam, a biologist, botany expert, and world traveler.


  • Worcester, Nancy, and Marianne H. Whatley. "Exploring the Binary Sex System" Women's Health: Readings on Social, Economic, and Political Issues. 5th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2009. 185-188. Print.
  • Worcester, Nancy, and Marianne H. Whatley. "Male and Female Hormones Revisited" Women's Health: Readings on Social, Economic, and Political Issues. 5th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2009. 167-168. Print.
  • Worcester, Nancy, and Marianne H. Whatley. "How to Stop Female Genital Mutilation" Women's Health: Readings on Social, Economic, and Political Issues. 5th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub., 2009. 205-207. Print.
  • (Last name omitted), Kaylee. Personal Interview. 15 September 2014.

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