A hermaphrodite describes a person who is born with both female and male physical characteristics. Increasingly, however, intersex is becoming a more popular description when referring to individuals of this congenital state. A hermaphrodite may be born with both sex organs or may be born with one main sex organ, but possess part of a second opposite organ. Beyond visible features, other physical characteristics may also cause a person to be defined as intersex, such as the chromosomal differences apparent in Klinefelter syndrome where a male is born with two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome.
The hermaphrodite label is not only applied to humans, but is often used to describe certain plant species, as well as other animals that possess both sex organs. Historically, humans born with this condition often undergo surgery during infancy. For all intents and purposes, surgery is intended to eliminate one of the sex organs and, thus, make the child anatomically either female or male.
Some, such as the Intersex Society of North America, consider hermaphrodite to be an outdated and inaccurate description of intersex individuals. Typically, it is used to describe people who are believed to be, physically, both female and male. People who are born with characteristics of both sexes, however, cannot be as easily depicted as completely female while also being completely male. Specifically, a person who some may refer to as a hermaphrodite may actually be born with an outwardly male appearance, yet possess female internal organs or vice versa.
There are a number of other congenital variations that cause some to shun the hermaphrodite label. For instance, a newborn girl may be born without a vaginal opening or may be born with an enlarged clitoris, which may appear to be a small penis. A newborn boy may be born with a scrotum that is shaped like a labia.
Another description, once defined as a true hermaphrodite, is applied to individuals born with sex glands that are made up of testicular as well as ovarian tissue. Today, doctors more commonly refer to this intersex condition as ovotestes. Some people may have two ovotestes or may have just one that is paired with another ovary. Infants born with ovotestes often appear to have normal looking female or male genitalia, while some appear to have genitals that appear to be a combination of both.
Medical science has discovered that individuals who may have at one time been described as a hermaphrodite can actually be born with multiple female and male sex organ variations. This has led to the more common usage of the term intersex by which such individuals are labeled today. Some people born with this condition, however, have chosen to embrace the former label, while others find it to be offensive.
What Does a Hermaphrodite Look Like?
The most important thing to note is that "hermaphrodite" is an outdated term when referring to intersex people. It is also important to note that there is no one way for an intersex person to look. They are your friends, neighbors, and the everyday people you see walking down the street. You cannot tell a person is intersex just by looking at them. In fact, some people never even know they are intersex because there are no outward indicators.
Genital Indicators of Being Intersex
Those who do have outward indicators that they are intersex often see them in the genital area. A baby that is born intersex may have a clitoris that is larger than is typical or may have a smaller than usual penis. Other indicators that a baby is intersex include having no vaginal opening, having labia that resemble a scrotum, having an empty scrotum, or having a penis with a urethra opening on the underside instead of at the tip.
Other Physical Indicators That Someone Is Intersex
As stated, some intersex people are born with genitals that are traditionally assigned as male or female. This doesn't mean they aren't intersex, though. A person may learn they are intersex during the puberty stage. When a child hits puberty, the body may produce hormones that are the opposite of his or her assigned sex at birth. Sometimes, expected indicators of puberty, such as growing breasts or growing facial hair, do not happen as expected. Sometimes, even puberty isn't an indication of someone being intersex. Some people don't learn they are intersex until they are much older and have fertility issues. And finally, some people never show any indicators they are intersex at all and never know.
What Causes Someone To Be Born Intersex?
The term "intersex" refers to a spectrum of different situations rather than a specific "look" or diagnosis. Most people are born with one X and one Y chromosome (males) or two X chromosomes (females). However, several variations can occur as well.
- XYY Syndrome – This syndrome occurs when a male has an extra Y chromosome. Also referred to as Jacob's syndrome or several other names, people who have the disorder typically live normal lives. However, they may be taller than average or have speech problems.
- Klinefelter Syndrome – This genetic disease causes males to have an extra X chromosome when they're born. Testicles are typically smaller than average and do not produce as much testosterone. During puberty, people with Klinefelter Syndrome may not have penis grown and may not grow as much facial or body hair.
- Mosaicism – Mosaicism occurs when the chromosomes are different by cells, such as some that are XY and some that are XXY.
The cause of being born intersex is no one thing. Sometimes, it happens spontaneously during conception. Sometimes the egg cells cause the changes, but other times the sperm cells are the ones behind the change. Even when there are chromosomal variations, there aren't always changes that result in labeling someone as intersex.
Are There Treatments for Being Intersex?
It's important to understand that being intersex is not a disease. Intersex people live very regular lives. If they don't tell you about their intersexuality, you won't know about it. Since it's not a disease, there is no way to "cure" being intersex. There are medical interventions to treat the side effects of being intersex, but that is treating the side effect, not the intersexuality. For example, if someone is born with a uterus that has no opening, menstruation as an adult becomes painful because the blood cannot exit the body. In this case, a doctor would use surgery to treat the closed uterus by creating an opening for blood to release.
Choosing a Sex for Your Intersex Baby
Unless there is a health condition, such as no urethra opening, your baby will not have a medical need for surgery. Some doctors recommend surgery to make the genitals appear to be more typically female or male. Since the 1930s, intersex children presenting as girls often have had clitoral surgery to make it appear more typical. However, these surgeries are largely done for social reasons and it is important to talk to a range of non-medical professionals as well.
Therapists who specialize in working with intersex people and their families can help you to decide whether surgery is the right choice. Keep in mind that as your child grows, he or she may not identify with the sex that you assigned as an infant. Remember, too, that the hormones your child produces in puberty may not match the sex you chose for him or her.