What Is Hermaphroditism?

Stephany Seipel
Stephany Seipel
Babies with intersex disorders are born with irregular sex organs.
Babies with intersex disorders are born with irregular sex organs.

Hermaphroditism, also called intersex, is a disorder involving sexual development. Babies with intersex disorders are born with irregular sex organs or have inconsistencies between the inner and outer organs. Doctors treat the condition by removing the unwanted sexual organs.

The condition was originally named after Hermes and Aphrodite, the Greek god and goddess of love and sex, but most 21st-century physicians and patients refer to hermaphroditism as intersex. The symptoms of intersex vary depending on the patient. Several of the symptoms include malformed outer sexual organs, the presence of testes in females or the presence of ovaries in males. Some intersex disorders might not become apparent until puberty.

Many doctors in the past preferred to assign a gender to children with hermaphroditism and would perform reconstructive surgery while the child was still young.
Many doctors in the past preferred to assign a gender to children with hermaphroditism and would perform reconstructive surgery while the child was still young.

Four kinds of hermaphroditism can affect a child's sexual development. Children with the condition known as 46 XY intersex have female external organs, but they also have male chromosomes. The condition 46 XX intersex is the opposite — the child has male sexual organs on the outside and female chromosomes.

True gonadal intersex, or true hermaphroditism, occurs when the child has both male and female sex organs on the inside. The external organs can be male, female or indeterminate. Undetermined intersex is a blanket term for any condition resulting in hermaphroditism that does not fall into one of the previous three categories. Some of these conditions result in intersex disorders, and others affect the sex chromosomes or reproductive development without creating inconsistencies between the inner and outer organs.

The causes for the condition vary. Some babies may experience abnormal sexual development if the mother had ovarian tumors during pregnancy or if she used testosterone-based products. Medical conditions such as androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition caused by a defective X-chromosome, interfere with the body's ability to correctly use male sex hormones. Turner syndrome is a disorder in which a girl is born with only one normal X chromosome rather than two.

Many doctors in the past preferred to assign a gender to children with this condition and would perform reconstructive surgery while the child was still young. Most surgeons opted for a female gender because female external organs were easier to reconstruct. This often led to sexual identity problems later in life, particularly if the child had male chromosomes or developed male hormones at maturity. As of 2011, many experts suggest assigning the child a male or female gender, but they recommend avoiding surgery until the child is older and can have a say in choosing a sexual identity.

Can Plants and Animals Have Hermaphroditism?

Hermaphroditism is possible and somewhat common in some plants and animals. Flowering plants are often hermaphrodites, and such plants may also be called monoecious or bisexual.

Hermaphroditism most commonly occurs in invertebrate animals, such as worms, snails, slugs, and barnacles. These invertebrates are typically parasites or permanently tied to a different organism. 

What Is Sequential Hermaphroditism?

Several organisms experience sequential hermaphroditism. These organisms live as one sex at the beginning of their lives and switch to the other sex over time. 

This process can be very advantageous for such species, but it is rare. Some scientists have theorized that changing sexes requires a great deal of time and energy, and many species cannot afford this additional effort. 

Who Are Some Famous People With Hermaphroditism?

Many famous people with hermaphroditism have become activists for the acceptance and understanding of this condition. Some of these people are listed below. 

Cheryl Chase, AKA Bo Laurent

Chase’s parents initially considered her to be a boy until they discovered that she had a uterus and ovaries. They then agreed to a clitoridectomy for their 18-month-old child. The family moved to a new town and raised Chase as a girl. 

Before the operation, she had begun to speak. Afterward, however, she did not speak for six months. 

Years later, after learning of this surgery, Chase founded the Intersex Society of North America and changed her name to Cheryl. She helped persuade the San Francisco Human Rights Commission to hold hearings before medical procedures are carried out for intersex babies.

Cheryl continues to fight for the rights of intersex individuals today.

Tony Briffa

Tony Briffa is the first openly intersex mayor and public officeholder. Despite being raised as a girl, Briffa later identified as a man. Today, he identifies as both a man and a woman. 

Briffa was previously the mayor and deputy mayor of the City of Hobsons Bay, Victoria. Now, he is the co-executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia. He also holds the title of Vice President of Intersex Peer Support Australia. 

Del LaGrace Volcano

Del LaGrace Volcano is a California native who was born intersex. Although they were raised as a girl, Del LaGrace now identifies as male and female. 

Del LaGrace married a queer man named Johnny Volcano and changed his surname to Volcano. His name change was meant to challenge the ‘bi-gendered status quo.’ 

In his work as an artist, Del LaGrace created “The Feminine Principle” and “Lesbian Boys and Other Inverts” to challenge the understanding of gender stereotypes. They focus on lesbian masculinity, transexual boys, and genderqueers. Their more recent work explores intersex people. 

How Do They Perform Surgery for Hermaphroditism?

There are several options for surgeries to assign sexes. Some of the most popular procedures in history and today include:

  • Clitorectomy: Amputating the entire clitoris was popular in the past but is no longer used.
  • Burying the clitoris: Between clitorectomies and present-day surgeries was the procedure of burying the clitoris. It was designed to save the maximum amount of tissue, but it led to painful erections.
  • Clitoral reduction: These procedures are much more common today. They maximize sensation by preserving the glans and the neurovascular bundle.
  • Vaginoplasty
    • Repairing the vagina with this method can be used to accommodate intercourse only or intercourse and menstruation. The latter is only appropriate if the woman has a uterus. 
    • Surgeons may line the neovagina with a split skin graft, amnion, peritoneum, or intestine.
  • Vaginal dilators: Vaginal agenesis often requires this method for normal sexual functioning. 

When Should People With Hermaphroditism Have Surgery?

The work by Money et al. from the 1950s and 60s shapes US guidelines regarding intersex children. He stated that until two years of age, children are psychosexually neutral. 

Their parents should have already selected their child’s gender and continue to raise the child as this gender. When parents do so, children are believed to have a stable and ‘normal’ gender identity. 

The Intersex Society of North America disputes this belief. The stance of this organization is that surgery should only be performed when a child’s physical health and comfort call for such surgery. Any non-essential surgery should be delayed until the person can consent. 

Still, other people argue that intersexual children should not be assigned as either male or female. Instead, a third gender should be widely recognized and accepted. 

Unfortunately, the ‘right’ decision is difficult to find. Every patient has their own journey of self-discovery.

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    • Babies with intersex disorders are born with irregular sex organs.
      By: Jandrie Lombard
      Babies with intersex disorders are born with irregular sex organs.
    • Many doctors in the past preferred to assign a gender to children with hermaphroditism and would perform reconstructive surgery while the child was still young.
      By: garagundi
      Many doctors in the past preferred to assign a gender to children with hermaphroditism and would perform reconstructive surgery while the child was still young.