What is Intersex?

Drawings of dolls displaying various gender expressions. The entire image is in pink and white. Illustration by Xenia Rubio

by Laura Inter and Mara Cristina Toledo

What is intersex?

Intersex is a term generally used to refer to sexual characteristics (genitals, gonads, hormones, chromosomes) that don’t fit into typical definitions of “masculine” and “feminine.”1  People with intersexual variations are born with sexual characteristics that seem to be masculine and feminine at the same time, or not at all masculine or feminine, or neither masculine nor feminine. For example:

  • A typically feminine appearance and genitals, testes inside.
  • Genitals that seem to be in an intermediate state between the typical male and female genitalia – eg: a longer-than-average clitoris; a lack of a vaginal opening; a common duct where the urethra and vagina drain; a phallus that is considered smaller than the average penis; a scrotum that is divided so that it resembles vaginal lips.
  • A “mosaic” genetic composition in which some cells have XX chromosomes and others have XY, or their chromosomes are XXY.

There is no single intersex anatomy. This variability in body composition is something that is not always evident at birth. Sometimes people don’t discover that they have intersexual anatomy until puberty, when the bodily changes expected for a woman or for a man do or don’t happen.2

What is intersex not?

Intersex is not a pathology or a deformation.

Intersexuality is basically a variation in the body’s sexual composition. It is not a pathology and definitely not a deformation. Nothing has gone wrong. It’s just part of a natural process that depends on testosterone levels. Genitals form depending on testosterone levels during pregnancy. Early in the pregnancy, all fetuses are XX or XY and have the same genital forms.2 When a fetus is exposed to “low” levels of testosterone it remains with “typically female genitalia.” On the other hand, if the fetus is exposed to higher levels of testosterone, its genitals will take a “typically masculine” appearance. When during this process a fetus remains in an intermediate state, doctors talk about babies being “born with ambiguous genitalia.” We prefer to call them “genital differences or variations”.

Diverse sexual characteristics themselves do not represent health problems but they can be associated with conditions that require specific medical attention due, for example, to metabolic imbalances, which have nothing to do with the variations in sexual characteristics.

It is not a gender identity.

As with any other person, intersex people may or may not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. They identify as feminine, masculine, or non-binary gender. Gender identity is not defined by genitals!

It is not a sexual orientation.

Like any other individual, an intersex person can manifest a heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual or any other type of preference.

How common is intersexuality?

Intersex is a natural variation in human beings. It is difficult to know exactly how many people are born with intersex traits, but it is estimated that more than 1 in 150 people3 are born with intersex characteristics, of which about 1 in every 2,000 people4 are born with genital differences. According to a UN report, between .05% and 1.7% of the global population is born with intersex traits.1


1. Organización de las Naciones Unidas. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. “Ficha de Datos: Intersex.” Accessed 2019: <https://unfe.org/system/unfe-72-Intersex_Factsheet_SPANISH.pdf>.

2. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “Cuerpos sexuados: la política del género y la construcción de la sexualidad.” Barcelona Melusina. (2006): <https://seminariolecturasfeministas.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/anne-fausto-sterling-cuerpos-sexuados-la-politica-de-genero-y-la-construccion-de-la-sexualidad.pdf>.

3. Costello, Gabriel. “How common is intersex status?”. The Intersex Roadshow. (2012): <http://intersexroadshow.blogspot.mx/2012_03_01_archive.html>. (Para ver la versión en español consultar traducción de Toledo, Mara. “¿Qué tan común es el estado intersexual?” Brújula Intersexual. <https://brujulaintersexual.org/2015/04/25/que-tan-comun-es-el-estado-intersexual/>.

4. ONU, Organización de las Naciones Unidas. Ficha de Datos Intersex. https://unfe.org/system/unfe-72-Intersex_Factsheet_SPANISH.pdf>.

This article was previously published in Pussypedia and is reposted with permission.