Important note: this paper should not be regarded as a guide to our current policy and practices in relation to terminology and related issues, and it is not maintained as a living document. Our approaches have been informed by community-building and evidence-building, and are defined (as of March 2017) in the Darlington Statement. For information specifically on nomenclature, see our media and style page.
There are two fundamental issues that must be considered when considering terminology around intersex.
Intersex is a scientific term that describes all differences of sex biology within the animal kingdom that are not hermaphroditic. Terminology such as “hermaphrodite”, “pseudo-hermaphrodite”, “disorders” and “conditions” have been used in some medical literature to describe intersex differences in humans. None of this terminology is reflective of science and nor are they accurate.
In 1901 the scientific community approached a German entomologist, Goldschmidt, to suggest a term that described differences in sex biology for all animals that were not strictly hermaphroditic.
“Hermaphrodite” properly refers to animals that have a functioning set of both male and female organs so that they may reproduce with or without a mate. “Pseudo-hermaphrodite” refers to animals that have the capacity to function as both males and female at various times in their lives depending on circumstance. Snails and worms are examples of hermaphrodites and some fish such as groupers are examples of pseudo-hermaphrodites. There are no human hermaphrodites or pseudo-hermaphrodites known to science. Natural variation and scientific discoveries may change this and our consideration of human rights might need to be revised in that event.
Goldschmidt’s objective was to find a word to describe differences in sex biology where both male and female features seemed to be present at the same time but not in an hermaphroditic way. His terminology also includes features that might be described as not quite male and not quite female and others that seem to be neither male nor female. Under this nomenclature an animal that has no sex characteristics at all would be intersex.
So far as science is concerned all human sex differences are encompassed by the terms “male”, “female” and “intersex”. Intersex is, however, not a third sex – it is simply a way of describing the continuum of differences from wholly male to wholly female. Humans tend to be clustered towards either end of this continuum of male and female, never reaching absolutes of either and with many having features in between.
There have been many attempts at finding adequate terminology for intersex humans in social settings. It is significant none has involved a discourse with those the terminology seeks to name.
Early attempts using “true hermaphrodite” and “pseudo-hermaphrodite” were not only scientifically inaccurate, they also fed into voyeuristic ideation of an individual human being having penetrator and penetratee intercourse with themselves. Despite these shortcomings some intersex activists claim “hermaphrodite” for themselves, legitimizing it in the same way that “gay” and “dyke” have been claimed and reconfigured as badges of pride.
Although intersex has been the correct scientific nomenclature since 1901, medicine and especially those involved in psychiatry and psychology have found it difficult to adopt the term and in some instances still adhere to hermaphroditic terminology today. It is thought this is because of the theorizing of Freud, Jung and their immediate predecessors.
The term that intersex themselves discovered and adopted was the one science gave us – intersex. It is critical to an understanding of intersex as to why the use of that term is so important to us.
For intersex, more than any other way of having differences of sex characteristics – such as gender, sexual orientation or sex play – the enforcement of sex and gendering terminology and characteristics without our consent and against our will is a constant feature of how our differences are reacted to by society.
We are assigned male or female despite our sex being unknown. We are encouraged and oftentimes forced into gender roles of man and woman. We are surgically altered so that as a man we have as few female features as possible and as a woman we have as few male features as possible. We are thought to be mentally ill if we reject our gender role and sex assignment. We are offered no respite from the sex or gender binary expectations of society. There are no provisions for behaviors other than man or woman and no sexs other than male or female for us to live out. There is a constant social pressure for us to see ourselves as having a stake in the binary despite undeniable biological evidence to the contrary.
In short, our differences are the subject of constant erasure by a society that harbors a deep homophobic fear, even hatred, of our biology. We are the subject of constant medical experimentation that has the primary aim of eliminating our differences from the ways it is possible to be human.
Having terminology forced on us by those who have not lived intersex lives is especially objectionable.
In 2006 a group of fifty or so “specialists” in intersex differences got together in Chicago to discuss what would be the appropriate terminology for intersex. They decided that in all medical literature from then on we should be referred to as having Disorders of Sex Development (DSD). This was done with the involvement of only two intersex individuals, neither of whom contributed to the debate, and without any widespread consultation with intersex.
There are no intersex people, to our certain knowledge, who use or approve of this terminology. Indeed OII considers it to be repugnant. Redefining our differences as “disordered” indicates we are not only somehow variant from the natural order of things, and it provides license to affect a “cure.”
When first made aware of the then HREOC’s – now the AHRC – decision to look into the “sex and or gender diverse community” OII Australia was impressed by the Commissioner’s care to be fully inclusive.
The resultant The Sex Files report however had little to do with intersex concerns save for addressing some issues in respect of documentation. The subsequent decision of the Commissioner to prepare a white paper on non-consensual intersex surgery without intersex involvement was a considerable disappointment. The Sex Files in the end focused on identity, something that being intersex rarely is.
Some groups in Sydney have adopted the term “Intersex, Sex and/or Gender Diverse” – ISGD. While, superficially, this looks inclusive, in practice the term has been used to co-opt intersex into trans identity politics. For more information see ‘ISGD’ and the appropriation of intersex and Intersex and ISGD: yet another attempt to co-opt intersex.
The scientific terminology for all biological differences that fall outside of expectations for maleness and femaleness has been intersex for one hundred and nine years. It is adequate and comprehensive. It is terminology that has been adopted by intersex themselves around the world. There is no need for any new terminology and any attempt at devising it without the full involvement of intersex will be rejected.
Arguments that “not all intersex like being called intersex” are no more relevant or convincing than arguments that not all Australians like being called Australians and not all LGBT individuals consider themselves LGBT. Indeed there are many LGBT who are hostile to the acronym LGBT.
The original argument for the adoption of DSD was because parents had a homophobic reaction to the word intersex – see Karkazis’ Fixing Sex. Rather than address common phobias and parental fears the medical profession took it upon themselves to once again reassign us.
OII Australia agrees that the use of terms such as “sex characteristics” and “indeterminate sex” may be useful in framing laws to be intersex-inclusive, however we insist such terms cannot guarantee our rights unless those words are linked to definitions that unambiguously specify intersex by using the word intersex.
Intersex is not an identity although for some it is. Intersex is not a sexual orientation though for some it may be, and intersex is not a kind of sex play though for some it seems so.
Intersex differences, like male or female differences, cannot be separated from our sense of gender, our sexual orientation or the way we go about sexual intercourse. Intersex are complete human beings where each element of our human experience of sex is interdependent and inter-informative of each other. We cover the full gamut of genders and sexual orientations and, I suspect, sex plays. We speak infrequently of such things in our forums so I have little by way of evidence for this. Our common feature is physical differences of sex biology.
Somewhat confusingly OII Australia does not hold that all people who have intersex differences are necessarily intersex. We refrain from so assigning individuals and in the same way we wish others would refrain from assigning us.