ABS Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Standard

We welcome publication of a new Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Standard by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This replaces an earlier Sex and Gender Standard.

The new Standard facilitates the meaningful and respectful collection of data on people with intersex variations (‘variations of sex characteristics’). As part of this, it seeks to respectfully recognises the diverse ways in which the sexes of people with intersex variations are recorded.

In doing so, sex is defined initially in relation to sex characteristics observed at birth.

This statistical definition of sex better recognises real world processes at birth. In our view, this model is as close as we can so far get to perfect, given the information we have available to us to date; that information includes the outputs of a 2015 Australian sociological study of people born with atypical sex characteristics. Responses to that survey showed a diversity of terminological preferences in relation to intersex variations, a diversity of sex assignments and gender identities, and previously poorly documented high rates of poverty and early school leaving (Jones 2016).

IHRA opposes constructions of third categories of sex named ‘intersex’, as these fail to respect the diversity of sex markers and identities held by people with intersex variations. This position is explicitly put in the 2017 Darlington Statement, and is also consistent with the 2013 Malta Declaration. Yet, as the Standard identifies, different jurisdictions in Australia have created different methods of recording different categories of sex, with varying and often flawed approaches in relation to intersex populations. These developments, combined with a need to better document the lived experiences of intersex people, mean that attempts to collect data on people with intersex variations are not new.

The previous sex and gender standard conflated sex characteristics with sex, which has a particular impact on people with intersex variations, creating an incorrect assumption that intersex people are necessarily neither female nor male, and an incorrect assumption data on intersex people can be collected via a third category of sex. Surveys and research that make these assumptions are not capable of generating accurate information on intersex populations. We strongly encourage all institutions that define sex in this way to update their definitions and methods.

In response to publication of the Standard, Morgan Carpenter stated:

We have worked with the ABS on statistical classifications over multiple years, working to achieve respectful methods of including intersex populations. Thanks to everyone at the ABS for working collaboratively to achieve this outcome. We look forward to this Standard being utilised, and hope that this will culminate in the 2026 national census. We encourage all institutions to make use of the variables in these Standards in their research.

Tony Briffa comments:

Intersex is often conflated as a sex or gender, and is rarely recorded accurately in data. The changes by The Australian Bureau of Statistics following much community consultation is extremely encouraging and I hope it’s a model other jurisdictions can follow. Most intersex people are men or women yet many organisations trying to be inclusive of intersex erroneously put us in a third sex category which is harmful. The ABS treating sex, gender and sex characteristics separately makes sense and is inclusive. It means data about intersex people can be accurately recorded. I commend the ABS for their work and collaboration with Intersex Human Rights Australia and Intersex Peer Support Australia.

This model is also consistent with the 2020 federal Style Manual.

More information

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2021. ‘Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables, 2020’. January 14. https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/standards/standard-sex-gender-variations-sex-characteristics-and-sexual-orientation-variables/latest-release.

Australian Government. 2020. ‘Gender and Sexual Diversity | Style Manual’. June 29. https://www.stylemanual.gov.au/format-writing-and-structure/inclusive-language/gender-and-sexual-diversity.

Jones, Tiffany. 2016. “The Needs of Students with Intersex Variations.” Sex Education 16 (6): 602–18. doi:10.1080/14681811.2016.1149808.