What is the issue?
Gender-based violence, interpersonal, domestic and family violence affect every demographic. Domestic and family violence is a form of abuse. Abuse is both physical and psychological, and involves a loss of agency. Domestic violence impacts on an individual’s capacities for self-determination, and ability to make choices in relation to health, wellbeing, education, employment and quality of life. Intersex people have innate sex characteristics that don’t fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies, and that create risks or experiences of stigma, discrimination and harm. Those experiences of stigma and harm can occur in domestic, family and other intimate situations.
Intersex people are frequently at risk of harm. People with innate variation in sex characteristics may experience violence in the home due to perceptions and understandings of their variations, leading to vulnerability not just in the home but also at school and in other social environments. Intersex characteristics are stigmatised and even regarded as taboo, to the extent that medicine engages in early forced, coercive and invasive interventions to eliminate the signs of such characteristics. Fear of future stigmatisation is often an explicit (and improper) rationale for such interventions (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2019; Carpenter 2018). Body shaming is a frequent occurrence. Like forced and coercive medical interventions, it is wrong and unethical. Body shaming is particularly consequential in medicine, and it remains commonplace in the form of ad hominem attacks in sport, in LGBTQ communities, and on social media (Carpenter 2016; 2019).
Risks of stigmatisation and harm arise beyond issues regarding physical appearance. Intersex experiences, including experiences of domestic and family violence, are often conflated with LGBTQ experiences without specific attention to the characteristics and circumstances of people with intersex variations. This framing can have adverse consequences. Framing someone as having a sexual orientation or gender identity different to the one they hold can be used to harmful effect by abusers. Assuming that intersex people are LGBTQ has obvious risks and harmful effects on non-LGBTQ intersex people. The effect of these misconceptions also means that research and surveys of LGBTIQ populations suffer from ascertainment bias and low participation rates by intersex people, and poor analysis (Carpenter 2012a). We lack reliable, high quality data.
What do we know about the situation in Australia
Misconceptions about intersex people are widespread, and have long histories. For example, a 1979 Family Court case annulled the marriage of a cisgender man with an intersex variation on the ahistorical basis that he was a hermaphrodite and not really male (Finlay 1980, Carpenter 2012b). Western legal traditions had regarded hermaphrodites as either female or male depending on predominant characteristics until disrupted by the medicalisation of intersex traits and a narrowing of the meaning of the term hermaphrodite (Finlay 1980, Carpenter 2018).
Many Australian ‘LGBTI’ domestic and family violence projects have assumed that to be intersex is to be adult, and to be non-heterosexual or non-cisgender, or a third sex (Horsley et al. 2016; Campo and Tayton 2015). Even journal articles published recently make these assumptions (for example, Asquith et al. 2019, Australian Institute of Family Studies 2020, Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations 2020). Such reports typically focus on issues of personal identification, and fail to address body shaming and stigmatisation due to physical characteristics (see, for example, Campo and Tayton 2015).
We currently rely on largely anecdotal evidence about such issues, because of a dearth of reliable evidence. Individuals known to IHRA have been in situations where their bodies became ‘problems’ within intimate relationships, and where individuals have been coerced into modifying their bodies to fit normative ideas about how women and men should appear.
We are also aware of situations where misconceptions about what it means to be intersex have been used to harm individuals. These include coercive control, abuse, violence, and homophobia, transphobia and ableism directed towards intersex people by association with LGBT people, irrespective of their personal sexual orientations or gender identities. Carman et al. (2020) err in stating that only intersex people with LGBTQ identities “may be subjected to abuse or violence motivated by homophobia, biphobia or transphobia”. Abuse and violence does not depend on disclosure or evidence of any particular identification; for example, it can be based on appearance, or knowledge of particular biological traits. Unwanted or inappropriate disclosure can sometimes lead to violence and abuse. Anecdotally, we are aware of women with intersex variations who do not disclose their intersex variation to male partners because of the prevalence of misconceptions about intersex. Where it occurs, disclosure to partners may rely on medical language about particular intersex variations, in an attempt to avoid such risks.
IHRA has always sought to engage an improve comprehension of the diversity of the intersex population and our key issues, and this includes some engagement at conferences and gatherings on domestic and family violence issues. Often, intersex voices have been the only volunteer voices at those events. The ways that power and resourcing work in the communities we work with means that those attempts have frequently been disregarded.
Resource constraints and priorities mean that staff of intersex-led organisations focus on community priorities, as identified in the Darlington Statement (AIS Support Group Australia et al. 2017). Domestic and family violence is not an issue that made it into that statement. This does not mean that individuals with intersex variations do not face such forms of violence, only that there are more pressing specific priorities.
Nevertheless, the Darlington Statement does make relevant statements to this issue, including in relation to engagement, research and training:
14. We call for meaningful participation by, and consultation with, intersex people and community organisations in all issues and policies affecting us.
30. We call for more research, including clinical, sociological and psychological research, led by community input. Clinical research, including longitudinal research, requires true, non-medicalised controls.
31. We call for improved and ongoing education of health, welfare and allied professionals in issues relating to intersex bodies, including human rights issues.
The Darlington Statement also calls for action on access to services, including peer and family support:
38. We call for equitable access to social and welfare services for people with intersex variations. The needs of people with intersex variations in aged care, home care, state care, and disability services require further investigation, with full and meaningful participation by intersex-led organisations.
43. We recognise the fundamental importance and benefits of peer support for parents, caregivers, and families of people with variations of sex characteristics. We recognise the importance and benefits of peer support for friends, partners, and others who support intersex people in their day-to-day lives.
And on the distinctiveness of intersex issues:
47. Intersex is distinct from other issues. We call on allies to actively acknowledge our distinctiveness and the diversity within our community, to support our human rights claims and respect the intersex human rights movement, without tokenism, or instrumentalising, or co-opting intersex issues as a means for other ends. “Nothing about us without us.”
What are we doing about this?
The resource limitations of intersex-led organisations mean that our immediate concerns lie elsewhere, but we have been drawn into discussions about domestic and family violence because of attention drawn to ‘LGBTIQ’ domestic and family violence issues, and the harmful consequences of misconceptions about intersex people in these discussions. We have participated in events and discussions about domestic and family violence since our organisation was first founded as OII Australia.
Despite significant resourcing on ‘LGBTIQ+’ domestic and family violence, even reports as recent as 2020 cite a lack of research on intersex populations and cite an IHRA statement from 2009 (Carman et al. 2020; Wilson 2009).
This is a challenging situation. Should, then, organisations interested in LGBTI experiences of domestic and family violence recruit someone with an intersex variation and experience of DV to work on these issues affecting intersex people? Without a significant broader shift in resourcing to enable better attention to priority issues for intersex communities, this gives us concerns about the resourcing of work on low priority issues compared to the resourcing of work on high priority issues, and it would appear to raise concerns about the legitimacy of that resourcing.
- If you need to talk about the issues on this page, Intersex Peer Support (IPSA) provides peer and family support across Australia. IPSA is intersex-led and services are delivered by volunteers who have intersex variations or are parents of people with intersex variations.
AIS Support Group Australia, Intersex Trust Aotearoa New Zealand, Organisation Intersex International Australia, Eve Black, Kylie Bond, Tony Briffa, Morgan Carpenter, et al. 2017. ‘Darlington Statement’. https://darlington.org.au/statement.
Asquith, Nicole L., Anneke Collison, Lisa Lewis, Kai Noonan, Eloise Layard, Guneet Kaur, Fernanda Bellei, and Erdem Yigiter. 2019. ‘Home Is Where Our Story Begins: CALD LGBTIQ+ People’s Relationships to Family’. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 31 (3): 311–32. doi:10.1080/10345329.2019.1642837.
Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. 2020. ‘Re: Inquiry into Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence’, July 24.
Australian Institute of Family Studies. 2020. ‘Submission to the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs – Inquiry into Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence’.
Campo, Monica, and Sarah Tayton. 2015. ‘Intimate Partner Violence in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex and Queer Communities’. Australian Institute of Family Studies. https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/intimate-partner-violence-lgbtiq-communities.
Carman, Marina, Jackson Fairchild, Matthew Parsons, Claire Farrugia, Jennifer Power, and Adam Bourne. 2020. Pride in Prevention: A Guide to Primary Prevention of Family Violence Experienced by LGBTIQ Communities. Melbourne: Rainbow Health Victoria. https://www.rainbowhealthvic.org.au/news/launch-pride-in-prevention-evidence-guide
Carpenter, Morgan. 2012a. ‘Researching Intersex Populations’. Intersex Human Rights Australia. https://ihra.org.au/research/.
Carpenter, Morgan. 2012b. ‘An Annulment of Marriage Due to Being Intersex in the Family Court: In the Marriage of C and D (Falsely Called C). Intersex Human Rights Australia’. https://ihra.org.au/16808/annulment-marriage-due-intersex-marriage-falsely-called/.
Carpenter, Morgan. 2016. ‘Body shaming is an intersex issue’. Intersex Human Rights Australia. https://ihra.org.au/30697/body-shaming-intersex-issue/.
Carpenter, Morgan. 2018. ‘The “Normalisation” of Intersex Bodies and “Othering” of Intersex Identities’. In The Legal Status of Intersex Persons, edited by Jens Scherpe, Anatol Dutta, and Tobias Helms, 445–514. Cambridge, England: Intersentia. doi:10.1017/9781780687704.028; (author copy).
Carpenter, Morgan. 2019. ‘Intersex People and Sport’. Intersex Human Rights Australia. January 16. https://ihra.org.au/sport/.
Finlay, Henry A. 1980. ‘Sexual Identity and the Law of Nullity’. Australian Law Journal 54 (3): 115–26.
Horsley, Philomena, Batool Moussa, Jane Fisher, and Susan Rees. 2016. ‘Intimate Partner Violence and LGBTIQ People Raising Awareness in General Practice’. Medicine Today 17 (11): 26–31. https://medicinetoday.com.au/2016/november/feature-article/intimate-partner-violence-and-lgbtiq-people-raising-awareness-general.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2019. ‘Background Note on Human Rights Violations against Intersex People’. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Discrimination/Pages/BackgroundViolationsIntersexPeople.aspx.
Wilson, Gina. 2009. Submission: OII Australia’s response to NSW Discussion Paper on Domestic & Family Violence. Intersex Human Rights Australia. https://ihra.org.au/292/nsw-domestic-family-violence/.
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