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The Terminology of Intersex

The Scientific and Social Nomenclature

from the O.I.I. website. External Link
Article appeared in Polare magazine: January 2011 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: September 2015

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

There are two fundamental issues that must be considered when considering terminology around intersex, Scientific Nomenclature and Social Nomenclature

Scientific Nomenclature:

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.

Not "hermaphrodites"

"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.

Not a "third-sex"

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.

Social Nomenclature:

There have been many attempts at finding adequate terminology for intersex humans in social settings. It is significant that none have 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 that 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.

Forced into gender roles

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 behaviours other than man or woman and no sexes 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 harbours 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.

Forcing yet another term upon us

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 met 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 (D.S.D.). 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 O.I.I. 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."

Intersex inclusion revealed as intersex exclusion

When I was first made aware of the then H.R.E.O.C.s decision to look into the "sex and or gender diverse community" I was impressed by the Commissioner's care to be fully inclusive.

The resultant Sex Files 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. Much discussion was had within O.I.I. about the terms "sex and/or gender diverse" and several things were very clear to us.

Saying everything while saying nothing

"Sex and/or gender diverse" says everything without saying anything. It was not clear from the terminology if it meant intersex any more than it means cissexual or cisgendered men and woman or males and females. It is new terminology that has little currency in mainstream perceptions. It has taken intersex activists thirty years to achieve the little penetration into the global psyche that it has so far achieved.

The new terminology once again invisiblises intersex. We are once again subsumed by terminology that we had no part in devising, where our agreement was not sought and that is imposed on us against our will. To us this is little different to the surgery and sexing of us as infants, the subsequent denial and invisibilising of our differences as adults and a way of once again leaving legislation open to interpretation as intersex-exclusive.

"Intersex" for 109 years

The scientific terminology for all biological differences that fall outside of expectations for maleness and femaleness has been intersex for 109. 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 L.G.B.T. individuals consider themselves L.G.B.T. Indeed there are many L.G.B.T. who are hostile to the acronym L.G.B.T.

"D.S.D." = homophobia

The original argument for the adoption of D.S.D. 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.

O.I.I. 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.

Not an identity, not an orientation

Intersex is not necessarily 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 inter-dependent 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 O.I.I. Australia does not hold that all people who have intersex differences are necessarily intersex. We refrain from assigning individuals in this way and we wish others would refrain from assigning us.

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