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What is intersex?
Is it a boy or a girl? This is the question that is asked all over the world when someone gives birth. Many parents will answer that question without much thought. But for a significant number, the answer will be more complex.
Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. Intersex individuals are born with sex characteristics that are either female and male at the same time, not quite female nor male, or neither female nor male. Intersex people’s sex characteristics and bodies are healthy variations of the human sex.
For some intersex people, their intersex body becomes visible at birth, for some during childhood and with others their body shows itself to be intersex during adolescence or even adulthood. For some, the differences will be so small they may never realise they are intersex at all.
There are many different ways that variations of sex characteristics can occur. A child may be born with a larger clitoris or a smaller one, or a differently shaped penis. Sometimes a child is typically female in appearance at birth but turns out to have undescended testicles. And sometimes a typically male-looking child turns out to have a uterus or ovaries. In some cases, a girl will not start menstruating or a boy will actually start menstruating. Other children may have hormones that are different from what is expected of a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’.
Intersex variations are natural and more common than you might think. It has been shown that at least 1 in 200 people are intersex (van Lisdonk 2014a) and some sources state that up to 1.7% of people have some variation in their sex characteristics (Blackless 2000).
Sex characteristics can be divided into primary sex characteristics and secondary sex characteristics:
- Primary sex characteristics are all the characteristics that are present at birth. These include the person’s chromosomes, genitals, reproductive systems, gonads and hormone sensitivity and production.
- Secondary sex characteristics are all the sex characteristics that become visible during puberty and include breast growth, the growth of body hair, menstruation, the Adam’s apple, stature, muscle mass and fat distribution.
This guide was created by IGLYO, OII Europe and EPA. It aims to introduce the topic, give advice on how best to support your intersex child and where to get further information.