Intersex - The Basics

When we are born, in the UK, we are assigned a sex of either male or female. This is based on our genitals, and the other biological things in our body, that are supposed to match this sex.

Intersex is a really general term, but it basically describes when a person is born with sex characteristics, such as genitals, hormones or organs, that doesn’t seem to fit these “typical definitions” that society has for male and female bodies. Some people prefer the term DSD (Differences of Sex Development), which is usually used by medical professionals.

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Being intersex is a different experience for everybody

Everyone is unique, and those who are intersex all have different bodies and characteristics. This is a really varied, wide range, but some examples could be:

  • if someone’s genitals don’t fit into the category of male or female, or can’t be identified clearly as a penis or vagina

  • a person who has chromosomes and/or hormones that don’t fall into the expected male or female categories

  • when someone’s reproductive organs, inside their bodies, don’t fit into a male or female category (like having both testes and ovaries)

  • if someone’s genitals don’t match with the organs or hormones that is expected of their assigned sex (e.g. having a penis, and being assigned male at birth, but having ovaries or “female” hormones)

How does somebody know if they are intersex?

Somebody can be identified as intersex (or having DSD), if a medical professional feels, when they are born, their genitals don’t appear as a penis or vagina is expected to, and don’t fit into male and female categories.

Other people may not find out they have intersex traits until they reach puberty; they might not have periods when expected, or their bodies/sex traits (eg breasts, voice changes, body hair) don’t develop. This could lead to medical tests, that find that they have hormones/genes or reproductive organs that don’t match with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Some people will never know that they have any intersex traits at all!

What happens when somebody is born intersex?

If somebody is born intersex (or with DSD), they will be assigned either male or female, according to what medical professionals feel best suits that person’s body, genes and organs.

Often, they will perform surgery, or start medication, very soon after the baby is born. Somebody may have surgery and medication throughout their lives, to match their bodies to the biological sex (male or female) they were assigned at birth.

Some people who are intersex will need to take medication to keep their bodies healthy; other people will not need to.