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"I’ve heard about intersex people, and the internet says that they’re the same things as hermaphrodites. Is that true? And is "hermaphrodite" an offensive term?"

-Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Claudia Astorino as a part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions

Claudia Says:

Hey, there Anonymous!  I am sure you won’t be shocked to learn that sometimes, THE INTERNET IS WRONG.  (*gasp, faint*)

This is one of those cases.

But I’m glad you asked these questions, COSIMA, your name.  (I’ve been watching a lot of Orphan Black lately – queer lady scientists ftw!  #notbiased  #okfineimbiased)  There’s a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be intersex, and how intersex people differ from (non-human) hermaphrodites.

Hermaphrodites are living things that have fully functioning sets of “male” AND “female” reproductive anatomy – either at the same time, or at different times during their life cycles.  They include various species of plants, fish, mollusks, and other little beasties, but not humans.  It’s biologically impossible for humans to have full, functional sets of “M” and “F” reproductive anatomy, so we aren’t hermaphrodites.

Intersex people, on the other hand, are those that have a mix of traits traditionally considered “male” or “female” – and sometimes, traits that are atypical for males or females – in the same body.  For example, I have breasts and a vagina (“F” traits) and also have XY chromosomes and was born with testes (“M” traits).  Some intersex people may also have traits such as ovoteses (gonads with both testicular and ovarian tissue), chromosome types like XXY, or a phalloclitoris that is sometimes described as a large clitoris or a small penis.

[FACT:  the penis and the clitoris derive from the same developmental tissue – hence, the term phalloclitoris. The term “ambiguous genitalia” is often used here, but like – that makes no sense.  People’s genitals don’t like, morph shape like those lava lamp bubbles, right?  Everyone’s genital form is just as real as everyone else’s – no one’s is “ambiguous.”  …You know, unless you only think typical M and F genitals are the only ones that aren’t ambiguous.  #notcool  #alsoincorrect]

There’s a ton of variation in what our bodies look like and how they function.  Think about the people you know and how different everyone’s body and build is, even though we all have bodies.  It’s the same thing for intersex people – there is a variety of ways our bodies can look in terms of what traits we do & don’t have, what our bodies do & don’t do.  Intersex is really an umbrella term for the many different, distinct ways bodies can be.  Even within a form of intersex, there can be a lot of variation!  Knowing someone is intersex doesn’t tell you any more about their body than anyone else’s.  No one would say, “Oh, well FELIX (my friend) is a dude, so you MUST know exactly what he looks like.”  Uh, nope!  There’s not just one way dudes look.

(But really?  He probs looks like this.)

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 10.48.56 AM


So, why do folks sometimes confuse intersex people with hermaphrodites?  In short, because history.  Doctors applied this label to intersex people several centuries ago, and calling intersex folks “hermaphrodites” is really problematic for the following reasons:

1) It’s not biologically accurate (see above)

2) The term derives from Greek mythology where the kid of Hermes and Aphrodite – Hermaphroditus – basically gets attacked and fused together with this water nymph?  And together, they form a “half-male, half-female” being.  (Take a moment to process this if you need – yes, this myth is totally bonkers.  #validationtuesday)  THE POINT IS:  calling intersex people “hermaphrodites” implies that we’re not real, that we’re mythical creates that don’t exist.  That’s both inaccurate and offensive.

3) Intersex people associate this term with the stigmatizing cosmetic procedures clincians performed (and sadly, routinely perform today) on intersex kids without their consent, with the idea that surgeries and other procedures will make us LOOK like “normal boys and girls,” so we’ll BE normal boys and girls.  I probably don’t need to tell you how totally messed up this is.  This is what intersex activists are working toward:  to end these unnecessary, harmful procedures and ensure our right to keep the healthy, beautiful bodies we’re born with.  Intersex isn’t a medical condition, and we DON’T need fixing.  <33

So, COSIMA – just to complicate things just a little bit more, let me say, though, that even though it’s widely considered offensive and not-okay to refer to intersex people as “hermaphrodites,” some intersex folks have reclaimed the term as a positive way to engage with other intersex people.  For example, I get “herm hugs” from some of my intersex friends, and one intersex activist I know, who’s a lesbian, has referred to herself as a “hermaphrodyke.”  Is that not the BEST WORD EVER?!  #bestwordever

I hope this clarifies things a bit!  If you want more information, check out my article on Autostraddle.com and the Brief Guide for Intersex Allies I co-wrote with my colleagues at Organization Intersex International, USA chapter (OII-USA).

And say hi your friend HELENA for me!

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 10.50.21 AM



Click through to read more about Claudia and our other Second Opinions panelists!


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6 thoughts on “Are Intersex People the Same as Hermaphrodites?

  1. Claudia’s answer is not correct.

    You can correctly refer to a human with such a condition as either a hermaphrodite or as intersex.
    Intersex is a much newer term that lgbt advocates claim is less offensive than the more common scientific term. They also say that intersex is strictly relates to humans whereas hermaphrodite is broader and encompasses all animals (including humans).

    This kind of quibbling over terminology is common and both terms usually become valid instead of one replacing the other. For example many scientists would still use the term negro whereas others would say people of African origin (or something to that extent)

  2. Just wanted to say that there is hope. I am a first year medical student and we are studying this pretty in depth. Even 4 years ago, our teachers were saying, “if you come across an intersex baby, make them a girl because it’s easier.” That dialogue has significantly changed because we now understand how much we DON’T understand about genes and gender. It’s not as simple as XY=boy and XX=girl. There a host of other genes on other chromosomes that, if not functioning properly, will result in a mix of the sexes.

    By the time I am a physician, my classmates and I will be more prepared to handle these things more sensitively because we’ll have some exposure.

  3. Hi
    I am 52 an would just like to say that Claudia’s answer makes a lot more sense. and far from ‘quibbling’ over terminology as Joe suggests Claudia’s answer serves to explain how ‘teminology’ can be used to pigeon hole and label individuals in a way that is unacceptable in a tolerant society. I think of the term ‘mongol’ which is highly offensive yet was once used to describe a person with down syndrome which is the name of the condition (named after John Langdon Down, who characterized the condition) and should not be used as a label either. We are all people first and using appropriate language to describe ourselves in a way that does not cause offence or create isolation.

  4. Thanks for the post Claudia. I actually did not know anything about intersex people until fairly recently, and I feel like your post has answered a lot of my questions.
    At the end of the day, we are all human beings first, you know. And details like orientation or physical traits shouldn’t divide us.
    Much love.

  5. Overall, I like the point of the opinion given, but it does have some pitfalls as presented.

    Hermaphroditic humans are extremely rare, not impossible. (Besides, good scientists don’t like to say impossible, preferring highly improbable, since we can’t prove a negative.) A person can have two sets of DNA and then develop two sets of functional gonads. This is an absorbed twin sort of situation. Secondly, a person can have a uterus, an ovary, a vagina, a vulva, a small penis, and a teste. So while this person wouldn’t have a “full set” of either, they could be reproductively functional with either. The scientific community still tends to call these people intersex, because it’s still accurate and considered more appropriate.

    The myth of Hermaphroditus was told to explain the existence intersex people, not to belittle their existence. I can understand how someone could find a mythological source for a name offensive, but this has more to do with our cultural connotation of myths as inherently not true instead of the parables, allegories, and hypotheses that they actually are. Myths in general are not created or told as “made up” or false, but as explanations of reality and complex truths. All cultures have myths.

  6. I was born intersex. Hermaphroditism was an older term used for myself. Unlike the majority of intersex which can have blended genitalia or other non-external variations, I was in the minority of intersex born with both sets of genitalia and a type 3 female circumcision was performed as well as other modifications internally to make me functionally male.

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