INTERSEX – What We All Need to Know
Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male. The older term for this is hermaphroditism. It includes around 30 conditions, some of which may be identified at birth, some during puberty, some when people try to conceive, and some are never identified.
Gender, as a binary system (either male or female) is a cultural or social construct. Some cultures have different interpretations on gender and don’t just see things as male or female. For example, in Samoa, fa’afafine, in Thailand, kathoeys, and in Native American – the two spirit people.
In Western culture, in the recent past, parents of intersex new-borns were put in a very difficult situation and asked to choose which sex they wished to raise their child (male or female) and then surgical procedures (often multiple) were done on the infant so that their genitals appeared as ‘male’ or ‘female’ as possible. This was considered the standard treatment in New Zealand. Many intersex adults have begun speaking out about the impact of these surgeries on them and more broadly, about their intersex experience. Many of them speak about childhood confusion and loss of power around their bodies, the trauma of multiple surgeries, the dilemma of puberty when their bodies developed in ways that weren’t predicted, and the fear of intimacy. There was a lot of shame and hiding. Intersex teens and adults were more likely to be abused and more likely to suicide. Due to a lack of information about intersex, many people found it extremely hard to ‘come out’ or find support. The invisibility of the condition meant intersex people and their parents often did not have support. Intersex was commonly mistaken for other issues around gender, gender identity or sexuality. There is a wonderful documentary on Intersex issues called Intersexion http://www.intersexionfilm.com/
Now before we go thinking this is rare, statistics show that in 1 out of 100 births, the infant has genitals which differ from standard female or male.
1 to 2 out of 1000 births result in surgery to ‘normalise’ the genitals (www.isna.org/faq/frequency)
The good news is that intersex people and their families are currently gaining more attention, which hopefully leads to better understanding, information and support for intersex people and their loved ones.
To know more about intersex issues go to:
InterACT – Advocates for Intersex Youth http://interactadvocates.org/
ITANZ – Intersex Awareness NZ http://www.ianz.org.nz/
Intersex Society of North America http://www.isna.org/
OII – Intersex Australia https://oii.org.au/
The team at Psychology Associates are happy to offer support to intersex people of all ages and their families.
Thanks to our colleague, Nicola Brown (Clinical Psychologist, Psychology Associates) for increasing our awareness of these issues and her presentation on Intersex Issues at our monthly Group Supervision.