In this article, we will share some facts about how common intersex is: its causes, the history of intersex, and the struggles faced by Intersex individuals.
As the world slowly moves toward a greater acceptance of gender and sexual minorities, one group, in particular, is rarely, if ever, the topic of discussion.
They’re as common as redheads, come in a variety of types, and still face life-altering persecution in many places – including the U.S.
Despite intersex people being acknowledged by different societies for thousands of years, most people today aren’t familiar with intersexuality. Our research will provide some clarity on the number of intersex individuals, the causes and types of intersexuality, and the struggles they face to assert their human rights.
These data points paint a picture of global intersexuality:
- Approximately 1.7% of the world’s population is intersex, making it about as common as having red hair.
- Some Greek and Roman philosophers viewed sex as a spectrum and included hermaphrodites (an early term for one type of intersex person) on their spectrum.
- Malta has the most comprehensive protection for intersex people in the world. In 2015, it was the first country to outlaw surgical intervention without consent.
- Many cultures and societies recognize more than two genders or sexes.
- The World Health Organization – among several other organizations – has criticized the practice of nonconsensual and unnecessary medical interventions on intersex children.
What Does Intersex Mean?
In the broadest possible terms, intersex people have physical and medical differences that place them in between or outside the traditional sexual binary. This can be as pronounced as different genitalia or as subtle as hormonal and sexual differences.
Intersex is not the same as sexuality or gender identification. Here’s a look at the clinical definitions:
- Intersex is a term that may be used when a person has both male and female characteristics such as genitalia, hormones, chromosomes, and reproductive organs. (Medical News Today, 2021)1
- Intersexuality is an umbrella term referring to human bodies that are not strictly within the male/female binary. (Very Well Mind, 2021)2
- In general, this applies to many different conditions present at birth that affect one’s sexual or reproductive anatomy in a way that is not clearly male or female.
- Intersex used to be called hermaphroditism. The group of intersex conditions can sometimes be called disorders of sex development (DSD)s. (MedlinePlus, n.d.)3
How Are Intersex People Identified at Birth?
Depending on the subtlety of their differences, intersex newborns can be classified as intersex or misidentified as male or female.
These data points elaborate further:
- Intersex children are sometimes born with genitalia that are not classified as male or female. For example, a genetically female child (XX chromosomes) may have external genitalia that appear male. (Journal of Sex Research, 2002)4
- Conversely, a genetically male child (XY chromosomes) may have external genitalia that appear female. In rare cases, a child may be born with both. (Journal of Sex Research, 2002)4
Percentage of Humans Who Are Intersex: Intersex Population Figures
Despite being largely underreported, intersex people make up a significant portion of the population. Many of them are not obviously intersex – they may appear male or female but have different sexual organs or hormones inside them.
Stigmatization of intersex individuals, as well as the fact that their most obvious differences are often covered by clothes, can make the numbers difficult to pin down.
You’ve probably met several intersex people in your life but didn’t know it. So here’s a look at the numbers:
- An estimated 1.7% of the population is intersex, making it about as common as having red hair. (Intersex Campaign for Equality, 2015)5
- Older statistics indicate that 0.05% of the population is intersex, but those studies only counted intersex people with ambiguous genitalia – just one of many intersex variations. (Intersex Campaign for Equality, 2015)5
- Medical studies on the frequency of intersex births since 1955 suggest the percentage may be as high as 2% of live births. (Intersex Campaign for Equality, 2015)5
- Approximately 0.1 to 0.2% of individuals receive “corrective” genital surgery. (Intersex Campaign for Equality, 2015)5
- Estimates on the percentage of people who are intersex range from as low as 1 in 2,000 births to 4% of births, but 1.7% is the most reliable number. (Intersex Human Rights Australia, 2013)6
Common Causes of Intersex Births
Intersex births happen for a variety of reasons, but most of the time, there is no medical reason to intervene in the child’s development.
These medical conditions cause the majority of intersex births:
- Intersex can be divided into four categories: (MedlinePlus, n.d.)3
- 46, XX intersex
- 46, XY intersex
- True gonadal intersex
- Complex or undetermined intersex
- 46, XX Intersex presents when a person has the chromosomes and ovaries of a woman but genitalia that appear male. In most cases, the uterus and fallopian tubes are normal, but the labia fuse, and the clitoris enlarges to look like a penis. Causes include: (MedlinePlus, n.d.)3
- The most common cause is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) – when two adrenal glands at the top of the kidneys don’t function properly.
- Male hormones (e.g., testosterone) taken or encountered by the mother during pregnancy.
- Tumors in the mother that produce male hormones (usually ovarian tumors).
- Aromatase deficiency – causes reduced levels of estrogen and increased levels of testosterone.
- 46, XY Intersex presents when a person has the chromosomes of a man, but genitals are incomplete, ambiguous, or female. Internal testes may be normal, malformed, or absent. This used to be called pseudo-hermaphroditism. Causes include: (MedlinePlus, n.d.)3
- Problems with testes not producing male hormones leading to undervirilization.
- Problems with testosterone formation often due to an enzyme deficiency.
- Problems using testosterone, even if the testes and testosterone levels are normal. One example is the condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), which prevents testosterone from converting to dihydrotestosterone.
- AIS is the most common cause of 46, XY Intersex and is sometimes referred to as testicular feminization.
- True Gonadal Intersex is when an individual has both ovarian and testicular tissue. Both could be in the same gonad, or there could be 1 ovary and 1 testis. (MedlinePlus, n.d.)3
- Chromosomes can be male (XY), female (XX), or both.
- External genitals appear male, female, or ambiguous.
- Complex or Undetermined Intersex Disorders of Sexual Development (DSD)s include chromosome configurations outside of 46, XX, or 46, XY. (MedlinePlus, n.d.)3
- Configurations include 45, XO (only one X chromosome); 47, XXY; or 47, XXX.
- These disorders don’t create a discrepancy between internal and external genitalia.
- These disorders can create problems with sex hormone levels, sexual development, and altered numbers of sex chromosomes.
History of Intersex
Believe it or not, many societies throughout history talked about intersex openly, used it to theorize about human sexuality, and practiced acceptance of intersex people.
Here are a few examples of the historical impacts of intersexuality:
- Societies have been aware of intersex people for millennia. In the Meenakshi Temple in India, a statue of Ardhanarishvara clearly depicts both male and female characteristics. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- The Greek physician Hippocrates and the Roman philosopher Galen both viewed sex as a spectrum between men and women, with many shades in between – including hermaphrodites, an early term for one type of intersex person. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- Both Roman and post-classical canon laws referred to one’s sex as male, female, or hermaphrodite and gave legal rights depending on the most dominant characteristics. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- Some non-European societies have sex or gender systems that identify more than the traditional two categories of male/man and female/woman. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- In the Victorian Era, medical authors coined the terms “true hermaphrodite” for those with both ovarian and testicular tissue and “male pseudo-hermaphrodite” for those with testicular tissue but either ambiguous or female sexual anatomy. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
Intersex Rights and Legal Issues
Many people either fear what they don’t understand or seek to change and “normalize” it. Unfortunately, this mindset adversely affects intersex people, whose bodies are often subject to invasive medical procedures before they’ve even learned to walk.
Because we don’t talk about intersexuality enough, many of the population believe it is something to be feared or corrected.
Here’s some data on the harm that causes to the intersex community:
- Intersex people can face discrimination as early as birth, including infanticide, abandonment, or stigmatization of their families. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- In parts of Africa, intersex births can be seen as a curse or a sign that the mother is a witch. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- Medical interventions – often unnecessary and without consent – have been regularly conducted in certain countries to modify the sex characteristics of intersex people. The WHO and other UN bodies have criticized this. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- In 2015, Malta was the first country to outlaw surgical intervention without consent, and the Council of Europe became the first institution to state that intersex people have the right not to undergo sex affirmation interventions. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- Intersex people are often stigmatized and subjected to human rights violations, including discrimination in education, healthcare, employment, sport, and public services. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- The case of M.C. v Aaronson in the U.S. involved a child born with ovotestes and put up for adoption. While in the care of the state of South Carolina, doctors decided to assign him as female and surgically change his body to appear female. (Wikipedia, 2022)7
- The surgery was not medically necessary, and the child was far too young to identify as male or female – he later identified as male.
- A young boy was surgically given a girl’s body without consent, and the Medical University of South Carolina settled out of court for $440,000 in reparations.
Common Myths About Intersex
If you have heard of intersexuality, it’s likely that some of these myths have been presented to you.
As with all gender and sexual minority groups, prejudice tends to dissipate with exposure and education. Here are some answers to common questions or fallacies that may arise relating to intersexuality:
- Society has several ingrained assumptions or myths about the intersex community that can be harmful. These include, but are not limited to, the following: (Amnesty International, 2018)8
- Everyone is born either male or female – False
- Millions of people have nonbinary sexual characteristics that don’t really fit into male or female. Many of these people identify as intersex.
- Being intersex is incredibly rare – False
- About 1.7% of the world’s population is intersex – similar to the number of people with red hair.
- Being intersex is a condition or disorder that needs to be corrected – False
- Many intersex children undergo nonconsensual medical interventions that are often invasive, irreversible, and medically unnecessary.
- Intersex people are the same as transgender people – False
- Being intersex has nothing to do with being transgender.
- Gender identity, sexuality, and physical sexual characteristics are not the same thing.
- An intersex person may be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual. They may identify as male, female, both, or neither.
- No one is speaking out for intersex people – False
- While misconceptions persist, several fantastic intersex activists around the world are fighting to raise awareness and protect human rights.
- Many of these activists want to ensure that no intersex children have to experience the suffering or discrimination that they did.
- Everyone is born either male or female – False
While it’s impossible to get exact numbers, the best estimates put the intersex community at 1.7% of the global population. Intersex people are a medically legitimate minority group that have a choice in the circumstances of their birth.
However, they have the right to identify as they see fit without medical intervention. Intersexuality may result from a different or abnormal process in human reproduction, but it is not a flaw and does not need to be corrected – except in lifesaving medical circumstances.
Intersex people who are allowed to self-determine go on to lead enriching lives. When doctors or parents attempt to decide a child’s gender before they develop, however, it can cause severe trauma and confusion.
Very few countries have legal recognitions or protections for intersex individuals. Therefore, the most important thing anyone can do is educate themselves on, talk about, and acknowledge the intersex community.
- Medical News Today, 2021. A medically-reviewed article on the definition of intersex, its characteristics, and what intersex individuals may identify as.
- Very Well Mind, 2021. A reviewed article that defines intersex and the criteria for a medical identification as intersex.
- MedlinePlus, n.d. A medical encyclopedia entry from a government medical encyclopedia that defines and characterizes intersex.
- Journal of Sex Research, 2002. An academic article on the different presentations that intersex individuals may display, what causes them, and how intersex can be defined.
- Intersex Campaign for Equality, 2015. A report explaining the different studies that attempt to measure the percentage of intersex people in the general population.
- Intersex Human Rights Australia, 2013. A report on understanding and evaluating the research and statistics on the global intersex population.
- Wikipedia, 2022. An online encyclopedia article on the definition, characteristics, and history of Intersex people.
- Amnesty International, 2018. An article on the common misconceptions or myths that may be harmful to the intersex community.