The term hermaphrodite has been thrown around for centuries. It comes from Greek Mythology — supposedly, a nymph fell in love with the son of Hermes and Aphrodite and prayed to be united with him forever. As per usual in Greek Mythology, the request backfires/is taken a little too literally. In answer to her prayers, a god merged their forms to create an androgynous being known as Hermaphroditus.
Today, the word hermaphrodite (sometimes shortened to morphodite) has become a misused umbrella term for people not conforming to the gender binary, male or female. Hermaphrodite is now a stigmatized term generally avoided by polite society. However, it’s also a technical term used by the scientific community to describe the sex of certain animals.
Here I’ll explain what being a hermaphrodite/intersex means and what causes hermaphroditism.
Feature image: Wikipedia/Carla Isabel Ribeiro
What Does Hermaphrodite Mean for Animals?
Hermaphroditic animals have both “male” and “female” reproductive organs. This enables both partners to act as the “female” or “male” in sexual reproduction, which you can see clearly in the image above.
Hermaphroditism is fairly common in plants and animals: about 5% of all animal species are hermaphroditic. Many invertebrates such as snails and slugs are hermaphroditic.
What Does Hermaphrodite Mean for Humans?
As I mentioned above, when discussing humans, the terms hermaphrodite and morphodite have stigmas associated with them. The medical community and people with the conditions I discuss in this article prefer the word intersex. Therefore, that will be the term I use throughout the rest of this article.
An intersex person (or hermaphrodite) is someone who is born with a reproductive system that doesn’t fit the typical definition of male or female. They usually have some male and some female genitalia. However, most intersex people are not born with every organ from both genders (penis, scrotum, vagina, clitoris, labia, uterus, testes, breasts, etc.)
There is a wide spectrum of what doctors consider intersex. Some intersex people appear to fit the typical definition of male or female on the outside but have the opposite gender genitalia on the inside. For example, an intersex child might appear male on the outside with a penis but might have ovaries on the inside.
However, some intersex people do display both male and female organs. You can see in the diagram below that this intersex person has a labia and vaginal opening in addition to a penis.
Others are born with abnormal chromosomes. While most babies are born with either XX (female) or XY (male) chromosomes, some intersex boys are born with extra X chromosomes (XXY), causing them to have low testosterone levels and to grow breasts. I’ll dive into this in more detail in the “Causes of Intersex” section below.
Intersex is fairly rare in humans — only about 0.1% of people are intersex. To put that into perspective, based on the US population of 318 million, there are about 300,000 intersex people in the US.
What Does Intersex Not Apply to?
Intersex only refers to those born with both male and female genitalia and those with specific types of chromosome abnormalities (which I’ll discuss below).
The term intersex does not apply to transgender people. Transgender refers to a person whose gender identity doesn’t align with the biological sex given at birth. For example, a person who is born with male genitalia but self-identifies as female would be considered a trans woman. A person who is born with female genitalia but self-identifies as male would be considered a trans man.
It’s also not an appropriate term for cross-dressers, drag queens or drag kings. Those are simply people who derive pleasure in dressing up as the opposite sex.
The Causes of Intersex in Humans
As I said, there is a wide spectrum of what doctors consider intersex. For this reason, there are also many different causes of intersex. Here are the main causes and their associated symptoms.
Major Intersex Cause 1: Chromosome Abnormality
As I mentioned, some intersex people are born with a chromosome abnormality.
Klinefelter’s Syndrome (or XXY male) is caused when a male is born with extra X chromosome(s). It occurs in about 1 in 1,000 boys, making it the most common cause of intersex. The number of extra X chromosomes can vary, and typically, the more extra X chromosomes the male has, the more severe the symptoms.
Some symptoms of XXY males lead to hermaphroditism:
- Smaller penis and testes
- Being taller than their peers
- Breast growth
- Less facial and body hair
- Decreased sexual desire
- Wider hips and narrower shoulders
- Reduced muscle tone
- Delayed speech and language development
- Learning disabilities
Turner Syndrome occurs when a female is born missing one or part of one X chromosome. It occurs in about 1 in every 2,000 live births of baby girls. Also, it’s the cause of approximately 10% of all miscarriages.
For babies born with Turner Syndrome, the symptoms include:
- No breast development
- Smaller stature (typically under 5 feet)
- Short, webbed neck
- Low-set ears
- No menstruation
- Puffy hands and feet at birth
The exact cause of ovotestes is not always known, but it’s usually due to a chromosomal or genetic issue. Most people born with ovotestes have female chromosomes (XX) but have specific genes that were incorrectly deleted, moved, or duplicated. Though it’s more common in girls, ovotestes can also occur in boys and is also usually caused by a genetic error. Ovotestes occur in less than 1 in 20,000 live births.
Ovotestes are sexual organs in which both ovarian and testicular tissue are present. Females typically have two ovaries, and males typically have two testes. Some intersex people with ovotestes have one ovotestis and one ovary or testis; others have two ovotestes. Some look outwardly typically male or female and only discover they have ovotestes when they’re unable to conceive or when they develop testicular or ovarian cancer.
Major Intersex Cause 2: Hormone Issues
Hormones are chemicals that our body produce for many functions. You’ve probably heard of some common ones like testosterone (commonly associated with men) and estrogen (commonly associated with women). One major function of hormones is to help us develop our sexual organs. Some intersex conditions are caused by malfunctioning hormones or by prenatal exposure to external hormones.
Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
Male and females with congenital adrenal hyperplasia lack an enzyme the adrenal gland needs to make the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. It also causes the body to produce more androgen — a male sex hormone — which causes male characteristics to appear early (or inappropriately in females). It occurs in about 1 in 10,000 children.
The symptoms in females include:
- Abnormal menstruation or failure to menstruate
- Early appearance of pubic or armpit hair
- Excessive hair growth or facial hair
- Enlargement of the clitoris
The symptoms in males include:
- Deep voice
- Early appearance of pubic or armpit hair
- Enlarged penis but normal-sized testes
- Larger muscles
Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome
People with AIS are genetically male with XY chromosomes, but they’re resistant to male hormones (called androgens). This causes them to display some or all of the physical traits of a woman, but they have the genetic makeup of a man. It occurs in about 1 in 20,000 people.
Some symptoms include:
- A vagina without a cervix or uterus
- Female breasts
- Testes in the abdomen or other unusual places in the body
Prenatal Exposure to Exogenous Androgens
It’s now fairly rare, but in the 1950s to 1960s, doctors used to give pregnant women exogenous androgens (extra artificial hormones). Doctors believed it would help prevent miscarriages.
However, if the hormones were given at particular stage in the pregnancy, the female fetus would be affected. Effects ranged from being born appearing female with a larger clitoris to being born appearing male without testes.
How Being Intersex Affects People’s Lives
First off, I want to make it known that most intersex people live perfectly happy and healthy lives. A lot of intersex people don’t realize they’re intersex until they hit puberty and don’t progress typically (e.g. girls don’t get their period). Others don’t find out until they try to have children and find themselves unable to conceive. Some people live their entire lives never knowing they’re intersex.
However, it’s possible for being intersex to affect your life both medically and socially in a number of ways.
Most intersex people are unable to procreate because their reproductive organs are not fully developed or don’t function in a typical way. For example, many intersex women do not have menstrual cycles, and many intersex men do not produce enough sperm to procreate or are unable to get erections. However, some intersex men are able to have children using in-vitro fertilization.
Men with breasts tend to have a higher risk of breast cancer, and women with testicles tend to have a higher risk of testicular cancer. The exact reason for this heightened cancer risk is unknown. However, it’s often recommended that men have breast reduction/removal surgery and that women have testicle removal surgery in order to reduce cancer risks.
Depending on the severity, a few intersex conditions can also be life-threatening. For example, those with severe hormone deficiencies caused by Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia can have dangerously low blood pressure. The majority of intersex conditions are not life-threatening, though.
The social issues intersex men and women face can vary a lot depending on the exact condition they have and the severity of certain symptoms.
Many struggle socially due to developmental issues such as learning and language difficulty, while others struggle at a young age because they are picked on by their peers for their appearance. Some struggle to have sex and/or struggle to have a desire for sex, which can make relationships challenging.
Some intersex people can also be psychologically scarred by gender selection surgeries. I’ll dive into this more in the next section.
First off, treatment is not always necessary, depending on the exact intersex condition and symptoms. Those with life-threatening symptoms should obviously opt for treatment; however, those who simply have ambiguous genitalia don’t necessarily require medical intervention.
For those with chromosome abnormalities, there are fairly few treatment options because scientists cannot change your genetic makeup. However, as I mentioned above, men may have breasts removed, and women may have testicles removed due to the cancer risks. This is generally a low-risk procedure; however, it should be discussed with a healthcare professional.
In the past, parents of intersex children would pick their child’s gender and opt for surgery to remove the genitalia of the opposite sex. The remaining genitalia would then be reconstructed to more closely resemble the genitalia of the chosen gender. In those days, parents were not able to find out whether their child was male or female biologically (i.e. whether their chromosomes were XX or XY). Intersex surgery often had negative effects on the child. Many grew up to be depressed because they identified with the opposite sex of their selected sex. Some “boys” had XX chromosomes, and “girls” had XY.
Although you can now find out the child’s chromosome makeup at birth, most doctors recommend delaying surgery until the intersex child is older and can make their own decision about their gender. Some intersex people may opt not to have reconstruction surgery; as I said before, it’s not always medically necessary.
Another treatment option for some intersex people is hormone therapy/medication. This is common for those with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. For those with life-threatening symptoms, it is medically necessary to begin hormone treatment immediately. For those with non-life-threatening symptoms, doctors recommend delaying hormone treatment until the child can make their own decision about their gender.
We’ve covered a lot here. Let’s sum it up:
What Do Hermaphrodite and Intersex Mean?
- Hermaphroditism is fairly common in animals: 5% of animal species are hermaphroditic.
- When discussing humans, intersex is the politically correct term; hermaphrodite and morphodite have stigmas associated with them.
- Intersex people are born with a reproductive system that doesn’t fit the typical definition of male or female. They typically have some male and some female genitalia.
- The term intersex doesn’t apply to transgender people, drag kings, and drag queens.
- There are many causes of intersex. Some intersex conditions such as Turner Syndrome and Klinefelter Syndrome are caused by chromosomal or genetic issues. Other intersex conditions such as AIS are caused by hormonal issues.
- Many intersex people live long healthy and happy lives without any medical treatment. Others may need medical treatment due to life-threatening symptoms. For those with less dangerous conditions, doctors recommend delaying treatment until the child can make their own decision about their gender.