If you’ve ever wondered whether you might be intersex, you’re not alone: While many people have always known that they’re intersex, others may not realize it until they enter puberty and develop differently than they expect. Learning what it means to be intersex, and the signs to look out for, can be a good first step toward determining whether or not you might be intersex.
What does it mean to be intersex?
“Intersex” is a term that covers a wide range of developmental differences in sexual anatomy and genetic makeup. Sometimes, these differences are visible, like genitals (penis or vulva) that look different than what is considered typical. In other cases, these differences may be present in someone’s internal sexual organs or genes.
Because the term “intersex” encompasses so many differences in anatomy and genetic expression, intersex people’s experiences vary a lot. Some people who are intersex may look like other people of their assigned sex and have few “atypical” characteristics. Others may have external genitals that are usually associated with members of their assigned sex, but internal reproductive anatomy that matches members of the other sex: For example, some people assigned female have internal testes, while other people assigned male have ovaries, a uterus, or both.
Some intersex people have pronounced genital differences, while others may have different combinations of secondary sexual characteristics (i.e., both a beard and breasts, or an Adam’s apple and a period). Some intersex people can get pregnant or get others pregnant; others can’t. Every intersex person is unique; one person’s experience of being intersex might be completely different from someone else’s.
5 signs you might be intersex
Some people might suspect they are intersex because of a genital difference, or because they experienced surgeries and procedures as a child or adolescent that they didn’t understand at the time. (1) Others might wonder whether they are intersex because they’re developing unexpected secondary sexual characteristics during puberty, or because they’re not developing expected traits.
Here are a few signs that you might be intersex:
1. Genital differences. Contrary to stereotypes, intersex people don’t have both a fully formed vagina and a fully formed penis; intersex people may have genital differences, however. In people assigned female, this can mean an unusually large clitoris or labia majora (outer vaginal lips), or the lack of a vaginal opening. In people assigned male, this might look like having a scrotum that’s split down the middle and resembles labia, having an opening behind the penis, or having an extremely small penis.
2. Body hair. Intersex people assigned female might have lots of hair on their bodies and faces, whereas intersex people assigned male might not develop facial hair. Intersex people assigned either sex might not develop any body hair at all if they have androgen insensitivity syndrome, one of the more common intersex conditions.
3. Voice. Intersex people assigned male may not experience a deepening of their voice at puberty, whereas people assigned female may find that their voice grows significantly deeper.
4. Menstruation. Intersex people who are assigned female may never get a period, while intersex people assigned male might start menstruating.
5. Body composition. Intersex people who are assigned male may develop breasts or rounded hips; those assigned female might develop an Adam’s apple and have little or no breast tissue.
Sometimes, your medical records have information that can help you understand what’s going on with your body. In other cases, a physical examination by a healthcare provider, or genetic testing, can provide more clarity. If you’re wondering if you might be intersex, it may be worthwhile to check in with a healthcare provider. If you’re not already connected with a medical professional you trust, Planned Parenthood can be a good place to seek information and affirming care from providers who have experience with reproductive health and issues surrounding gender and sex.
Is intersex a gender or a sexual orientation?
Sex is assigned at birth, usually by a doctor, based on physical characteristics, like whether someone has a penis or a vagina. Gender describes thoughts, feelings, expectations, social roles, and outward expressions, like clothing, relating to sex categories (i.e., “woman” or “man”). Intersex people have different combinations of traits that don’t conform to binary sex categories. Being intersex is neither a sexual orientation, nor a gender.
Some intersex people’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a person assigned female may grow up to be a woman. Other intersex people are trans: someone assigned female might later identify as a man. Some intersex people are nonbinary or genderfluid and identify with both genders or neither.
Intersex people can be straight, gay, pansexual, asexual, or any other sexual orientation.
How common is it to be intersex?
More people are born intersex than you might think. While you may not have learned what it means to be intersex in school, or think that you’ve never met someone who’s intersex, research suggests that as many as 1 in 100 people may have hormonal, anatomical, or chromosomal traits that fall outside of what is typically understood as typically “female” or “male.” (2)
Are intersex people “hermaphrodites”?
According to InterACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, the word “hermaphrodite” is a slur that is both medically inaccurate and stigmatizing. While some people may choose to reclaim the word to describe themselves, it should never be used to describe others.
What’s it like to be intersex?
Intersex people are represented in every profession and walk of life. Some intersex people choose to come out publicly and share their stories. Other intersex people choose to keep this information private.
Historically, intersex people have experienced discrimination and been subjected to nonconsensual surgeries and treatments designed to make their bodies conform to their assigned sex. Because society is organized around categories of binary sex, intersex people may still face a variety of challenges, including unnecessary medical interventions and exclusion from institutions like the military. Intersex people also face widespread misunderstanding and inaccurate stereotypes, and may experience family conflict around medical decision-making.
Recently, advocacy groups like InterACT have been created to provide information and education, help intersex people connect with one another, and promote laws that prevent children from being subjected to unnecessary medical interventions.
Dating while intersex
While not all intersex people are trans, advice about navigating dating as a trans person may still apply, particularly for people who have genital differences. If you’re intersex, how or whether you choose to disclose is totally up to you. You deserve to be treated with respect and experience safe, consensual dating and sex that feels good to you.
The Bottom Line
The term “intersex” covers a huge range of physical and genetic traits, backgrounds, and experiences. Intersex people exist outside of the sex binary and may identify as queer or straight, trans, nonbinary, or cis. Intersex people deserve to have their autonomy respected and to choose whether to undergo surgeries or treatments that will change their bodies.