Sexual Health Q&A

What does the term “intersex” mean?

What does the term “intersex” mean?

The term “intersex” is used to describe disorders of sex development (DSDs) – situations in which a fetus develops differently from a typical male or female.

For example, a baby may be born with female chromosomes, ovaries, and a uterus, but have enlarged clitoris that resembles a penis. Or, a child may be born with male chromosomes but no testes and ambiguous external genitalia. It’s also possible for a baby to be born with one ovary and one testis.

Intersex conditions start when a baby is developing in the womb. They are sometimes caused by genetic problems. In some cases, hormones that help a baby’s development don’t function properly. (Click here to learn more about the causes of intersex conditions).

Some examples of intersex conditions are

Complete androgen deficiency syndrome. A child is genetically male but has female reproductive organs.

Vaginal agenesis. A girl is born without a fully-developed vagina.

• Micropenis. A boy’s penis is much smaller than average.

• True gonadal intersex. A child is born with both an ovary and a testis or an ovotestis (a single organ that has characteristics of an ovary and a testis).

Treatment for intersex conditions is complex and can involve physicians, surgeons, therapists, and support groups for both children and families.

In the past, it was common to conduct surgery and assign a gender to the child as soon as possible.

Nowadays, medical teams are more likely to wait on surgery, as long as the child is healthy. It takes time to see exactly how the child develops physically and emotionally. In some cases, the child may help decide which gender is most appropriate.

Parents of intersex children are encouraged to seek counseling and support for their children, for themselves, and for other members of their family. A child may have difficulty coping with being “different” and parents may have trouble explaining the situation to others, such as caregivers or school personnel. Having a supportive network is essential.