02 May 2010

Intersexuality as Identity.

This past year, I have had many fantastic conversations about all sorts of identities on the website FetLife.com, a BDSM social networking website.  At the time that I participated and followed many of these discussions, I was not armed with the vocabulary to discuss sex, gender, gender expression, sexuality, oppression, and marginalization the way I am now.  Thus, having sat on many of these questions for several months, I think I am finally ready to discuss my thoughts on these often complex and controversial issues in my blog.

One of the first discussions I ever had on FetLife (in the group "Kinky gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered") was on "Intersexuality as Identity".  I started this discussion five months ago, long before I had the knowledge or vocabulary to discuss concepts such as subconscious sex, gender dissonance, or sex identity (several of which are terms used and defined by Julia Serano, whose book The Whipping Girl I am currently reading).  Initially, I phrased the question as follows:

What do we think about intersex as an identity? Can intersex be an identity? Can a non-intersex person identify as such? Should intersex people identify as either man or woman?
The discussion was very exciting and featured some interesting perspectives, such as the perspective of an intersex activist, who insisted that people without an intersex condition should never identify as intersex; the perspectives of a person who identified as "emotionally and mentally intersex" and described "wishing to have been born intersex" and a person whose ex-partner identified this way, both of whom argued that people not born intersex can identify as such in the same way people assigned male at birth can identify as female and vise versa; and a person whose body neither resembled that typical for a female nor that typical for a male due to medical transition, and who was searching for a term to describe his sex.

One major problem I came upon in this discussion was that people conflated sex with gender and gender presentation.  Some of the individuals in the discussion often described feeling intersex because they saw themselves as both masculine and feminine and/or as both man and woman.  This is highly problematic, as intersex is a sex (or is it a category containing several different sexes?), not a gender identity or expression, like bigender or androgynous.  Using the term "intersex" to describe gender identity and expression is appropriative, and it creates misconceptions about the gender identity and expression of people with intersex conditions.

However, some of the people in the discussion expressed the desire to have non-binary sex characteristics, such as both male and female primary sex characteristics or ambiguous genetalia.  Just as someone's subconscious sex does not have to match their physical sex, someone's subconscious sex can also be non-binary.  However, using the term "intersex" to describe a non-binary sex identity is inappropriate, because intersex people face very specific medical needs, and they are often stigmatized and pathologized by society, so it's important to have a singular word to describe their experiences.

Alternative terms could be developed to describe people with non-binary sex identities, such as bisexed, multisexed, ambigusexed, etc.  Additionally, it might be beneficial if a term was developed to describe bodies that are neither traditionally male nor traditionally female, but are that way due to medical transition rather than from birth.
more and more trans folks are advocating for separate concepts of gender identity and sex identity. sex identity (also called 'brain sex' among other things) being equivalent to the mental map of your body as exists in your brain. given that, it's totally reasonable to assume that some people have intersex sex identities. however, intersex as a set of physiological condition is so stigmatized and pathologized that people with those conditions really need access to a singular word to describe their experience without also including people who do not possess those physical conditions but do have a sex identity that includes both male and female parts (which is really really not the same as a transexual who happens to end up with what seems to you as both male and female parts due to lack of access or lack of medical technology). this is necessary because, intersex babies are being mutilated non-consensually every day and intersex people have particular ongoing medical needs as adults, and so a clear, bounded identity category is needed for purposes of solidarity, support, and advocacy. including people with non-binary 'brain sex' would unacceptably muddy that up. what will probably happen is that those people will coin a new term to refer to sex identities that don't fit into the 'male' 'female' or neither (sometimes called neutrois) categories. -- FetLife user ephraim, quote from the original discussion


  1. Why is intersex inappropriate to define that kind of sex identity? If you transition to a, well, intersexed state, why can't you use the same word? Sure you weren't born that way, but why do "done" transsexuals get to call themselves cisgender but these people don't get to call themselves intersex?

    I feel the number is pretty low anyway, as most folks who do transition to this state either identify with terms like non-op trans or genderqueer, etc. If it were something that could become an issue, then people in the intersex community could probably find a way to distinguish it. But in my experience, it's only really been used by genderqueer or transitioning folks trying to emphasize that they are no longer what they were born as, but they are not "the opposite" either, and have specific medical needs because of that. There's never been confusion when talking to people born intersex and people explaining that they have "become intersex" etc.

  2. In the discussion I had on FetLife, an intersex person expressed concern over people who were not born with an intersex condition identifying that way. I feel that, since this person was intersex, that their opinion should be considered. I do think it's important for people to be able to describe their bodies that are neither male nor female due to medical transition, but I don't think intersex is the correct term because of the special issues people with intersex conditions face. It's important to have a unifying and unique term for those individuals.

  3. Here is the original discussion, if you're interested: http://fetlife.com/groups/761/group_posts/413117