The Problem of Naming “Intersex” as a Disorder

Originally published on SGP (June 20, 2016)

Ng Lay Sion

How many times have you heard of the word “intersex”? How many intersex people have you met in your life? Perhaps you can count with only one hand. However, the fact is that in 1 out of 100 births there is a baby whose body differs from standard male or female (“How Common”). According to the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), “intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male” (“What Is,” par. 1).

Before the word intersex was invented, “hermaphrodite” or “hermaphroditism”—which conjures images of “freak of nature, hybrid, impostor, sexual pervert and unfortunate creature—was the word that had been used in the early medical literature (Ries 536). It is from the early 1990s that biologist Richard Goldschmidt started to call the discordance between the multiple components of sex anatomy as “intersex”. Now “intersex” and “hermaphroditism” are broadly being called disorders of sex development (DSDs) in medical settings. Due to those negative impacts on the word intersex, intersex people and their parents often feel humiliated and are embarrassed to be known by the surrounding people.

The calling of intersex as “disorder” implies that something is seriously wrong and needs to be corrected. But the fact is that “unusual sex anatomy does not inevitably require surgical or hormonal correction” (Reis 538). In fact, the so-called normalizing genital surgeries that are undertaken during infancy can barely cures the intersex condition but instead causes side effects such as “pain during sex”, “less-than-fully-functional sex organs” and “recurrent infections” (Brue 106).

Drawing on Suzanne Kessler’s suggestion that “gender ambiguity is ‘corrected’, not because it is threatening to the infant’s life, but because it is threatening to the infant’s culture” (32), using the word disorder embodies a crucial point that some of the surgeries have primarily social rather than medical goals (Ries 539). As we know, in order to simplify social interactions and maintain order, sex categories get simplified into male and female. The ways in which intersex bodies have been pathologized are based on “social anxieties about marriage, heterosexuality and the insistence on normative bodies” (qtd. in Reis 2005).

From the perspective of feminism, we should think of sex, like gender, on a continuum, as something more flexible than strictly female or male. Calling intersex as the disorder of sex development speaks for “a denial of a core feminist and intersex-activist principle regarding the fluidity of sex and gender” (Ries 539). Instead of terming intersex people as having a “disorder”, understanding the notions of the relationships between biological sex, sexuality, desire, and culturally influenced gender roles are what we should really focus on. In fact, intersex anatomy does not always show up at birth. Sometimes one is not found to have intersex anatomy until one dies of old age and is autopsied. That is to say, no one has the right to call intersex people as people with disorders since he/she might be also intersex.


“How common is Intersex?” Intersex Society of North America. 2008. Web. 9 June 2016.

Kessler, S. J. Lessons from the Intersexed. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998.

Ries, Elizabeth. “Divergence or Disorder? The Politics of Naming Intersex.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Vol. 50. No. 4. John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007.

“What is Intersex?” Intersex Society of North America. 2008. Web. 9 June 2016.



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