Back to Visuals Page
Back to Teaching Page


Basic Information on Intersex Newborns:
(information obtained from

          In a dichotomous world of opposites, society is eager to place all people into the categories of either male or female. Yet for the parents of one out of every 2-3,000 infants, it is not quite that simple. At least a few thousand babies are born in the United States every year with ambiguous genitalia (Hall, San Francisco Chronicle, July 4, 2000).

          Every embryo, male and female, begins with the same embryonic tissues. At around eight weeks a "chemical chain of events" causes the male embryo to form. The female embryo develops due to the absence of such an event. Much of this process is not yet fully understood, but "as many as 30 conditions may lead to a child being considered intersexed" (Lehrman). If the external genitalia, which form around the ninth week, do not match the internal sex organs, this is one way a baby can become intersexed. Chromosomal abnormalities can also lead to intersexed children, with additional X and Y-chromosomes to blame (Lehrman, "Sex Police", April 5, 1999). Ordinarily a female embryo is an XX and a male embryo is an XY. The mother donates one X chromosome and the father donates one Y or one X chromosome.

          Infants are considered to have "ambiguous" genitalia when their internal and external sex organs are neither exclusively male nor exclusively female. A fixed measurement determines whether external sex organs are male or female. According to Alice Domurat Dreger, clitorises in female infants are "considered too big if they exceed one centimeter in length." In male infants, penises are "considered too small if the stretched length is less than 2.5 centimeters (about an inch)." This often results in
"genetically male children" being given "a female sex assignment." Most often it is easier to construct female genitalia than male genitalia, therefore intersex girls are more common. ("Ambiguous Sex" ­ or Ambivalent Medicine?" The Hastings Center Report, May/Jun 1998, Volume 28, Issue 3 Pages 24-35).

         Determining the sex of infants at birth may not be the answer in all cases. The Intersex Society of North America, as well as some medical specialists, suggests that parents and doctors wait to determine a childís sexual identity. "For babies with ambiguous genitals whose condition is not life-threatening, Reiner [a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist and former surgeon of intersex children] advises holding off on surgery and letting them decide later." (Melissa Hendricks, "Into the Hands of Babes," Johns Hopkins Magazine, September 2000). By waiting to determine surgery plans, the child becomes a more informed participant.

          There is an urgent need for more humane treatment of intersexed children within the medical community: "Children treated for intersex conditions within the medical establishment experience many of the same types of trauma as children who are sexually abused" (Alexander "The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse" 1997). In addition, a Dutch study has found that "children treated for intersexuality develop psychological disorders" (San Francisco, CA: 3 May 98).

         Quickly deciding an infantís sex on the basis of arbitrary measurements is not in the best interest of all intersex children. The more ambiguous the sex, the more important it is for doctors to allow children to determine for themselves if they are male or female before permanent changes are made. Medically determining an infantís sex is not always best because such actions are not only painful to the child, but also irreversible.

          The solution to intersex cases may not be medical, but a societal effort to include those who do not fit into narrowly defined categories of sex and gender. What determines an individualís sex cannot be answered by medical tests alone.

          The inclusion of those outside traditional definitions of male and female is essential for the creation of a society where everyone is valued equally, regardless of gender differences.


Basic Information on Intersex Newborns:

Intersex Society of North America:

Making the Cut:  Ms. Magazine Essay on Clitoridectomy in theU.S. and Intersex Children:

Book Review:  Lessons from the Intersexed:

Discovery Channel Video Description: