An Introductory Sexual Guide for Intersex People: 8 Things Intersex People Should Know

These days accessing comprehensive sex ed in the United States is no easy task given the prevalence of abstinence-only education, the wildly varying quality of sex ed from state to state and even from school district to school district, and the pitfalls of receiving sex ed exclusively at home. It’s even harder if you’re not conventionally straight. The majority of sex ed is still geared exclusively toward typically cisgender, heterosexual people, which makes it difficult for those of us who do not fit neatly into these dominate categories to obtain the information we need to lead happy, healthy sex lives. In the case of intersex people this absence of information and representation is compounded by the stigma, secrecy, and trauma that often surround our bodies. One way to confront this problem is to have an open, frank conversation about intersex people and sexuality. For this reason I have posted this brief introductory guide listing eight things (in no particular order) every intersex person should know going into their sex lives:

1. Only YOU can define YOUR gender and sexual identities.

This point cannot be stressed enough in the context of a highly sexist, interphobic, transphobic, homophobic, and biphobic society that still operates under the belief that sex, gender, and sexuality are binary, fixed, interdependent, and biologically inevitable traits. There is a lot of social pressure to meet binary gendered expectations of heterosexuality. These pressures come from virtually every institution in society, including our own families of origin, and are often exacerbated for intersex people and others who do not fit neatly into any kind of binary. (Just look at the medical profession’s long history of gender policing their intersex patients in the name of cisheteropatriarchy). Given these constant pressures it is no wonder why so many intersex people have internalized the cissexism and heterosexism that is all around us. I know for a long time I thought I couldn’t be anything other than a cisgender, heterosexual woman for fear of being “doubly” or even “triply marginalized” and for want of diverse representation. Then I started connecting more with the intersex community and discovered intersex people, like everyone else, come in all genders and sexual orientations.

Know, regardless of your intersex trait or assigned gender at birth, you can be whatever gender and sexuality you want. You can be sexually attracted to men, women, non-binary people, gender nonconforming people, people of all genders, or even to no one at all. You can be a man, a woman, both, neither, or not even not have a gender at all. It is up to you. Only you can define your gender and sexual identities, not your doctor, not your family, not your partner(s), or even your own sexual history. So go ahead, explore. Try new ways of expressing your gender. Do some soul searching. Question your sexuality. Have some new experiences. Surround yourself with others who honor all of your identities and never expect anything less from sexual and romantic partners. Remember you deserve to be yourself. Life is too short to live in anybody else’s box.

2. Your intersex body is awesome.

Far too often we as intersex people are bombarded with negative messages of secrecy, shame, and stigma about our bodies. There is a long history of normalizing surgeries and hormonal treatments and even outright lies from doctors concerning our bodies. Then on top of all of this we are frequently mythologized as “hermaphrodites,” fetishized, or dehumanized as freaks throughout the dominate culture if our existence is acknowledged at all. At the same there are hardly any openly intersex people in mainstream media to begin with let alone positive representations. Needless to say all of this can leave us feeling desexualized, unattractive, undesirable, and inadequate as sexual partners, but that simply isn’t true.

The truth is your intersex body is awesome regardless of your size, shape, age, skin color, ability, gender expression, medical history, or readability as intersex. Own it and others will see it too. Always remember you are valid. You are desirable. You are deserving of pleasure and happiness.

3. Sex is much more than cis-hetero penetrative penis and vagina sex.

All too often we speak of sex as if it is only one thing: the penis of one cisgender, heterosexual man penetrating the vagina of one cisgender, heterosexual woman. We speak of all else as mere foreplay at best or deviant at worst. Forms of sexuality that do not fit into this narrow model often go unrecognized. This includes forms of sexuality that involve intersex bodies. Combine this narrow sexist, cisnormative model with normalizing medical practices and many of us are left feeling invisible and abnormal and that we are not capable or worthy of “real sex,” but that isn’t true.

The truth is the narratives we tell ourselves about what counts as “real sex” and what doesn’t are social constructs. In there are all kinds of sex acts besides penal-vaginal intercourse. There’s oral sex, touching, and the use toys and prosthetics just to name a few. Some  sex acts are penetrative and some are non-penetrative, but they are all sex and do not require having a typically male or female body. So no matter your chromosomes, hormones, gonads, or genitals you were may have been born with you can have a happy and fulfilling sex life, whatever that may mean for you. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

4. Your health is a priority.

Intersex people can get STIs just like everybody else. Be sure to educate yourself and take the initiative when it comes to your own protection. Learn how to practice safe sex. A good way to start is to visit trusted websites like the ones listed in the Sources and Further Reading section below where you’ll find information about specific infections, safe sex methods, and how to communicate with partners about safe sex sex practices and STIs. Remember your well being is a priority and you deserve to be in relationships with people who care about your health too.

You also deserve to receive quality medical care. When interacting with a medical professional you should be heard and respected; never discriminated against, shamed, stigmatized, or otherwise abused. Given the medical profession’s problematic history of caring for intersex people quality care can be difficult to find and navigating medical environments can be stressful to say the least, but it is worth finding medical professionals you can trust. A whole host of issues can be avoided with regular preventative care since some S.T.Is can present without symptoms. Plus it is always best to address symptoms quickly when they arise rather than later. Never be afraid or ashamed to come into the clinic for treatment for an S.T.I. It happens to everyone.

5. Birth control is necessary for some intersex people.

According to common wisdom “intersex conditions” or “disorders of sex development” render people sterile. The facts, however, are far more complicated. There considerable amount of biological diversity within the wider intersex community and this also applies to fertility. While it is true many of us are sterile, some of us can become pregnant spontaneously or impregnate someone else. No two intersex people are exactly the same when it comes to reproductive status even if they share the same trait. For example, I am infertile as a part of having Turner syndrome and have known this since my diagnosis at the age of twelve, but there are others with the same trait who can become pregnant spontaneously. Then there is also the way the medical profession still treats intersex people. In fact the common practice of removing the gonads of intersex people tends to render more of us sterile than intersexuality itself, which is one of the many reasons why intersex activists are working to end unnecessary surgical interventions on intersex babies and children.

If you do not know your reproductive status or already know you are fertile, do not wish to become pregnant or impregnate someone else, and plan on having sex that could result in a pregnancy be sure to find a form of birth control that works best for you. There is a range of options from condoms to spermicides to oral contraceptives. Also do not assume your partner(s) will have any other form of birth control. As with protecting yourself against S.T.Is, it is best to take the initiative when it comes to protecting yourself from unwanted pregnancy.

If you do wish to have children be sure to look into all of your options. Even if you cannot become pregnant spontaneously or impregnate someone else options such as in vitro fertilization (I.V.F.), surrogacy, and adoption may be possibilities for you.

Finally, regardless of if wish to become pregnant anytime soon, I would also recommend arming yourself with all the information you can find on your own fertility if you have not already done so or feel there are any gaps in your knowledge. Work with medical professionals you trust, access your medical records, and have conversations with others who share your intersex trait on their experiences with reproduction. Having all this knowledge will enable you to make more informed reproductive health decisions in general.

6. Communication is key.

When it comes to mutually satisfying sex communication is essential. It is important have frank conversations with your partner(s) about boundaries, comfort levels, likes and dislikes, and safety throughout your sex lives. Be prepared to share and listen. Remember in this process you deserve to have your identity and body respected. This includes your pronouns, name, and the terms you use to refer to your anatomy.

Also it is important to note that ongoing communication is even more important if you are polyamorous. If that applies to you or you are considering a polyamorous arrangement be sure to always check in with your partners and establish clear expectations and boundaries.

7. Consent! Consent! Consent!

It is not sexy. It is mandatory. Consent means enthusiastically and freely given, and reversible, and for one time only. Please watch the excellent Planned Parenthood videos listed in the Sources and Further Reading section. They illustrate these principles and what they look like in real life situations perfectly.

8. HAVE FUN!

After all sex is about pleasure so have fun and enjoy yourself. And if your brand of pleasure doesn’t involve sex and/or romantic attachments that’s awesome too! Just be yourself.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/educators/resources/digital-tools
  2. http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/myths-and-facts/
  3. http://safaids.net/files/Intersex%20Booklet.pdf
  4. http://intersexandthecity.blogspot.com/2014/09/f-if-for-fertility.html
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Questions Raised in a Queer Studies Panel: Identity, Community, and Coherence

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel for an undergraduate queer studies class at Augsburg College. The panel also included a seventy-one-year-old transgender woman and a transgender man in his late twenties. Over the course of the panel we covered a wide range of topics including gender identity, sexuality, trans and intersex experiences with medical professionals, life after college, and more. The students and the professors alike asked compelling questions, but there was one question in particular that stood out for me.

Toward the end of the panel one of the professors raised a question concerning the use of themes such as wholeness, congruity, and coherence in trans narratives and theology and anti-ableist critiques of such language as problematic for disabled people. The other panelists described the feelings of wholeness and congruity they experienced in their transitions even in the midst of the difficulties of achieving total coherence in more than one marginalized identity, the most vivid example being how trans and bisexual identities intersect. I, however, had very different feelings on the matter that are more in line with the critiques coming from disabled communities. This is because, in the same way disabled people live in a world that constructs being able-bodied and neurotypical as the standard of wholeness, intersex people like me live in a world where being born to anatomy that fits neatly into the sex/gender binary is constructed as the only way to be coherent.

As a queer, genderfluid, intersex person living in a world in which medical authorities see me as having a “disorder of sex development,” prescribe “feminizing treatments,” and deny even the possibility of my gender identity and my sexual identity, I will never feel whole, congruent, and coherent. Even moving between my Turners community and my wider intersex community, two groups one would think would obviously understand each another, there is oftentimes a sense of disconnect. Most of the Turners women I have met are simply unaware of the wider intersex community let alone the wider trans community community and often have difficulty understanding all of my identities. At the same time too many of the few who are aware of intersex and trans identities suffer from high levels of internalized interphobia, transphobia, and biphobia that render them unable to accept me let alone even attempt to understand me. They seem to believe the ways in which I self-identify somehow implicate them. Then there are also the complications my bisexual identity brings on top of everything else. Combine all of this with the negative experiences I’ve had in support groups where there was intrusive medical supervision along with the wider culture’s common obsession with binaries and widespread lack of intersectional thinking and it is no wonder why I have yet to feel whole, congruent, and coherent as a social being.

Thinking on all of this I am left wondering: What does being whole, congruent, and coherent even mean anyway? Do we really need to be all of those things? Maybe we can embrace our multiplicities, our incongruities, our incoherence. Maybe we can learn to question the cultural belief in some magical, whole, congruent, coherent, singular, fixed identity just waiting to be found somewhere “in there” with just enough introspection and self-awareness. Maybe we can actually incorporate our pluralities and inconsistencies into the daily embodiment of our identities and recognize the pluralities in the embodied identities of others. Maybe then we could become who we can be.

What do you think? What identities do you bring to the table? What intersections do you call home? How do you embody your identities? What does wholeness, congruity, and coherence mean to you?

First Thing’s First: What is Intersex?

Now those of you who have come to this blog and have never heard of terms like “intersex,” “intersex traits,” “intersexual,” and “intersexuality” before are probably wondering, “What is intersex?” Well you’ve come to the right place, because that is precisely why I have started this blog.

The term intersex refers to those born to bodies that do not fit what is considered typical for male or female. Some intersex traits are visible while others are invisible since intersex can be chromosomal, hormonal, gonadal, and/or anatomical. For example, someone can be born with XY chromosomes, internal testis, and vulva (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) or a large clitoris that resembles a penis (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) or XXY chromosomes (Klinefefelter syndrome) just to name a few possibilities. I myself was born with a 45X kayrotype that manifested in nonfunctional ovaries and the absence of spontaneous puberty (Turner Syndrome). While some intersex traits manifest in serious medical issues, most intersex traits do not present any health risks to the individual in and of themselves. Rather they present a social as opposed to a medical problem.

When a baby is born a doctor examines the new arrival’s genitals and assigns a gender based on what they see. If the baby has a penis, “It’s a boy!” If the baby lacks a penis, “It’s a girl!” In a cisheteropatriarchal society where so much of our lives is structured around binaries of sex, gender, and sexuality these three words have power and ambiguity presents a social crisis. Who will this child be if they’re not assigned a gender? How should they be raised? How will they be treated? Where will they fit in? Who will they love? Who will love them? That is why doctors often perform medically unnecessary genital surgeries on healthy intersex babies and young children in order make their bodies fit into one of the two formally recognized gender categories and give them a “normal” appearance. Oftentimes this is done without informed parental consent and is always done with complete lack of respect for the child’s bodily autonomy since a child cannot consent to surgery. These practices lead to much of the trauma, stigma, secrecy, shame, isolation, and invisibility so many in the intersex community experience. Thus intersex is primarily an issue of stigma and trauma, not gender and “disordered” bodies.

These normalizing practices combined with the fact that some intersex traits are invisible make determining the prevalence of intersexuality difficult. The most common estimate cited is one in 2,000 births. This number is largely based on what doctors can determine at birth. The most liberal estimate is roughly one percent of the population, which makes intersex people as common as redheads! Yet most of the general population is unaware of our existence, which leaves many in our community without the information we need even when it concerns our own bodies. That is why, as a gender scholar and an intersex person, I have started this blog in an effort to educate others about intersexuality, particularly my fellow intersex people who may be feeling alone and have questions.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis by Georgiann Davis
  2. Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World by Ann Fausto-Sterling
  3. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Ann Fausto-Sterling
  4. http://www.isna.org/
  5. http://oiiinternational.com