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