Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about whether there are only two genders: male and female. Some people believe that gender should match a person’s sex and is usually assigned at birth based on the baby’s external genitalia. But gender and sex are not the same thing. While sex is defined by physical features, gender is about how society expects males and females to act. Many people think that gender should only be able to reflect the “two sexes,” but are there really only two sexes?
Sex can be defined through various biological aspects like chromosomes, genitalia, and sex hormones. Traditionally, we think of males as having XY chromosomes, a penis, testes, and experiencing changes during puberty like a voice drop and facial hair growth because of the hormone testosterone. On the other hand, we usually think of females as having XX chromosomes, a vagina, ovaries, and experiencing changes during puberty like breast development because of the hormone estrogen. But not everyone neatly fits into these categories. Some people might have a mix of chromosomes, different genitalia, and hormones that don’t fit the traditional male or female definitions. These individuals are generally categorized as intersex, which means between the sexes.
Being intersex happens because of a mix of different genetic factors, with about 80 of these factors identified so far. Any complex human trait that is influenced by multiple genetic components exists on a spectrum. Just like height and hair color, sex does not fit neatly into binary categories. For example, some people might have different combinations of sex chromosomes, like having only one X or two Xs and a Y. Others might develop their reproductive organs differently, and some may not be able to produce or respond to sex hormones. This can lead to individuals having the genitalia of one sex and the secondary sex characteristics of another. You might think intersex conditions are super rare, but they’re estimated to happen in about 2% of the population, which is to the percentage of red-haired people. So, it’s not as uncommon as you might think!
You might wonder why we don’t hear about intersex people more often if they make up about 2% of the population. One big reason is how they are treated by the medical system. Doctors often perform genital reassignment surgeries on intersex babies to make their bodies fit into the traditional male or female categories. Another thing doctors often do is give intersex teenagers hormones during puberty to make their bodies look more like what society expects. This can hide the natural diversity in their bodies that comes from their unique genes. So, the way the medical system treats intersex people can make it harder for them to be recognized and understood.
In the ongoing discussions about gender affirming surgeries, it’s important to know that most of these surgeries are actually done on intersex infants and toddlers without their consent, often before they’re even two years old. Members of the intersex community advocate against these surgeries, fighting for their right to make choices about their own bodies. Doctors try to force intersex people into a narrow idea of being either male or female, even though human biology is more complicated than that. To move forward, we need to understand this complexity and accept that there isn’t just a simple division into two “biological sexes,” and correspondingly, there aren’t only two genders.
Peer Editor: Hope Kellner