Intersexual conditions – There is still a binary

The occurrence of people born with bodies that have some biologically male traits and some biologically female traits have led many people in common culture to reject a sexual binary and of course also a gender binary.  It is common to hear people argue that we are all on a spectrum, and there is no such thing as true males and females but just a bunch of people at various points in a spectrum, and so there should be no need to have to label people as either male or female.  Some people could choose these labels but many people could choose something entirely different, something in between, or nothing at all.

Some of justification for this view comes from a false understanding of inter-sexed conditions.  This recent scholarly article (Unfortunately we don’t have access to the whole article, but the 1 page preview explains quite well and gives a nice summary) by Leonard Sax explains –

Anne Fausto-Sterling’s suggestion that the prevalence of intersex might be as high as 1.7% has attracted wide attention in both the scholarly press and the popular media.  Many reviewers are not aware that this figure includes conditions which most clinicians do not recognize as intersex, such as Klinefelter syndrome, Turner syndrome, and late-onset adrenal hyperplasia.  If the term intersex is to retain any meaning, the term should be restricted to those conditions in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female.  Applying this more precise definition, the true prevalence of intersex seems to be about 0.018%, almost 100 times lower than Fausto-Sterling’s estimate of 1.7%.”

In addition to this article, both Fausto-Sterling and Sax are mentioned in wikipedia on “Intersex.”  Sterling’s view is well reported at the site, but Sax seems to be only briefly mentioned.

Although intersex is popularly used to refer to any person whose biological characteristics are not fully female or not fully male, I believe, as Sax seems to be arguing, that it is more helpful to use the term only for those whose sex is truly ambiguous.  And that number of people is very small.  People with conditions like Klinefelter syndrome or Turner syndrome are still clearly male or female.  It is just that they were born with these unhelpful abnormal conditions.  People like this deserve our compassion and help and we should not criticize them for being different.  However, their existence does not justify a whole culture rejecting that there are two distinct sexes, male and female.  The occurrence of people born truly ambiguous in their sex is more of a genetic irregularity happening very rarely, than it is proof that we are all on a spectrum of sex.  In fact, I think these genetic defects help to prove the existence of the norm.  They would not be such difficult emotional and physical conditions, that happen so rarely, unless indeed there really exist a sexual binary, of males and females.  In fact, to define these intersexual conditions we have to compare them against the normal genetic and biological binary.

What do we do with the few people who are truly ambiguous?  This is a tough one.  If I was counseling them, I’d first ask them to tell me about themselves, and see if they feel like one sex or the other.  If they clearly perceived they were male or female, we could consider options for surgery.   But I would not necessarily push them into some kind of corrective surgery.  I think in these very rare cases it would be okay to allow them to just be themselves, if they were able to live comfortable not fitting into either sex.   That seems like it would be very hard in our culture though, and so they might want to consider still dressing like one sex or the other, instead of purposely appearing ambiguous.  I am not a expert as to what to do to help these people.  I’ll leave that to others wiser than me.   But I really wish that transsexuals and crossdressers would stop using these people as justification to reject the sexual binary, or as justification to get sex change surgeries or as justification to portray themselves in public as the opposite sex.  These people were born in a specific way to have this ambiguity.  It is not justification for us to live ambiguous lives when we were not born in the same way.

Thoughts?  Ideas?  Feel free to teach me, point out flaws in my argument, or tell me something new.


10 comments on “Intersexual conditions – There is still a binary

  1. Don says:

    My wish is that people were more tolerant of letting others be who they want to be. That is still the main problem. That is why I am recovering from crossdressing. It is too difficult to do what you want to do without consequences. Intolerance of any gender expression that is not at the extremes is a bigger sin in my opinion than us presenting different for whatever reason.

    That is not to say that for some, crossdressing is an addiction and it takes over your life but if it was more acceptable than there might not be as many addicted. It’s the forbidden part that makes it so.

    For us, for sure, don’t get married, because you are dragging a wife through hell. Women get married because they want a man, and usually a manly man. All of us thought that getting married would make the desire go away, it’s a common mistake.

    It is also a sin to use sex this way, but if all we did was express ourselves in a more feminine way but not look like a woman, then I don’t think that is a sin.

    Intolerance is our biggest problem. I think God understands us.



  2. Ralph says:

    As with most thorny topics, I find this an excellent place to stay in the middle ground and I think you’ve found it. On the one heel, you’re absolutely right that the valid existence of those who are biologically crosswired with real, physical traits of both sexes does not mean that it’s not possible for the rest of the population to fit into one sex or the other. Deviating from one’s biological sex by choice, rather than by that rare medical condition, is exactly that — a choice*.

    On the other heel, there IS plenty of room for compassion, and as we discussed regarding that other blog those of us who do not suffer from that particular anomaly have no right to criticize how well or poorly the intersex folk deal with it.

    * Now having said all that, “choice” is itself a hot-button word. We all know how compelling the desire can be to slip into that little black dress, and saying it’s simply a choice is like saying “People dying of lung cancer are doing so by choice because they choose to smoke.” My mother was intubated three times in her life before she was finally able to kick the habit for good, so I know all too well how seemingly uncompromising that “choice” can be. But for all my testimony about a compulsion to wear dresses instead of trousers, I also know perfectly well that I am able to choose not to — whenever I go out in public, I am choosing to resist that compulsion; likewise when I’m in the privacy of my own home, I choose to let the compulsion control me because it’s more emotionally draining to fight it. So while the choice not to call ourselves Sally and dress like a Disney princess may be an extremely difficult choice, it is nevertheless still a choice, which puts it in a completely different category than a true biological or genetic dysfunction.


  3. thorin25 says:

    Don, I agree that it would be nice for a lot more tolerance, especially those people who don’t fit the extremes of masculinity or femininity. However, while I’m comfortable with men who might be a bit more feminine in their mannerisms let’s say, I’m comfortable because they still view themselves as men and portray themselves as such. I’m not comfortable with a man who portrays himself as female or purposely dresses like females do to be provocative.

    Ralph, agreed with all that about choice. Good comment. But even if one could argue that crossdressing is in fact a good choice, I still think that this has nothing to do with intersexuals, and crossdressers need to find better arguments for their activity than to appeal to intersexuals.


  4. A Quiet Voice says:

    Would it surprise you to learn that I agree with 100% of what has been said here? My only caveat to my agreement is this commonly occurring conflation:

    “But I really wish that transsexuals and crossdressers would stop using these people as justification to reject the sexual binary, or as justification to get sex change surgeries or as justification to portray themselves in public as the opposite sex.”

    People that I would consider to have been born trans-sexed, (or “transsexual”) do not “reject the binary” , or as a ” justification to get sex change surgeries”.

    These are the common tropes or memes used by the trans-GENDERED “community” or activists to conflate legitimate medical issues with their own out of control desires to cross-dress or “femulate”.


  5. thorin25 says:

    actually it doesn’t surprise me that you agree. I would add that it’s also weird that so many transgendered people and crossdressers use this argument at all, because it is they who are trying so hard to be women, 1 sex of the binary. As if they want to reject but accept the binary at the same time.


  6. A Quiet Voice says:

    Yes. Their “logic” is full of contradictions which makes it difficult to converse with them. They seem to have a pre-constructed set of rules, customs and definitions with which they seek to impose their vision of “reality” upon the rest of us.

    You can find constant examples of this over at Jack’s, but if you would like to consider and alternative perspective, you might try here…..

    The language is a bit coarse at times, but then the source is a rather cantankerous old woman with an impressive past. While I find much of what this woman writes to be admirable and reasonably accurate in her characterizations, her views are her views alone based on her life experience.


  7. Vivienne says:

    Hi Thorin,

    Intersex isn’t the same as transgender because sex isn’t the same as gender. I think some people who don’t understand the science very well sometimes use the existence of intersex individuals as some sort of justification for transgender behaviour.

    My understanding is that children whose genitalia cannot be clearly assigned at birth are born about once in every ten thousand live births. That sounds rare, but it’s not really. The annual birth rate of the USA was 3.8 million births in 2011 (Wikipedia), which means about 380 of those children will be intersex at birth. If each of those children lives for 70 years, and the birth rate were constant during that time, there would be 26,600 intersex individuals alive in the USA. These are just thumbnail calculations, of course. But worldwide there are a _lot_ of intersex people.

    In the Western world, the overwhelming majority of children born intersex are assigned to one or other sex at birth and raised accordingly, with surgical and hormone treatments. I think there is good evidence that we got that wrong quite a lot, and I think we are getting better. In some areas, we are pretty good. For example, a boy with Klinefelter syndrome will almost uniformly be offered androgen therapy at puberty which prevents the feminisation which this syndrome causes. In other words, true intersex people are not always obvious. Left without treatment, many of them would grow into adults with ambiguous or indeterminate sex characteristics.

    I echo the comments above that all human beings deserve our compassion. But I would ask this. How do you define “man” and “woman”? If you define it by their DNA, there are naturally occurring examples of human beings who don’t fit the binary. If you define it by their appearance (phenotype), there are naturally occurring examples of human beings who don’t fit the binary. Finally, if you define it by behaviour, dress, gait, speech or cultural norms, there are naturally occurring human beings who don’t fit the binary.

    There may not be much grey between men and women, but there is some, and it’s inarguable. Wherever you draw the line is in essence arbitrary. It is (IMO) unhelpful to insist that every single human being must be either a man or a woman.



  8. A Quiet Voice says:

    Vivienne. I feel like I must congratulate you for such a magnificent effort at obfuscation, by doing precisely what is bemoaned in this post:

    It clearly seems you are, “…using these people, {the inter-sexed], as justification to reject the sexual binary”.

    You also conveniently seem to forget to consider an obvious, easily observable, defining quality. Excluding that tired old meme of the man who loses his genitals as a result of a wartime injury or other mayhem, primary and secondary sexual characteristics might offer a clue.


  9. thorin25 says:

    Vivienne, as I explained in my post, I think there are indeed people who are truly ambiguous from what we can tell. But at the same time, there exists a binary. To say that there are some people who “we don’t know” what their true sex is, does not take away the existence of the binary. And even to say that there are some people who truly are not either men or women, but something in between, still does not take away from the fact that for the majority of us, there is a binary. So however you want to slice it, the existence of these people doesn’t change the fact that we are men or women.

    This means that I think we can define men and women by their DNA and physical characteristics. In the same way, we can define a person as someone with two legs, two arms, two eyes, two ears, etc. etc.,, even though obviously there are persons without legs. I don’t know what terms I am looking for but there are certain definitions of things that have to include everything that is mentioned in the definition, and certain definitions of things that describe the thing generally, even though every individual does not fit exhaustively everything mentioned. Sex is like this I believe. We can say generally men are like this, and mention 100 genetic, biological, physical, and perhaps maybe even a few emotional traits (that would describe men generally not every one). We can do the same for women. But this doesn’t mean that one individual has to fit all 100 things in order to qualify as a man.

    Just to make this abundantly clear. We can define human beings in the same way, by listing 1000 different things about what it means to be a human. But if an individual only fits 998, because they are missing 2 fingers and 2 toes, that doesn’t disqualify them from being a human.

    One might use neanderthals the same way that transgendered people use intersexed people. They could argue that because neandrethals fit 500 of the criteria that apply to humans out of the 1000, and also fit 500 of the criteria that apply to chimpanzees out of their 1000, that therefore there really is no such thing as chimpanzees or humans or neandrathals but we are all just on a spectrum. The problem in both cases though is that, we have 2 things, and a couple irregularities in the middle, and it is not helpful to call them all the same thing. We have men, we have women, and a few individuals in the middle with both traits. We have chimpanzees, we have humans, and a few individuals in the middle with traits of both. The existence of the few individuals in the middle does not in any way destroy the existence of the two different groups on each end. At best, it shows the similarities between them. To pretend there is no fundamental difference between chimpanzees and humans and that we are just on a spectrum with each individual at various points on it, is not helpful and I don’t even think evolutionary atheists advocate for that. Clearly even evolutionists would treat chimpanzees and people differently (aside from some fringe groups). In the same way, it not helpful to pretend there is no fundamental difference between men and women and that we are on a spectrum with each individual at various points on it. Men and women are different, in biology, in reproduction, and in culture. To pretend there is no difference is to be blind. Imagine if doctors were blind to the sex of the person and did surgeries for men and women exactly the same without noticing the fundamental differences in their bodies.

    I’m not sure if my analogy really is perfect or not. But I think even if it is a faulty analogy, you can understand my point and meaning.

    I don’t think either of these examples qualifies as a “spectrum.” When I think of a spectrum I think of many different points all spread out across it. I don’t think it qualifies as a spectrum if you have 49.9% of people on one side, .1% all exactly in the same place in the middle, and 49.9% on the other side, keeping in mind the 49.9% all have the same DNA and characteristics, and aren’t spread out at all on this supposed spectrum. The only spectrum I would advocate for is the spectrum of stereotypically defined masculine or feminine behavior, that I’ve talked about elsewhere – copied from another post –

    “Now, it’s important to realize that these differences are “general” differences. This is not to say that “men are like this and have to be like this” or that “women are like this and have to like this.” It’s more like “men tend to be like this” and “women tend to be like this” but each individual man and woman is different. Imagine a spectrum from masculine to feminine along the traditional understandings of these terms. Say extreme masculinity was 0 and extreme femininity was 10. From other articles I’ve read, it seems like almost all people are somewhere between 2 and 8, both men and women being anywhere in there. And then a few men are on the extreme side towards 1 or 0. And then a few females are on the extreme side towards 9 or 10. This would mean that while we can see clear general differences between men and women, it would not mean that all men are on the masculine side of the spectrum, or that all women are on the female side. This would also mean that you can’t look at a particular person and say whether they are a man or woman based on how they behave. You might have a man that is number 8, who is very healthy and secure in himself. You might have a woman who is number 2 and very healthy and secure in herself. I would assume though, that those individuals on the opposite extreme sides may experience some gender confusion and some may end up thinking they are “transgendered”, especially in our culture which tends to make people think they are not “okay” and healthy if they don’t fit the stereotypes. If this spectrum idea is true as the research seems to show from all the things I’ve read on blogs and books and articles lately (can’t remember or find them all to cite here), then my wife and I fit quite well into it. Whenever we read marriage books I am more like the woman and she is more like the man, and yet right now, we both are happy and content as who we are and don’t wish for a sex-change. She might be at a 3 towards the masculine, and I might be at a 7 towards the feminine. But we are both still in the middle of the spectrum where most men and women are. It makes for an interesting marriage that we both are on the opposite sides as might be expected, but it works for us. “


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