Sunday, 13 June 2010

How common is intersex?

What is intersex? Glad you asked. According to the Intersex Society of North America,
“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
The ISNA have some amazing figures on the frequency of these conditions:

Not XX and not XYone in 1,666 births
Klinefelter (XXY)one in 1,000 births
Androgen insensitivity syndromeone in 13,000 births
Partial androgen insensitivity syndromeone in 130,000 births
Classical congenital adrenal hyperplasiaone in 13,000 births
Late onset adrenal hyperplasiaone in 66 individuals
Vaginal agenesisone in 6,000 births
Ovotestesone in 83,000 births
Idiopathic (no discernable medical cause)one in 110,000 births
Iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment, for instance progestin administered to pregnant mother)no estimate
5 alpha reductase deficiencyno estimate
Mixed gonadal dysgenesisno estimate
Complete gonadal dysgenesisone in 150,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening in perineum or along penile shaft)one in 2,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening between corona and tip of glans penis)one in 770 births
Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or femaleone in 100 births
Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearanceone or two in 1,000 births

It seems to me that whatever rule you might come up with for deciding a person's gender, biology will show you an example to confound you. Indeed some people cannot identify themselves as being of either gender.

All this goes to show how ridiculous is the idea that gender should have any bearing whatsoever on our legal rights.

As the legal definition of gender struggles to reflect our growing knowledge of the realities of human biology, and the law ties itself in knots trying to accommodate trans-sexuality, I'm left wondering why we need a notion of legal gender at all.


Thanks to Audacia Ray and Dr Petra Boynton for signposting the ISNA data.


  1. We need a legal notion of gender for, if nothing else, making laws & public policies which protect women's rights and act against social disadvantage. The particular legal knot you pointed to could easily be removed if there were a single system of civil marriage with no restriction on the gender of the two partners (indeed it's hard to understand why this isn't already the case.) If, other things remaining the same, "female" and "male" were abolished in law, cis-men would likely be the only ones to benefit.

  2. I'm afraid I don't follow that argument. While it may be true in our society that women have more frequent recourse to legal protection of their rights, I don't see that the statement of their rights under the law should be any different to those for men, neuters or anyone else.

    I do not need to demonstrate my biological conformance with some narrow definition of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity in order to enjoy legal protection against racial discrimination. Cannot gender laws be equally flexible?

    I'd welcome insight from my learned friends on this. There must be something I'm missing here.