Biomedical Research

Intersex: Intersecting Social Boundaries

Today, sexuality is a broad spectrum. Learn more about how intersexuality and it’s social implications in both our history and in modern society today.

By Kquevin Gatuz

Published 6:55 PM EST, Sun April 25, 2021


In nature, many organisms exhibit unique forms of sexuality. One of them is hermaphroditism, where an individual exhibits both male and female sexual orientations. From the flowers of papaya and various members of the animal kingdom like earthworms and snails, all exhibit this characteristic. In these cases it is normal; however, this may also occur in other higher-form animals including humans, though in this case, it is more of a genetic anomaly. Nonetheless, the fact that such people – addressed as “intersex” for due respect – exist should not be denied. Historically, the integration of conservative beliefs in medical ethics has caused discrimination of intersex people and violated their human rights.

Intersexuality Throughout History and In Today’s World

One of the first documented accounts of intersexuality is in the 1600s when they were considered “hybrids, impostors, and unfortunate monstrosities”; as a result of their mother’s “dissolute living, licentious talk, and vicious behaviours” or lack of self-awareness on avoiding intercourse on her period. In some cases  when that was considered impossible the blame went to “unexpert midwives who had been deceived by the evil confirmation of the parts.” It must be considered that society at this time based its medical ethics on conservative sola scripture Christianity teachings; however, one can see the obvious discrimination against children with a natural genetic difference, as well as misogyny was given to mothers of those children.

Nonetheless, other than sexual differences, these people usually lived a normal life as others, though with some fluidity in gender identity. In fact, early treatises and writings actually gave autonomy for the intersex individual to choose his/her sexual identity. For example, a book entitled Aristotle’s Masterpiece suggested that the individual bases his/her choice on reproductive ability and sexual satisfaction – something that would seem much more appropriate compared to later years. In fact, these acts would be ignored in proceeding years even until today.

A 17th century account reported an intersex individual named Thomas/Thomasine Hall who altered between gender roles, working as both a soldier and a housemaid. When he/she was discovered with both male and female genitalia, he/she was forced to wear male clothing with female accessories as a way to punish and embarrass him/her, while discouraging others from living the same way. After that, no accounts of him/her after this event were found, most likely from the banishment and exclusion of her from future involvement in her society.

By the start of the 1700s, the intersex movement was ignited along with other social movements like feminism. During the Industrial revolution, females  began working in factories and undertook traditionally male roles giving traction to the  suffrage movement. However, it also sparked a counter-movement with the agenda of fixating the norm of what gender is. For instance, Levi Suydam was nullified of his/her right to vote after a bodily examination revealed feminine sex characteristics and undeveloped female genitalia despite the presence of male ones, as well as testimonies of his/her feminine mannerisms. There were even “satisfied” patients such as a woman without a vaginal opening who was given surgery to correct such and later developed “something like labia”, and a female child who developed “tastes, disposition, and feelings of the other sex” which were reverted after removal of testis in her genitals (Reis, 2005).

However, the medical community started to become more lenient to such people after the events of World War II. Following the Nazi experiments on captives and prisoners, the Nuremberg Code of 1947 and the Declaration of Geneva in 1948 placed ethical restrictions on doctors towards their parents, which should have addressed the unauthorized and unproven medical procedures that the intersex community faced before. However, such “normalization” procedures still persisted as doctors claimed they were only applicable to “Nazis” and branding themselves as “ethical”. Even though the decision was not on the doctor, the parent was pressured to choose based on the preference of the examining doctor, especially on infants who had no conscience to participate in decision making. They were considered people in need of “repairs”, and doctors prided on their “corrective” medical skills and superior medical knowledge to those untrained in the field, despite how varied cases were and how misinformed people were on such ideas.

Around the 1960s, probably inspired by the two cases of “satisfied patients” mentioned above, a man named John Money, plus his colleagues at the John Hopkins University, believed that gender identity can be changed and conformed to normality before the age of 18 months, through surgical treatment and hormonal treatment. One of the most infamous studies is of Bruce Peter Reimer and his twin. After a failed circumcision, Money saw an opportunity to prove his point with his other twin as a control. Aside from the female rearing and hormonal treatments given, they were forced to perform sexual acts resembling intercourse onto each other to increase the prominence of their assigned genders, and subjected to verbal abuse upon non-compliance. However, Money’s hypothesis failed and both of them suffered psychological trauma, to the point both of them committed suicide. Still, Money dismissed and denied his failure and called their criticism as anti-feminist and anti-trans bias. In fact, there are many associated risks with such surgeries such as loss of urinary control, impotence and weak sex drive. Aside from these dangerous suggestions, it was even recommended for the family to relocate as this was considered an embarrassment to the community.

However, activists have founded organizations like the Intersex Society of North America, interACT, and the Organisation Intersex International that files malpractices against doctors who perform non-consensual surgeries and fight for autonomy over people’s bodies. They have pushed the World Health Organization and United Nations to classify non-consensual intersex surgeries as “human abuse” (Reis, 2019). Even in media, intersex people are represented with Oprah intterviewing two XY females in 2007, or in 2014 when interACT partnered with MTV’s ‘Faking It’ to include an intersex character, and in legislation such as with Malta, the first country to ban nonconsensual intersex surgeries with the passing of the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act.


There is still much more needed to be done today for intersex people. Until now, intersex people are prone to discriminatory practices from people, especially athletes who are rejected to avoid “unequal sex characteristics which give an unfair advantage” compared to normal players. Many intersex individuals are also struggling to document and change their predefined sex identity as written in their birth certificates and other official documents (United Nations, 2017). Even in the medical field, there are still some instances of surgical genital construction (e.g. vaginoplasty), hormonal treatment, and even suggesting abortion to mothers seen with intersex babies (Intersex Society of North America, 2008). Nonetheless, the intersex community is still moving forward, strongly and proudly. This is not only a matter of medical ethics, but also social ethics – those of which define the unique person.

Kquevhin Gatuz, Youth Medical Journal 2021


Intersex Society of North America. (2008). What’s the history behind the intersex rights movement? Intersex Society of North America. 

Reis, E. (2005). Impossible hermaphrodites: Intersex in America, 1620–1960. Journal of American History, 92(2), 411-441. 

Reis, E. (2019). Did bioethics matter? A history of autonomy, consent, and intersex genital surgery. Medical Law Review, 27(4), 658-674. 

them. (2018, December 5). What does intersex mean? | InQueery | them. [Video]. Youtube.

United Nations. (2017). Fact sheet: Intersex. 


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