10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Hermaphrodites

intersexphoto by dalbera

The South African runner Caster Semenya recently withdrew from a competition amid speculation about her sex. The rumor is that she is intersex — or a hermaphrodite, as they used to say in the olden days. If it’s true, then it’s too bad she withdrew, as we would have loved to see the world of international athletics try to wrangle this one. After all, it’s not like they could force her into the operating room in order to compete. Plus, it’s a subject rife with misunderstanding and stubborn rumors, and the more people talk about this stuff openly, the better. For now, we’ll try to clear up a few things as best we can:

  1. The term “hermaphrodite” comes from Greek mythology: Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was joined with a nymph, Salmacis, and the result was one being with the physical traits of both sexes.
  2. That said, the word “hermaphrodite” has fallen out of fashion; these days “intersex” is the preferred term for people of ambiguous gender. Typically, this means that the person’s genitalia are either not clearly male or female, or are at odds with their chromosomal gender. ( “Hermaphrodite” is still used in botany to describe a flower that has both male (i.e. pollen-producing) and female (i.e. ovule-producing) parts. It’s seen in many common garden plants.)

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  1. Thank you so much, Em and Lo, for posting this link. I’m a young intersexed person who has decided to live more as male for the ease of trivial life decisions such as which bathroom the use at the airport. I am so happy to see that intersexuality is becoming a less taboo subject – I was ostracized in my younger years (especially grade school) and I hope the next generations will be more educated and accepting of individuals who are “different”. Thank you.

  2. “Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes” by Gerald N. Callahan.

    it’s truly enlightening!

  3. As part of my Gay and Lesbian fiction class, we read an excerpt from a dual tenured professor at my school entitled “Between XX and XY,” As both a physician and english professor, Gerald Calahan is skilled at explaining the literally 100’s of ways that a person can be intersexed. Furthermore, his case studies literally brought me to tears. He details the lives of intersexed individuals and their struggles with their identity in a very anti-intersexed worl. Anyone wanting to know more about the 65,000 people in the United States born intersexed each year should really check out his book.

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