Who are intersex people?
The term ‘intersex’ refers to people who have genetic, hormonal or physical sex characteristics that sit outside what is usually expected for female or male bodies. This condition may also be called a ‘disorder of sex development’ (DSD).
Intersex people have a variety of bodies and identities. Intersex people may identify as male, female or neither.
Intersex features can be noticed when you are born. For some people, intersex features only become clear later in life. This can be at puberty or when you are trying to have a child. For many people with intersex variations, their variation is not visible externally.
There are more than 30 different intersex variations that can affect you in different ways. For example, you may have:
- a typical sexual appearance of a female on the outside, but mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside
- genitals 'in between' the typical features of a male and female
- variation in the X and Y sex chromosomes, including Klinefelter syndrome and Turner syndrome
How common is intersex variation?
It’s not possible to know the exact number of people with intersex variations. This is because some people may not know that they have intersex variation.
Intersex variation is a natural biological event that is likely to happen in about 17 in every 1,000 live births (1.7%). The is about the same as the number of people with red hair.
The most common intersex variations are due to differences in chromosomes, such as Klinefelter syndrome and Turner syndrome. Intersex variations to do with genitals that look different are less common.
What causes intersex variation?
In the first 6 weeks after fertilisation, all embryos look the same, whether they are genetically male or female.
At week 7, the embryo starts to grow differently. The embryo will follow a male or female path of development. This depends on the genes and hormones produced.
If the level of hormones are out of balance, or if the embryo cannot respond to the hormones, this can result in an intersex variation.
Does intersex variation need treatment?
Most people with intersex variations are healthy and lead happy, successful lives. Being intersex is not a health issue and is considered a normal biological event.
But there are certain health issues linked with some intersex variations. You should talk to your doctor to understand any issues and risks linked with your intersex variation. This will mean you can make the best choice about your care and treatment.
Medical or surgical intervention is not normally needed, especially in childhood. It is rare to be born with an issue needing urgent medical attention.
There needs to be an essential reason for surgical intervention in a child. This should not be done to make a child’s genitals appear more typical. If surgery is suggested for your child, make sure there is a medical reason for this.
Once an intersex person is old enough to consent to their own treatment, they may choose to access treatment to change their genital appearance.
Some people may seek medical treatment later in life for fertility reasons if needed.
Intersex people may wish to access gender affirming care if they also happen to be transgender or gender diverse.
If there is any distress associated for an intersex individual or family, additional support and counselling may help.
How is gender assigned in people with intersex variation?
If you're a parent of an intersex child, it's OK to delay announcing the name and gender of your child until you are ready.
For more information and support, visit Intersex Human Rights Australia.
Choosing a gender for your child is OK. You may choose whichever matches the likely sex, based on the information you have.
Deciding a gender for your child does not mean they need surgery or hormone treatment. But you should realise that your child may grow up to see themselves differently, just like any other child.
Are people with intersex variation transgender?
Intersex variation is not the same as transgender, which is when a person identifies as a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. This is also known as gender incongruence.
People with intersex variations are a very mixed population and may identify as any gender or sexuality.
Resources and support
- Learn more at Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA).
- For support, visit Intersex Peer Support Australia.
- For information and support for people with X and Y chromosome variations, visit Australian X and Y Spectrum Support (AXYS).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2022