In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Intersex

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History
  • Gender Studies and Queer Studies Perspectives
  • Disability Perspectives
  • Anthropological Perspectives
  • Parenting

Sociology Intersex
Morgan Carpenter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0232


Intersex people are described by United Nations institutions as born with variations of sex characteristics that differ from medical and social norms for female or male bodies (see, for example, the 2019 report “Human Rights Violations against Intersex People,” by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2019], cited under General Overviews). These variations are diverse and innate. Intersex human rights defenders and human rights institutions challenge the stigma and discrimination that intersex people face because of their physical variations, but few jurisdictions so far have tackled the human rights violations that intersex people suffer. There are multiple additional, contested, and incommensurate lenses through which intersex people are viewed. These express different values and beliefs about the same people, including their meaning, treatment, concerns, and demands. Medical lenses view intersex traits as “disorders of sex development” (DSD), and people with those traits are viewed as female or male and subjects for treatment. Anthropology and queer and gender studies have viewed intersex as an illustration of fallacies that underpin subjective cultural norms for sex and gender. Law increasingly views intersex people as members of a third sex. Historical research shows that intersex people, often termed hermaphrodites, have always existed, and they have often been accommodated.

General Overviews

The topic of intersex has been approached from a number of primarily medical, ethical, and legal perspectives. Key texts in the field have been published since the late 1990s, associated with a growth in awareness following the establishment of the first intersex patient rights organizations. To a limited extent still hampered by widespread misconceptions about the population, these overcame a historical lacuna, and they provide the basis for current analysis. Kessler 1998; Sytsma 2006; Karkazis 2008; Cabral 2009; Holmes 2009; Davis 2015; and Scherpe, et al. 2018 all provide detailed analysis of debates in the field. Kessler 1998, Karkazis 2008, and Davis 2015 describe research with people with lived experience and, in some cases, with parents and clinicians. Cabral 2009 and DuBois, et al. 2016 collect testimonies and personal stories. Sytsma 2006; Cabral 2009; Holmes 2009; and Scherpe, et al. 2018 assemble diverse ranges of essays. Essays in Holmes 2009 provide a critical perspective on medical practices, while those in Sytsma 2006; Cabral 2009; and Scherpe, et al. 2018 describe a wide range of medical, legal, and ethical perspectives and testimony. Human rights issues, including the implications of medical intervention, are summarized in a report, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2019.

  • Cabral, Mauro, ed. 2009. Interdicciones: Escrituras de la intersexualidad en castellano. Córdoba, Argentina: Anarrés.

    A collection of testimonies, analysis, stories, and poetry in Spanish, including material from across Latin America and Iberia. Interdicciones includes an analysis of medical cases, poverty in the medical system, and the impact of medical interventions in order to compete in sport. In Spanish.

  • Davis, Georgiann. 2015. Contesting intersex: The dubious diagnosis. Biopolitics. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    A key academic text that examines medical practices and lived experience in the United States a decade after the clinical reframing of intersex conditions as “disorders of sex development” (DSD). The author has lived experience and offers a free online instructors’ study guide.

  • DuBois, James, Ana S Iltis, and Georgiann Davis, eds. 2016. “Normalizing intersex.” VOICES: Personal Stories from the Pages of NIB 2.

    A collection of personal stories and testimonies, together with bioethical and clinician commentaries, mostly by North American authors.

  • Holmes, Morgan, ed. 2009. Critical intersex. Queer Interventions. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

    A key collection of critical essays from ethicists and others, including individuals with lived experience, considering the moral status of people with intersex variations. These interdisciplinary essays present ethical, legal, and religious perspectives, and examine the relationship between intersex and transgender status, and between intersex, disability, and queer identities.

  • Karkazis, Katrina. 2008. Fixing sex: Intersex, medical authority, and lived experience. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822389217

    A key text examining debates about how intersex bodies are treated, using data from interviews with people with lived experience, parents, and clinicians. Clearly written and suitable for a wide range of readers.

  • Kessler, Suzanne J. 1998. Lessons from the intersexed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    An early text that considers how intersex bodies are managed by medicine, based on interviews with pediatric endocrinologists and surgeons. Drawing upon medical sources, Kessler is able to describe precise parameters that determine whether or not a phallus conforms to medical norms. The book proposes new approaches reflecting the interests of intersex individuals themselves.

  • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2019. Background note on human rights violations against intersex people. Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    This background note is essential reading, detailing the key human rights issues affecting intersex persons, and statements by human rights defenders and UN and other bodies. The statement also offers a way forward for action by states to tackle human rights violations.

  • Scherpe, Jens, Anatol Dutta, and Tobias Helms, eds. 2018. The legal status of intersex persons. Cambridge, UK: Intersentia.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781780687704

    This diverse collection of essays outlines developments in recent decades to recognize intersex people in law. It includes medical, biological, and human rights perspectives in addition to analysis of legal approaches, with a focus on both legal sex/gender recognition and protection of the right to physical integrity.

  • Sytsma, Sharon E., ed. 2006. Ethics and intersex. International Library of Ethics, Law, and the New Medicine 29. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    An early collection of essays presenting clinical, ethical, legal, and human rights perspectives on the existence and medical management of intersex people. Essay authors include significant figures in clinical practice and the human rights response.

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