The occurrence of people born with bodies that have some biological male traits and some biological female traits have led many people in our mainstream culture to reject not only a gender binary but also a sexual binary. It is common to hear people argue that we are all on a spectrum, and there is no such thing as true males and females but just a bunch of people at various points in a spectrum, and so there should be no need to label people as either male or female in sex, or man or woman in gender. Some people could choose these labels but many people could choose something entirely different labels or no labels.
Some of the justification for this view comes from a false understanding of inter-sexed conditions, promoted largely by Anne Fausto-Sterling. This scholarly article by Leonard Sax refutes this false justification. His conclusion:
“The available data support the conclusion that human sexuality is a dichotomy, not a continuum. More than 99.98% of humans are either male or female. If the term intersex is to retain any clinical meaning, the use of this term should be restricted to those conditions in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female. The birth of an intersex child, far from being “a fairly common phenomenon,” is actually a rare event, occurring in fewer than 2 out of every 10,000 births.”
In addition to this article, both Fausto-Sterling and Sax are mentioned in wikipedia on the page “Intersex.” Sterling’s view is well reported at the site, but Sax seems to be only briefly mentioned.
Although intersex is popularly used to refer to any person whose biological characteristics are not fully female or not fully male, I believe, as Sax seems to be arguing, that it is more helpful to use the term only for those whose sex is truly ambiguous. And that number of people is very small. People with conditions like Klinefelter syndrome or Turner syndrome are still clearly male or female. It is just that they were born with these unhelpful abnormal conditions. People like this deserve our compassion and help and we should not criticize them for being different. However, their existence does not justify a whole culture rejecting that there are two distinct sexes, male and female. The occurrence of people born truly ambiguous in their sex is a genetic irregularity happening very rarely. It is not proof that we are all on a spectrum of sex. In fact, I think these genetic defects help to prove the existence of the norm. They would not be such difficult emotional and physical conditions, that happen so rarely, unless indeed there really exists a sexual binary, of males and females. In fact, to define these intersexual conditions we have to compare them against the normal genetic and biological binary.
How do we think about and help the few people who are truly ambiguous in their sex? This is a tough one. If I was counseling them, I’d first ask them to tell me about themselves, and see if they feel more like one sex or the other. If they clearly perceived they were male or female, we could consider options for surgery. But I would not necessarily push them into some kind of corrective surgery. I am not a expert as to what to do to help these people. I’ll leave that to others wiser than me. But I really wish that transsexuals and crossdressers would stop using these people as justification to reject the sexual binary, or as justification to get surgeries to disguise their true sex, or as justification to portray themselves in public as the opposite sex. People with intersexual conditions were born this specific way and did not choose to have this ambiguity. Their existence is not justification for others to live ambiguous lives when they were not born in the same way.
The other problem with this cultural reasoning is that it can be very offensive to those with intersexual conditions. I have seen this from reading blogs and articles online. Intersexual conditions cause great pain, just as other physical disabilities do, and a great amount of person emotional pain and confusion at times. These people most often seek medical help to overcome their condition. Yet our culture wants to hold up these conditions as some kind of beautiful colorful rainbow of diverse humanity. Using other people’s pain to forward your own agenda is a dangerous thing.
At a later date, I hope to write a post about how to think about intersexual conditions from a theological and biblical perspective.