What Is Hermaphroditism?

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  • Written By: Stephany Seipel
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 17 July 2014
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Hermaphroditism, also called intersex, is a disorder involving sexual development. Babies with intersex disorders are born with irregular sex organs or have inconsistencies between the inner and outer organs. Doctors treat the condition by removing the unwanted sexual organs.

The condition was originally named after Hermes and Aphrodite, the Greek god and goddess of love and sex, but most 21st-century physicians and patients refer to hermaphroditism as intersex. The symptoms of intersex vary depending on the patient. Several of the symptoms include malformed outer sexual organs, the presence of testes in females or the presence of ovaries in males. Some intersex disorders might not become apparent until puberty.

Four kinds of hermaphroditism can affect a child's sexual development. Children with the condition known as 46 XY intersex have female external organs, but they also have male chromosomes. The condition 46 XX intersex is the opposite — the child has male sexual organs on the outside and female chromosomes.

True gonadal intersex, or true hermaphroditism, occurs when the child has both male and female sex organs on the inside. The external organs can be male, female or indeterminate. Undetermined intersex is a blanket term for any condition resulting in hermaphroditism that does not fall into one of the previous three categories. Some of these conditions result in intersex disorders, and others affect the sex chromosomes or reproductive development without creating inconsistencies between the inner and outer organs.

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The causes for hermaphroditism vary. Some babies may experience abnormal sexual development if the mother had ovarian tumors during pregnancy or if she used testosterone-based products. Medical conditions such as androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition caused by a defective X-chromosome, interfere with the body's ability to correctly use male sex hormones. Turner syndrome is a disorder in which a girl is born with only one normal X chromosome rather than two.

Many doctors in the past preferred to assign a gender to children with hermaphroditism and would perform reconstructive surgery while the child was still young. Most surgeons opted for a female gender because female external organs were easier to reconstruct. This often led to sexual identity problems later in life, particularly if the child had male chromosomes or developed male hormones at maturity. As of 2011, many experts suggest assigning the child a male or female gender, but they recommend avoiding surgery until the child is older and can have a say in choosing a sexual identity.

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