Megan Walker: Why is society so sure that male or female are the only possible sexes?

One of the first questions people ask after the birth of a child is ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ More commonly than people think, the answer isn’t always so straightforward.

The United Nations reports that up to 1.7% of babies are born with sex characteristics that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female which makes being intersex almost as common as being a redhead.

These children are subjected to surgeries in order to ‘correct’ the appearance of their bodies and assigned a sex they have no say in. Up until as recently as 2006 it was widely recommended by doctors that the parents of children with intersex traits were informed that their child’s bodies were ‘unfinished’ and could be ‘corrected’. It was also advised that it might be best not to tell the child later in life.

What often followed was a series of medical interventions to sculpt their bodies into what is considered ‘normal’ or acceptable.

The language used by medical professionals dissuaded parents that there were any other options than male or female which resulted in a generation of people being unaware of their medical histories. They were lied to and diverted from asking questions about their bodies or who they were.

People with intersex traits frequently report growing up with a sense of shame and confusion. This kind of response and the representation of intersex people as being rare and in need of ‘correction’ has only perpetuated the belief that male and female are the only natural sex categories.

Intersex traits have always occurred but since the 1950s and until 2006 it was believed that medical intervention could ‘correct’ children and that the child would adapt to be a ‘typical’ male or female. Thankfully the silence has now been broken and since the 1990s activists have been sharing their experiences of how these medical interventions have caused infertility, pain, incontinence, loss of sexual sensation and mental suffering.

New guidelines now recommend that parents and patients have access to age appropriate information about their medical histories and that cosmetic surgical interventions should be avoided until the patient can give informed consent.

But the guidelines are just that, guidelines, and what is still lacking is positive, accurate and comprehensive visibility and representation of intersex traits. This is achieved through language and the narrative choices we make, individually and culturally, where we acknowledge, in the same breath as we acknowledge male and female, that there is another natural variation backed up by the truth – that people with intersex variations are perfect as they are.

We can change the world with how we use language, so let’s use it to celebrate diversity, promote equality and drive change.


Megan Walker is a PhD student in the College of Arts and her doctoral research at the University of Lincoln considers narrative representations of I/VSC in literature, film, TV, media reports and medical publications. In conjunction with the Eleanor Glanville Centre at the University of Lincoln she is hosting the Interdisciplinary Persepectives on Intersex from 17 to 19 July to raise awareness of intersex issues. Conference tickets are available and there is a round table discussion on 19 July from 1pm which is free to attend.