vitam—aeternam asked: Um I have a question. I saw a documentary a while back about people who are born with both a penis and a vagina and they referred to them as hermaphrodites. What should people like that be referred to as? What is the actual medical condition called? Or how do they prefer to be addressed?
Great question & hopefully we can clarify things for you.
The thing about the word hermaphrodite is that it has a really specific scientific meaning: a hermaphrodite is any animal which has the ability to perform the male or female role as part of sex, meaning they have or have the potential to have fully functioning male & female reproductive systems. Some snails & slugs are hermaphrodites, as are some fish, & most plants. However, there has never been a medically certified case of a human hermaphrodite. Never has a person been found who has both a fully functioning female reproductive system (including vagina, uterus & ovaries) & a fully functioning male reproductive system (including penis & testes); essentially, human beings cannot be hermaphrodites.
For this reason, it’s incredibly offensive & disrespectful (not to mention inaccurate) to call someone a hermaphrodite. It’s not that there would be anything wrong with someone being a hermaphrodite, but simply that by calling someone one you’re making a series of ignorant & false assumptions about their body & their personal life experience based on some really out-dated ideas. The word hermaphrodite has also been used as a slur against a wide range of people. We’re guessing that the documentary you watched actually featured people who are intersexed.
Intersexuality is an umbrella term for a variety of different genetic & hormonal conditions that can result in atypical physical features. This can vary from minimal changes (the majority of people will never find out they’re intersexed) to atypical genitalia, which is the most obvious, & well-known form of intersexuality. Since you mention that the documentary you watched featured people who had both penises & vaginas, then the people were probably somewhere in the middle of the atypical genitalia spectrum (a spectrum with a traditional penis at one end & a traditional vagina at the other, & a variety of genitalia in between). Instead of calling the people featured in the programme hermaphrodites, it would have been much more accurate & respectful to simply call them intersexed.
Finally, you ask how people who are intersex prefer to be addressed, which is quite a tricky question to answer since it’s really up to the person you’re referring to. If you’re speaking generally then the term intersex is fine, but lots of people who would come under the umbrella of intersexuality do not self-define that way, so don’t describe someone as intersex without their permission. If you want to know how someone self-defines then just listen to the words they use to describe themselves (since you’re unlikely to know someone is intersex without them telling you, you’re probably already have a discussion about the topic & can just keep an ear out) or ask them. The only case where you shouldn’t just adopt the words they use to self-define is if those words have or are still used as slurs. For example, if someone who is intersex wishes to self-define as a she-male that’s fine, they are perfectly within their rights to reclaim words that have been used as insults against people like them, but it’s best to refrain from using these words if you are not part of the community which has been oppressed by them.
When asking someone how they’d like to describe you, be aware that intersexuality is a very personal issue, & for some people a painful one to discuss, so be respectful & if they don’t want to talk to you about it then move on. Also remember that just because they told you they were intersex, you shouldn’t share that information with anyone else without their explicit permission.
We hope that makes everything a lot clearer but if not, feel free to message us again, & as always, if you have any questions relating to sex, sexuality, or relationships then ask us here.