Sunday, August 14, 2011


Having sex can be fun and great and wonderful, but it can only be these things when all parties involved are comfortable and consenting with what’s going on. Intersex individuals may have particular needs and concerns that are uncommon for others when having sex, and understanding how to make an intersex partner comfortable may require some additional knowledge and communication. These points below are not applicable to all intersex individuals, but may give you an idea of some things to discuss before getting down to ensure that a good time is had by all.

Intersex individuals may not be entirely comfortable with their bodies. Yes, many (perhaps even most) individuals in some populations struggle with body image, but it’s important to understand that the origin of such uncomfortableness come from different places. Common body image issues stem from certain kinds of body forms that are lauded as damn-near-perfect and made prominently visible in the media and entertainment industries, bombarding us at every turn - i.e., white, thin, with "conventionally attractive" facial features = a certain suite of traits most commonly found in a subset of white individuals. Those whose bodies don’t closely resemble these idealized forms may feel a host of negative feels about this.

Intersex individuals may experience these common body image issues, which serve to judge and provide the standard with what attractive and the most highly-valued bodies look like. Intersex individuals may, on top of this, also experience body image issues surrounding what "NORMAL" bodies look like and/or how they are supposed to work. Now, that's kind of a bullshit statement, because when you say, these bodies as best, you're normalizing them. But what I mean isn't the your-body-is-not-ideal-and-therefore-not-so-normal kind of normalcy, but the people-can't-conceive-that-your-bodies-even-exist-are-you-SURE-this-is-for-real kind of normalcy. There's a lot of pressure tied in with sex as it is - "Are you having it?," "Is it good?," "Are you good in bed?," "Are you sexually attractive enough?" Things get more complicated yet when you throw in, "Does my body look normal?...Will my partner(s) find my body attractive, regardless?," "Does my body work like it's expected to in sexual situations?...How will my partner(s) react if it doesn't?," and "If my partner(s) don't know I'm intersex, (when) do I want to disclose that?...Does planning to have a short- or long-term sexual relationship change my answers?"

Let's take on the last questions first. Intersex individuals may choose to disclose their intersex or not disclose it before sexual encounters, especially they are not planning on having an extended sexual relationship with their partner(s). It is important to note that not disclosing one's intersex is not being dishonest - it simply means that that intersex individual decides to to share that part of themselves with their partner(s). For example, individuals hoping for a one night stand together aren't likely to sit down together beforehand and have an hours- if not days-long conversation, staring soufully into each others' eyes, and disclose every aspect of their personal being so that prospective partners can decide whether or not to sleep with someone for one night only after hearing their whole life story. People don't necessarily disclose their entire selves to anyone, and even individuals who know us best may not know every last, single thing about us. Or people who have disclosed every aspect of themselves may not have shared every detail with a given individual - that knowledge of their whole selves is spread across people they know, have talked to, have confided in, have shared with. People pick and choose what they wish to tell others, and what they choose to tell may be highly dependent on context. It's no less dishonest to decide not to disclose one's intersex status than it is to fail to report what you had for lunch on Oct 13, 2007 or that thing you did with the thing that one time. People decide what to share of themselves with others. Deciding not to do so can't be deemed dishonest unless people consider that thing to be offbeat and bad in some way, and thus "withholding" this information was a deliberate act to deceive. Being intersex isn't bad. The reason intersex people may choose to withhold this isn't because they view their intersex as bad (although some may that have had this ingrained by years of medical "treatment"), but it may be that they know that other people may not understand what it is, and/or they don't want to get into a lengthy conversation and explain Intersex 101 and risk getting asked invasive questions (again), and/or THEY WANT TO ENSURE THEIR SAFETY. It is well-known that transgender people for some time have been blamed for being deceptive by not disclosing their transgender status, only to have a (potential) sexual partner verbally and/or physically assault them. You have to do what you have to do to be safe. Sometimes intersex individuals won't disclose their intersex status before having sex, and that is okay and perfectly within their right to do so.

If an intersex individual DOES share their intersex with (potential) sex partners, then the bottom line is that consent and communication are key, as they should be in any sexual encounter and/or realtionship to keep it healthy. There are some things that intersex individuals may want to discuss before having sex (again) that are relevant to the sexual experience to be had. The importance of listening and communicating respectfully can't be overstated, since it's sometimes scary to share this shit!

Intersex individuals may want to share the fact that their bodies don't always look garden-variety in various aspects. This may mean explaining their form of intersex, and what features they have and/or don't have. For example, it's very common for people with AIS (androgen insensitivity) like me to have very small nipples that pretty much don't grow since childhood. I'm really self-conscious about that when having sex sometimes, and it's something I'd want to disclose before having sex. Just to get it out there, on the table, because otherwise I'm just gonna be thinking about it and wondering if they notice and are reacting to it. I just wanna talk about it beforehand so that I'M comfortable. It has definitely been helpful when partners complement your body, let you know they find you attractive, and communicate verbally and non-verbally that they desire you. Compliments and showing that they think you're super-hot? Definitely can help put someone's omg-are-they-gonna-think-my-body's-freaky?-o-meter at ease.

This may also lead into discussions of what these body parts do and/or don't do, and thus what intersex individuals want or don't want to do during sex. Individuals with various intersex variations may want to explain the form of body parts. AIS individuals planning to engage in penetrative sex, for example (using whatever body parts or toys - we're not making penis-assumptions here!), might want to discuss the fact that, without a uterus, the vagina is "blind-ended," or ends in a sac of tissue that doesn't go up to the cervix, and thus there's a back wall to the vagina. Sometimes, there can be pain with certain kinds of contat with that back wall, and an intersex individual might want to give partners a heads up. CAH individuals might want to talk about what is called alternatingly by medical folks as an enlarged clitoris/hemipenis (although individuals may have different terms, since they can describe their own bodies however they want!) and their erectile capabilities. (Clitorises of any size have muscle tissue for erectile capabilities, but erections may be more visible with larger such-structures.) Individuals with the MRKH variation, where individuals do not have a vagina, may want to discuss that penetration would not be possible, although that most certainly doesn't mean that penetrative sex couldn't happen, and certainly doesn't mean that sex can't happen! There are SO MANY different ways one can have sex. This whole heterosexual, penis-in-the-vagina thing? Is just one way to do it. All other forms of sex are just as valid, and just as much sex as the glowing hetero standard of intercourse {*insert choir of angels here and rays of white light*}. The same goes for individuals with the aphallia variation, where individuals do not have a penis. Sex can totally happen - these individuals just might want to talk about what sex could/would look like with partners.

Individuals that have gone through medicalization may not want to do certain kinds of things during sex, or may only want to sometimes, or only in certain contexts. Some of this might be due to the fact that certain sex acts are potentially triggering for these individuals. For example, with all the dilator stuff I experienced, I sometimes don't want penetration, and need to decide if that's what I want to do on my own terms, and know that I can consent to and reserve consent to it at any time (just like any other sex acts!). Remember that, like any individual that experiences triggers, partners should be attuned to watching for signs of triggering, and communicate if their partner indicates verbally or non-verbally that they are uncomfortable. Check in. Be attentive and patient. Talk about things. A good place to get started in thinking about issues of consent is Cindy Crabtree's (of Doris zine fame) Support zine. This zine is geared toward individuals that have survived or are working through sexual abuse trauma, and so is not geared toward intersex individuals, but we have discussed how intersex individuals that have gone through medicalization have often had similar experiences as those that have experienced other forms of sexual abuse. It's also worth noting that individuals one has sex with may have a history of abuse, regardless of their intersex, so it's just good to be aware of this stuff in general. <3 Individuals who have had surgeries performed on them may also have different needs. It is known that individuals that have had clitoral surgery may, post-surgery, experience diminished or no pleasurable sexual sensations when responding to stimuli, or sensations experienced might be painful either sometimes or all the time. They may also possess scarring from the surgery, and may be self-conscious of what their genitals look like post-surgery. (Ironically, it's much less common to hear of individuals reporting they were self-conscious of their genitalia BEFORE surgery. HMMMMM.) Individuals that had vaginoplasties may experience a range of experiences having sex post-surgery since, depending on the kind of tissue used (e.g., bowel, skin), the vagina may have a more or less "typical feel" or be more or less stretchy if one cares about penetrative sex. (In the extreme case for the latter, vaginal stenosis may occur, where the vagina closes partially or completely, making penetrative sex difficult, if not impossible. This would require - you guessed it! - MORE SURGERIES. This is yet another reason such surgeries shouldn't be performed on infants and children, who are still growing. If surgery is to be performed, it should be by the intersex individuals themselves, as adults, when they understand everything and want it and can CONSENT to it.) Some of the after-effects of these surgeries are also legitimate health concerns - which is ironic, since the surgeries are performed not to track health but to conform to social norms about sex and gender and bodies, but can create health problems themselves. (Does this seriously make sense to anyone?!) For example, vaginas may prolapse (= extrude out of the body partially or, in more severe cases, entirely) or grow HAIR inside them (which may happen if the tissue used to make the vagina possessed hair follicles, e.g., skin from someone's arm). These are all things that an intersex individual may want to talk about before having sex. Or not. Let's also not forget the fact that, like any group of individuals, some intersex individuals may identify as asexual, and will want to have sex infrequently, seldom, or not at all. In this case, some of this stuff might not be super-applicable to intersex indviduals who want romantic relationships with little to no sex involved. But aren't ya glad you know anyway? :)

In general, consent, communication, and respect are necessary components for having satisfying sexual experiences. Ask if it's okay to ask questions. Be honest, and discuss honestly and openly. Take concerns and dialogue seriously, and listen to what is being said. Evaluate what is comfortable and desirable together, and then go have lots of fun! Keeping these things in mind will result in healthy sexual encounters. And yay for that!


  1. here's my question, why in the hell do you think that being intersex is liken to being gay or lesbian. We all know Intersex is a medical condition and not a sexual or gender identity. It seems to me you think being intersex is a gender or sexual identity and not a medical condition.

  2. I do not think that intersex is akin to being gay or lesbian. I truly don't know how you came to that conclusion. If you read through a bunch of my blog posts, you will find that I actually explicity state many times that intersex is about biology, and it is not a sexual orientation or a gender identity.

    HOWEVER, I do note that many societies have a lot of expecations about what bodies have to do with gender and sexual orientation. If you have a body that's assigned "female," many societies expect that you to have a "female" gender identity and are sexually attracted to males. If you have a body that's assigned "male," it's expected that you have a "male" sexual orientation and are sexually attracted to females. With intersex bodies, there's no hard-and-fast rules for what we should expect of intersex babies, which is why we have clinicians operating on kids to (usually) "make them girls" or (sometimes) "make them boys" so that they're "normal," and now we know what to expect of their gender identities and sexual orientations! Yay! (ACTUALLY, NOT YAY.) But bodies, gender identity, and sexual orientation don't have to line up in one of two ways. Furthermore, BODIES don't have to be grouped into one of two categories. So, I talk about gender identity and sexual orientation a lot because these are reasons for why panic ensues around intersex bodies, and thus why medical procedures are used to make intersex people SOCIALLY acceptable = allowing others to assign a gender identity and sexual orientation to babies, before they even know who they are. This is why such procedures should not be done on indiviudals that are too young to understand it and consent to it themselves.

    Additionally, I actually also disagree that intersex is a medical condition. Our bodies may be atypical, but they are beautiful and HEALTHY bodies when we are born. Many of these "treatments," such as genital mutilation surgery, CAUSE actual medical problems, but having intersex bodies is not a medical problem in and of itself. We are people with bodies that are just as good and worthy as individuals who are not intersex. Our bodies are not medical conditions, unless being born with a healthy body is somehow considered a medical condition. *scratches head*

  3. Well done to you. Global awareness and education regarding intersex issues is seriously needed right now and has been neglected for too long now. A very sincere thank you for your wonderful contributions to the global society.

  4. Thank you so much! I appreciate these words a lot! I would love to see these issues talked about more openly among lots of activists and eventually mainstream society at large. That would be amazing. <3