Intersex: A short primer

There was a time (actually not all that long ago) where it seemed that the issue of gender was fairly straightforward, there were two of them, one male and one female.

Yet humans are far more complicated than that. This relates not so much to the issue of sexuality as the web of topics around gender dysphoria, where the person lives with a sense of severe disconnection between their sense of self and their physical biology and transgenderism. For more on gender dysphoria listen to this conversation between Mark Yarhouse and Melinda Selmys.

However, awareness is growing about people who would fall into a category known as intersex. Intersex is as the word suggests, where a person’s genetics or physical body doesn’t easily fit into either the category male or the category female.

So most men have 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs XY, and most women have 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs XX. Intersex is all the variables where people have more or less than 46 chromosomes or pairs in differing combinations of X & Y. For more on this read this by the World Health Organisation.

There is considerable debate about how common this is or isn’t. The upper estimate by Anne Fausto-Sterling is as high as 1.7% and the more conservative figure is as low as 0.018%. Much depends on what conditions are included or excluded.

So issues of masculinity and femininity are significant for people for whom it has never been clear whether they are male or female.

Recently Megan DeFranza wrote, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female and Intersex in the image of God and which has sparked some helpful debate.

To understand more you can listen to Megan in conversation with the guys at the Mere Fidelity podcast. There is some further reflection on Megan’s book by Steve Holmes and Alistair Roberts which is all worth reading.

Here are a few quotes to make you think:

Alistair Roberts

It seems clear to me, as it generally seems to be to medical science, that human bodies are structured to be sexually reproductive—to be male and female—and humanity is a sexually dimorphic species.

Steve Holmes

The problem is not that some children are classed as ‘abnormal’, but that any of us are classed as ‘normal’. We are not. We are broken, warped, fallen – we are not as we should be.


Alistair Roberts

It also seems to me that Holmes—as DeFranza does at points—is eliding the difference between knowing what is male and female bodily and knowing what is masculine and feminine in the personal realm of gender expression.

Matthew Lee Anderson

What happens when we fail to see how the life of the male body of the divine man Jesus includes the entire cosmos within its scope? The natural outcome is an ever-expanding list of subcommunities and identities within the church, which obscures our common status as “other” to the irreducibly unique Incarnate Lord. We’re prone, these days, to taking offense at the maleness of Jesus. But reimagining and reconstructing Christ’s body in our own images can only introduce new and more pernicious dualisms into the faith.

Photo by colm.mcmullan

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