Conversations about and representations of all the different people who experience periods; women, trans men, and non-binary people, have been broadening and this includes intersex people too. It isn’t just cisgender women who have periods – and worth noting too – that many cisgender women don’t experience periods either.
If you follow us on Instagram, you’ve probably seen our #RenameDontShame campaign calling for supermarkets to ditch stigmatized and gendered language when it comes to talking about period products. One of our followers asked us if we could extend the conversation to intersex people, and we felt it was important to. So, where and how do intersex people fit into the conversation of periods? Read on to find out.
What does intersex mean?
An intersex person is somebody who was born without falling directly into one of the binary biological sexes assigned at birth – male or female. When you’re born, you are assigned a biological sex based on your genitalia. This is different from your gender identity and is solely based on your biological make up at birth.
Being intersex means you are born with characteristics of both sexes – there are many combinations and developmental causes which will lead someone to be considered intersex. It can present itself externally in the appearance of genitals or internally in a person’s reproductive organs. Intersex can also mean that chromosome combinations vary from the typical XX (usually identified as female) or XY (usually identified as male), for example XXY.
People who are not easily categorised to one biological sex are often called intersex, there are other medical terms used as well. If somebody has outwardly visible signs that they’re intersex, it may be identified at birth. But for others, it may not be until later in life, likely at puberty, that they realise they’re intersex due to the way their body changes and works.
How can you tell if somebody is intersex?
If the concept of intersex people is new to you, it’s understandable you might feel curious and want to ask these questions. However, the answer is simple – you likely can’t tell if someone is intersex, neither do you need to.
Somebody else’s biological sex (and gender identity) isn’t anything for you to worry about unless they choose to speak to you about it. When you first meet somebody, it’s a good practice to ask for their preferred pronouns, just like you would their name A preferred pronoun is most likely the only information you’ll need from someone about their biological sex or gender identity. Anything extra might be considered in invasion of privacy.
If you’re concerned about getting someone’s pronouns incorrect, you could try and get into the habit of offering your pronouns first. This can prevent assumptions being made of any of us, and create a space for gender identity introductions which currently isn’t always there
It is always up to an individual what information they choose to disclose about themselves, conversations should always follow that person’s lead, and what they feel comfortable sharing with you.
Is being intersex common?
Research states that 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits – that’s similar to the amount of people in the world with red hair! Some studies claim it’s much lower than this, but these limit the definition of what is considered intersex.
Due to gender and sex norms in modern society, it may seem surprising to some to learn that people’s biology isn’t always binary and doesn’t always boil down to male or female – there are other possibilities. But humans aren’t the only animals who experience more sexual fluidity than the binary. Did you know that many animals are known to display attributes of both sexes, can change their sex, or change their appearance to look like the other sex? We think these variations are something to embrace and celebrate – in people and the animal kingdom alike!
Is being intersex a health risk?
Being intersex is common enough to make up a significant minority in society, and it’s completely normal. Generally speaking, there are no health risks from being born intersex.
There can sometimes be health-related issues that stem from being intersex. For example, somebody with female genitalia but no uterus may experience trouble with their fertility. Or having a uterus without a uterine or vaginal opening may cause painful periods as menstrual blood has no way of leaving the body. Intersex people may also experience dysphoria if they have been assigned a sex at birth that does not represent their body or identity later in life; sometimes puberty can express a different biological sex than expected for that person. Some of the health risks can be controlled with surgery and hormones – for example creating a vaginal opening for blood to leave the body during menstruation.
Unless there is a health risk that stems from being intersex, there is no real need to go through surgery to be assigned with one biological sex. However, some intersex people may want to do this their own reasons.
Do intersex people have periods?
As there are so many variations of what it can mean to be intersex, there is no one answer to this question. Mostly, it depends on the sexual and reproductive organs an individual is born with, whether they will have periods or not.
If an intersex person is born with a functioning uterus, most likely that person will start menstruating at puberty. The experience of having a period can vary hugely from person to person, and this true for those who are intersex as well! Just remember there is no normal, only what is ‘normal’ for your own body.
Somebody who has typically female organs but typically male appearance features, may also have periods. Similarly, somebody who presents as typically female, but has male reproductive traits may not have periods.
If you would like to find out more, there are some excellent resources out there. Here is a video of three intersex people talking about their experience of life without periods. And here is an intersex person’s experience of puberty with the presence of period symptoms.
Everybody’s experience is different, and it’s important to listen to the people with first-hand experience of life as an intersex person.