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Famous sculpture titled Sleeping Hermaphroditus found in the Borghese Collection of the Louvre in France.

A hermaphrodite is any organism that possesses both male and female reproductive organs. The term is derived from Hermaphroditus, the mythical son of Hermes and Aphrodite. According to Greek mythology, a nymph became enamored with Hermaphroditus and asked the gods to keep them from separating. The gods granted her request and combined their bodies into one hermaphrodite body, so they would never be apart.

In plants and animals, hermaphroditism is common and necessary for survival. For humans however, hermaphroditism is a sex development disorder that requires serious medical attention. Hermaphroditism in humans is now referred to as intersex, a term that describes a wide variety of conditions including the appearance of ambiguous genitalia and improper hormone balance. Hermaphroditism does not only concern those affected by the disorder, but it also poses serious ethical questions to others concerning the possibility of more than the traditional female or male genders.[1]

Zoology & Botany

Hermaphroditism occurs in humans, animals, and plants alike. However the condition is rare in mammals and birds, yet fairly common in fish, invertebrates, and plants.[2] There are two types of hermaphrodites: dichogamous and homogamous.


A clownfish, such as this one found in the East China Sea is a prime example of a sequential hermaphrodite.
Dichogamy, also known as sequential hermaphroditism, occurs when an individual in a species is born as one gender, but eventually transitions into the alternate gender. It is particularly common in fish, gastropods, and flowering plants. Though most are only capable of changing sex once, some sequential hermaphrodites are capable of changing multiple times. Two categories of dichogamy are protandry, the transition from male to female, and protogyny, the transition from female to male. A primary example of protandry is a clownfish. Clownfish generally live in a group consisting of a reproductive female, a reproductive male, and several non-reproductive males. If the female is removed, the reproductive male will change sex to take over the female's position and one of the non-reproductive males will become reproductive.[3] In the case of the clownfish and other dichogamous animals, dichogamy is necessary for survival. In plants, the production of female and male parts at different times serves to prevent self-pollination and instead allow for cross-fertilization.[4]


The banana slug, like this one from California, is a homogamous animal.
Homogamy, also referred to as simultaneous hermaphroditism, is the condition in which an organism has both male and female reproductive organs at the same time. In most cases, self-fertilization cannot occur.[5] Several gastropods are hermaphrodites; the banana slug, for instance, is a prime example of a simultaneous hermaphrodite. All banana slugs produce both eggs and sperm. Both slugs fertilize its partner's eggs during mating. The benefits are that these slugs are able to reproduce genetically diverse offspring without the existence of non-productive males.[6] Flowering plants, such as those in the division of Magnoliophyta, demonstrate simultaneous hermaphroditism. Flowering plants generally have both a male organ, the stamen that produces sperm, and a female organ, the stigma that produces eggs. While it is possible to fertilize itself, these flowering plants rely on cross fertilization via insects or wind for reproduction.[7]


Intersex is the term used to describe hermaphroditism in humans. This is a rare disorder and the term intersex describes a wide variety of conditions including both the obvious and subtle symptoms. Obvious symptoms include ambiguous genitalia at birth, an enlarged clitoris, undescended testes that may become ovaries in boys, groin masses which may become testes in girls, electrolyte abnormalities, delayed or absent puberty, and dramatically unexpected changes at puberty. Subtle symptoms may be related to DNA composition and hormone levels. Contrary to popular belief, it is virtually impossible for human hermaphrodites to impregnate themselves, because their reproductive organs are generally not fully functional. [1]


Though every intersex patient is different, doctors believe that the development of ambiguous genitalia is mainly attributed to problems in the sexual anatomy development of the human fetus. The genitals of boys and girls in utero appear as female from conception to the seventh week. They then develop differently due to hormonal influences. If the fetus is exposed to irregular hormone levels through the mother or has irregular reactions to hormonal stimuli, then an intersex appearance can result.[8] Another theory about the cause of intersexuality is the link in hermaphroditism to an exposure to common agricultural pesticides.[9]

Four Categories of Intersexuality

Intersex can be divided into four categories:[9]

  • 46, XX Intersex-The person has the chromosomes and ovaries of a woman, but male external genitals. This usually is the result of a female fetus having been exposed to an excessive amount of male hormones before birth.[9]
  • 46, XY Intersex-The person has male chromosomes and possible internal testes, but also has external genitals that are incompletely formed, ambiguous, or clearly female. Generally this is caused by some problems with the testes or testosterone levels.[9]
  • True Gonadal Intersex-Often considered true hermaphroditism, the person has both ovarian and testicular tissue. The underlying cause for this is still unknown.[9]
  • Complex or Undetermined Intersex-This person has a chromosome configuration that differs from the standard 46,XX or 46,XY. Instead, the person is missing a chromosome or has an additional chromosome, which affects the sex hormone levels but does not cause a discrepancy of appearance between internal and external genitalia.[9]

Rarity of the Condition

The condition is extremely rare. In approximately 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births, the child is born with noticeably atypical genitalia. Yet this does not account for the large group of people that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which are not evident until later in one's life. According to Brown University researcher Anne Fausto-Sterling, the frequency of the different intersex conditions varies according to the different populations.[10]

Common intersex conditions include:

  • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH)- One of the most prevalent intersex conditions, this dangerous condition occurs when the adrenal glands cannot produce cortisone and instead produce other hormones which produce physical features of the opposite sex.[11]
  • Turner Syndrome-The typical female sex chromosome is 46,XX. Those afflicted by the Turner Syndrome have only one X chromosome present and fully functional.[12]
  • Ovo-testes (formerly called "true hermaphroditism")-Occurs when sex glands contain both ovarian and testicular tissue.[13]

The following table lists a specific intersex condition, which ranges in severity, and its rate of occurrence according to Anne Fausto-Sterline's research for Brown University.

Intersex Condition[10] Occurrence[10]
Not XX and not XY one in 1,666 births
Klinefelter (XXY) one in 1,000 births
Androgen insensitivity syndrome one in 13,000 births
Partial androgen insensitivity syndrome one in 130,000 births
Classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia one in 13,000 births
Late onset adrenal hyperplasia one in 66 individuals
Vaginal agenesis one in 6,000 births
Ovotestes one in 83,000 births
Idiopathic (no discernable medical cause) one in 110,000 births
Iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment, for instance progestin administered to pregnant mother) No estimate
5 alpha reductase deficiency No estimate
Mixed gonadal dysgenesis No estimate
Complete gonadal dysgenesis one in 150,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening in perineum or along penile shaft) one in 2,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening between corona and tip of glans penis) one in 770 births
Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female one in 100 births
Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearance one or two in 1,000 births

Corrective Treatment

While some people who suffer from intersex conditions are capable of living normal and healthy lives, others afflicted with different types of the condition are in danger of certain medical risks. Medical risks resulting from intersex conditions are gonadal tumors, osteoporosis, and risks associated with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH).


Before any treatment for hermaphrodites can begin, physicians must first determine whether or not a person is intersex and then ascertain what the underlying cause of the condition is. For some, especially in the case of newborn infants, the evidence is readily apparent. In other situations, an intersex person may appear normal until later on in their life, like in puberty. Thus testing is a necessary precaution. Different methods of testing include:

  • Chromosome analysis
  • Detection of hormone levels (i.e., testosterone and estrogen levels)
  • Hormone stimulation tests
  • Electrolyte tests
  • Specific molecular testing
  • Endoscopic examination designed to detect the absence or presence of a vagina or cervix.
  • Ultrasound or MRI to determine the presence of internal sex organs.[9]


Treatment varies depending on the type of intersex condition a person has. A team of healthcare professionals with an expertise in this area should work to understand the situation and counsel the patient or the patient's families. Options for treatment include surgery and/or hormone therapy. Surgery is generally cosmetic and can be performed on those as young as infants. Much like transgender surgeries, surgeons can construct genitalia to appear normal but hormone therapy may be needed to counteract the body's natural hormones.

There have been major controversies and changes regarding the policy of intersex treatment recently. Originally, the general opinion was that a gender should be assigned quickly to an intersex child so that the child could be raised in a normal environment. The risk involved would be that the child would not agree with their gender assignment once reaching an age of maturity. The general belief at the time was that a child could be influenced to become a certain sex. The gender assignment was generally based on the external appearance rather than chromosomal gender. If the choice was unclear, doctors would recommend constructing female genitalia because of the ease of that operation. Experts have since changed their opinions after learning about the complexity of female sexual functioning and about the factors which influence gender identity (i.e. chromosomal, neural, hormonal, psychological, and behavioral factors). Now, experts recommend delaying surgery until the child is capable of making the decision.[9]



Several accounts of hermaphrodites date back several millennia. Throughout history, societies have tried to change or destroy them. In ancient times, the Romans and the Greeks, though influenced by the myth of Hermaphroditus, destroyed hermaphrodite children at birth. In the Dark Ages, the hermaphrodite children were regarded as dangerous monsters. They could be burned at the stake or could have their ambiguous organ amputated. Europeans during the Dark Ages also tried to perform surgery, but often damaged a functional organ rather than removing a non-functional one.[14]

The Navajo people from the southwest United States differed from the intersexual bias and actually revered hermaphrodites. They included them in their mythology as a sacred category of people called "nadle." Hermaphrodite children were thought to bring wealth and blessings on the community and were also believed to be the best mediators, especially between the sexes. The Sambia tribe in New Guinea believed that two hermaphrodite people invented the world. They also believed in a third gender, called "kolu-aatmwol." Other people groups that believe in a third intersexual category are the Hua tribe, Bimin-Kuskusmin tribe, Tahitians, and a small group in the Dominican Republic. [14]


The term hermaphrodite is now outmoded and regarded as derogatory by intersexuals. They believe the term raises uninformed images and incorrect conceptions of intersex people. Therefore, they prefer the term intersex.[15] The Intersex Society of North America is now working on trying to get more recognition and rights for intersexuals as people. They don't want to be regarded as freaks with diseases, but rather as a different type of people. [10]

Popular Culture

Caster Semenya is a South African runner that was discovered to be a hermaphrodite.
A handful of celebrities are rumored to be hermaphrodites. Rumors circulate that Jamie Lee Curtis, a popular actress, was born with male genitalia; the rumors were further encouraged by her short hair and decision to adopt children.[16] That rumor however is unconfirmed. Another famous star, Lady Gaga, sparked gossip that she had male genitalia when pictures of her in underwear seemed to indicate that she had some male genitalia. However, she later denied the rumors. A recent controversy surrounds a South African runner in the news. The runner, Castor Semenya, won the women's 800-meter race in the World Championships. Suspicions about her gender due to her masculine appearance arose and the International Association of Athletics Federations demanded she be evaluated. The report shows that Semenya has no womb or ovaries and has internal testes, making her victory extremely controversial.


Biblical references

The Bible does not specifically mention hermaphroditism anywhere. However hermaphroditism, like blindness, is considered an affliction or disorder. God created specific male and female genders. Any resulting illnesses result from the consequence of sin and evil in the world.

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  1. 1.0 1.1 What is hermaphroditism?
  2. Who likes protandric hermaphrodites? by Dr. M. Deep Sea News.
  3. HermaphroditeBy several authors.
  4. Dichogamy Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © & (P)2009 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
  5. Homogamy Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © & (P)2009 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  6. What do banana slugs know about reproduction? By Don Garlick. North Coast Journal.
  7. Angiosperm reproduction By Prof. C. M. Sean Carrington. University of the West Indies.
  8. Show me how intersex anatomy develops Intersex Society of North America.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 Intersex MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 How common is intersex? Intersex Society of North America
  11. Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia Intersex Society of North America.
  12. Turner Syndrome Intersex Society of North America.
  13. Ovo-Testes Intersex Society of North America.
  14. 14.0 14.1 The Indonesian Hermaphrodite: Intersexuality in the S. Pacific and around the world By Hank Hyena.
  15. Frequently Asked Questions by
  16. Jamie Lee Curtis
  17. Top 10 Hermaphrodites

External links