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Divergence or Disorder?: the politics of naming intersex
Abstract

The conditions once known under the umbrella terms intersex and hermaphroditism are now generally being called disorders of sex development in medical settings. The terms might seem synonymous, but in fact there are significant differences with controversial consequences. Hermaphroditism, an older term that can still be found in many medical writings, is vague, demeaning, and sensationalistic, conjuring mythic images of monsters and freaks. In the 1990s, activists advocated intersex to describe discordance between the multiple components of sex anatomy, but that word alienated many parents of affected children, as it suggests a self-conscious alternative gender identity and sexuality. Disorders of sex development also refers to intersex, but it deemphasizes the identity politics and sexual connotations associated with intersex, avoids the degradation associated with hermaphrodite, and instead highlights the underlying genetic or endocrine factors that cause prenatal sex development to take an unusual path. I argue that using disorder is problematic, because it implies medical conditions in need of repair, when some intersex anatomies, though atypical, do not necessarily need surgical or hormonal correction. I advocate a less pathologizing new term, divergence of sex development, that might reduce some of the conflict over nomenclature and satisfy intersex people, their parents, and their doctors.



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