On the Word "Hermaphrodite"

Classification: FAQ

The word "hermaphrodite" is a stigmatizing and misleading word.
There is growing momentum to eliminate the word "hermaphrodite"
from medical literature and to use the word "intersex" in its
place. While some intersex people do reclaim the word "hermaphrodite"
with pride to reference themselves (like words such as "dyke"
and "queer" have been reclaimed by LGBT people), it should be
generally avoided except under specific circumstances.



Victorian doctors believed that the gonads were the seat of "true
sex," and thus created a system of nomenclature -- in the absence of
any knowledge of genetics, endocrinology, or embryology -- which categorized
people as "male pseudohermaphrodite," "female pseudohermaphrodite,"
or "true hermaphrodite." It's time to eliminate this quaint Victorianism
from modern medical practice.

The word "hermaphrodite" implies that a person is born with
two sets of genitals -- one male and one female -- and this is something
that cannot occur.

The qualifiers "male" and "female," because they
are based only upon the gonadal histology, frequently contradict the sex
of assignment, and thus are very misleading and disturbing for parents and
patients.

The qualifiers "pseudo" and "true" are even more
harmful, because they imply a sort of authenticity, or lack of same, that
carry powerful emotional baggage.

You can learn more about the Victorian history of these labels in Alice
Dreger's book "Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex."
Look for it at our bookshelf.