However, for about 1 in every 100 newborns, their external genitalia deviate significantly from the standard female or male shape. In about 1 in every 2,000 newborns, their deviation is so great that it is not obvious to the medical staff whether the newborn is a boy or girl. Generally, the latter have elements of both the female and male "standard" genitalia. Alternately, they may have atypical sex chromosomes in their DNA. These persons have been described as hermaphrodites long ago, and intersex in the more recent past. The term "Intersexual" remains in common use among the public, but "Disorder of Sexual Development" (a.k.a. "Differences of Sexual Development"or DSD) is a recently developed term extensively used by the medical community.
Some years ago, this web site included a voluntary survey that was intended to find out the gender, age, occupation and other details of the site's visitors. We gave three options for gender: male, female, or intersexual. An intersexual adult, who filled out the form, contacted us by Email. She thanked us for including an option that she could accurately choose. It was a novel experience for her. In her entire life, she had filled out countless forms that asked for her name, gender, address, etc. However, she had never seen a form that that gave her the option of stating her actual gender. This is one demonstration of how rigidly North American society considers everyone's gender to fall within a purely binary system -- either male or female.
In rare instances, emergency surgery on intersex newborns is necessary to prevent a life-threatening problem. A generation or two ago, surgical operations were commonly performed on intersexual newborns and infants who had ambiguous external genitalia for what some believed to be valid medical reasons. The result of the surgery would normally alter the newborn's genitalia to match that of a girl's as closely as possible. At that time, the gender of very young children was commonly believed to be flexible and moldable. Parents were told to take their post-operative baby home, to keep the operation a secret, to raise her as a girl, and all would turn out just fine. Unfortunately, long term studies eventually showed that the end result was often disastrous. Their "girl" asserted his maleness as a child and experienced increasing internal conflict as he matured. In one well publicized case, he committed suicide.
Elective surgical alterations on intersex infants, is sometimes called intersex genital mutilation (IGM). It has become less common in recent years. Many intersex persons have organized support groups to promote allowing intersex newborns to be accepted as they are without surgical modification.
In some African, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern countries, similar surgical operations, called female genital mutilation (FGM), are traditionally performed on non-intersex girls later in life. In these countries, the motivation appears to be a desire to follow a many millennial-old tradition, and also to reduce the girls' sex drive during adulthood so that they will be less likely to engage in pre-marital sex or post-marital adultery. Although these procedures are illegal in North America, Aboriginal, Christian and Muslim families who have emigrated to the US or Canada from these countries sometimes still practice it by briefly returning to their country of origin with their girl children to have them mutilated.
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