Why words matter

Language is powerful - knowing the right words to use when talking to someone, or talking about them, is not only respectful, it can also be empowering.  However, incorrect language use can be harmful and hurtful because it can cause stigma and shame.


Intersex refers to a difference, not a deformity 

Intersex is a word we use - a lot. 

Intersex is an umbrella term that includes the many ways that the human body's sex characteristics may vary - it reflects "biological diversity" (IHRA, 2009)

In some instances we say people with Variations of Sex Characteristics (VSC) and at other times we use the words people with Atypical Sex Characteristics.  But intersex is the word/term we use most.  

There are more than forty recognised ways that people's bodies may vary or be considered intersex.  For example: a person may be born with 

  • Hypospadias - where the opening of the penis (typically located at the tip) is located on the side or underside 
  • Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome (MRKH) - characterised by the full/partial absence of the female reproductive system. [Learn what this means for intersex person, Julian Peter our go to the Personal Stories section on our Resources page to learn about the stories of Esther Morris Liedolf and Joaneva.]

These are just two examples of how a person's body might be born different.  Using the proper language when we talk about people, their bodies and their experiences is very important to us and we are committed to speaking and writing about intersex as respectfully, and correctly, as possible.      

As our attitudes, thinking and knowledge changes, our choice of words and use of language should too.  Our friends at interACT - Advocates for Intersex Youth explain why some terms that have been used in the past were problematic.  

Is intersex the same thing as being a “hermaphrodite?”

No. “Hermaphrodite” should never be used to describe an intersex person. Some intersex people have reclaimed this word for themselves, but it is usually considered a slur. There are many ways to have an intersex body, but it is not possible for one person to have both a fully developed penis and vagina.

The “h word” comes from mythology. It might suggest that intersex people are monsters, or not of this world. Many intersex people still see this slur used in their medical records.

Is intersex the same thing as “Disorder of Sex Development?”

“Disorder” or “difference of sex development” (DSD) is still a common medical term for intersex traits. Many intersex people reject the term “DSD” because it supports the idea that their bodies are wrong, or up to doctors to “fix.” Advocates in the United States often bring up the fact that until 1973, being gay was considered a mental disorder. Many natural human differences have been framed as medical problems, until communities fought for acceptance.

interACT generally does not use the term DSD. See interACT’s statement on DSD terminology.