Intersex: Contested bodies, contested identities

Morgan Carpenter1

1Sydney Health Ethics + IHRA + GATE, Newtown, Australia

Once described as hermaphrodites and later as intersex people, individuals born with intersex variations are routinely subject to so-called “normalizing” medical interventions, often in childhood. Opposition to such practices has been met by attempts to discredit critics and reasserted clinical authority over the bodies of women and men with “disorders of sex development.” Claims of clinical consensus have been selectively constructed and applied and lack evidence. Limited transparency and lack of access to justice have helped to perpetuate forced interventions. At the same time, associated with the diffusion of distinct concepts of sex and gender, intersex has been constructed as a third legal sex. This has been accompanied by pious hopes and unwarranted expectations of consequences. The existence of intersex has also been instrumentalized for the benefit of other, intersecting, populations. The creation of gender categories associated with intersex bodies has created profound risks: a paradoxically narrowed and normative gender binary, maintenance of medical authority over the bodies of “disordered” females and males, and claims that transgressions of social roles ascribed to a third gender are deceptive. Contested claims are made both that medicalization saves intersex people from “othering”, and that legal othering saves intersex people from medicalization. In practice, intersex bodies remain “normalized” or eliminated by medicine, while society and the law “others” intersex identities. That is, medicine constructs intersex bodies as either female or male, while law and society construct intersex identities as neither female nor male. In response, an emerging human rights consensus demands an end to social prejudice, stigma, and forced medical interventions, focusing on the right to bodily integrity and principles of self-determination.


Morgan is co-executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia and a PhD candidate at Sydney Health Ethics, University of Sydney. Morgan has played an active role in systemic advocacy on federal anti-discrimination legislation and a Senate inquiry into forced sterilisation. He has participated in the first UN expert meeting on ending human rights violations against intersex persons, is a signatory of the “Yogyakarta Principles plus 10”, and member of an AHRC expert group on protecting the rights of people born with variations of sex characteristics in the context of medical interventions.