Is a person who is intersex a hermaphrodite?
No. The mythological term “hermaphrodite” implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. This is a physiologic impossibility.
The words “hermaphrodite” and “pseudo-hermaphrodite” are stigmatizing and misleading words. Unfortunately, some medical personnel still use them to refer to people with certain intersex conditions, because they still subscribe to an outdated nomenclature that uses gonadal anatomy as the basis of sex classification. In a paper titled Changing the Nomenclature/Taxonomy for Intersex: A Scientific and Clinical Rationale, five ISNA-associated experts recommend that all terms based on the root “hermaphrodite” be abandoned because they are scientifically specious and clinically problematic. The terms fail to reflect modern scientific understandings of intersex conditions, confuse clinicians, harm patients, and panic parents. We think it is much better for everyone involved when specific condition names are used in medical research and practice.
To read more about the Victorian origins of the medical terminology of “true” and “pseudo” hermaphroditism, check out chapter 5 of Alice Dreger’s Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex which is available at our bookshelf, or go to our FAQ called What’s the history behind the intersex rights movement?.
One more thing: While some intersex people seek to reclaim the word “hermaphrodite” with pride to reference themselves (much like the words “dyke” and “queer” have been reclaimed by LBGT people), we’ve learned over the years it is best generally avoided, since the political subtlety is lost on a lot of people.
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