What’s sex life like when you’re intersex?

“I’ve never understood the idea in society that people should be ashamed of gender differences like that.”

About 1.7 percent of people on this planet are born with intersex characteristics, an umbrella term for sexual traits—such as external sex organs, internal reproductive organs, and chromosomal configurations—that don’t align with society’s artificial binary concepts of male or female bodies. Some of these characteristics are visible at birth: for example, genitalia that are markedly different from the norm or difficult to classify as male or female. Some make their presence known at puberty, when people don’t develop quite as they thought. Some are so internal and subtle that they are only identified during an autopsy. In any case, it’s usually impossible to tell if someone has intersex traits just by looking at how they are in everyday life. However,their sex lives.

To be clear, an intersex characteristic is not a medical condition or a disability. It’s just one of the many natural variations in the diverse way human bodies look and operate. Some factors that lead to intersex variation, such as atypical hormone production, can sometimes also cause serious medical problems that require treatment, but most of the differences themselves are purely neutral.

However, society’s obsession with categorizing people into one or two binary genders at birth – and erasing or ignoring anything that complicates binary simplicity – means that many people with intersex traits grow up with the notion that there is something wrong with them and that they are not he should never talk about it. They are also often pressured or forced to “normalize” to fit typically male or female anatomy: All over the world, children with visible intersex traits are subjected to unnecessary and often harmful surgeries to reshape or remove their genitalia , with the aim of making them look “normal” and apparently helping them integrate into society.

A large number of people with intersex characteristics do not feel that these characteristics have much effect on their sex life. But several intersex differences can lead to unique experiences of sex and pleasure. And many “normalizing” surgeries can drastically reduce or eliminate a person’s genital sensations and/or lead to chronic pain and dysfunction in erogenous zones.

Because of the extreme culture of shame and silence surrounding these traits and experiences, it is difficult for people with intersex traits – or struggling with the effects of unnecessary surgery – to learn about their bodies, are less articulate and have a harder time communicating about their sexual desires and needs. Popular prejudice and stigma, as well as the risk of someone reacting badly to diverse genitalia or to a body that doesn’t function in the ways you’d expect it to, also make it difficult for some people with intersex traits to feel comfortable to explore intimacy or feel sexy and sexual.

In recent decades, several intersex organizations have formed to fight against pathologizing, stigmatization, and to help people with intersex characteristics find community and support. But most of their public fight and education has (rightly) been focused on stopping harmful and unnecessary surgeries — so there’s still not a lot of public information about the problems people with intersex characteristics may run into when navigating gender and how to manage them.

To bring more visibility to these issues and experiences, VICE spoke with Addy Berry, an intersex woman, and her wife, Leea, to find out how they approach sex and intimacy. Every intersex experience is unique, so Addy and Leea’s story is not universal. But Addy also studies the sexual experiences of intersex people in her PhD and as an activist, and shared some of the insights she’s come across in her research over the years.

Addy: At birth, my urethra opened below the phallus, close to the testicles. I had an operation as a child to redirect it. In medical papers published up to 2022, doctors have tried to justify that type of surgery by saying it’s important for boys to be able to urinate with their friends – which is a crazy justification for an operation when no one looks at its effects on long term. (Editor’s note: This is one of the most common surgeries done on babies and children with intersex characteristics.) It’s actually very difficult for me to urinate anywhere now because I have a mass of scar tissue in my urethra from that surgery. So the fact that they moved my urethra didn’t do me any good.

What's sex life like when you're intersexDoctors insist they can do things like reduce the size of the clitoris – in the past they cut it off entirely – and that everything will be fine, when there’s no way they know it will be. The young people I spoke to who went through those operations report a lot of pain, but also a lot of psychological problems related to the procedures and their long-term effects.

I was also put on pre-puberty hormones under false pretenses. I was not behaving in accordance with the gender assigned to me and I was punished for it. Transgender and intersex people are not the same thing, but many of us have been assigned a gender despite our uncertainties, and the surgeries done to fit that gender don’t fit us.

As a child, my dad told me things like “You weren’t born with a proper penis”, that’s how I knew where my scars came from. And my mother called me an abomination. The effects of that stigma and shame came up in all the interviews I do – that kind of thing has a big influence on sexuality. I felt the effect on my sexuality early on.

Without much sensation in my genitals, most likely due to the surgery, sex for me has never been genital-centric. I can have penetrative sex, but it doesn’t do me any good. I was drawn to BDSM and female domination in particular from a young age. I am essentially a masochist. Not everyone in the BDSM community is there because of trauma, but for me I think it has to do with how I was treated as an autistic, gender-nonconforming intersex child who was raised by a superstitious, sadistic Catholic woman. with a lot of problems.

Because of the things I was put through as a child, I developed physically as a masculine person and mixed with girls who liked me based on how I looked – but who resented me for being feminine, even though I was always open about who I am and I didn’t act masculine. A partner told me that having sex with me was “like having sex with a girl” and I was like “Well…” They get mad at you for being who you say you are instead of being who they want you to be be There was a lot of incompatibility in my intimate life. And then I found Leea and there was so much compatibility between us that I almost wonder how she’s real. How did we find each other? We should have bought all the lottery tickets that day.

Leea: I like reading personal ads because it’s interesting to see what people put in them to find a partner. It’s like a love CV or something. One day I saw this cute ad on Craiglist that was about BDSM stuff and had a cute picture and I thought it was cool but I passed. A few days later I saw the same ad but all the kinky stuff was gone and I thought that was cute too. I’ve never felt inclined to reply to an ad, but I wrote, “Hey, I thought your sexy ad was cuter.” We started texting and then went out on a coffee date and got along really well.

Dad has a cousin with intersex characteristics. I’m not sure exactly what they are, but from what I understand she had surgery to make her more feminine, but because of all the interventions she couldn’t have a child, so she adopted one. She told her mother about it because they were good friends and most of the family knew a little about it, but no one talked or asked questions. It was like a kind of family secret. So I knew there were intersex characteristics before I met Addy, but that was about it. Pretty quickly it became apparent that he was trans, but not yet open.

Addy: Because of the kids.

Leea: But it took me a while to realize, “Ah, Addy’s intersex.”

Addy: Yes, I talked about the surgeries I went through when I was little, but I didn’t attach the language to intersex, not even to myself.

Leea: Addy had to figure out a lot of things because she always knew she was going through these surgeries, but she was never told exactly what happened.

Addy: I ​​knew other words and later found intersex. The modern intersex movement has only existed since we could find and approach each other online.

Leea: However, from the beginning I understood a lot about Addy – and nothing seemed problematic. We’ve had constant conversations about where we stand. And Addy likes to talk a lot anyway.

Addy: ( Laughs.) You told me from the beginning that you were also interested in penetrative sex.

Leea: I’ve been in relationships with a lot of people, and I knew what kind of sex I wanted. I was tired of men. I don’t care about sex the way men want it. That’s one of the reasons why Addy is perfect for me. I discovered someone whose gender is not centered on the male perspective.

Addy: Early on, I also established that I’m not just submissive, but a masochist and quite the womanizer. While Leea is quite feminine physically, she has more masculine aspects and skills. Outside of the relationship, I’m brave and take on the hard stuff. But in this relationship, I feel very comfortable being submissive to her.

Leea: It’s hard to remember specific conversations from the beginning, but we still discuss things constantly, and the BDSM play we do today has evolved from what we did five to ten years ago because we realized we like each other certain things more or less than in the past and I adjusted them.

Addy: For example, through exploration, I’ve found that medical play can be very cathartic for me – probably because of my background.

I’ve also experienced pretty severe depression most of my life, and it’s very hard to get mental health help as an intersex person because there aren’t many people qualified to help with the specific type of trauma I’ve been through. I never found a therapist who was able to adequately address my trauma. But I’ve found that when I’m in a depressed mood, a session of caning (a method of corporal punishment) can snap me right out of it. For example, one person I was working with asked me at one point – right in front of Leea – “So if I were to take your pants off right now, what exactly would I be looking at?” After that I didn’t feel well at all. But BDSM raised my dopamine and serotonin or something. Whatever it is, I have no idea. If I could get an MRI at times like that, that would be interesting.

Leea: It’s very interesting as we explore more and more together. We decided this year to take care of ourselves, put limits on who can visit us and when, so we can do things like explore more BDSM play together. We also want to go to more dungeons.

In the end, the fact that Addy is intersex does not define our relationship in any way. It’s a part of her, one that I love. And because he works with intersex issues, it’s something we talk about all the time. It plays a role in our lives. But it doesn’t define it.

Addy: A lot of people I’ve talked to who really struggle are heterosexual intersex people who live in a world where sex is all about a penis going into a vagina. Many intersex people have small penises, so it’s really bad to live in a world full of comments that offend people for having small penises, where they learn that this is something bad and shameful. I and many other intersex people who are queer have been forced to develop a more comprehensive vocabulary around sex.

Leea: Being a queer couple I think has given us even more room to talk about things like the different genres of sex we want to do. I feel really bad for a lot of straight couples because there isn’t much room for conversations about what good sex is and how each partner feels and what works and what doesn’t for them.

Addy: We had to adjust our gender around the effects of the surgeries and the effects of the stigma and shame we went through. But personally, I’ve never understood the idea in society that people should be ashamed of gender differences. Or because you’re submissive or a goddess. Or that you did sex work. I’m not harming anyone. I work to make the world a better place.

I think my parents should be ashamed of how they treated me. The medical world should be ashamed. Society at large should be ashamed. I don’t see why I should bear the shame.

  • February 13, 2023
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