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Avoid the ‘Intersex Trap’
How intersex conditions are used by activists to sow confusion and manipulate your emotions.
The use of persuasive language to win debates is an age-old practice. The term “sophistry” derives from a group of itinerant educators and thinkers known as “sophists” in ancient Greece. They were masters at using rhetorical techniques and clever arguments to convince their audience of their views, regardless of whether their premises were true or not. In essence, the sophists valued persuasion over truth.
Though the practice of sophistry dates back to antiquity, it is far from extinct. In fact, it is thriving in modern times. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ongoing debates surrounding sex and gender, where words are being manipulated, given new meanings, or even stripped of meaning altogether. In these debates, sophistry is often employed to push ideological agendas and silence opposing viewpoints.
One of the most effective and prevalent bits of sophistry in this arena is what I call the “Intersex Trap.” This strategy, frequently employed by those who seek to undermine the biological basis of sex in favor of subjective notions of “gender identity,” involves pointing to the existence of irrelevant intersex conditions to deflect criticism away from the central issue at hand. The Intersex Trap employs a twofold approach to dismissing the sex binary: one that relies on sowing confusion, and another that manipulates emotions.
I will cover both of these approaches below.
The first and most common version of the Intersex Trap used by gender activists is designed to sow confusion by equating two distinct concepts—intersex and transgender. Yet, in reality, these concepts are vastly different. Intersex people possess rare developmental conditions that result in ambiguous genitalia, affecting only 0.018 percent of all births. Transgender people, on the other hand, are not sexually ambiguous at all, but merely “identify” as the opposite or neither sex.
This tactic is most frequently deployed on the topic of sports and whether male athletes who simply “identify” as women should be allowed to compete in the female category. When pressed to justify the inclusion of unambiguously male athletes like Lia Thomas in women’s sports, gender activists will routinely attempt to steer the conversation toward a debate about various intersex conditions and prominent intersex athletes like South African runner Caster Semenya.
The reason they do this is simple: most people are not familiar with the diversity and complexity of intersex conditions, and so they often appear foolish as they mumble and stumble their way to an answer. And so long as they’ve got their opponents on the defensive making difficult judgement calls on various medical anomalies, they’ve succeeded in drawing their attention away from making easy calls on unquestionably male athletes like Lia Thomas. In other words, they shift the focus to intersex to distract from transgender.
The reality is that the vast majority of humans are easily classifiable as either male or female. The existence of rare intersex conditions for some does not suddenly call everyone’s sex into question. That being the case, the solution to winning this debate is to notice when activists attempt to change the subject and insist that they treat intersex athletes and transgender athletes as the separate issues that they are.
The second version of the Intersex Trap used to dismiss the sex binary isn’t a rational argument at all, but rather an appeal to emotion. It posits that belief in the sex binary is harmful because it perpetuates harmful narratives that dictate there are only two “correct” ways to be, leaving those whose genital appearance falls outside the norm in need of “correction.” People will frequently cite the disturbing practice of intersex corrective surgeries that have been frequently performed on infants to conform their genitalia to the typical male or female appearance.
This emotional appeal is seldom used in isolation. More commonly, it’s used in conjunction with the first version of the Intersex Trap, creating a formidable one-two punch that first dazzles the audience with scientific jargon, then hits them in the gut with emotional appeals.
An editorial from the esteemed scientific journal Nature, published in 2018, provides a case in point. The article responded to a leaked memo from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which proposed establishing a legal definition of “male” and “female” based on genitalia and genetics. The editorial begins by invoking intersex conditions to blur the sex binary (Intersex Trap 1), and finishes with a condemnation of intersex corrective surgeries on infants (Intersex Trap 2, in bold).
Furthermore, biology is not as straightforward as the proposal suggests. By some estimates, as many as one in 100 people have differences or disorders of sex development, such as hormonal conditions, genetic changes or anatomical ambiguities, some of which mean that their genitalia cannot clearly be classified as male or female. For most of the twentieth century, doctors would often surgically alter an infant’s ambiguous genitals to match whichever sex was easier, and expect the child to adapt. Frequently, they were wrong.
Another piece in Nature titled “Sex Redefined” argues at length about how “biologists continue to show that sex is a spectrum” and that the existence of intersex conditions “do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms.” Near the end, the article says that although our culture appears to be increasingly comfortable with individuals “crossing conventional societal boundaries in their choice of appearance, career and sexual partner,” our rigid views on biological sex still persist, leading to harmful intersex surgeries.
But when it comes to sex, there is still intense social pressure to conform to the binary model.
This pressure has meant that people born with clear DSDs often undergo surgery to ‘normalize’ their genitals. Such surgery is controversial because it is usually performed on babies, who are too young to consent, and risks assigning a sex at odds with the child's ultimate gender identity — their sense of their own gender. Intersex advocacy groups have therefore argued that doctors and parents should at least wait until a child is old enough to communicate their gender identity, which typically manifests around the age of three, or old enough to decide whether they want surgery at all.
This issue was brought into focus by a lawsuit filed in South Carolina in May 2013 by the adoptive parents of a child known as MC, who was born with ovotesticular DSD, a condition that produces ambiguous genitalia and gonads with both ovarian and testicular tissue. When MC was 16 months old, doctors performed surgery to assign the child as female — but MC, who is now eight years old, went on to develop a male gender identity. Because he was in state care at the time of his treatment, the lawsuit alleged not only that the surgery constituted medical malpractice, but also that the state denied him his constitutional right to bodily integrity and his right to reproduce. Last month, a court decision prevented the federal case from going to trial, but a state case is ongoing.
For what it’s worth, I agree that intersex surgeries on infants used to “correct” the appearance of their genitals is unethical and should not be performed. While some surgical interventions may be justified in rare instances where functional abnormalities obstruct proper urination, for example, they should not be done for purely cosmetic purposes.
However, the notion that our concept of the sex binary is what pressures parents to have doctors perform cosmetic genital surgeries on infants is misguided and ignores how incorrectly viewing sex as a “spectrum” could more easily encourage such practices. This is because the sex spectrum implies that surgical interventions can literally modify an individual’s sex, which might cause a parent or doctor to feel justified in performing surgeries to make their child “ideally” (in their minds) more male or more female.
Two things can be true at once: sex is binary, and cosmetic genital surgeries on infants is unethical. Distorting basic biological facts is unnecessary, and will ultimately produce more harm than good. Telling people the truth, which is that the presence of an intersex condition does not make someone any less of a male or female, seems like the best way forward.
Gender activists have dragged intersex people into this debate against their will in order to further their sex-denying political agenda. In debates about whether unambiguous males should be allowed to compete in female sports leagues and events, intersex people are used as a red herring to obfuscate and distract attention away from the question at hand. By framing the issue in terms of biology, proponents of this viewpoint attempt to lend their argument a veneer of scientific authority, despite it being factually false.
The second aspect of the Intersex Trap is an appeal to emotion, one that seeks to paint anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as not just incorrect, but morally reprehensible. This dual-pronged approach is designed to intimidate and silence dissenting voices, making it all the more crucial that we call out and expose these rhetorical tricks whenever they arise.
Ultimately, the Intersex Trap represents a cynical attempt to use vulnerable individuals as pawns in a larger political game. Don’t fall for it.