What is a Hermaphrodite? When Gender Testing Determines a Person is Both Male and Female

Third gender and sex concept made of half male and half female pictogram. Sticker and design element.

Usually determining the gender of humans is very clear-cut, but that isn’t always the case. In September of 2009, for example, runner Caster Semenya had to undergo extensive gender testing to determine eligibility to compete as a female. Gender is a complex interplay of many factors and sometimes, a human being is not clearly male or female.

photo editing half woman by lelandbobbe
Sometimes a human being is not clearly male or female – image by webneel.com

What is a True Hermaphrodite?

The word “hermaphrodite” comes from the Greek god Hermaphroditus, who was both fully male and fully female. A true hermaphrodite, therefore, would be someone who has fully functioning male and female sex organs.

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Pseudo hermaphrodites – image by tumblr.com

This doesn’t happen in humans, who could more correctly be called “pseudo hermaphrodites.” The politically correct or preferred term is “intersex.”

Definition of “Intersex”

Intersex is a term that denotes a wide variety of gender development disorders. Traditionally, a pair of XX chromosomes denotes a woman and a pair of XY chromosomes denotes a man.

Intersexed genes

But intersex humans, or hermaphrodites, don’t fall neatly into either gender category. Regardless of their chromosomal makeup, the appearance of the external organs suggests one gender while their internal reproductive system suggests another.

Embryonic Development of Hermaphrodites

All human embryos have a set of gonads. Normally, they develop into testes for males and ovaries for females. The external genitalia are fairly ambiguous early on, but in the course of normal fetal development become distinctly male or female.

Hermaphrodites developed differently in the womb: usually, the gonads and the external organs do not “match” each other, making it difficult to neatly classify them as male or female.


The gonads of male and female – image by organiclifestylemagazine.com


Are Human Hermaphrodites Both Male and Female at the Same Time?

Since no intersex person is a true hermaphrodite (both female and male,) every hermaphrodite actually does have a gender. According to Dr. Thomas M. Greiner of the MadSci Network, the functioning of the internal gonads is the determinant. A male hermaphrodite has testes; a female hermaphrodite has ovaries.

Many disorders can cause intersex human beings – image by pixabay.com

In rare cases the gonads themselves may have characteristics of both ovaries and testes, in which case the person is truly ambiguous in gender. Dr. Greiner explains that “the [intersex] person you are looking at is either male or female, possibly neither – but never both.”

A hermaphrodite is someone who developed differently in the womb, resulting in a discrepancy between the internal and external reproductive organs. Many disorders can cause intersex human beings, both those with XX and XY chromosomes.


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