What is puberty like for intersex individuals? Learn more from our experts, and how to support your young person through these changes.
interACT describes intersex as an umbrella term for naturally occurring differences in physical sex traits such as chromosomes, hormone function, genitals, or internal reproductive anatomy.
Intersex people are born with these differences or develop them in childhood. There are a wide range of variations that are possible compared to the usual two ways that human bodies develop.
Intersex Vs. Transgender Vs. Non-Binary
Being intersex is different from being transgender or non-binary. Someone who is transgender has a gender (such as male, female, or non-binary) that is different from what was assumed when they were born.
Someone who is intersex developed one or more bodily characteristics that don’t fit neatly into stereotypes about “male” or “female” bodies. Someone can be both intersex and transgender. But being intersex doesn’t automatically make someone transgender or non-binary, just like being transgender or non-binary doesn’t mean that someone is intersex.
When Do Intersex Traits Become Noticeable?
Some intersex traits are noticed at birth. Others don’t show up until puberty or later in life. Some intersex people will have bodies that look visibly different from the outside, but other times, someone will only know they are intersex from medical testing (like blood tests or an ultrasound).
Even someone with a known or diagnosed variation in their sex characteristics may not have heard the word “intersex” before because some doctors or families still feel that the term is associated with shame or stigma.
Doctors’ and parents’ discomfort with difference has led to many intersex children undergoing unnecessary surgeries to “fix” or hide their variations by changing the size or shape of their genitals, or removing hormone-producing organs like testes or ovaries. This can have life-long damaging effects if these decisions are made without the intersex person’s own input and consent. In reality, being intersex is nothing to be ashamed of — our human bodies come in many different shapes, sizes, and combinations, and they all deserve to be accepted and celebrated!
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Puberty and Intersex Teens and Tweens
When it comes to puberty, an intersex person may experience pubertal changes at the same time as their peers, earlier, later than their peers, or not at all. If an intersex person was born without testes or ovaries, or underwent surgery that removed their testes or ovaries in childhood, they will not start to experience pubertal changes unless they begin hormone therapy with estrogen or testosterone. They may also experience fewer pubertal changes than expected, or some unexpected changes, compared to what their peers are experiencing.
Intersex Examples & Common Traits
|Complete Androgen Insensitivity||XY||Vulva, clitoris||Testes, no uterus, sometimes partial vagina, or complete vagina||If testes are left alone, body goes through puberty via converting testosterone into estrogen|
|Partial Androgen Insensitivity||XY||Vulva and visibly large clitoris, or other differences||Testes, no uterus, varies||If testes are left alone, body has varying levels of response to testosterone|
|Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia||XX||Vulva (labia may be fused), often visibly large clitoris||Ovaries, uterus, sometimes partial vagina or complete vagina||May be early, higher testosterone can lead to features such as facial hair, changed fat distribution|
|Swyer’s||XY||Vulva, clitoris||Streak gonads, uterus, sometimes partial vagina or complete vagina||No puberty because streak gonads do not produce any hormones|
|Klinefelter’s||XXY||Penis, small testicles||May have low sperm count||Low T may cause breast development or other atypical features, may be very tall|
|Hypospadias||Varies by cause (often XY)||Penis (with urethral opening somewhere other than the tip) and testicles; or small penis (with urethra near base or perineum) and open labioscrotal folds; or other differences||Varies by cause (often typical testosterone puberty)|
Examples of Intersex Puberty
For example, an intersex youth who was assigned male at birth may develop enlarged breast tissue or more pronounced hips, may have a less muscular build, may have less body hair or facial hair, may have smaller testicles than their peers, may experience less genital growth, or may start to have monthly abdominal pain that is unexpected.
An intersex youth who was assigned female at birth may get their period very early or may not get their period at all, may develop a deeper voice, have a more muscular build, have more facial or body hair than their peers, or may experience more genital growth than expected.
How your young person goes through puberty is going to be different than their peers, and remember that that is okay! Everyone has differences from their peers, and no two bodies will ever go through exactly the same changes in the same way. The important thing is that everyone receives support and respect no matter what their bodies look like or what pubertal changes occur.
For more information about intersex variations and supportive resources for intersex persons and families, visit BLOOM’s trusted expert, interACT.
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