The term has been controversial, and research has shown that affected people experience a negative impact, with the terminology impacting choice and utilization of health care providers. The World Health Organization and many medical journals still reference DSDs as intersex traits or conditions. The Council of Europe, and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have called for a review of medical classifications that unnecessarily medicalize intersex traits.
DSDs are medical conditions involving the way the reproductive system develops from infancy (and before birth) through young adulthood. There are several types of DSDs and their effect on the external and internal reproductive organs varies greatly.
A frequently-used social and medical adjective for people with DSDs is "intersex". Parents with DSD children and clinicians involved in DSD treatment usually try to make clear distinctions between biological sex, social gender, and sexual orientation. This helps reduce confusion about the differences between being intersex, being transgender, and being gay/lesbian.
The most common DSD is congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which results in a person with female (XX) chromosomes having genitals that look somewhat masculine. In mild cases, CAH results in a slightly enlarged clitoris, while in more severe cases it can be difficult to decide on observation whether a baby is male or female (ambiguous genitalia). CAH is caused by a problem with the adrenal glands and is usually treated by taking a daily medication to replace or supplement the missing adrenal hormones. (When this adrenal problem occurs in people with male (XY) chromosomes, the result is over-masculinization and premature puberty).
Another common DSD is androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), also known as "testicular feminising syndrome" in which a person with male (XY) chromosomes does not respond to testosterone in the usual way. This results in a body that to some degree has a feminine appearance. In complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) the result is a totally feminine appearance, including typical female breast development. Consequently, most young women with CAIS are unaware of their condition until the early teen years when they fail to menstruate. In the milder form, called partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (PAIS), the genitals can vary from mostly female to almost completely male. Some people with PAIS think of themselves as women or girls, others regard themselves as men or boys, and some consider themselves nonbinary.
One of the more uncommon DSDs is 5-alpha-reductase deficiency (5ARD). It is caused by a shortage early in life of an enzyme that converts testosterone into DHT. DHT is required for the development of external male genitalia. Therefore, in this condition, a person with male (XY) chromosomes has a body that appears female before puberty. After puberty begins, other testosterone-activating enzymes become available and the body soon takes on a masculine appearance, with the scrotum and penis usually reaching typical or nearly-typical size. If 5ARD is diagnosed at a young age, the child is often raised as a boy (a 1996 Brazilian study suggested that the majority of adults with this condition consider themselves men but this has been questioned in some more recent research).
In addition to CAH, CAIS, PAIS, and 5ARD there are several rarer types of DSDs, and in some cases, it is not possible to make a clear diagnosis of the underlying condition.
The Quigley scale is a method for describing genital development in AIS.
The penis (males) and clitoris (females) are essentially the same organ (differing only in size, and generically called the phallus). In typical males, the urethra is located at the tip of the penis, while in typical females the urethra is located below the base of the clitoris. When the phallus is of intermediate size, it is possible also to have a urethral opening located along the shaft; this condition is known as hypospadias which helps us raise a suspicion of DSD.
Open-minded parenting, appropriate and conservative medical intervention, and age-appropriate child involvement in the treatment plan contribute greatly to successful outcomes for the entire range of DSDs.
47,XXY females - There are case reports of 47,XXY females; in some cases SRY or androgen receptor abnormalities are detected.
48, XXXX (also known as tetrasomy X, quadruple X, and XXXX syndrome) - A condition that describes a female with two extra female chromosomes. It is considered a variation of Triple X syndrome. Women with 48, XXXX may or may not have issues associated with the condition though most are developmentally delayed and only about 50% undergo puberty normally.
5α-reductase deficiency (also known as 5-ARD) - An autosomal recessive condition caused by a mutation of the 5-alpha reductase type 2 gene. It only affects people with Y chromosomes, namely genetic males. People with this condition are fertile, with the ability to father children, but may be raised as females due to ambiguous or feminized genitalia.
17β-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase deficiency - A condition characterized by impaired androgen and estrogen synthesis in males and females, respectively. Results in pseudohermaphroditism/undervirilization in males and in excessive virilization of adult females.
Androgen insensitivity syndrome (also known as AIS) - A condition which affects a genetic male's virilization. A person with androgen insensitivity syndrome produces androgens and testosterone but their body does not recognize it, either partially or completely. Mild androgen insensitivity syndrome generally causes no developmental issues and people with this form are raised as males. Partial androgen insensitivity syndrome results in ambiguous genitalia and there is no consensus regarding whether to raise a child with this form as male or female. Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome causes a genetic male to have a vagina (often incompletely developed, nearly always blind-ending), breasts, and a clitoris and people with this form are raised as females.
Aromatase deficiency - A disorder in which, in females, is characterized by androgen excess and estrogen deficiency, and can result in inappropriate virilization, though without pseudohermaphroditism (i.e., genitals are phenotypically appropriate) (with the exception of the possible incidence of clitoromegaly).
Aromatase excess syndrome (also known as familial hyperestrogenism) - A condition that causes excessive estrogen production, resulting in feminization without pseudohermaphroditism (i.e., male genitalia at birth and female secondary sexual characteristics at puberty) in males and hyperfeminization in females.
Clitoromegaly - A clitoris that is considered larger than average. While clitoromegaly may be a symptom of an intersex condition, it may also be considered a normal variation in clitoris size. Clitoromegaly causes no health issues. Surgical reduction of the clitoris or its complete removal may be performed to normalize the appearance of the genitalia. While female genital mutilation is outlawed in many countries, reduction or the removal of the clitoris in cases of clitoromegaly are generally exempt, despite the fact that it is a nontherapeutic and sexually damaging surgery. Clitoromegaly may also be caused by females using testosterone or anabolic steroids for purposes related to female to malegender transition or bodybuilding.
Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (also known as CAIS) - A condition which completely affects a genetic male's ability to recognize androgens. It is considered a form of androgen insensitivity syndrome and is the most severe form. People with complete androgen insensitivity are raised as females and usually do not discover they are genetic males until they experience amenorrhoea in their late teens or they need medical intervention due to a hernia caused by their undescended testes. Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome results in a genetic male having a vagina, clitoris, and breasts which are capable of breastfeeding. However, they will not have ovaries or a uterus. Because they do not have ovaries or sufficiently developed testicles, people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome are infertile.
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (also known as CAH) - A condition that causes excessive androgen production, which causes excessive virilization. It is most problematic in genetic females, where severe virilization can result in her having vaginal agenesis (absence of vagina) and a functional penis which is capable of penetrative intercourse. Females with this condition are usually fertile, with the ability to become pregnant and give birth. The salt-wasting variety of this condition is fatal in infants if left untreated.
Diphallia (also known as penile duplication, diphallic terata, and diphallasparatus) - A condition where a male is born with two penises. It's extremely rare, with only 100 cases being recorded since 1609 and an occurrence rate of 1 in 5,500,000 in the United States. The penises may be side by side or one on top of the other, being of equal size or with one penis being distinctively larger than the other, and both penises may be suitable for urination and intercourse. Men with diphallia may be sterile.
Estrogen insensitivity syndrome (EIS) - The estrogen counterpart to androgen insensitivity syndrome. Extremely rare, with only one verified case having been reported; a biological male presented with tall stature, a heightened risk of osteoporosis, and sterility.
Isolated 17,20-lyase deficiency - A condition that is characterized by either partial or complete inability to produce androgens and estrogens. Results in partial or complete feminization and undervirilization in males and in a delayed, reduced, or absent puberty in both sexes, in turn causing sexual infantilism and infertility, among other symptoms.
Klinefelter syndrome (also known as 47, XXY and XXY syndrome) - A condition that describes a male born with at least one extra female chromosome. Though the most common variation is 47, XXY, a man may also be 48, XXXY or 49, XXXXY. It is a common occurrence, affecting 1 in 500 to 1,000 men. While some men may have no issues related to the syndrome, some may experience gynecomastia, micropenis, cognitive difficulties, hypogonadism, reduced fertility/infertility, and/or little or no facial hair. Testosterone therapy may be pursued by men who desire a more masculine appearance and those with gynecomastia may opt to undergo a reduction mammoplasty. Men who wish to father children may be able to do so with the help of IVF.
Leydig cell hypoplasia - A condition solely affecting biological males which is characterized by partial or complete inactivation of the luteinizing hormone receptor, resulting in stymied androgen production. Patients may present at birth with a fully female phenotype, ambiguous genitalia, or only mild genital defects such as micropenis and hypospadias. Upon puberty, sexual development is either impaired or fully absent.
Mild androgen insensitivity syndrome (also known as MAIS) - A condition which mildly affects a genetic male's ability to recognize androgens. It is considered a form of androgen insensitivity syndrome and is considered the least severe form. While men generally do not need any specialized medical care related to this form, mild androgen insensitivity syndrome may result in gynecomastia and hypospadias. Neither gynecomastia nor hypospadias require surgical intervention or adversely affect a man's health though some men may opt to undergo surgery to remove their breasts and/or repair their hypospadias. Men with mild androgen insensitivity syndrome may have reduced fertility.
Swyer Syndrome (Also known as Pure Gonadal Dysgenesis or XY gonadal dysgenesis) is a type of hypogonadism in a person whose karyotype is 46,XY. The person is externally female with streak gonads, and left untreated, will not experience puberty. Such gonads are typically surgically removed (as they have a significant risk of developing tumors) and a typical medical treatment would include hormone replacement therapy with female hormones.
Triple X syndrome - A condition that describes a female born with an extra female chromosome, making her karotype 47, XXX. It is a common occurrence, affecting 1 in 1,000 females. It generally causes no health issues or abnormal development.
Uterus didelphys (also known as double uterus) - A condition where a female is born with two uteri. It is often accompanied by two vaginas. It is generally not considered a health issue and women with uterus didelphys usually have normal sex lives and pregnancies.
Müllerian agenesis (also known as MRKH or Vaginal Agenesis) - A condition that causes the uterus and other reproductive organs in a 46,XX female to be small or absent, as well as the vaginal canal itself. It affects 1 out of 4,500 to 5,000 females and can also come with skeletal or endocrine system issues at conception.
The term DSD (and particularly its association with medical disorders) has been controversial. The argument over terminology reflects a deeper disagreement over the extent to which intersex conditions require medical intervention, the appropriateness of certain interventions, and whether physicians and parents should make irreversible treatment decisions on behalf of young children if the condition is not life-threatening.
Use of the term disorder of sex development (DSD) is controversial among many activists and community organizations due to the label "disorders". Many governments and international institutions use the term 'intersex' in preference to 'DSD', or have called for the review of medical classifications.
In the past the term "hermaphrodite" was sometimes erroneously used to describe people with intersex/DSD conditions. This term is no longer used to describe humans (or any other mammals). The correct technical definition of a hermaphrodite is a single organism that has complete sets of both male and female sexual organs, as is the case with most trees and flowering plants.
Lee et al. in a 2006 Consensus statement on management of intersex disorders proposed a system of nomenclature based on "disorders of sex development" for clinical use, suggesting that "terms such as intersex, pseudohermaphroditism, hermaphroditism, sex reversal, and gender based diagnostic labels are particularly controversial," may be perceived as pejorative, and are confusing to practitioners and parents alike. However, research by the Lurie Children's Hospital, Chicago, and the AIS-DSD Support Group published in 2017 found that affected persons, and care givers, object to the term, and that this may impact choice, access, and utilization of health care providers. Australian sociological research on people born with atypical sex characteristics, published in 2016, found that 3% of respondents choose the term "disorders of sex development" or "DSD" to define their sex characteristics, while 21% use the term when accessing medical services. In contrast, 60% used the term "intersex" in some form to self-describe their sex characteristics.
In "We Used to Call Them Hermaphrodites," Eric Vilain states that "DSD" is not a synonym for intersex; he states that it replaces medical terms based on "hermaphrodite".
A committee of the Senate of Australia found that labelling intersex as "pejorative" appeared to be a post-hoc rationalisation in the 2006 Consensus statement. It recommended a review of clinical use of the term.
Academics like Georgiann Davis and Morgan Holmes, and clinical psychologists like Tiger Devore argue that the term DSD was designed to "reinstitutionalise" medical authority over intersex bodies, making intersex bodies more treatable and more of a stigma" (Holmes). or place intersex "neatly into medical turf and safely away from critics of its medicalisation" (Davis).
In a 2013 paper on Preimplantation genetic diagnosis and "intersex conditions" Professor Jeff Nisker describes how, "Once a difference becomes a medical disorder to which the medical profession is dedicating time and resources to prevent, procedures to this end become endowed with appropriateness" In the same journal, Georgiann Davis references "intersex traits".
Alternative terms have been offered: Milton Diamond has suggested the use of "variation" or of "difference", Elizabeth Reis has suggested "divergence"; Liao and Simmonds suggest "diverse sex development". The latter suggestions would retain the initial D in DSD.
The 2006 Consensus statement on management of intersex disorders stated that evidence for early surgery for cosmetic reasons is lacking, outcomes include "decreased sexual sensitivity" and long term outcome data is absent. A 2016 Global Disorders of Sex Development Update since 2006 states that there is "still no consensual attitude regarding indications, timing, procedure and evaluation of outcome of DSD surgery" and "no evidence regarding the impact of surgically treated or non-treated DSDs during childhood for the individual, the parents, society or the risk of stigmatization".
In 2013, Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, condemned "irreversible sex assignment, involuntary sterilization, involuntary genital normalizing surgery, performed without their informed consent, or that of their parents, “in an attempt to fix their sex”" stating that "members of sexual minorities are disproportionately subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment because they fail to conform to socially constructed gender expectations".
In May 2014, the World Health Organization issued a joint statement on Eliminating forced, coercive and otherwise involuntary sterilization, An interagency statement with the OHCHR, UN Women, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA and UNICEF. Referencing the involuntary surgical "sex-normalising or other procedures" on "intersex persons", the report recommends a range of guiding principles for medical treatment, including ensuring patient autonomy in decision-making, ensuring non-discrimination, accountability and access to remedies.
National and international medical classifications which pathologise variations in sex characteristics should be reviewed with a view to eliminating obstacles to the effective enjoyment, by intersex persons, of human rights, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health.
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^Lee, Peter A.; Nordenström, Anna; Houk, Christopher P.; Ahmed, S. Faisal; Auchus, Richard; Baratz, Arlene; Baratz Dalke, Katharine; Liao, Lih-Mei; Lin-Su, Karen; Looijenga, Leendert H.J.; Mazur, Tom; Meyer-Bahlburg, Heino F.L.; Mouriquand, Pierre; Quigley, Charmian A.; Sandberg, David E.; Vilain, Eric; Witchel, Selma; and the Global DSD Update Consortium (January 28, 2016). "Global Disorders of Sex Development Update since 2006: Perceptions, Approach and Care". Hormone Research in Paediatrics. 85 (3): 158–80. doi:10.1159/000442975. ISSN1663-2818. PMID26820577.
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Disorders of Sex Development Research Website provides information regarding the causes, frequency and implications of DSD, in plain language, from a genetics and biology research perspective. It also includes detailed scientific and medical information for clinicians and scientists who work with children, adolescents and adults affected by DSD or intersex, or analyse the genetic causes.
Accord Alliance Promoting comprehensive and integrated approaches to care that enhance the health and well-being of people and families affected by DSD by fostering collaboration among all stakeholders.