Are there any true human hermaphrodites?

A true hermaphrodite, also known as an intersex individual, is someone who is born with both male and female reproductive organs and sex characteristics. While intersex conditions are not overly common, they do occur in about 1 in every 1500 to 2000 births. So yes, true human hermaphrodites do exist, though the term hermaphrodite is considered outdated and stigmatizing by many in the intersex community.

What causes true hermaphroditism?

There are a few different intersex conditions that can lead to someone being a true hermaphrodite or having both ovarian and testicular tissue:

  • Ovotesticular disorder: This is where a person has both ovarian and testicular tissue. They may have both ovaries and testes, or one ovary and one testis. The external genitals can be ambiguous or can resemble either male or female genitals.
  • True gonadal intersex: This is where a person has both ovarian and testicular tissue. The ovaries and testes may be separate or may be combined into an ovotestis. The external genitals are often ambiguous.
  • Mix gonadal dysgenesis: Here an individual has one testis and one streak gonad, which is an undeveloped gonad. The genitals may be ambiguous or female-appearing.
  • Chromosomal conditions like mosaicism involving sex chromosomes, such as XY/XX mosaicism. This can result in ambiguous or both male and female genitalia.

So as you can see, having both ovarian and testicular tissue is usually due to a variation in fetal development where the sex organs don’t fully differentiate into being clearly male or female. Genetic and chromosomal conditions can also be contributing factors.

How common are true hermaphrodites?

True hermaphroditism and ovotesticular disorder are very rare. About 500-600 cases have been documented in medical literature since the condition was first medically reported in the 19th century. That gives you a sense of just how few true hermaphrodites there are.

In terms of all intersex conditions, the Intersex Society of North America estimates that around 1 in 100 births exhibit some variance in sex characteristics. However, most of these are not “true” hermaphrodites or do not involve having both ovarian and testicular tissue. Hypospadias, which is when the urethral opening is on the underside of the penis, is one of the most common intersex conditions. So while intersex conditions overall are not super rare, true hermaphroditism is very uncommon.

What are the external genitalia usually like in true hermaphrodites?

There are a few different possibilities when it comes to the external genitalia in true hermaphrodites:

  • Ambiguous genitalia that has both male and female characteristics. This used to be called hermaphroditism, but is now more sensitively termed ambiguous genitalia.
  • Predominantly male genitalia such as a penis and scrotum, but also some female reproductive structures.
  • Predominantly female genitalia such as a clitoris and fused labia, but also some male internal reproductive organs.
  • Fully developed penis and testes on one side, and a vagina and ovary on the other side.

So in summary, there is a spectrum when it comes to the genitalia of true hermaphrodites. They could appear quite ambiguous, but they could also look more clearly male or female with some subtle anomalies. Each case is unique.

What gender identity do true hermaphrodites have?

Just like non-intersex people, true hermaphrodites can have diverse gender identities. Some identify as male, some as female, some as non-binary, and others may be unsure or fluid in their gender identity. Gender identity arises from neurological and biological factors and is distinct from biological sex characteristics.

So while someone’s genitalia or karyotype may be ambiguous, they may identify clearly as either a man or woman. Others may feel their intersex status aligns with a non-binary identity. The important thing is that each intersex person deserves to explore and define their own gender identity, free from coercion.

Can true hermaphrodites reproduce? If so, how?

In some cases, true hermaphrodites may be able to reproduce as either males or females, depending on which set of reproductive organs are more functional. If the ovaries and uterus are fully functional, they may be able to get pregnant and give birth. If the testes and penis are functional, they may be able to impregnate a female partner.

However, in many cases the reproductive organs are not properly developed or functional enough to allow natural reproduction. The ovaries and testes may only produce low levels of hormones, or the sexual structures are too ambiguous to effectively facilitate reproduction.

Surgery and hormone therapy may sometimes be done to allow a true hermaphrodite to reproduce as one sex. Some may need assisted reproductive treatments like IVF as well. Adoption is also an option for many.

How are true hermaphrodites treated in society?

Sadly, true hermaphrodites have often faced mistreatment, stigma, and discrimination from society over the years. After birth, many babies with ambiguous genitalia have undergone coercive, medically unnecessary surgeries to “normalize” their genitalia. This can cause long-term trauma and health complications.

Intersex people have also suffered from stigmatization, social isolation, gender policing, and violations of privacy. Some were labeled as “disorders of sex development” which furthered pathologization.

Thankfully, intersex activism and advocacy have made major strides in recent decades. There is now greater understanding of the harm done by non-consensual cosmetic genital surgeries. More doctors are adopting a patient-centered approach focused on gender exploration, counseling, and only performing necessary procedures. There is still progress to be made, but acceptance is gradually improving.

Can you have a “true hermaphrodite” in non-human animals?

Yes, hermaphroditism is actually quite common in the animal kingdom! Here are some examples of “true hermaphrodite” animals that possess both male and female reproductive parts:

  • Snails – Most snail species are hermaphrodites with both testes and ovaries.
  • Earthworms – They possess both testes and ovaries, and can produce both eggs and sperm.
  • Slugs – Like snails, most slugs are hermaphrodites and fertilize each other during mating.
  • Hamsters – Under extreme conditions, female hamsters may start exhibiting male sexual behaviors.
  • Clownfish – They can switch between male and female throughout their lives.
  • Parrotfish – They are born male but later transition to female.
  • Banana slugs – Most are hermaphrodites, but some are male or female.

So hermaphroditism tends to be much more common in the animal kingdom than among humans. It likely persists evolutionarily as a reproductive strategy in some species.

Are children of true hermaphrodites also hermaphroditic?

No, parents with intersex traits do not necessarily pass those traits down to their children. In the case of a fertility issue like ovotesticular disorder, the children conceived via IVF or other reproductive assistance should develop typically as male or female.

True hermaphroditism arises from random variations in fetal development, so the child of a true hermaphrodite is no more likely to also be born with intersex traits. Their chance is the same as the general population, around 0.05% to 1% at most. The exception could be specific intersex conditions caused by inheritable chromosome abnormalities, but even then it does not fully guarantee an intersex child.

What terminology is preferred when discussing true hermaphrodites?

Many terms used to discuss intersex people are now considered problematic or offensive by intersex activists and advocates. Here are some tips on terminology:

  • Avoid the term “hermaphrodite” – This is outdated and stigmatizing.
  • Use “intersex person/people” or “person with intersex traits” – This is considered more sensitive.
  • Call them by their chosen gender – Do not label intersex people as “it.”
  • Avoid the term “disorders of sex development” – Many find it pathologizing.
  • Say “medically unnecessary surgeries” not “corrective surgeries.”
  • Don’t call intersex traits abnormal – Just say variations in sex characteristics.

The most respectful approach is to refer to intersex people by the language and labels they prefer for themselves as individuals. Ask the person directly if you are unsure of the appropriate sensitive terminology to use.

Are true hermaphrodites the same as transgender people?

No, true hermaphrodites and transgender people are completely distinct:

  • True hermaphrodites are intersex – they are born with atypical sex characteristic variations.
  • Transgender people have typical male or female biology, but their gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.
  • Intersex relates to biological sex traits, transgender relates to gender identity.
  • Transgender people transition to align gender identity with their body. True hermaphrodites just need acceptance of their natural bodies.

While some intersex people may also identify as transgender if their gender identity doesn’t fully align with their sex characteristics, most do not. These are ultimately separate biological and social phenomena. Understanding the distinction is important to avoid conflating the two.


While very rare, true human hermaphroditism does occur in a small percentage of births when babies are born with both male and female sex characteristics. This arises from variations in fetal development and genetic factors. True hermaphrodites face higher rates of stigmatization and discrimination due to their intersex status, but activism and advocacy continue to promote greater understanding, inclusion, and human rights protections.

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