Sex should be about fun, fulfillment and connection. But for intersex people who have sex characteristics that don’t fit cleanly into binary male or female categories, there can be extra obstacles. Some intersex people have enlarged clitorises or smaller penises, extra body or facial hair, atypical breast development, or can’t have penetrative sex. Even though intersex people make up about 1.7% of the population, many endosex people aren’t educated about our bodies. They try to follow their usual routines around sex that don’t always work for us.
This puts us in an awkward spot: tell people right away about our bodies, or hope they don’t ask? Give guidance on how to get us off, or have a bland time in bed? Growing up with an MRKH diagnosis—an intersex condition where I am missing a vaginal canal—I often cut hookups off short. I didn’t want people to find out about my body, and struggled to explain how pleasure worked for me.
Sexual exploration can be better for everyone without assumptions of what someone’s body should look like, how they experience pleasure, or what sex looks like for them. Even among intersex people, no two people’s bodies are quite the same. Here are the experiences of four intersex members of interAct Youth on what they have learned about their own sex lives, and what partners should know.
I learned I deserve pleasure
When I was really young, I “got away” with not wanting to explore parts of my body. I was okay with my body not being able to do certain things because the other person wasn’t usually expecting that. It was usually me pleasing the other person. That was okay for a period of time, until I realized I also deserve to be pleased as well.
I love the way people look at me when I’m fully unclothed, with desire. I know that look and I’ve seen that look—and I don’t know what part of my body people are looking at that makes them give me that look. I feel like they are seeing something about my body that I can’t see in myself. I also just love when people compliment parts of my body, no matter what parts they are.
I love when people pay attention to what my body likes
I love when I can tell people are paying attention to how my own body is responding, and they take note of that. And then they maybe do it again another time. You paid attention—I didn’t have to tell you!
My clit is very sensitive because of [my] surgery. For a while I just assumed that I didn’t like oral, because everyone thought they had to pay so much attention to my clit. One thing I did appreciate about an ex was when she did give me oral, she would pay more attention to the other parts of my [vulva], and that was what was really enjoyable.
Because of being intersex, people are afraid to do certain things. That means a lot of the time things don’t get done that I like because people are afraid to try it. I really like when someone can try out and tell what kind of positions I like and what my body responds to, and they’ll do more of that without me having to say it.
Clitorises come in different sizes—it’s not a big deal
I no longer have an enlarged clitoris (though I wish I still did), but don’t be afraid of someone’s clitoris if you think it’s not a typical size. People used to be pretty freaked out about it, and we could have had some good times if they weren’t so freaked out about it!
Stop assuming who I have sex with and how I have sex
Being a Black masculine-presenting person with a uterus, there’s lots of assumptions about who I have sex with. Part of the reason that I stopped identifying as a lesbian and a “stud”—which is a term used in the Black community—is there were a lot of expectations about what kind of sex I could have and who I could have that sex with. There were all these labels around being a “touch-me-not stud” which meant I would be the one giving all of the pleasure, and wouldn’t want people to touch me or do anything to my vagina.
I feel like because I’m intersex and a lot of things are painful for me, I get roped into this touch-me-not category—which is not the truth at all, because I want you to touch me! I just want you to do it in a way that’s going to feel good for me.
I think people could stop making assumptions about how people have sex, just based off of how they look.
Ditch the ego, it’s just sex
I think we should normalize being able to communicate during sex—are you still good, does this still feel good? Do we need to switch things around to make it feel better for both of us? There’s this misconception that sex has to be this magnificent thing all of the time, it has to be mind-blowing all of the time for it to be good. That’s not true. Everybody’s out here feeling like they have to be this sex god. Sex is great when there’s good communication and good connection.
It took me a while to feel comfortable with sex and my own body
I wasn’t developing the same as other girls, and I had some form of body dysmorphia in a way. That translated into my relationships. I wasn’t very sexual. I was very like, holding hands, giving hugs, kisses on the cheek, but nothing more than that because I myself wasn’t comfortable with what my body was at that point when I would compare it to other women my age.
Without good sex ed, it’s hard to know what sex should be like
I was born and raised in the Middle East and I am Muslim, my parents are also Muslim as well. I was always brought up [in a culture] where dating is not allowed, sexual relationships are taboo, we don’t talk about sex, we don’t talk about sexual education.
A side effect of having CAIS is you have a shallow vagina—that was an interesting whole discovery for me and [my partner] as well. When we started trying to have sex, nothing would work, because there’s skin there. You can’t really penetrate, you have to go through dilation. You can also naturally dilate by just trying to have sex, we just kept trying and trying and trying and eventually something happened.
I always assumed, this is what it is! I had no sex ed, no idea of what I should be experiencing or wanting out of this. In the starting stages, we just kept trying different things and experimenting to see what would work. Now that I’ve dilated enough it’s not a big deal.
My body’s responses are always changing
Our bodies respond differently to the medication we’re taking. If there’s weeks where I miss my estrogen doses, I’ll be a little dry down there. And you have to definitely communicate that with your partner, and have them understand. Sometimes even if you take your medication, because your dosage changes, you still need to have that communication open.
Research is a turn-on!
Volunteering to learn with you is a really big thing. Obviously you’re [also] learning about your own body, but having someone else who can be there with you to explore your sexuality and every part of your body is great as well.
Especially if you know that your partner is intersex, instead of having them come to you to explain what they need, look up things yourself to learn what an individual who is intersex might need. Then it doesn’t have to be so one-sided, where the intersex person is telling you everything. If they educate themself, that’s a turn-on!
If you do find things yourself, always check with the person who is intersex to check that your understanding is correct. What is true and is not true is going to be best known by the person who is experiencing those things.
I always have to tell people about my intersex identity
I make it a habit to educate people because I’m not a big person into like, “let’s see what happens if I don’t say something and someone finds out,” [because of] being a Black trans person, and having those identities and my safety really being tied to things.
I tell people I’m trans first. The conversation about intersex is not as accessible as I’d like it to be for a lot of folks. Because you start talking about science, and biology, and chromosomes, and other stuff. You usually have to start at the top if the person’s not familiar with intersex, down to my specific intersex trait (PAIS).
My body is going to be very different from the next intersex person
Please ask me questions because my experience is not the same as somebody else’s. Having PAIS as my intersex trait is not the same as having CAIS! My body is going to be very different from the next intersex person. I also think about, I’m a fat person, I’m not skinny. Me engaging in sex is very different than how a thin person could engage in sex just based on ability or whatever else.
Being intersex really pushed me out of hookup culture. I have this deep-seated fear in my body where we’re going to hit an awkward moment where I have to explain that I’m not like everybody else, I’m not like your usual hookup. A lot of people in hookup culture—unless they’re very into being really communicative and talking about things—hookups to me seem like they go on the same path every time, the same kind of routine schedule. And I can’t be a part of the same routine schedule, because I’m not a cis person or an endosex person.
Affirmations help me feel secure
I tend to feel shame around my body a lot, not only because I’m fat but because of my genitalia and being trans, and like, having large breasts and it not matching everything—the whole mess of things. Hearing those “oh you’re gorgeous” or whatever, little compliments or affirming details is really helpful. It helps me feel secure and also empowers me to be in the moment and be able to feel pleasure from things, and not just sit there in anxiety.
Touching my genitals is not the way I have sex
I don’t want someone touching my genitalia in the first place. A lot of people think because of the parts they can see visibly, they say “I know what to do with that, and I know how to get you off.” But that’s not how that goes down. Some people just think they know [how my body works] because I am “AMAB” but I am also on hormones and 8 other things, that just doesn’t work in the way you believe it will work!
Sex can look like so many things
I think that people should just understand that sex is also not a monolith, sex doesn’t look just one way. We know that there’s a lot of kinks and stuff, but people still seem to believe that the “fundamentals” of sex are the same across the board. I just don’t think that’s true, and I think that would help a lot of people live better sexual lives in general—really understanding the multitude and complexities as well as diversities of sex and what sex can look like and be.
Curiosity will get you places
I list on all my dating profiles online that I’m intersex. I don’t tell people how it is that I’m intersex, though, and I think that partners definitely get brownie points if they’re like “hey what does that mean, I think you’re really attractive and I want to understand who you are more!”
I like when people ask me how to compliment me, what to call my body. It’s totally always safe to say “Hey I think you’re hot—what can I say to continue to let you know that?”
Ask how I get off—it’s hot!
Someone one time asked how it is that I masturbate. They said “I’ve never been with an intersex person before” which, I can go 50/50 on my reaction to that, but they followed up with, ”I want to make you feel good! And the easiest way to figure that out is to know how you masturbate.” And I was like, that’s a hot conversation, nice.
Actively checking in with someone while you’re hooking up is beautiful. “Does that feel good?” “Do you like this?” “I’m thinking about going in this or this direction.” “What is comfortable for your body?” “What do you feel like doing?” “What are your boundaries and limitations?”
Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong
I’ve had experiences where someone does something the wrong way, even though we’ve already had a conversation around what pleasure looks like for me. I have what presents as mostly a vulva, but I don’t really have a vagina. So people will look and say “oh, I can probably finger this person.” And it’s like no no no, do not!
Or they’re maybe a little too earnest with giving head, and I’m like, you’re mapping on your familiarity with bodies that look like mine in certain ways and trying to make it work on my body. I’ve had experiences where I have to course correct during an encounter.
I’ve had instances where people might do something the wrong way, or do something that doesn’t feel good, and that’s an opportunity to evaluate. It’s not a deal breaker! If you’re the non-intersex partner, be okay with being wrong.
Orgasms don’t have to be the main goal
I think it’s really important to move away from the idea that sex has a script or a definitive outcome. Sex is an experience, and your goal is to make someone else feel really good! And you want to feel good too, it’s reciprocal.
The way that I experience sexuality, I don’t necessarily feel that orgasming is the main goal. I don’t want someone who is like “I came here to get you off.” But if they’re like “I think getting you off would be really hot and fun,” we can have a conversation about that, and it could be a hot conversation! But be okay knowing it may or may not happen.