Thursday, April 29, 2010

Five Myths that Hurt Intersex People

I've had conversations with some intersex acquaintances recently about painful situations in which (nonintersex) people have accused my friends of not "really" being intersex. Besides revealing how rude people in our society can be about policing sex and gender, what these conversations have illustrated are some central myths about intersex status that come up over and over again. It's these that I will address in this blog post.

Myth 1: Intersex people all have intermediate genitalia

Imagine this: you're an intersex person, nervous about dating and finding a partner. You work up your courage to disclose your status to people you're interested in, and after a series of them seeming polite but disinterested in dating, you finally meet a guy who expresses interest. You date for a while, and get to the point where the clothes come off. Your boyfriend gets a good look at you naked, accuses you of "making up that story of being intersex" because your body looks female to him, and breaks off the relationship, leaving you feeling misunderstood and ill-used.

Many people are intersexed in ways that are not visible to their partners. For example, an individual with AIS (androgen insensitivity syndrome) is born with internal testes but genitalia that look typically female. Intersex people born with visibly intermediate genitals are often subject to infant sex assignment surgery, another reason why our bodies may not appear visibly intersex to others.

What disturbs me about incidents in which a partner seems interested in dating an intersex person until the clothes come off is that it generally reveals that the partner was fetishizing the intersex person--only interested in them for their "exotic" body. In the situation described here, the boyfriend wanted to have sex with someone who looked genitally intermediate generally. I've also heard stories from intersex people whose genitals are visibly atypical about how a partner lost interest in them when the clothes came off because they didn't see the kind of "hermaphrodite" genitals they'd dreamt of, with a big penis and a vagina (a configuration almost unheard of in real life, but popular in pornographic fantasy). It's depressing to find out your date wasn't really interested in you, but in playing with some fantasy set of genitalia.

Myth 2: Intersex conditions are always diagnosed in infancy

Here's another unfortunate scenario: a person is having infertility problems, so they visit some doctors. They receive a diagnosis and turn in shock to an online gender forum to post "I was just diagnosed as intersex." Somebody responds, "Stop trolling this blog. You're not really intersex--intersex people all know what they are from childhood. You probably have sick fantasies or think saying you're intersex will give you an excuse to gender transition without controversy." The non-intersex person is accusing the intersex individual of being a non-intersex person exploiting intersex individuals, which is pretty ironic.

As noted above, many intersex conditions aren't obviously visible in external genitalia. That means that people may not find out about their intersex status until quite late in life. While the experiences of late-recognized intersex people are different from those of intersex folks diagnosed in infancy, they are not "less" intersex, and have to deal with physical and psychological ramifications for which they need support.

Myth 3: All infant sex-assignment surgery is aimed at creating "female" genitalia

Imagine this situation: you were born with intermediate genitalia but surgically assigned male at birth. However, you grew up hating your male sex assignment, and so you transitioned to female. Your experience has given you a lot of empathy for people viewed as gendertransgressive, so when you notice that a friend of a Facebook friend identifies as genderqueer, you write her a nice message and offer her friendship. She refuses your offer and writes you a nasty note back about how she knows you are lying about being intersex, since "all intersex children are made into girls." She accuses you of being a stalking, posing, creepy man-in-a-dress. Ironic and sad, isn't it--that a woman who identifies as breaking down the boundaries of sex and gender is policing those boundaries so rabidly and wrongheadedly?

It is true that intersex infants are disproportionately surgically assigned female, based on the appalling medical aphorism, "it's easier to make a hole than a pole." But some intersex infants are surgically assigned male--usually when they have at least one external testis, but sometimes under other conditions. The myth that this "never happens" leaves intersex people assigned male at birth open to constant suspicion and exclusion, increasing the difficulties they have to face.

Myth 4: Intersex people should be genderqueer

This myth comes up again and again in academic, activist and feminist circles: that intersex people, being neither male nor female in physical sex, must be genderqueer and androgynous. We're supposed to be standard-bearers for the fight to subvert artificial dyadic gender categories. Encountering an intersex person with an ordinary and "boring" masculine or feminine gender identity who doesn't look at all androgynous, these activists express puzzlement and disappointment--and in private, speculate that the person must have some minor, mild intersex condition, so they are not "intersex enough" to be insightful.

Intersex people face pressure from doctors and families and society at large to genderconform. Facing the opposite pressure to gendertransgress--subversivism-- is just as unfair. Yes, most intersex people open enough to disclose our sex status agree that it is damaging for our society to insist that everyone must identify as male or female. But we live in a society that understands gender dyadically, and like non-intersex people, we commonly identify as masculine or feminine.

Myth 5: "Real" intersex people are not genderqueer

Frustrated and upset by pressure from gender activists to gendertransgress, as descibed in Myth 4, some intersex people have created a reactionary opposite myth: that "real" intersex people have no interest in subverting dyadic gender understandings of male and female. These genderconservative individuals often don't actually identify as "intersex" but as "people with DSDs (Disorders of Sex Development)." And they go around arguing to institutions that "real" intersex people don't identify as genderqueer--that people who say they are intersex and argue for third gender categories and the like are posers, probably crazed feminist zealots or deceptive trans people.

What makes the myth that intersex people are never genderqueer particularly painful to me is that it is spread by members of our community. To undermine your own intersex siblings and deny their identities is counterproductive, pathetic, and cruel. Many intersex people identify as typically masculine or feminine people, but there are plenty who do not do so, and like all genderqueer people, they face a lot of social bias. We have no duty as intersex people to be genderqueer, but I see a strong moral imperative for us to support people who do have genderqueer identities and manners of selfexpression. There are enough hurtful myths circulating about intersex people already. We don't need to add one of our own to the mix.


48 comments:

  1. This is where I think your totally wrong and your confusing people more and more.

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  2. This is where I think you've made a grammatical error and not specified what you find problematic at all.

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  3. Very articulate and informative : )

    - Rose

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  4. I'm androgynous/genderqueer/non-binary/what-ever-you-want-to-call-it and I'm not intersexed(as far as I know). So, you don't have to be intersexed to be genderqueer and just because you're intersexed doesn't mean you're genderqueer.

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    1. ANYONE/ANYWAY can be ANYWAY that they feel right with. we all have to understand for ourselves HOW we should be and people may feel masculine or feminine or BOTH.... gay/straight/bi!! sexual orientation is a part of it of course. any combination you can imagine. never allow another person to tell you who/how you should be!!!!! my love for anyone who needs to look these things up!!!!!!

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  5. Good to see such a recent post from you Luminis! You can send me an email from my webpage. It would be useful for my play for us to me in more direct contact if you are willing.

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  6. @ Rose: appreciated :).

    Indeed, Kiran.

    @ bjm: Thanks! You are free to write me at intersexroadshow@gmail.com.

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  7. This is really well-written & informative - found via the @sexgenderbody twitter feed.

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  8. Wow! This was really informative. I've never met an intersex person before that I know of, so this was a really great post and I totally got schooled on some of my own vague assumptions. Thank you!

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  9. Happy that you found this post informative, oddnumbereven, Jha and Angelina.

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  10. "This myth comes up again and again in academic, activist and feminist circles: that intersex people, being neither male nor female in physical sex, must be genderqueer and androgynous."

    Surely by the same logic, trans people and non-intersex genderqueer people must not exist?

    (Just to clarify, I'm not doubting that some people believe this, I'm just marvelling at the basic logic they have to overlook to do so.)

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  11. I am both intersex and transgender,if there such a thing. I believe I'm mostly female in personality in a mostly male body. On the right side of my body my testis failed to drop or grow and turned into a teratoma and yolk sack tumor as an adult. Also I had a 14.5 X 8.5 cm teratoma in my abdomen. My left testis is prepuberty in size and my penis has remained very small.
    The point is I was able to have two children, after many years of trying and have been married for 36 years. I wish I could have lived as a woman but really have no regrets for being a husband and a father. If I was purely transexual this wouldn't be the case. The pressure to change would be much too powerful, but being intersex has let me see both sides. This is who I am and really couldn't understand it if I was made any other way.

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    1. I'm a heterosexual woman....whether welcomed or not, I want to say that I think your story is both fascinating, a blessing to the human mind and a creation meant to open the eyes of fellow human beings. If I could make any request, it is that more individuals, like yourself, share your stories and allow those who want to understand your experience to learn and ask questions. I seek out to learn with an open heart and often there is the fear of asking the wrong questions or questions that may be too naiive etc. ~ Wishing you many beautiful days with your family and a fulfilling life with the extraordinary perspective which you've been truly blessed to receive.

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  12. All the information is incorrect and very wrong. It's no wonder why the information is wrong and all the myths are what trans people would say about intersex people and not what intersex people would say from an intersex person's eyes.

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  13. As an pure intersex person, I think those myths are wrong and very misleading. They are myths that a trans person sees in an Intersex person and no by an true intersex person. It's BOGUS and it's completely wrong.

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  14. Being intersex,and trans, are both physical conditions. They have nothing to do with socio-psychological characteristics attributed to gender. Being genderqueer is, in fact, more of a socio-psychological choice about refusing gender categories which may or may not be accompanied by intersex or trans characteristics.

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  15. That's where you are totally wrong and that's where you have no proof or facts. Trans people do not have any Physical conditions and under the current published medical science to date, Trans people do not have any physical conditions and are not physically related to intersex people.

    I am sick and tired of trans people trying to claim "I'm really Intersex" crap because you ain't born intersex, never tested and certified by a doctor as having one. Trans are nothing but intersex wannabes, because they don't like being trans. All they want is to claim intersex so they don't have to be outed as a trans intersex wannabe.

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    1. You're an idiot who knows nothing about brain structure. Trans people very clearly have brains that look like the opposite sex their bodies have.
      Educate yourself.

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  16. Hi there! Just discovered your Blog. I'm intersexed and have done some educational things too - your road show sounds great. I'm in a documentary being finished up in New Zealand on intersexed people all over the world. I live in Rochester, NY. The more of us who become visible the closer we'll get to public understanding and who knows, maybe even civil rights someday. I was hoping to be involved in a traveling intersex arts show being put together by an intersexed guy in South Carolina but my partner got seriously ill and that's been taking up all my energy for a while.

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  17. Note to anonymous: Lots of intersexed people don't discover they are intersexed until they have a medical workup for transition surgery and discover they had genital/organ surgery as infants but were never told about it. It is so common through out the world that it's getting some heavy press in the medical world. Getting a medical label of intersexed is still pretty rare because it does not confer much medical coverage from insurance companies. Doctors still mostly hand out a diagnosis of the cause of the intersex condition without calling it intersex. Intersex itself isn't actually a diagnosis, it's a description of a whole lot of different diagnoses. In England and the U.S. anyone who disagrees with their initial gender assignment can be diagnosed with gender disphoria (transsexualism) even if they are intersexed. Transsexual intersexed wannabes? Really?

    You're pretty nasty. And boring. How about a little good will? Or silence. Either one would facilitate a little conversation here. You're not doing any favors for intersexed people with all the flame throwing.

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  18. Thanks for posting about the myths. You said it way better than I could, and a lot nicer. <3

    I have encountered quite a few of these instances myself, and to hear that some others have encountered them as well is very helpful.

    ~Eunis

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  19. Also, I'd like to ask- how is not finding out until your older make you less "real" than anyone else?

    I didn't find out until I was older, but the signs were there. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't, but the signs were there for me.

    It took years of my life suffering trying to find out what was "wrong" with me. Years of trying to just be accepted for whoever/whatever I was. Years of not knowing if what I was was even POSSIBLE.

    More people need to speak out about acceptance instead of "real" this or "real" that. Because it's NOT ABOUT what one person thinks intersex is. It IS ABOUT people being used or neglected, or even raped just for being different. And that's NOT okay.

    This is to the PERSON who can't even be honorable and leave who they really are: Arguing with the people who are LIKE YOU for YOUR OWN acceptance is STUPID, CHILDISH, and did anyone mention IMMATURE. Attempts to take away anyone's rights to be who they are makes it even LESS likely anyone will be able to enjoy those rights.

    So in one phrase from someone who is sick of hearing "You're not real," "So, you're a chick with a dick?" and "You need to choose one or the other," -

    SHUT UP and get your HEAD out of your ASS. If you don't like how people don't accept YOU, then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT instead of bitching at the people who would rather give their OWN LIVES so that others can have acceptance.

    In other words? Be productive or GTFO of my happy place.

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  20. As far as I know, I never met an intersex person... and only saw a few tv programs about this problem, where the sufferings were evident, and specially involved by the medical choice to turn a child - not able to give any opinion, of course- into the most "convenient" gender. Which was not convenient at all for the grown up.
    So I am really glad to find here more informations and testimony, thank you for that. And I fully agree with you: no one belongs to a box, male, female, others... Our bodies and minds are full of unexpected mixes between this all. And finally, we are all persons, and that's what's really relevant. Thank you again.

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  21. There is just one thing that really rubbed me the wrong way...referring to a gender queer person as a woman and using female pronouns. I don't know anybody that is gender queer and wants to be seen as a woman.

    Other than that I have to say I agree with how the myths are hurtful. There is a lot of misinformation out there.

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  22. I agree. In fact, what I have found to be interesting is that angels are sexless, and are usually referred to as male, even though they have no reproductive organs (in case you've never met one, they all use "he," feminine or not).

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  23. Hey. Reading this has been a really great/positive expierance for me. I learned I was an intersex in August and was really let down when I learned about DSD.

    I really don't have anything to say other than this helps immensly. What a cheesy post, but I'm only 19 and the way people react to my status has been really weird. I've become so sexualized which is interesting because most of my life people have viewed me as asexual and now everyone is somewhat curious about my genitals which appear completely female.

    I'm glad to find a community of proud intersexes. Reading this blog is really helpful and reassuring.

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  24. If you look fairly "normal" people will always think you're "delusional" and will try to stick some kind of label on you to denigrate your mental stability.

    Just because someone has intersexuality, doesn't mean they have to conform to the expectations of the androgyny tribe and it's peer pressure.

    I've had people try to attack me who were told by someone that I was intersex, yet when I tryied to explain to the police that it was a hate motivated crime based on birth gender I was laughed at and mocked and called a "f'ing tranny".

    I look completely male and have no desire or fetishes to wear dresses...

    Here in Canada intersex people get targeted when they go to the clinic with the "intersex resources", and there are no actual specialists in my whole province!

    It took me 8 months of demanding to get a blood test, because I look "normal"

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  25. I like to think of all of this conversation as the peeling of skin, as humanity evolves and realizes that labels were only helpful in the past. As we advance we will get not just accustomed but prefer no labels at all.
    I wish this transitional period of shedding labels was not so painful, hurtful and confusing. Looking forward to it being over.
    As one friend told me many years ago, you like someone, you get in the bed and have fun. Seemed obvious to me and I hope it will become a real truth in the world.

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  26. One myth is wrong. There is likely an equal assignment of male to female gender for intersex people.

    Many intersex conditions in infants assigned male are often overlooked and the parents are simply told there is some work necessary for proper urination or that a testicle has not descended, etc. When one reads about all the various intersex conditions, one realizes that a person born with an intersex condition is just as likely to be assigned male as female.

    See; http://www.intersexualite.org/Misconceptions.html

    Good work here though, your points all were good, true and made sense. =] it's nice to see the support. =]

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  27. sorry, by 'male to female' I referred to ratio, not transitioning. =]

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  28. Beautiful Post.

    I loved reading everything and actually wish I had come across this blog sooner. I haven't spent much online in the last 4-5 months but I do think what you had to say was important.

    I really hate seeing all the infighting amongst the intersex community and I must admit I have done some of it myself in the past. These days I do try a great deal harder to understand everyones position which is extremely hard. There are a great many nay-sayer's amongst the intersex community, lots of different opinions by everyone.

    I really loved this blog just becuase it raises alot of issue's without getting to involved in all the hoop-lah that does interfere with finding help by and for people who are in need of support and acceptance.

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  29. To Anonymous of May 18, 2010 7:33 PM:

    I have to agree with LilBearSings in his criticism of your rant. Long, long before I found out I was intersex, I suffered as a transperson unable to be my true self. I got to the place that I tried for 20 years to make it go away, truly fearing the rejection of everyone I knew and of society. As a child, I was beaten up and harassed nearly every single day of my school life. I took over from them when I grew up.

    It was only after I learned of my own intersex condition that I realized I was entitled to my feelings and I developed the courage to become me. I claim both labels: intersex and transsexual although I cannot technically be a transsexual (the medical definition specifically excludes intersex persons). How does that spin your wig?

    The medical literature is starting the support the idea that gender identity is formed in the womb; how do we know that this is not an intersex condition of the brain? Spit out your bile to live and let live. Whether you are queer, intersex or trans, we all have to live in a society that does not understand us or accept us. Get over your own prejudices and support all of us in the variant community.

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  30. What I'm actually most shocked about is the fact that these myths come up so frequently. I have known one person in my life who was intersex, yet even when learning, hearing and reading about intersex people, I don't think I ever thought anything so dismissive and horrible. Mind you, I've been mis-identified gender queer, because I think of myself as very feminine, but don't have a lot of the so-called 'markers' of femininity, and I'm asexual, which gets a lot of similar comments and dismissals, so that could be why. Even so, I can't believe the level of absolute crap an intersex person must go through. I mean, I CAN believe it, just from my own experiences, but I can't believe I never thought about it.

    A long-winded way of saying, thanks for pointing out my privilege!

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  31. when i was ten i was raped by a man and when i was examend by a doctor it was discoverde tha i had a complete vagina and overies the bad part was my vagina was ripped in two and was attached to part of my anus this warented a small sugical proceduer that landed me a a boy i will admit puberty was a bad i had to deal whith raging hormones and boobs because i had a peinis an boobs and no visable vagina

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  32. An other myth about intersex who hurt me is
    something is sayed on the OII.
    For OII and many people the hermaphrodites dont
    exists but i am one.
    An other myth is that we couldnt have children,
    and it's false, i'm intersex, my mother and my
    granny too.

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  33. I am Intersexed with Kleinfelter's Syndrome with 46 X chromosomes and a Y. But my state is very Atypical. I have had doctors tell me of being confused as no other woman has ever been documented with my particular characteristics. The problem in dating is men all regard me as a carnival freak. And I won't tolerate that perspective. Women, however, are invariably supportive.

    I think the biggest problem though is that legally because of my birth certificate I am legally a man but lack male characteristics completely. I have a non functional (except for peeing) micropenis. But this status puts me in a threatening place should I ever be arrested, go to a shelter or even a hospital. Intersexed people need their own classification so they are not subjected to discrimination or dangers.

    Just noticed the person above. True hermorphadites have been recorded as fewer than 500 ibn all history. If you are hermorphradite you are extremely rare. 3 people in a row born Intersexed must have given great attention to you from the medical community.

    BTW I can have children. But I would need another woman's fertilized egg surgically implanted into my uterus and delivery by Caesarian Section. Naturally that one added chromosome makes me infertile just like a mule. But internally, I have all the necessry and functioning equipment.

    What does exist is lots of false information generated by the porn industry. Men actually believe all that garbage and most transsexuals and hermorphradites are simply women with silicone attachments and Hollywood effects. Anyone familiar with M2F hormone treatment realizes a girl is rendered impotent in 6 to 24 months and incapable of erections unless an injectible drug called Cavocet is injected into the head of the penis. I had a doctor prescribe it once. It hurt like hell and never again. Besides an under two inch erection is not going to appeal to anyone. Neither do I have a prostate and my testes were undescended, became infected when I was 15 and were surgically removed. I wish that had been done prior to puberty so I would not have developed some bad male characteristics, especially voice change.

    As far as dating I gave up a long time ago. To date I have never met a man actually accepting of it. And women have never had any sexual appeal though love their company and conversation far better than with men. It is terribly lonely without having the closeness that comes with a romantic and social relationship.

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  35. How does one define God? Is He&She or She&He not the ultimate intersex icon?

    For these half-sex 'individuals' who fanti'size' about un-normal things, they themselves are the freeks - how dare an unitiated intersex halfcast comment on something they know nothing of - go play with yourself!

    As for the intersexy persons, what's all the fuss? You're closer to God in image and form than the rest could ever hope to be. It had to have been a half-sex that invented the 'Go fuck yourself' statement - in response to them 'You wish'.

    Holger

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  36. I'm currently considering dating someone who looks female on the outside but doesn't have female genitials. I happened to stumble across this post while searching for information on the scenario as I was feeling really confused. I kept thinking "Will dating her make me a lesbian?" and "She identifies as a girl but...she's still a guy, right?" Coming from a biblical home I would say I'm really very concerned about whether or not it was against my beliefs. But knowing what I know now, I'm feeling a little better about the situation. It doesn't answer all my questions but at least I can put a name to her gender circumstance. So thank you for your article. It's helped at least one person.

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  37. @ Luminis and some other contributors:
    Very enlightening and highlights the superficiality and limitations of labels with which such people are too often stuck by the ignorant, the intolerant and the narrow-minded.
    As a 'heterosexual' male, my sexual orientation and therefore a psych aspect of my gender identity came to be somewhat challenged when through hermaphrodite pornography I'll admit, I found myself fantasising about relationships (and/or sex) with intersex people. These fantasies were largely limited to adrenal hyperplasic or XXXY Klinefelter folks of predominantly feminine morphology - a preference based on 'attraction factor'.
    Well, it has never happened in any romantic sense. That's just the way life can turn out.
    However, some years ago, I met a person and commenced dancing socially with her on a regular basis. A friendship formed and has persisted since. Can't recall the exact nature of the conversation in which she revealed her gender identity, but somehow, the conversation one evening happened to swing around to hermaphroditism and she told me she was one. That took some courage on her part, and I knew it.
    More accurately, if I have it right, she was born intersexual and raised as a male, consistent with her dominant gender features. There must have been many years of internal conflict with her psychological gender orientation. Getting into her late twenties, she underwent surgical gender transition to female. So here is a person who is both intersexual and transsexual - whatever the medical experts refuse to embrace in terms of status.
    I consider she must be very fortunate when compared with many other people of either intersexual or transsexual (or both) status, for although she has borne her fair share of discriminatory, intolerant and prejudicial treatment of the parts of many people including her father, she has remained irrepressible through it all and carved a niche and identity for herself that she is happy with. She has established a wide network of friends and so on of male, female, intersexual, pre-op and post-op transsexual persuasions who may be hetero, gay or polyamorous - it doesn't seem to matter.
    Further, she is active in supporting transgender community members. A remarkable person.
    She sees herself as a woman. Therefore, she is.
    That's the key, isn't it?
    Find your own identity. That's a very individual thing. Let nobody attempt to tear it down and bend you to their ideals.
    Best wishes, everyone!

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  38. My first boyfriend was intersex. He was what you are referring to as a "fantasy" in the above article. He was tall, 5'11", attractive, had one undescended testicle, a large penis and a vagina. And I am sure this was not easy for him. He told me that he needed to see a psychiatrist when he was in his teens. You may say he is a fantasy, but I am sure it was painful for him. In addition, he is infertile. By the time I met him when he was 25, he was very comfortable in his own skin. He related to women like a man and tried to keep his little problem a secret from me until I went exploring with my hands while making love to him. I never judged him and only regarded him as a man. He had no other effeminate traits. I don't know if he had received hormone treatment, if so, he never mentioned it. He was quite masculine, though he did have a sensitive and affectionate nature. I did not have sex with him because I thought He was a fantasy, I had sex with him because I was in love with him.

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  39. It is a myth too that no intersex women have small penises. I just met a woman with a very large penis. Most people don't believe me when I tell them. Her body is very feminine. Her vagina is very small. This works for me though since my penis is small. I hope things work out with her and me.

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    1. I meant to say it is a myth that no intersex women have large penises.

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  40. None of this is hurtful unless the person lets everything under the sun offend them, whats hurtful isn't a misguided person who just isn't fully aware of a person situation, whats hurtful is the intent that someone has towards them, anything else is over sensitivity and their own issues.
    Its best to be understanding no matter who or what your situation is in life or else you're creating for yourself pointless drama and issues.

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  41. Your penis needs exercise. In other words, you must use it or you will lose it. Erections are driven by the flow of blood to the penis and the penis needs to work out so that its smooth muscle is enriched with oxygen to make the best use of the blood flow. When men do not get regular and normal erections, it leads to penis shrinkage.

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