Gender is a spectrum. Sexuality is a spectrum. These ideas have gained mainstream acceptance in recent years. But biological sexual anatomy is still assumed to be binary–either you’re born with male or female genitalia. That’s not the case, as a new graphic in Scientific American shows.
The graphic attempts to demystify how people’s sexual organs develop, from conception through birth and puberty, and how that can impact their physical appearance. With “typical biological female” on the far-left of a full-page magazine spread and “typical biological male” on the far-right, the graphic features a variety of intersex “conditions.” These conditions occur because permutations from the norm can occur in the chromosomes, in the genes, and in the hormones, all of which impact the internal reproductive system, the genitals, and appearance.
You can trace different intersex conditions using arrows that swirl around the entire graphic. For instance, a person may be born with XY chromosomes but has a gene mutation that leads to androgen insensitivity syndrome, which means the person is resistant to male hormones, and ambiguous genitals develop. To trace this condition, you start at the top right of the flow chart and follow the arrows down toward the center. In another example, a person might have two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome, leading to a condition called Klinefelter syndrome. That means that they will have the male internal and external reproductive system, but might suffer from infertility and may even develop breasts. This condition’s path on the graphic is more of a zigzag across the right side of the page.
The arrows track different conditions through each stage of development. It’s a lot to take in, but the arrows act as a visual underpinning for the complexity of biological sex. Scientific American‘s assistant graphics editor Amanda Montañez and the San Francisco-based data visualization studio Pitch Interactive chose to use a rainbow of colors to add additional visual support to the idea of a spectrum. The gradient from green to yellow to pink to purple pops against a black background.
The science-based sex spectrum on the graphic is entirely separate from sexuality or gender identity. But it is nonetheless an important part of understanding what constitutes the experience of sex and gender. “[Disorders of sex development] . . . represent a robust, evidence-based argument to reject rigid assignations of sex and gender,” writes Montañez about the infographic. “I am hopeful that raising public awareness of intersex, along with transgender and non-binary identities, will help align policies more closely with scientific reality, and, by extension, social justice.”