Doctoral student receives grant to research intersex individuals, spark difficult conversations

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The Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood awarded Shelby Astle, first-year doctoral student in applied family science, a $1,000 grant that will allow her to further research intersex individuals and how they discuss sex. (Photo courtesy of Shelby Astle)

The Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood awarded Shelby Astle, first-year doctoral student in applied family science, a $1,000 grant that will allow her to further research intersex individuals and how they discuss sex.

Astle said talking about sex can, and is, a difficult conversation to have — whether that be with friends, family or people in general — and there isn’t an easy starting point. For her, this is an important issue that needs to be tackled.

“I want to figure out how parents can overcome some barriers and be able to talk about things,” she said. “Both sides are confused and ashamed.”

The challenge increases when an individual is intersex. Kristin Anders, Astle’s co-mentor, graduate faculty professor and assistant professor of human development and family science at Kansas State, defines intersex people as individuals who have a variation in sexual development.

“We’ve fixated sexuality on being male or female,” Anders said, “When in reality it is on a spectrum, and it isn’t binary due to differences in hormonal development.”

Anders said it can be very challenging to be considered a “variation” in a gendered society. Astle said kids born with non-traditional genitalia or reproductive systems can pose challenges and confusion for parents, but she is understanding of them.

“I have a lot of empathy for parents who don’t know,” Astle said.

Astle said she plans to use the grant money to find these erased stories and talk to intersex people about their experiences. The first $250 will go towards an intersex consultant — Astle said no one in her department identifies as such and it would dilute the research if they didn’t have an intersex viewpoint. The other $750 will be given to intersex individuals that participate in the study.

Sam Sharpe, genderqueer doctoral student in biology, is intersex and a member of SAGA, oSTEM, gender collective and LGBTQ FSA. Sharpe said historically, some people thought of there being two sexes, but that doesn’t align with what is really shown.

“Most bodies don’t fit the typical understanding of male and female,” Sharpe said. “Some [intersex traits] are identifiable at birth, some during puberty and some people never find out.”

Sharpe said many intersex people have non-consensual surgeries when they are young and are not told it happened. Sharpe said when intersex people find this out, it can lead to confusion, which creates self-alienation and trauma.

“In general, intersex people are erased from science, technology, history and LGBTQ communities,” Sharpe said. “We need more experience with how these people interact.”

Anders said Astle will be great through the process because she sees her passion to immerse herself in the community and make a difference. The research being done is also important to Anders because of the lack of the research in the field.

“For intersex people in particular, it is challenging to find that information to discuss because while the research done is important, it is limited and not easily accessible,” Anders said.

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