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Dublin: 10°C Thursday 24 September 2020

In this small Caribbean town, some boys don't grow penises until puberty

The unusual condition is caused by an enzyme deficiency.

Johnny, who was once known as Felicita.
Johnny, who was once known as Felicita.
Image: Countdown to Life/YouTube

A FASCINATING NEW BBC documentary sheds light on why some children in a remote area in the Dominican Republic only grow penises when they approach puberty.

In the second episode of Countdown to Life: The Extraordinary Making of You, a new series looking at how we all got here, presenter Michael Mosely meets the families of local boys who were brought up as girls after they were born without a penis.

One in 90 males in the small town he vists only develop male characteristics once they near puberty, and so they are brought up as girls.

The children, known as “guevedoces” or “penis at twelve”, look female at birth because their bodies in the womb lacked the kind of enzyme that triggers the development of male genitals, though their internal reproductive structures were male.

But at puberty, their bodies respond to a surge of testosterone, causing their testicles to descend and penis to grow.

‘I never liked to dress as a girl’

One young man, Johnny, who was known as Felicita before puberty, told the BBC Magazine that he had always felt uncomfortable being brought up female.

“I never liked to dress as a girl and when they bought me toys for girls I never bothered playing with them – when I saw a group of boys I would stop to play ball with them,” he said.

The enzyme deficiency is a common genetic condition in the remote region, according to US researcher Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley, one of the first people to study the phenomenon.

Though they are raised as girls, almost all “guevedoces” identify at heterosexual, Imperato-McGinley found, meaning hormones in the womb were more important than upbringing in forming their sexual orientation.

The full documentary can be watched here

Read: Can testosterone treatments cause heart problems?

Read: Obesity linked to early onset of puberty in girls

About the author:

Catherine Healy

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