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The penis speculation reared its head at the Glastonbury festival as Lady Gaga, the provocative pop artist, hopped off a motorbike in a very short skirt revealing a sticky-outty part no one knew she had.

(Come on, don't tell me you're the one person on the planet who didn't Google it.) Was it fake? Real? It didn't really matter. A penis is every girl's best accessory if she wants to make a statement.

To defy categorization - not a bad ambition for an avant-garde artist - suggesting you're a hermaphrodite with bits of both female and male reproductive parts is one way to do it.

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And now the flamboyant 23-year-old singer is on the cover of Britain's Q magazine, her bare breasts covered with one Edward-Scissorhands-like claw, the other resting on the bulging crotch of her pants. "We all know that one of the biggest talking points of the year was that I have a dick, so why not give them what they want?" she is quoted as saying of her strategic padding.

The shock value is one thing. This is the woman who has performed with blood smeared across her face and clothes, let's not forget.

But she's also making a pointed remark about gender expectations. And perhaps Lady Gaga, who reads the zeitgeist like a book, is purposefully flouting what some have called the "last taboo."

Hermaphroditism is an old term for a condition now commonly referred to as intersex, in which there is a discrepancy between the external genitals and the internal genitals (the testes and ovaries). Some form of gender ambiguity occurs in one in every 2,000 births, according to the Intersex Society of North America. Intersex is now part of mainstream discourse (and activism), as people born with ambiguous genitalia who were surgically assigned a gender talk openly about living in the wrong body.

"Intersexuality is the last taboo in that line of different genders and different sexualities," notes Elisabeth Engebretsen, a social anthropologist and lecturer at McGill University's Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies.

The cultural fascination with the idea of intersex may be part of our collective (and slow) adjustment to the eventual acceptance of it. It could also speak to our fear of "other" - a deep anxiety about how we understand our species. Gender is an organizing principle of society, after all.

But long before (and even since) the growing awareness about intersexuality issues, the possibility of someone having both male and female parts has served to illuminate rigid cultural attitudes about expectations for male and female behaviour.

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Consider the women who have been accused of being hermaphrodites. Jamie Lee Curtis is rumoured to be one (if you go by Internet gossip). She wears her hair short. She doesn't dye the grey. She is handsome, rather than conventionally pretty. She doesn't fit ideals of what it means to be a woman, in other words.

And that holds true for assumptions about a woman's sexuality. For example, the Duchess of Windsor, the twice-divorced American for whom Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936, was said to have a voracious sexual appetite with courtesan-like tricks up her Schiaparelli sleeves. Also somewhat mannish in appearance, she was rumoured to be a hermaphrodite.

Clearly, the message is that for a woman to have a less-than-demure sexuality she has to have some hidden cojones.

Gaga gets it. When a guy goes out and sleeps with a bunch of women, she told Q, "there's a high-five and giggling. But when a woman does it and it's publicized or she's open about her sexuality or she's free or liberated, it's 'Oh, she must have a dick.'"

But if the hermaphrodite label is used as punishment - or a need to "place" women who don't quite fit ideals in terms of looks, ambition or sexuality - it also serves to titillate, something Lady Gaga is never afraid of exploiting.

Hermaphroditism is an atavistic obsession that reaches back to Greek mythology. "On the one hand, it's dark and ominous and on the other there's a sense of it being special and magical," says Marguerite Deslauriers, director of the gender studies institute and associate professor of philosophy at McGill. "In ancient philosophy, the assumption is that if we were whole, each person would have two sexes."

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Citing the work of both Plato and Aristotle, Deslauriers believes that "part of the fascination is that if you were intersexed, you would know so much more and this would be fascinating sexual knowledge."

In her highly sexualized performances and costumes, perhaps Lady Gaga is also intentionally addressing a pornography-inured culture, in which chicks with you-know-what loom in the imagination.

Whatever her intentions, she shrewdly tolerates and plays up the rumours. At its simplest level, her message is that gender is all performance art.

When Lady Gaga sat down with Barbara Walters in January, she tottered out on platform heels, dressed in a classic black Chanel suit, her Marilyn Monroe hair in a white cloud around her perfectly made-up face. Walters asked point-blank, in her prurient-as-a-concerned-aunt fashion, whether she was bisexual.

Lady Gaga hesitated, as any lady would when asked about her bedroom preferences on national TV. But then she confirmed that she had sexual relations with men and women.

Walters never asked for clarification about the rumours of intersexuality. But she did wonder whether the singer cared about the speculation over her sexuality. Lady Gaga said no, adding, "I like pushing boundaries."

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It was the perfect response. She was sweet, demure even. And the famous interviewer was charmed, gushing, "You're not at all what I expected."

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