Is sex a social construct like gender? Nope.

February 13, 2017 • 9:30 am

The video below, highlighted on Everyday Feminism, came with a few words on the website:

“Yes, trans women are women, but they’re still biologically male.”

Ever thought or said something like this? You might even have good intentions by stating what you think is a simple fact – after all, gender is a social construct, while sex is biological, right?

Actually, this “simple fact” of trans women being “biologically male” is inaccurate – and this misrepresentation of the truth is being used to justify some pretty hateful things.

So if you really want the facts, and to follow through on your good intentions by being a good ally, check out Riley J. Dennis’ explanation of why trans women are not biologically male.

With Love,
The Editors at Everyday Feminism

Well, I’d like to be a good ally, but not by denying the truth. And, in fact, sex is indeed biological—not a social construct like gender. But biology doesn’t give us a reason to discriminate against trans people, for discrimination is a moral issue, and can’t be decided by biology alone.

We’ve all heard the mantra that gender is a social construct, which I take to mean that what gender you claim to be, or feel you are, should be based solely on your own perception, and will gain credence from social agreement. (Let me add, though, that some transgenderism may have a biological basis: a neurological or physiological situation that makes you feel that you don’t belong to your “assigned sex”.)

And I’m willing to agree to gender as a social construct; if someone was born biologically male but feels female, or vice versa, I’m perfectly willing to go along with that, though of course many feminists disagree (and I’ll leave them to argue it out), as do conservatives who don’t want those people going to the “wrong” restrooms. (I don’t give a rat’s patootie which bathroom they use.)

But the 7½-minute video below, by Riley J. Dennis, identified as “non-binary trans woman, writer, YouTuber, activist, and educator,” claims more: that sex itself is a social construct. That is, she claims that whether you are male or female as a condition at birth is not a biological phenomenon, but a social construct.  This claim, which is insupportable if you know anything about biology, is made for one reason only: because, as the Everyday Feminism article notes, it supposedly “justifies some pretty hateful things.” As Dennis says, “Trans women are not male, and saying that they are allows some people to justify the mistreatment of trans people.”

Here, then, we have someone trying to distort the biological evidence in service of an ideological agenda. While I’m in sympathy with that agenda, I’m not sympathetic to the claim that sex itself is a social construct. Were that true, we’d have to revise hundreds of years of biology, and not just in humans. What we should do is accept the facts of biology, as well as the fact that some people feel that they’re not members of their biological sex, and then construct our social mores based on these facts—without distorting the biology.

Let me first say that if you examine newborn humans, a very small fraction won’t be assignable unambiguously to “male” or “female” based on genitalia, or even chromosomes. Sometimes “intersex” infants have ambiguous genitalia, or even both forms, and there are also XXY and XO babies who show intermediate traits. But these are extremely rare. For all practical purposes, as we know well, newborns fall neatly into the classes of “biologically male” and “biologically female”.  This is similar to virtually all other animals. I have, for instance, looked at millions of fruit flies, and while there are a very few whose sex is ambiguous, I’d say those are fewer than one in several thousand. (Sex in flies is taken as a biological fact, not a social construct.)  What we have in humans, as in other species, is a strong bimodality of sex with a very low frequency of ambiguous cases forming a deep valley between the male and female peaks. Although Dennis says that “sex isn’t a perfect binary,” it’s pretty damn close to perfect in separating people into two groups.

Here’s Dennis’s claim, which I quote verbatim:

I would argue that sex needs to go through the same change that gender has already gone through. It’s not a static fact; it’s a social construct. . . Sex is not a biological fact because it is determined by things that are largely changeable [by medical intervention], and the only part of it that is unchangeable [chromosomal constitution] doesn’t have any real-world effect. So it is just as much a social construct as gender is. . . Biological sex has to undergo the same paradigm shift that gender did. We have to start thinking of that as a social construct rather than as an inarguable fact.”

and the reason for this claim follows immediately:

Because when people say that a trans woman is “biologically male,” they use that as a way to attack trans people. They use it as an excuse to exclude us from bathrooms, locker rooms, and other women’s spaces.

It’s curious but telling that Dennis argues almost entirely about trans women, ignoring trans men. But that’s probably because she’s trying to defend her own gender more than the concept of transgenderism in general. Regardless, her argument is one based on wish-thinking and ideology rather than biology.

Why does Dennis argue that sex itself is a social construct? The argument is thin and weak. She argues that biological sex is based on a combination of traits, to wit:

1.)  chromosomes (in humans, XY is male, XX female)
2.)  genitals (penis vs. vagina)
3.)  gonads (testes vs. ovaries)
4.)  hormones (males have higher relative levels of testosterone than women, while women have higher levels of estrogen)
5.) secondary sex characteristics that aren’t connected with the reproductive system but distinguish the sexes, and usually appear at puberty (breasts, facial hair, size of larynx, subcutaneous fat, etc.)

I will maintain that using genitals and gonads alone, more than 99.9% of people fall into two nonoverlapping classes—male and female—and the other traits are almost always coincident with these. If you did a principal components analysis using the combination of all five traits, you’d find two widely separated clusters with very few people in between. Those clusters are biological realities, just as horses and donkeys are biological realities, even though they can produce hybrids (sterile mules) that fall morphologically in between.

Dennis’s argument against these indicators of sex are as follows:

Chromosomes aren’t usually tested, so people don’t usually know their chromosomal constitution. So what? You’re either XX, XY, or, rarely, something else, and it’s not hard to determine this. Against this, Dennis argues that sex isn’t defined entirely by chromosomes (well, it is by many biologists), and, even so, “What good does dividing people based on their chromosomes do?”

To that I’d respond, “chromosomes are correlated with a lot of other traits (that’s because they genetically produce those traits)—traits that we’ve evolved to respond to differentially. In general, someone who is XY will be attracted to someone who is XX, and that’s based on secondary sex characteristics that themselves are induced by chromosomes. Yes, there are people who are homosexual or bisexual (yet still identify as “male” or “female”), but if sex were purely a social construct, sexual selection wouldn’t work: males would look identical to females. That difference itself suggests that there’s a biological reality to sex, and that this biological reality—the correlation of chromosomal constitution with reproductive traits and with secondary sexual traits—is what has caused both behavioral and morphological differences between the sexes. If sex were purely a social construct, as Dennis says, then male deer wouldn’t have antlers, male peacocks wouldn’t have long tails, human females wouldn’t have breasts, and human males wouldn’t have greater muscle mass and upper body strength.

Hormones “aren’t visible without a test.”  Again, you can make them visible with a test. Dennis argues that hormones can be altered by doctors, but that’s a recent cultural innovation that doesn’t affect my argument for sex based on chromosomal constitution that produces marked differences in the other characters. Remember: the chromosomal constitution itself, once inherited, sets off a string of genetic changes that ultimately lead to differences in the other four sets of traits.

Genitals and gonads “usually aren’t visible most of the time.” Well, not when they’re covered by clothing, and ovaries are on the inside, but that’s fatuous. Inspection of genitals and gonads will tell whether they conform to the peaks of the bimodal distribution or are rare exceptions. Dennis argues further that genitals can be changed with surgery, which is true, but that is simply a human alteration of biological sex, and those alterations are of course easily detectable. Likewise with her argument that gonads and testes can be removed when diseased, effacing an identifier of sex. But that happens later, and of course doesn’t change the chromosomes. And it didn’t happen at all before surgery came around in the last 0.005% of the span of human evolution.

Secondary sex characteristics, says Dennisappear only after puberty, as if that’s some argument against their reality. But that’s irrelevant, for puberty is itself a biological phenomenon. Dennis adds that there is variation in these traits: they are not “perfect differentiators of sex.” Some males, for instance, develop little or no facial hair, and some women have facial hair. She also argues that some “people with vaginas” (a euphemism she uses for “woman”) develop small breasts, and some develop large breasts, but that “neither of those is more or less female”. Again, this is irrelevant to the argument against the reality of sex, for even considering fatty breasts alone, the presence of that one trait is a very good indicator of biological sex.

Dennis also argues that secondary sex characteristics militate against biological sex because “they can be changed through hormones or surgery.” But that’s again irrelevant to the argument from biological sex as a reality at birth. I could use lasers to remove the sex combs of Drosophila males (stiff tufts of bristles on the forelegs that males use to grasp females during copulation), but that doesn’t mean that sex in Drosophila is a social construct.  Similarly, you can dye a female cardinal bright red to resemble a male (a secondary sexual characteristic), but that says nothing about whether sex in cardinals is a social construct. It can’t be, because cardinals don’t even have a society.

The culturally-induced malleability of biological traits does not mean that those traits aren’t real but merely social constructs; it just means that those traits can be artificially changed to resemble those of the other sex.

Dennis concludes that of the five traits listed above, four of them can’t be used to “accurately determine sex.”(Chromosomes seem to be the exception.) Well, yes, but they are accurate nearly all the time, and when combined are accurate virtually all of the time. There are of course exceptions, but as I said, they’re very rare.

Can we not accept the fact that sex is indeed a biological phenomenon, while someone can still choose to accept a gender that doesn’t correspond to their biological sex? The concept of biological sex has been extremely useful in biology—it’s a linchpin of a ton of research in evolutionary biology and other fields, and, with very few nonclassifiable cases, it’s an objective reality.

Accepting that truth may indeed give some people ammunition to discriminate against trans people, but the cure for that is not to deny biological reality: it’s to create more empathy so that trans people aren’t the victims of discrimination.  Those who use the reality of biological sex to marginalize trans people are committing the naturalistic fallacy: claiming that an “ought” follows from an “is”.

167 thoughts on “Is sex a social construct like gender? Nope.

    1. Of course it is. That’s an arbitrary label assigned by biologists to a cluster of individuals that can presumably interbreed. It’s a useful construct but it’s totally artificial.

      1. I doubt Bob is talking about the label. All labels are totally artificial, agreed. But what about the thing the label is attached to?

        Species groupings are certainly utilitarian. But the similarities and differences among organisms that are the reasons we group organisms in a certain way rather than in another way are real things and reflect what is actually seen in nature with an accuracy that is the best we can do given current knowledge at any given moment.

        In other words, I disagree. Species groupings are not totally artificial.

        1. If sex is a social construct then being human is too.

          There’s no single ancestor that we can claim to be the first human being.

          The age at which a foetus becomes a person, with its own rights, is a legal construct; the time you cease to be a human being depends on how much healthcare you can afford, whether you have signed a DNR, or whether your lawyers can postpone your execution indefinitely.

        2. Labels are artificial but when useful they reflect real patterns. In the scientific context, think for example of simpler cases, like the columns of the periodic table: sodium and potassium really are more alike (and deserve a common name – alkali metals) than say, uranium and sulfur.

    2. It is already here. All animal rights activism is based on the premise that there is no significant difference between a human child, a lab mouse and a stray dog.

      1. Animal rights are based on the premise that living organisms with complex nervous systems capable of conscious experience deserve not to be harmed for no good reason. Jesus.

        1. I think that doing science is a pretty good reason to harm lab mice, and protecting people from large predators is an even better reason to euthanize stray dogs.

          Humans should be safe from predators in cities, town and villages. If I decide to go into a wood and risk wolf or bear attack, it is my business. But I do not myself and my children reduced to dog prey status.

          1. Red herring. I said “for no good reason”. Some research would indeed qualify as good reason. Some doesn’t. The point is that animal rights (like legal consequences for abusing your pet) are not based on denying any differences between we human animals and other animals, as you claimed.

          2. Right with you there, mb.

            You do *not* need to give animals pseudo-human status to realise that they should not be gratuitously mistreated.

            (While I agree with Maya that dangerous dogs should not be permitted in society, any more than tigers should, that doesn’t justify mistreating animals).


          3. However, you cannot know which dogs are dangerous before they prove their dangerousness by attacking a human.

            Let’s say that owners are responsible for their dogs. But what about strays? Any stray must be immediately caught and removed from the street, and if not claimed within reasonable time, euthanized. Leaving stray dogs in the streets and saying that action will be taken against the dangerous ones actually reduces humans, including children, to bioindicators of dog aggressive behavior.

            (And I get mad when after every dog-on-human attack a legion of dog lovers say that the victim has somehow brought it on himself.)

          4. They do not deny the differences, they just say that if there are more dogs than place in shelters, then they will be released in residential areas and I and my children must navigate between these large predators; and if a stray bites me or my children, I must produce a medical certificate, then alert the authorities, identify the dog and lead them to it, and then they might do something about it, maybe. I have never managed this red tape, though both I and my husband have been bitten by strays. Let me repeat: championing animal rights leads to this sort of legislation.

            If I want to use mice for research, I must first fill a pound of paper forms and then transfer EUR 150 out of my EUR 2500 research grant to the Food Safety Commission, as if I am going to eat the mice. To some Americans, these hurdles may remind the creeping accumulation of abortion restrictions. If you cannot ban something outright because the ban would be illegal or too absurd, but you do not want the thing, then you put hurdles, hurdles, hurdles!

            “Some research would indeed qualify as good reason. Some doesn’t.”
            Science would develop much faster (and cheaper) if we could know beforehand which research is worth the effort.

  1. Riley’s videos are all over Youtube. She is rather, well, infamous, one might say.

    In one of her videos she explained that she ‘discovered’ that she was trans when she went to college and ‘learned all about the different kinds of sexuality’. She also doesn’t suffer any dysphoria. Is perfectly happy with the penis and is happy to call it female, even making a video stating that lesbians are bigots for not being sexually attracted to ladypenis.

    When I talk about ‘trans trenders’, this is the kind of person to whom I am referring. True trans people suffer crippling dysphoria from a very early age. It isn’t something that they ‘discover’ when they go to college and learn that trans people exist. They *must* transition or die, in many cases.

    Now, try arguing that biological sex is objectively scientific on a third wave feminist blog and expect to get banned and/or have your comments deleted. Over on Love Joy Feminism (where the author argued that Charlie Hebdo ‘had it coming) at Patheos blogs, a commenter had his comments deleted because he dared to state that biological females have different shaped pelvises than biological males due to the whole childbirth thing. Even acknowledging that biological sex is real will get you labelled a Nazi in some parts.

    It is perfectly possible to accept people for who they are *without* having to deny objective facts. The only real effect that this denying of reality is going to have is to turn people away instead of persuading them to be more accepting of those who are different. It is entirely counter-productive.

      1. Yes.

        Milo Stewart who said that ‘everyone is homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, misogynist…’ I am sure that I left something out.

        Yeah, many of the trans people on Youtube – people who suffer actual dysphoria and have had SRS – Blaire White, Yorick, Matthew C. and PersephoneSixtySix have entire video series dedicated to taking apart the arguments of trans trenders such as Milo.

        They argue that trans trenders are hurting actual trans people. That when people see ‘Stefonknee’ (a 54 year old man who identifies as a 6 year old girl who dresses in stripper gear) that they will assume that all trans people are perverts, for example.

        Oh yeah, age is also a social construct. I have heard rumblings that there is a new gender…’clovergender’ but I am not sure if it is a troll or real:

        Snopes says it’s fake:

        But eh, Stefonknee exists so…

    1. Riley in his own words:

      “Would you date someone who’s trans, black, fat, or disabled? If your answer is no… that’s pretty discriminatory and hurtful. In this video, I explain why that is.”

      In other words we are all hateful, racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist etc. etc.

    2. I recall Dana Hunter, then at Freethought Blogs, who made the same argument that her acquaintance was transphobic when he was interested in a woman but then refused to sleep with her after he learned she was a trans gender.

      It interesting how the SJW match the Very Far Right, but in a bizarre inverted kind of way — yet again. Extreme Evangelicals try to pray and therapize the gay away, and think someone can be forced to be attracted to some sex (they approve of) — same for SJWs.

      The troubling aspect is that SJWs are fashionable with their fascistic ideas, whereas traditional right wingers are rightfully pushed to the fringes.

    3. The belief that something that is invisible is unimportant is akin to typical infant-think that when an object is no longer visible it ceases to exist. We grow out of that by the age of 2-3 years. I should prefer not to take advice from people whose brains have failed to progress beyond that stage of cognitive development.

  2. We’ve all heard the mantra that gender is a social construct, which I take to mean that what gender you claim to be, or feel you are, should be based solely on your own perception, …

    (Asking for information.) Isn’t the claim much stronger than that? Isn’t it saying that gender, the set of ways in which women tend to think and act and the set of ways in which men tend to think and act, do not have any basis in biology, since our characters start off as blank slates, but are purely socially constructed?

    Thus, by appropriate upbringing, one could ensure that there would be no difference at all between how men tend to think and act and how women do.

    It then follows from that that anyone should be free to pick which “role” they wish to play.

    Personally I would deny that gender is a social construct in the above sense — I think that biology has a lot to with it — *but* that I would still want people to be allowed to choose the role they wished to play.

      1. Having raised both a boy and a girl I will strongly argue that gender is strongly influenced by biology. My son, from a very young age and with no encouragement from the parents (although I am sure I will be accused of subtle, subconscious encouragement) was interested in trains and other “Mighty Machines” while my daughter was interested in ponies and puppies.

        Clearly since trains and backhoes are products of society the manner in which the gender role was expressed is culturally influenced, but the pull in those directions was strong and I would argue biologically influenced.

        1. Yup. In toy stores, aisles separated by sex weren’t made to “perpetuate the patriarchy,” but because the stores found their products sold better when they targeted them at the demographics most likely to be interested in them.

    1. That was my understanding, too. “Gender” included both “what sex you feel you are” and “what sex you act like” — with the divisions between what is “masculine” and what is “feminine” in the last one being incredibly fluid (thought perhaps not completely so.)

      There is apparently some research which suggests that at least some transexuals may be largely influenced by their social environment in how they identify, with believing they are really a “girl” because they prefer dolls and pretty clothes, and a “boy” because they like sports and trucks. If so, they’re both reinforcing, and victims of, cultural stereotypes. In societies which don’t have such rigid sex roles, they’re more likely to identify as homosexual. But this is a controversial theory, and I’m not sure if that’s because of some shaky science, or because it seems to ‘deny’ the deep self-knowledge of trans individuals and that’s hurtful.

    2. Social construction can mean two things.

      On the one hand it might mean that gender roles are the product of socialisation; that without that socialisation we would all be the same. A blank state theory, in other words.

      On the other hand it might mean that certain traits are defined as either male or female. So whereas the blank slate theorists would regard nurturing as being socialised into girls and competitiveness socialised into boys, this form of social construction would regard those traits as constitutive of femininity and masculinity.

      The distinction is easier if you look at mental illness. The blank staters think schizophrenia is the result of poor socialisation while the constructivist would see schizophrenia as behaviour and beliefs designated abnormal.

      1. You mean “Blank Slate”.

        The schizophrenia example was not clear. Social constructionists can argue that humans define illnesses, by bundling a number of phenomena and then labeling it as if it were one thing, and put that into the DSM. It seems to be the source for the “neurodiversity” nonsense. But most of such questions and problems are postmodernist confusions of map-territory relation, ignorance about semiotics, linguistics or cognitive science, that also amount to strawmen — because typically the opponents are well aware of fuzzy categories, the “tyranny of the discontinous mind” (Dawkins), prototype theory and more such things. But such knowledge never made it across into the posmodernist infused departments who skipped the last fifty years or so, and are stuck with Derrida and the likes. By now, it became a tribal affair in activist circles, who show their affiliation with adherence to such utter rubbish. That’s probably the reason they just can’t leave it behind. It’s their peacock feathers, their flying colours and certain corners are more about activism — it seems — than truth.

    3. Anyone who believes you can mold a person’s gender identity through childhood upbringing has never known an actual child.

  3. To answer his/her/its question about what good it does to separate people based on chromosomes:

    It keeps us grounded in objective reality.

    The biggest evolutionary asset the human species has is the ability to accurately understand objective reality around it through observation and reasoning (which we have formalized as “science”), and then manipulate it better for its own purposes and make informed decisions.

    Accordingly, the moment you decide to ignore objective reality for ideological reasons, you set up yourself for some inevitable disastrous mistakes at some point in the future.

    The objective reality is that biological sex is real and that the concept of “gender” is a social construct, as in something arbitrarily made up that doesn’t really exist (note that many languages don’t even have a word for that, all they have is the word for biological sex).

    If you are not male or a female, your condition is a genetic/developmental/psychiatric disorder, and in the wild would be quickly weeded out of the gene pool.

    But you don’t live the wild. Now do you know why you don’t live in the wild? Because your ancestors and a sufficiently many people today have not been as divorced from objective reality as you desperately want to be. You are trying to change that…

    1. Well, but in practice that is not what we are doing as a society as she also points out in her video.

      If you have CAIS women you would most certainly label them as female, although they have XY chromosomes. So treating them as male would make no sense whatsoever in every situation imaginable. So drawing a line at chromosome configuration alone is not the solution. And then you need to think about where to draw the line.

    1. Perhaps the more important social question is: when she *does* go, should that bill be covered collectively by society (in the US = by insurance)?

      After some thought, my answer is yes. It doesn’t bother me a tenth or hundredth as much as an insurance carrier covering alternative medicine. The affected population is going to be far, far smaller than either alt-med users or hypochondriacs, who also get biologically ‘useless’ care. I think this is a cost we can happily and easily shoulder to give those citizens the support they want (and perhaps psychologically need).

    1. The agenda is to ensure that the gender decisions made by trans-people are respected. Your comment implies a presumption that the word “agenda” necessarily implies something negative, like “scheme,” but it doesn’t necessarily.

        1. “I’m not construing agenda as negative”
          Neither do they, but you might not agree with their actual agenda.
          I suspect your agenda is simply support and empathy but I think the current “trans rights” agenda is driven by postmodernist and anti-western science radicalism.

      1. “The agenda is to ensure that the gender decisions made by trans-people are respected”

        I agree that trans-people should be supported and be protected from harassment.
        However I think for many the “agenda” is to convince society that it is psychologically normal and to remove psychiatric classifications such as “Gender dysphoria”.

        I cannot share that view.
        Just like a child that suffers from Autism needs our empathy and support so do trans-gender people and our help is not dependent on treating it is normal.

        1. Exactly. I believe there are transgender people and they must be respected, but we are now at the point where we are allowing children who are only five years old to declare that they’re trans and start taking puberty-stunting drugs. We’re stopping all alternative research into how to “fix” the issue of gender dysphoria beyond what these particular people want. That’s what concerns me. People actually being transgender and that being accepted doesn’t concern me at all, and is a perfectly good goal.

        2. I’m not sure that’s a good or valid analogy. There’s a huge difference between unusual and dysfunctional. Autism and other conditions like that can biologically lead to dysfunction and dependency, completely regardless of social and cultural factors. Transgenderism does neither implicitly, it’s just unusual. Any dysfunction created by it is a result of social and cultural rejection.

          I think a better analogy would be to left-handedness maybe a couple hundred years ago (or now, in some backwards areas). Left-handedness is also unusual. It can also carry a social stigma if the culture the lefty grows up in hates or fears lefties. But there’s nothing biologically dysfunctional about it.

          1. Transgender people are in fact dysfunctional, and in the most important biologically way too — they cannot reproduce

          2. Trans people can reproduce. It depends on whether or not they have had SRS. Trans men have been known to get pregnant – all that they need to do is go off hormones for a few months, and their bodies return to their natural state. Many trans women keep their ‘family jewels’ intact, so they too are able to reproduce.

            Trans people become sterile if they have a sex change or, as children, if they are put on puberty blockers at a young age, and then undergo SRS. Puberty blockers can cause the sex gametes to fail to mature, which rules out freezing eggs and sperm, and then with SRS at 18, sterility is permanent.

          3. Well, if you have’t had an SRS and are not on HRT, you are still a more or less physiologically normal male.

            But if you have had an SRS, how exactly are you going to get pregnant without a lot of medical help?

            But that is besides the point — aren’t you supposed to not be attracted to females with reproductive intent if you are a M2F trans person? I know there are M2F people who are now “lesbians”. But a lesbian couple can’t reproduce without external assistance either.

            Finally, if you are truly somewhere on the intersex spectrum, then you are usually sterile, period.

          4. First off, intersex is not the same as transexual. The Intersex Society of North America is very clear about this:


            Second, there are three types of trans person. HSTS or homosexual transexuals (Blaire White), AGP or autogynephiles (Anne Lawrence, and I am betting Riley Dennis) and trans trenders.

            HSTS transexuals have brains that are morphologically similar to the brains of women. Their brains are feminized, essentially. HSTS will transition at an early age, and live their lives as women.

            AGP transgenders are known by another term – transvestite. Transvestite fetishists do not feel any gender dysphoria – they are simply sexually aroused by pretending to be women. They are sexually attracted to women, and have typical male brains, not at all feminized. From what I understand, it is an emasculation fetish. AGP often keep their male body parts, and do not come out as trans until they are in their 40s and 50s, often after fathering children and being married to women for 30+ years.

            Lastly, there is the trans trender, and generally they don’t feel any dysphoria. For the trender, it’s all about fashion/fitting in and so on.

            Only the HSTS is legitimately transexual in my opinion. ‘Trans’ is a very large umbrella, and there is an assumption that all trans people are the same.

          5. “Trans men have been known to get pregnant”
            You mean women can get pregnant – yes we know. You seem a bit confused about biology.

          6. LOL Cindy has it exactly right. Their organs still work just fine, GM. If they choose not to use them to reproduce, well that doesn’t put them in a majority but it’s probably more normal and usual than being left-handed.

          7. “I’m not sure that’s a good or valid analogy.”
            Yes, not a perfect analogy but I used autism as an example because we all agree it is a disorder.

            “Any dysfunction created by it is a result of social and cultural rejection.”
            Sorry, but you did not think this through.
            Social rejection will exacerbate the condition.

            We are not talking about silly things like having red hair, we are talking about a psychological condition where the individual feels disassociated with their own body and it normally involves many other factors like hormonal imbalance chromosome disorders etc.

            It is far more traumatic and complicated than you think.

          8. Unlike sex, autism is on a spectrum and there’s no biological test for it.

            Autism is diagnosed based on behaviour. The cause almost certainly genetic but there’s no ‘autism’ gene.

          9. There have been tons of groups that have experienced as much or more social rejection than transgender people. Moreover, transgender people often end up finding extremely accepting places where they are safe from such rejection and actively supported.

            From this, my question is: why is the suicide rate among transgender people so high? That is clearly something dysfunctional. And it can’t simply be because of social or cultural issues.

            Even harder to answer based on your assumption of any dysfunction being the result of culture or social issues is the question of how that makes them dysfunctional in terms of not being able to function properly without having some kind of SRS or hormone therapy. Even before anyone knows they’re trans, they’re already experiencing often severe mental disturbances due to their condition. This is clearly dysfunction, and clearly not a result of social or cultural conditions. Just like someone with body dysphoria, a transgender person cannot mentally or emotionally deal with the body they have. It is clearly a dysfunctional disorder.

          10. Wow, another BS statistics, and this time one I bought into. Thanks, Cindy. I once believed in the wage gap too, until someone showed me some studies explaining things 😛

  4. The views of these people need to be mocked and ridiculed, just as we mock and ridicule the science denialism of creationists.

    It is the same phenomena – denial of science because of an agenda or narrative.

    1. +Richard Sanderson
      “It is the same phenomena – denial of science because of an agenda or narrative.”

      With a bit more mental illness.

    2. I’m not sure that’s helpful. What they have is a good intention (to stop bigotry) which they want to accomplish through language control (i.e., eliminate any reference to biology in sex and gender discussion). What we need to do is show them/help them understand that (1) they can accomplish their goal without language manipulation, and (2) it wouldn’t work anyway.

      In this case, their strategy is never going to work because even if you could convince the entire English-speaking world that “sex” referred to socially constructed gender rather than what private parts you had, do you know what would happen next? English-speakers would just come up with new terms to refer to the people with each type of sex organ. Eliminate this word’s use to refer to sex organs, and that gap will just be filled by another word. Then they’ll fight the same battle over again (and again…and again…and again). You’re not going to stop humans from thinking (dare I say, obsessing) about other people’s sex organs simply by making the word “sex” mean something else LOL.

      1. I’m not so sure it’s good intentions a lot of the time. I started out in high school and college as a “progressive,” eating up all the nonsense they fed me, because I thought it was what I had to do to be a good person. Until, one day, I finally realized that nearly every one of my “friends” were just bullies looking for excuses to shout at and harass people, and ways to consolidate their own power. Some of these people without a doubt have good intentions, but many do not, and will relish any opportunity to denigrate, harass, and do worse things to you.

        1. I’m not sure the intentions are good. The transactivists who vandalised the women’s library Ophelia Benson reported on last week were not well intentioned.

          Bullying behaviour is bullying behaviour.

          1. Hey, if Erin Pizzey can be threatened with death and have here dog killed and left on her front lawn as a warning from feminists and forcing her to leave her home country (all for researching domestic violence and finding out that it was often reciprocal and not usually just man on woman, and for trying to open shelters for abused men), why should we expect the even more extreme regressives of today to behave civilly?

      2. “What they have is a good intention…

        I’m not sure I would accept that. It’s a bit like saying that other varieties of political extremists have good intentions because they have learned to mouth platitudes about freedom or jobs.

        From what I observe, the radical third wave feminist/SJW activists are deeply dysfunctional people with a dystopian vision for society that attempts to control thought through language, and the sort of authoritarian narcissism evident in the White House.

      3. You’ve made a very good point there, eric.

        “You’re not going to stop humans from thinking (dare I say, obsessing) about other people’s sex organs simply by making the word “sex” mean something else LOL.”
        20,000 pornsites prove you’re right.

        (No, I haven’t counted them…)


    3. In the past, men who wanted to dress or behave “differently” were put down and labeled “pansy” or “fruit” or “dandy” and women were “tomboys” and it was a bad thing. I agree with accepting the range of human identity but they are just replacing derogatory labels with clinical labels imho. Women have been wearing pants for 50+ years and nobody cares anymore. We need fewer labels, not more.

  5. It would seem that Dennis could use a Prof. Coyne refresher course in Biology. You cannot change the reality to fix bad behavior.

    1. I think that, like many on the far left, she confuses the words reason and excuse.

      A trans women is biologically male. That is not an excuse to treat her badly.

      The reason some treat trans women badly is not because they are biologically male, but because they are ignorant or just plain nasty.

      Denying reality will not prevent bigotry towards transgender people. Things like more compassion and understanding will.

      This is yet another reason high quality, comprehensive, properly taught sex education is required in schools.

      1. I am sorry to say, any sex education in school in much of America is highly unlikely. Even in public school, at least in the Midwest, more rural/small towns, as soon as you even put it on the agenda at the school board meetings, you will face extreme opposition. And I am not even covering such areas as this, just plain old fashion attempts to lower the teenage pregnancy/disease rates. Sorry, getting off topic a bit.

        1. I don’t mind – high quality sex education is something I feel strongly about. The stupidity of those who are unable to acknowledge the reality that it actually leads to a delay in starting sexual activity and reduces STDs, unplanned pregnancy, and abortion rates, is beyond me. Because religion.

          1. Oh yes. It all gets back to that eight letter word, the original conversation stopper. I guess there was so much sex and violence in the good book they think they have had enough. Education that is.

  6. Sometimes biological sex could be considered a gray area, I think, in that someone whose hormones and sex organs are those of a sex different than the one they were born with is now biologically divided in several directions. Which one we choose to give precedence to when assigning a label of which-sex-are-they-biologically seems to be a social issue. It’s complicated. But once the question becomes more precise, the biology-based scientific answer isn’t going to go away.

    Better an attack against the Naturalistic Fallacy (“you were meant to be a boy so that’s what you are!”) rather than an attacked aimed at something obvious (“you were born male.”) Otherwise, the more reasonable argument of gender being a social construct is going to look like it can be dismissed.

    1. Yes; the proper response is to attack the ‘pretty hateful things’ as largely untrue and unfounded. Ideas like trans people pose a threat.

      Though I suspect that the goal of the far left isn’t just to stamp out false and vicious characterizations of trans people. It’s also to try and coerce people into using the appellation the trans person would prefer, by claiming anyone doing otherwise is using words wrong. Delegitimizing opponents’ opinion as being syntactically meaningless or incorrect, because they see a conservative referring to a trans woman as ‘he’ as one of those ‘pretty hateful things.’

      That’s not a goal they’re ever going to achieve. Polite and nice people will likely make an effort to refer to you by gender even without trying to redefine the notion of sex. While someone who’s rude or fundamentally doesn’t accept/believe the notion of transgendered individuals isn’t going to be swayed by the argument ‘genitals don’t matter, you should still say he.’

      1. Likewise, I don’t mind being called “white,” despite being a rather pinkish tan. I see no reason to complicate things.

  7. Where have we heard “this can’t be true because it will lead to a situation I don’t like” before?

    It’s about time we realized that the creationists of the left are these postmodernist. Instead of god creating everything, they assert that everything is a social construct (i.e., social creation).

  8. Thank goodness for satire:

    “It’s the year 2016, in case I hadn’t mentioned that. Time to accept it. Even the Pentagon has adopted progressive gender ideology, but somehow we still had to deal with archaic “boys have penises” fables at the doctor’s office. Hasn’t anyone passed a law about this? How have you not been arrested and publicly flogged yet? How have you not been forcibly lobotomized like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? It appears we still have a lot of work to do before the bigoted proponents of objective reality are officially purged from society.

    I simply cannot take anymore of this hatred.

    I truly hate you for being so hateful.

    You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.


    A Victim”

    The rest of the parody is as good:

    1. Very amusing. Sadly, not far enough from the truth for my liking. From talking to our own ultrasound technician I gather that they *do* often get screamed at…for identifying girls. In some cases they’ll have a father also yell at the mother and then storm out, or parents break down in tears and beg them to do it again. As if the tech has any control over the situation.

      So unfortunately, while I doubt that satire has happened (much), something similar to it and equally depressing happens quite a lot. 🙁

      1. Well, you know what they say about shooting the messenger.

        (Personally, I find that weird. I’d much rather any kids of mine were girls rather than boys. Anybody wishing to erect towering house-of-cards psychological diagnoses of me based solely on that statement are – welcome to try 🙂


  9. Isn’t this quite similar to the logic that we see when some people deny that terrorist attacks by Islamic militants have anything to do with Islam? In other words, the argument goes that the terrorists in question are not “really” Muslims, and a man who undergoes a transgender procedure is not “really” a man. The goal in both cases is to prevent discrimination against Muslims/transgenders by trying to break the link that is the very basis for the discrimination.

    1. Yes, that is the idea. What started me on this odyssey (of studying all things trans) a couple of years ago is that I made the unforgiveable mistake of stating that ‘female bodied people should also have access to reproductive health care and not be discriminated against’. I was talking about trans men and using what I thought was a word that would not be triggering. I really wanted to offer my support and I naively thought that my statement was perfectly acceptable.

      Boy, was I wrong. An SJW descended on me, calling me all sorts of names, saying that I was viciously erasing the gender identities of trans people by using the term ‘female bodied’. I was a ‘hateful transphobic bigot’. The logic of this escaped me, as I was merely trying to be supportive, so I looked into it.

      It seems that by stating ‘females of the species can get pregnant’ that what you are doing is denying that penises, testes, and sperm are also female, and in doing so, homophobic men will realize that trans women are *not* biologically female, and start murdering them. Also, words are violence, and if you insist that biological sex is real, you are threatening gender identities, which will lead to suicide.

    2. Yeah, but there’s a fundamental difference. While all Muslim terrorists are Muslims, 99.99% of Muslims are NOT terrorists.

      Whereas, 100.0% of people-with-penises *are* physically male.


  10. Can someone please explain something to me? If these people believe sex isn’t biological and don’t believe in sexual dimorphism, how can one have “the brain of a woman trapped in a man’s body”? Has the complete incongruity of these beliefs never occurred to these people?

    1. Did it ever occur for to people for many centuries that Christianity makes no sense because it’s full of glaring internal contradictions? It probably did to isolated individuals, but hundreds of millions kept on believing blindly.

      It’s exactly the same phenomenon here

    2. I have had this discussion once or twice in the past. I actually asked this very question on the third wave feminist blog Love Joy Feminism and was told that 1) male and female brains are identical 2) gender identity is innate and that’s that

      What they have done to get around this is to state that it is possible to be trans with zero gender dysphoria. And look, our friends at EverdayFeminism have provided the answer:

      Basically, gender identity is innate, and that’s all there is to it. Some people claim to have no gender identity – they are ‘agender’. Riley Dennis actually identifies as a ‘non-binary’ individual which means that she has no gender some of the time. I assume that this also means no biological sex?

      My opinion is that the actual point of ‘biological sex is not real’ and ‘gender dysphoria is not necessary to be trans’ is an attempt by trans trenders to appropriate trans identities for their own use. The term ‘trans trender’ was invented by real LGBT people to mock the folks who, upon going to college, would ‘discover’ that they are LGBT for a few semesters. For these people, pretending to be trans is a fashion statement, akin to an emo kid from the 2000s or a goth kid from the 1990s.

      They don’t suffer gender dysphoria, and for them, being trans is simply putting on a dress or dying their hair purple. They don’t actually want to change their bodies, yet they still want to claim all of those snowflake points that come with being a member of an oppressed group. The reason that the whole trans thing has become so popular is that one can declare a speshul gender identity and *instantly* gain these oppression points that are so very necessary in the oppression-hierarchy of SJW-land. And since gender identity is simply a ‘feeling’, it’s unfalsifiable. It’s easy to prove that Rachel Dolezal is *not* a black person. But, if biological sex isn’t real, and gender identity is the only thing that matters, then if the natal male sitting next to you informs you that his penis is female, you must accept this, otherwise be accused of bigotry.

      1. “For these people, pretending to be trans is a fashion statement…”

        I imagine it’s just as much (or more) a manner of acquiring the privilege of being among the “oppressed,” which is an invaluable currency in these environments. Your opinion is taken as fact, your feelings are considered important, you get to yell at people when they offend you, and you just get the benefits of being part of the most powerful mob on campus. Plus, nobody can disagree with you in class without risking being ostracized, having grades lowered, being called in by the administration, etc.

      2. Hmmm…I still don’t see how getting rid of the idea of biological sex is some plot of trans trenders. If the woman sitting next to me tells me she has a penis, I would still accept at face value that she’s trans even though I don’t buy this sex-socially-constructed stuff…and it would still probably be very insensitive of me to respond “if you’ve got a penis, you’re not a woman.”

        IOW, recognizing sex is biological doesn’t solve the problem of ‘imitators.’ Though frankly outside of some college campuses I’m not sure there’s much of an imitator problem to solve.

        1. It is trans trenders who invented the concept of being ‘non-binary’. They are the ones who are claiming that there is an infinite # of gender identities. Stating that there is no biological sex fits neatly into this. Actual trans people, who hate their bodies, who get SRS to end the torture of being trapped in the wrong body, they *know* that biological sex is real, hence the very real *need* to transition.

    3. That actually isn’t a contradiction. Because when they say they have “the brain of a woman”, they do not refer to sex, but to gender.

      So what they are saying is that they identify more with the gender role assigned to women, than with the gender role assigned to men.

      However, since this classification is still very vague when refering to cultural differences, there are movements who try to define more than two (up to arbitrary many) genders.

  11. Interesting article. I find it especially interesting that nobody’s mentioning brain structure except for one commenter. We need to go farther in this area of research, but there have already been medical indications that the brain of a trans person doesn’t match their physical form. It is a result of a hormone balance in utero. I don’t think sex is a social construct. Gender roles are, but we knew that.

    1. “Gender roles are, but we knew that.”

      Gender roles are expressed within a cultural context but Gender is based in biology.
      And gender roles are similar across cultures.

      1. Sex is the physical manifestation, ie what the body is shaped like, gender is the mental model, ie how you feel in your head, and gender roles are the different jobs men and women usually have. Those roles can be different, but yes, usually they are similar. I’m defining terms so we can all be on the same page here.

      2. It’s like language.

        Language is universal among humans but it expresses itself differently in different communities.

        Underneath the surface languages have the same structure, and that structure reflects biological necessities.

    2. I think only some gender roles are cultural. For example, why do men make up 98% of workplace deaths and 93% of workplace injuries? Because they are forced to do the jobs that’s involve more physical labor and danger. It makes sense, biologically and evolutionaraly, that women ended up in roles that involved less physical force and danger.

      And for all the feminists talking about how we need to end gender roles, we don’t see a single one saying we need gender parity in jobs like oil rig working, mining, garbage hauling, etc. They only want parity in the comfiest white collar jobs, and leave the worst and most dangerous jobs to the men.

      1. we don’t see a single one saying we need gender parity in jobs like oil rig working, mining, garbage hauling, etc

        Huh? I would guess any woman in the oil rig business, mining business, garbage hauling business etc., would indeed ask for and want equal rights and equal treatment. And they would be absolutely in the right to ask for it.

        I would also be very hesitant to claim that current disparities in men and women in these labor forces is a result of unencumbered female choice. Whether it’s college, the military, sports, or whatever, it seems to be pretty clear that when sexism in hiring and opportunity is regulated out, women ‘go into’ these things just as men do. Whether the numbers reach 50/50 or not is probably unimportant; what’s important is nobody saying ‘a woman miner? Never heard of such a thing! Don’t hire her.’ Or even ‘…hire her, but offer her half what we’d pay to a man.’

        1. I’m talking about feminists asking for 50-50 parity of male and female employment in jobs like sciences and other white collar jobs, while we hear not a peep about difficult, soul-sucking, awful, physically demanding and dangerous jobs.

          They already have pay parity in their jobs.

      2. Men are not forced to do these jobs, except in societies that have labor service.
        It is how the labor market works. I know an employer who, after announcing an interview for a position that requires lifting heavy objects, just throws all applications from women into the garbage.
        I do not know what others think of this, but it makes sense to me, with the average male physically stronger than >90% of females.

      3. I thought they wanted parity to do a job if they could do the job and meet whatever requirements, physical or mental, that job required.

        1. But is a woman really incapable of hauling trash or mining coal? They could, but nobody wants to. Some men have to, but nobody wants to do these jobs.

          Women often have the choice of finding a man to support them, but men usually don’t, and thus end up being forced to work jobs like the ones I’m discussing. One would much rather work in a white collar job or even be a waitress than work as a coal miner, oil rig worker, crab fisherman, etc.

          1. Some women who can do the jobs will. There aren’t as many burly women but there are women capable of doing the work. My dad worked in a shifty job in a factory along side many women.

          2. 0.0% of women are trash haulers. Not even o.1%.

            This is still way off my point: why, when it’s clear that men and women pick different jobs, do feminist only seem to be demanding 50-50 male-female parity in high paying, comfy office jobs, and completely ignoring everything else (it’s because they don’t really want those jobs. Men should have to do those jobs).

          3. No, women want to be paid equal money for equal work. You do realize, female fire fighters take the same physical test as male fire fighters, correct? Same with female police officers. Yes, there are fewer females that are fire fighters and police officers because many females can’t do that work but it is expected that they should be paid equally for the work they do.

            Can you please provide some evidence for the copious amount of statistics you keep throwing out. BTW – hauling trash is hardly a high paying job. And also, do you really think that working at service jobs like the drive through at Wendy’s is a cosy job? That’s where the majority of women end up working for low pay? I guess they are just lazy according to your “stats”?

    3. Yes, some male brain cells lack receptors for testosterone, so though the rest of the body develops normally, the brain develops without that input.

      1. As I recall, there can also be structural differences in the corpus collosum, but I admit it’s been a while since I read the research. A dear friend of mine is trans, so I’ve had a good reason to be interested.

  12. Prof Coyne and friends.

    A very different and intelligent trans women is Blaire White – worth a listen.

    Gender is NOT A Social Construct!

  13. Can’t we use gametes as a criterion for sex? Individuals producing the larger, resource-laden, immobile gamete = female? Those producing the smaller, mobile gamete = male? I had always assumed that was why we don’t use “male” and “female” in isogamous species, or in groups like fungi where we just use “+” and “-” strain.

      1. Thats unavoidable. Androgen Insensitivity syndrome people would be a tiny minority and it is termed a “syndrome”. Inter sex hermaprodite people are recognised as intermediate – but they are not born to the usual schema. Failure to recognise sex gametes is like failure to recognise biology. No its not always clearly distinct as there are always some differences and exceptions in nature but the differences in gametes are what are fundamental to the workings and obviously to reproduction. And differences in sex hormone experience at neuronal level are more secondary again to actual usual binary gametes

    1. We are in fact doing exactly that

      The XY sex-determination system is only one of many that occur in nature

      There are, of course organisms that haven’t gotten past isogamy, many, if not most, protozoans are like that.

      But within multicellular organisms this is a very good rule

    2. Yes. Gametes are the basic defining characteristics of male and female; this is the only definition that holds across all of biology, and the only two states of gametic ‘sex’ are ‘male’ and ‘female’. That’s both a structural (gamete size and usually motility; histological differences between ovaries and testes) and a functional (different processes occur during fertilization in sperm vs. eggs) definition.

      After that, any possible definitions are going to be clade- or species-specific. Among animals, steroid hormones won’t work. Among tetrapods, chromosomes won’t work (birds are ZW instead of XY, many lizrds have genetic sex determination but not different sex chromosomes, and turtles, e.g., have the sex determined by incubation temperature), and neither will primary sex characteristics like penes and vaginae. Secondary sex characters vary widely even within the Order Primates.

      But the present discussion is about a single species, in which certain genes determine sex, which genes are almost always located on certain chromosomes and usually lead to certain hormone levels which usually produce certain primary and secondary sex characteristics (which may well include brain structure with consequences for behavior). So the correlations among all these levels are very high within our species, despite with rare-to-commonish exceptions to ALL of them (the valley between peaks).

      And that’s just straight biology. ‘Gender identity’ and ‘gender roles’ are entire other cans of worms. My sense is that the former is closely correlated with the sex indicators listed above, and that this correlation may well reflect something biologically causal at least in part (exceptions experienced as ‘dysphoria’), whereas ‘gender roles’, referring to behavior, are very likely to be more strongly influenced by cultural effects (which is what I think is meant by a ‘cultural construct’)(exceptions experienced as ‘transgressive’ behavior, however motivated).

      So it’s very complicated. Male/female, XY/XX, woman/man, girl/boy, and masculine/feminine are NOT synonymous concepts, and nor are sex, gender identity, and gender role, but we tend to conflate them in various ways that can impede understanding. Sez me.

  14. Dr. Coyne, for the first time reading your blog, I really disagree.
    I disagree that it is in any way useful to call gender a social construct. Transgender people are absolute proof of this. This is just a bit of doublethink, a way of controlling language to stifle conversation. The reality is that gender is socially, biologically and psychologically constructed. Ask a trans person when then were socialized to become trans.
    I, much like you, don’t give a damn which bathroom people use and I acknowledge that there is no morality in gender identification or in sexual orientation, but facts do not budge, not an inch. Even if it were better to tell people g&d was real, or that we had free will (I don’t think its any better to tell those lies lie), even if that were better for people to think that, it would still not be true. Gender is not a social construct. How long will it be until all the hard sciences become infected by this post-modern crap?

    1. Ummm. . . I noted that biology may play a role in someone becoming transgendered, but we don’t know that. In the meantime, if they want to call themselves a member of their non=”biological” sex, that’s fine with me. Since we don’t know the basis of that syndrome, I’m okay with calling it a “social construct” for now.

      1. Ok, I agree that perhaps I was jumping the gun to say that I know that gender is not a social construct. But we really don’t have what I would call evidence that gender is a social construct either. Maybe we should not refer to it as either one until we can know with reasonable certainty what gender is. And if we do teach that it is a social construct, we need to be clear about what that means.

        As far as identifying people goes, I agree, we should take their word for it. If someone wants to be a man, then I’ll say he’s a man, that is not a problem. And he shall use the men’s room.
        I also question whether bigots will really change their minds about trans people if they are told that gender is a social construct. Perhaps more people would be tolerant if they were of the view that this is a real struggle for trans people, and not some social construct that they chose to abdicate.

        Thank you for the thought-provoking post, as well as your response to my comment, as always I enjoyed reading.

  15. I wonder if Riley understands that her position on this issue is merely a social construct? More importantly, although a person can have re-assignment surgery, that does not transfer to them to power to create sperm or eggs.

    FRANCIS: Why are you always on about women, Stan?

    STAN: I want to be one.

    REG: What?

    STAN: I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me ‘Loretta’.

    REG: What?!

    LORETTA: It’s my right as a man.

    JUDITH: Well, why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?

    LORETTA: I want to have babies.

    REG: You want to have babies?!

    LORETTA: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

    REG: But… you can’t have babies.

    LORETTA: Don’t you oppress me.

    REG: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! — Where’s the fetus going to gestate?! You going to keep it in a box?!

    LORETTA: [crying]

    JUDITH: Here! I– I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.

    1. You omitted the punchline

      REG: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

      which is what has kept running through my mind as I have read this thread.

  16. …”this misrepresentation of the truth is being used to justify some pretty hateful things.”

    There is no disagreement, only hate. This is why safe places are needed and why hate crimes were a bad idea. We’re careening down the slippery slope.

  17. This argument that we need to see biological sex as a social construct is a logical fallacy (I almost wrote “phallacy” which would be funny) in that it is an argument from consequences. The consequences could be bad, so therefore we’ll say that it is untrue. It doesn’t make it any more true. If it were true that biological sex was a social construct, we’d need see trans men getting pregnant or dying of uterine cancer, we’d have trans women getting prostate cancer just like men. The list goes on!

  18. “Those who use the reality of biological sex to marginalize trans people are committing the naturalistic fallacy: claiming that an “ought” follows from an “is”.”
    Came in to say this.

    It’s a strange position when people try so hard to tease out what is culture and what is biology as if it’s going to make a point to our morality. Imagine the sexual attraction to children is genetic – even if it were the case for some they are attracted to children, it wouldn’t take away from the immorality of such an act. That they “can’t help it” is really no defence. The morality is caught up in our social lives.

    So I’ve never really understood why some people try to deny biology, or make a big deal out of denying our biology. It doesn’t really affect the moral points we wish to draw about treating others, or how others ought to be treated.

    1. “It doesn’t really affect the moral points we wish to draw about treating others, or how others ought to be treated.”

      Cultures regard incest as wrong – that is based in biology.
      It is not obvious to me what to base morality on – perhaps what is good for the species is a good starting point.

      In the 80’s many on the progressive left in Germany argued for ‘consensual pedophilia’. Maybe in 20 years some of the progressive ideas will fall out of favor.

  19. I can go as far as to say that “men” whose brains lack receptors for testosterone are not entirely biologically “male” but can they make a baby with a woman? Yes. That’s a binary condition – it’s a yes or no question.

    After we get into hormonal therapy and surgery it’s more muddy, but just wearing lipstick and a dress doesn’t overcome science.

    1. This comes close another flaw in thinking there is no sex or gender. If all of this is a social construct, why do some people not fall into that construct despite ‘expections’? Besides identifying as male or female, there are people who identify as neither. Or both.

  20. The contortions some will go to to try to solve issues by somehow claiming our very senses and ability to reason are wrong!
    Everything Jerry has said seems reasonable and self-evident to me.
    Here is what we should do: Treat everyone the same in terms of value, respect for their wants, and space for their expression.

  21. I think a large part of the difficulty here is a problem of language (as Wittgenstein told us all such difficulties are). The language surrounding this issue is especially fraught.

    “Gender,” as it originally entered the language was a grammatical term — pronouns had gender (as do many common nouns in languages other than English); people did not.

    The term “sex,” as originally understood, itself had two equivocal meanings, in that it referred both to the distinction between male and female as well as to acts of carnal gratification themselves. Because of this inherent equivocation, some people (and I recall there being many feminist lawyers among them) looked for a different word for the first meaning of that term described above; they settled upon “gender.” Thus, a few decades back, in the law, “sex discrimination” became “gender discrimination.”

    Now, there seems to be a further distinction complicating the matter. If we take “sex” now to mean one’s chromosomes, one’s sexual organs at birth, and one’s secondary sexual characteristics — and we take “gender” now to mean things like what toys a child plays with, or how one dresses or wears one’s hair, or otherwise how one presents oneself to the world as male or female — then it’s clear (essentially by definition) that sex is wholly determined biologically and “gender” is entirely socially constructed.

    Some people, of course, while born biologically belonging to one sex, will find that they identify more strongly with the gender of the other. A subset of those people will choose to have sexual-reassignment surgery. I think people ought to be treated according to the gender with which they identify, with all attendant legal rights and privileges. Whether a person born of one sex but identifies as the gender of the other — with or without sexual assignment surgery — thereby becomes a “real” member of the other sex, seems to me to be primarily a matter of interest in certain battles among third-wave feminists, less so for the rest of us.

    1. “I think people ought to be treated according to the gender with which they identify, with all attendant legal rights and privileges.”

      Or we could treat men & women equally and then it’s all moot.

      1. “I think people ought to be treated according to the gender with which they identify, with all attendant legal rights and privileges.”

        By this logic a white South African can identify as black and take advantage of current policies that remedy historical Apartheid disadvantages.

        1. Not sure what relevance your assertion has in a thread about sex and gender.

          But even as to sex and gender the identification must be sincere. A man can’t claim to identify as a woman merely to gain access to a bathroom because he gets off on watching women pee — just as one can’t claim to be a religion unto one’s self solely for the purpose of obtaining a 501(c)(3) tax exemption. US law frequently requires that such claims be bona fide and sincere.

      2. I’m all in favor of equality of treatment, ladyatheist; I was thinking here of use of restrooms and other matters where such distinctions are drawn.

        1. I understand the sentiment but a line has to be drawn somewhere…

          There are also gender fluid people, who *will* change their gender identity throughout the day. A few months ago a young woman, dressed all in pink + short skirt, decided that she would identify as a boy that day, and she just walked right into the boy’s bathroom at school. A boy took a photo of her at the sink, and she accused him of harassment.

  22. Did anyone see the 3 part program called “9 Months That Made You” on PBS? I came away from the first episode with the impression that at around 6 weeks, if there is a surge of testosterone, the male genitalia grow and the baby will be male. If the testosterone surge doesn’t happen the baby will be female. But then, a few weeks later, there needs to be another testosterone surge that sets up the male gender identification in the brain. It seems to me that if that second surge doesn’t happen a person could be born a male, yet identify as female???

  23. Everyday Feminism is a cancer for the left. They are consistently against science in the name of “inclusion”. They deny obesity has any negative health effects. They break Poes Law because not even someone like Milo can go far enough to actually parody the people on the site.

    The writers there truly place oppression Olympics and have a clear hierarchy on has the most “genuine voice”.

  24. The downplaying and even outright hostility to biology is another symptom of post-modernist “thinking”. You are what you think you are. Even though one is raised in the Midwest, say Kansas or Nebraska,and is Caucasion, if that person thinks she or he is a Kung San (formerly known as Bushmen), then by golly s/he is! Nevermind that person wouldn’t have the foraging and hunting skills to survive there, or be able to speak the language, or have a kinship network for support, all of that is irrelevant because “I think I am Kung San, therefore I am!” And by the way, apples are not really apples, they are oppressed domesticants.

    There really are such things as social constructs, but there are also many things that are not.

  25. The term “gender” was useful as an unambiguous (and euphemistic) stand-in for “sex” (which became ambiguous when “sexual intercourse” was almost universally shortened to “sex”).

    It is no longer useful, and worthless as a word for some nebulous idea that’s exactly like sex but somehow detached from it.

    Having a brain develop in a mostly female way, or even an entirely female way, inside a male body is entirely possible. It’s what happens with CAIS, where male embryos (XY chromosomes) have a defect preventing androgens from functioning during development. Completely female brain that also happens to reside in an almost completely female body – a ready made transsexual, with no need for surgery.

    The inverse of CAIS is not possible, since male brains have active Y chromosome genes. But there are a host of mental traits that differ in frequency and magnitude between men and women, and it’s possible for the brain in a female body to develop with a surfeit of masculine traits, making that person feel more like a man than a woman.

    The proper term for someone whose brain has developed to be more like the typical brain of the opposite sex is transsexual. The term “transgender” is worthless, as it has been used to describe actual transsexuals, and what are sometimes called “transtrenders” – people who claim to be “transgender” because it’s fashionable, and are not in any sense in possession of a brain that would be more at home in a body of the opposite sex.

    Riley Dennis, nee Justin Dennis, is such a man. A heterosexual man with a few effeminate mental traits, who has no right to demand that anyone share his delusion that he’s being reasonable in calling himself a woman.

    And as a last remark, I should point out that this sex-but-not-sex concept of “gender” is essentially unique to English. In German, there’s only one word – Geschlecht. And that’s a language, unlike English, which actually has gender (three of them).

  26. Well, what I get from her statements is, that it is indeed not well-defined who gets labeled as “male” and who gets labeled as “female” at birth.

    Even if you agree that the “biological sex” can be either male, female or unclassifiable it is hard to argue, that e.g. CAIS-women are unclassifiable. At least, they will clearly be labeled as female at birth.

    So while whether some transgender people are biologically male, female or unclassifiable is indeed, as Dawkins called it, purely semantical and open to interpretation.

    So while I agree with you that you cannot say “There is no such thing as biological sex”, I tend to agree with her, that calling her “biologically male” is not well-defined.

    But this begs the question, where is the line between well-defined biological males and unclassifiables.

    Is a sterilized man still biologically male?
    Is someone who cut off his penis still biologically male?
    Is someone who got breasts due to taking hormones still biologically male?

    I don’t really see a clear answer to those questions.

    1. You are using the rare exceptions to invalidate the rule. In that sense being “biologically male” IS well defined. Remember, sex differences evolved well before we had surgery, and the vast majority of humans still don’t get sterilized, have their penises cut off, or take hormones. So you’re arguing about semantics here and ignoring the fact that biological sex is objectively recognizable in the vast majority of cases and that that objectivity is the basis of much evolution.

      1. @Jerry:

        I do not try to invalidate the rule, but I can see the point of Riley, that it is questionable whether she should be called “biologically male”.

        I also do not ignore the fact, that most people fall in one of two categories in (almost) all definitions of biological sex.

        Maybe I missed it, but could you please define biological sex as you would do it? I currently do not see a definition, that fits better than the other ones.

        (by the way, I think that is what feminists mean, when they say that biological sex is a “social construct”. That in some cases it is up to the definition agreed upon, how you are categorized.
        However this means almost nothing, by this definition everything we do is a “social construct”)

        @Cindy: Yeah, that is the question. And if yes, when you keep removing parts, at what point it stops being a helicopter?

        The whole concept of helicopter is fuzzy, such as the concept of biological sex.

        And although in most cases it is quite obvious that you have a helicopter or a biologically male person, there are gray areas where it is not obvious any more. And I think that is what Riley is refering to (she argues, that she is part of the gray area).

        1. In humans, a male is the sex that has a Y chromosome and produces sperm.

          And no, you don’t understand the video: she is saying that there is no biological reality to biological sex, though you admit she’s wrong. Just because there are gray areas doesn’t invalidate the reality. Just because there are mules does not mean that there are no such things as donkeys or horses. She’s using the very rare intermediates to show that biological sex is not an objective reality.

          And are surely wrong about what feminists mean by “social construct”. It means, in part, that there is no biological reality to the phenomenon.

          Do not bother to reply; I don’t have time to continue this discussion.

        2. A helicopter without rotors is a helicopter that is undergoing maintenance.

          Dick Cheney is still an h.sapiens organism (despite what others here may argue!!) despite the fact that he is not currently in possession of a living human heart (his heart is artificial)

          And yes, Riley Dennis is unquestionably biologically male. He has a penis, testes, prostate, and he produces sperm. It is also highly likely that he has XY chromosomes. Riley Dennis is biologically male regardless of what he says.

          Oh, and I found this little quote to be interesting:

          “… all the cells of your body – the skin cells, the cells of your liver, and of your heart, and even of your ear, those cells know, at a fundamental molecular level, whether they are XX or XY.”

          David Page, Director of the Whitehead Institute and professor of biology at MIT, has shaped modern genomics and mapped the Y chromosome. And he’s here to say, “Human genome, we have a problem.” Page contends that medical research is overlooking a fundamental fact with the assumption that male and female cells are equal and interchangeable in the lab, most notably because conventional wisdom holds that the X and Y chromosomes are relevant only within the reproductive tract. But if the sexes are equal, why are women more likely than men to develop certain diseases, and vice versa? This compelling talk from TEDxBeaconStreet foretells how changing the way we understand the sexes could transform health care.

          Watch the video here:

  27. The ‘gender is a social construct’ claim seems innocuous, but it should be challenged, as it is a motte-and-bailey doctrine.

    What most people mean when they affirm this claim is that gender is a culturally contingent over-determination of values, norms, and concepts relative to the biological fact of sexual difference. There is nothing biological that demands that women wear dresses, or that men should be stoic and emotionally reserved. In affirming this claim they also state their support for a society where both men and women are freer to express their differences and their individuality, even when it runs contrary to the gendered norm.

    However, for many gender theorists, the ‘gender is a social construct’ claim means a great deal more than this. It connotes support for a radical blank slate position, that gender is nothing but a social construct. Gender isn’t merely an over-determination of natural sexual difference, but the invention of it.

    It assumes, for instance, that anything short of parity of representation of the sexes in various areas of life and society can only be a product of patriarchal oppression. It assumes that gender—and even sex—is merely ‘assigned’, rather than being grounded in an objective biological reality. It assumes that, since gender is merely a social construct, we can engineer society to remove it, by stifling boys’ and girls’ natural tendencies and pushing them towards a new androgynous ideal.

    However, saying that gender is a social construct (insofar as it functions as the ‘motte’) is a fairly trivial claim. Lots of important and powerful realities are social constructs. Personhood is a social construct, with significantly varying understandings from culture to culture over history. Humanity is a social construct. Individuality is a social construct. Yet all of these social constructs are grounded in an objective and unavoidable reality, a reality that has the habit of kicking back when mishandled.

    Notions of gender, like notions of humanity, vary widely from society to society. However, the recognition of gender difference as such is pretty much a cultural universal. While societies may differ on what it means to be male and female and on the particular shape that this difference takes, they share in common the recognition that this particular difference is deeply important to our shared humanity and should be constitutive of our ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the world beyond us.

    It should also be noted that WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) society is peculiar in many ways in making the individual the fundamental unit of all social analysis. This tends to change our relationship to the notion of gender from a participation with others in a reality greater than ourselves to a designation of a lowest common denominator identity shared by all persons of a particular sex.

    While we tend to experience gender as shackles upon our individual self-expression, the ceremonious and over-determined character of gender in many societies is precisely on account of the fact that gender enables us to become a participant in something greater than ourselves. Women wear dresses and men wear suits and ties at special events, for instance, not merely or even primarily to express their individuality, but because the cultural amplification and conjugation of the natural fact of sexual difference enables us to recognize ourselves as more than individuals. We are those who are implicated in natural and social movements of life beyond ourselves and are summoned both within and without our bodies to join the dance of nature. The world is charged with mystery into which we are to be initiated and our sexed bodies are the means by which we unfurl to the drama of a deep natural reality beyond us.

    Sexual difference and reproduction is one of the most basic facts of human existence. Gender is the way that cultures respond to, celebrate, and unite their members in a humanized and social answer to and articulation of this natural fact. As a social fact, gender is more poetry than prose, less of a set of theories and universal norms than a collective social dancing out of the fact that human beings are a sexually dimorphic and reproductive species. Clearly there are some people whose relationship to this natural fact is somehow disjointed and others who are restricted by an overly rigid ‘choreography’ in particular societies’ articulation of gender. However, as long as the natural facts remain, some sort of a social response to and celebration of them is both necessary and fitting. It is one of the primary ways in which human beings have entered into the enjoyment and appreciation of a reality greater than themselves. Nature is not ambivalent to sexual difference and coupling and we shouldn’t be either.

    Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.

  28. A question that occurred to me during reading:
    Why is it not biological, if human beings, that are part of what I’d call nature/biological sphere, change other human beings genitals?
    There seems to be a distinction, but I can’t quite grasp its underlying reasoning.

  29. Interesting post on the conflicting gap between gender, sex, and in turn sexuality. If you would be so kind to check out my Anthropology blog and tell me what you think it would be much appreciated!

  30. I think an important point this argument is missing transcends the topic itself. There is a common misconception within the natural sciences (i.e., biology) that knowledge of the natural world is fact. Where in fact all knowledge are social constructions. Social constructions are just a free for all, they are often stable constructs that shape we see, move through, and understand the world. My ontological beliefs falls within realism, where I believe a true, singular reality exists, but knowledge is only ever filtered through human consciousness. If all humans died so would those constructions and the world would continue to just exist as it were. The constructs can reflect attributes and properties of the natural world, but they only represent our current understandings until new research and knowledge generation evolves these understandings to more accurately reflect these observations of the natural world. More importantly, variations within sex have important implications within epidemiology. With these variations where do the bounds of ones sex end and begin? This decision is furthering the construction of how we identify sex (whether its bimodal or binary), regardless of the result it still represents a construction.

    1. Yep, just like the social construction that humans have five fingers. You do realize that those who don’t adhere to the biological definition of sex are less than a tenth of a percent. That makes it effectively bimodal, which of course is what evolution is pushing for. Those “variations”, well, they’re developmental anomalies, not “other sexes”.

      It’s amazing to me that the consciousness of all humans tells them that there really are men and women, isn’t it?

      By the way, knowledge is scientific fact so long as it’s perverse to believe otherwise. Sorry but your comment (a common phiosophical objection to science) is not important, but obtuse and irrelevant.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *