I’ve maintained in several posts that biological sex is not an arbitrary social construct, but an objective phenomenon into which the vast majority of humans (and most animal species) fall into the clearly delineated categories of “male” and “female”. The frequency of exceptions for sex is about 1%, or less if you omit transgender individuals who are “male” and “female” defined by chromosome constitution, genitalia, and form of gametes. Sex is largely bimodal, with most individuals falling into the two sharp “male” and “female” peaks and a deep valley of exceptional individuals between the peaks. For most purposes, we can regard sex in humans as a biological binary.
Gender, on the hand, doesn’t divide so nearly if you see it as an individual’s self-identification. Much of gender is, of course, biologically based, as when someone in a purely female body has a strong psychological (and hence biological) predilection to feel as if they’re male. But some individuals feel as if they’re members of two or even more sexes (some of these use the personal pronoun “they” for themselves), while some feel as if they’re members of no sex at all. Which sex you feel you’re a member of is surely bimodal, but there are more exceptions than there are for sex (or so I feel; I may be wrong). That’s why I say gender is less binary than is biological sex.
Debra Soh, who has a Ph.D. in the psychology of sexuality and is now working as a journalist, has written an article in Real Clear Politics (click on screenshot) which agrees with me that sex is binary (I’d say “effectively binary”.
Citing the same New York Times column by Anne Fausto-Sterling that I discussed in an earlier post— a column implying that because sex isn’t 100% binary it isn’t bimodal—Soh makes points similar to mine. First, a few rare exceptions doesn’t mean that the concept of biological sex is arbitrary or forms a continuum in which the sexes blur together. As Soh writes,
Fausto-Sterling’s piece points to the existence of intersex people as evidence that this isn’t the case. Certainly, research has shown that as many as 1 percent of the population is intersex, a medical condition denoting that an individual possesses anatomy characteristic of both sexes, such as a combination of vulvar and testicular tissue. Statistically speaking, however, this means that the vast majority of us fall into one category of sex or the other.
It therefore becomes a question of whether a statistically rare occurrence in the general population should be considered typical. An analogy that is commonly used to illustrate this is the fact that most of us have 10 fingers. There exist individuals who possess fewer or more than 10 digits on their hands, but this hasn’t called for a re-conceptualization of how many fingers a human being has.
Soh also agrees with me that despite the effective binary of biological sex, we should respect people’s self-definition of gender.
For the intersex community, there has been a long history of physicians failing to respect their bodily autonomy, or incorrectly assuming that they were not the sex they grew up to identify as in adulthood. In these cases, individuals should be allowed to change the sex marked on their birth certificate if, later in life, an intersex condition becomes known.
We can, and should, advocate for the rights of intersex people and those who do not fit typical gender norms, while at the same time acknowledging these scientific truths.
Where Soh and I part company is on two points.
First, she also claims that like sex, gender is also a binary.
Indeed, gender—whether we subjectively feel male or female—is biological, not a social construct. An extremely large and consistent body of scientific research has shown that gender is the result of prenatal hormone exposure, even in the case of intersex individuals, as opposed to adults and society imposing gendered norms on unsuspecting children from the moment they leave the womb.
After describing “the process of gender socialization,” the piece goes on to say that “[f]etal hormones also affect brain development.” How would it be possible for hormones to affect the developing brain in utero, but not the expression of this brain development, which manifests as sex-typed differences in interests, personality, and behavior when the child is born?
. . . But in reality, the term “transgender” means that a person identifies more as the opposite sex than their birth sex—which still operates within a framework of sex being binary.
This, however, leaves out the fact that some people don’t identify as “male” or “female” genders, nor do some cultures recognize just two genders.
And if some people see themselves as both male and female, or of no sex at all, then gender isn’t a binary, or at least not as much a binary as biological sex. I hasten to add that I’m assuming that individuals who don’t identify as “male” or “female”, regardless of their biological sex, are higher in frequency than 1% or so. If they aren’t, then gender could also be regarded as an “effective binary”; even though it is, like sex, strongly bimodal. I’d guess that more than 95% of people consider themselves “male” or “female”, so gender is also bimodal But gender and sex are not interchangeable terms.
Soh also seems to agree with the Health and Human Services’s proposal to recognize only two sexes as sound:
[Anne Fausto-Sterling’s] piece joined a long succession of media coverage criticizing the Department of Health and Human Services’ recently leaked memo, which proposed legally defining sex as either male or female.
From a scientific perspective, there was nothing wrong with HHS’s definition. Biological sex refers to whether we are female or male, based on our anatomy and reproductive functions. The concept of sex is, by definition, binary.
But as far as I know, the HHS redefinition is of gender, not sex, or so says the New York Times:
The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.
. . . The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.
Unless we consider biological sex and gender to be identical, Soh is wrong to assume they’re effectively the same thing, Although both have a biological basis, someone who’s a transgender individual is usually born as a member of one sex but consider themselves (and feel like) members of another.
It is these people that the Trump administration is aiming at, refusing to recognize someone like Caitln Jenner as being of the female gender. People like her would then be forced to use men’s restrooms and so on, something that I think is coercive and oppressive. The HHS policy is just a way to force those who don’t fit the gender binary into a sex binary—a generally conservative policy. It is, as far as I can see, a way to oppress or stigmatize transsexual or transgender individuals (I have trouble understanding if there’s any difference between these categories, as they’re often defined identically).
There may be some circumstances that justify recognizing a sex binary for official purposes, as in sports. But even there, what with hormone therapy and gender-transition surgery, things get very messy, and I have no solution about what to do with transsexual athletes.
What I’ve been arguing against in my three or four posts on this issue is that while gender may be quite fluid, with individuals falling into ambiguous psychological rather clear biological categories, sex itself is pretty much a binary. There’s certainly no reason, I think, to see sex as some kind of continuum, as a social construct, or as,something that’s not biologically and (nearly always) objectively real.
When a male lion wants to mate, he looks for a female, for nearly every lion is a member of one of the two sexes. And since animals have no “social constructs”, their innate recognition of whom they should reproduce with is a sign of the objectivity of male versus female lions. (Yes, someone’s gonna mention bonobos, but they use sexual gestures as a form of bonding, not as a means of reproduction, and even that is extremely rare among species.)
In other words, as of now I’m willing to accept someone’s self-identification as to biological gender, but not self-identification as to biological sex. I accept individuals like Caitlin Jenner as members of the female gender, but not of the female biological sex.