Is “sex” socially constructed?

October 26, 2022 • 12:15 pm

This one-page paper from 2017 is what you get when two sociologists try to pontificate about human sex as not only not “binary”, but as “socially constructed”. They manage to make a number of errors, and of course it’s in the cause of ideology. If sex is “socially constructed”, so that there is no objective conception of what a “sex” is in humans, then that supposedly validates the identities all the people whose genders (sociocultural sex roles or feelings) don’t comport with the binary sex of male and female.  It’s a prime example of two errors:

a. conflating gender with sex, and

b. assuming that biological sex is socially constructed and forms a sort of spectrum, like gender.

Yes, gender does form a spectrum because there are a gazillion genders (more than 150 at this site!). But there are only two biological sexes in humans and most animals, with “sex” defined as “the category containing individuals whose bodies are organized around producing one kind of gamete.”  “Males” are all those in the class that produces small, mobile gametes (sperm), and “females” are all those in the class that produces large, immobile gametes (eggs).  These two sexes were produced by evolutionary processes, processes in which more than two sexes is an unstable condition.  The number of exceptions to the definition I’ve given is tiny–less than 0.05%, comprising individuals who are hermaphrodites or have disorders of sex development.  Thus, more than 99.5% of human fit neatly into one or the two sexes, and that’s about as “binary” as you can get. (One petulant reader told me that “almost binary” is not “binary”, and yes, I have  Ph.D. and know that.) But for all practical purposes sex is binary, and certainly wholly bimodal.

Biological sex is not socially constructed, either: it is an objective form of distinguishing individuals, a dichotomy that appears in nearly every species of animal, and fruit flies don’t socially construct their own sexes!

Read and weep at this “back page” from the American Sociological Association’s journal Contexts; click on screenshot below to go to the page, or find the pdf here.

I can barely bring myself to defend the biological definition of sex again, but humanities scholars keep popping up like Amanita mushrooms and making counterclaims, like this one:

Sociocultural scholars have explored the social construction of gender as a performative, fluid, and non-universal category for decades, but the notion that physical sex is also socially constructed has acquired far less exploration.

That’s because it doesn’t deserve exploration, because physical sex is not socially constructed—whatever they mean by “physical sex”. I presume they mean primary sex traits like penises, vaginas, and uteruses, and secondary sex traits like body hair and the presence of breasts. Even those are very highly (but not perfectly) correlated with biological sex, so even using genitals, or for that matter chromosome constitution, you can sort individuals into two modes with few intermediates.

The authors argue, however, that because some people in the past have used other definitions of sex than the gamete-based one settled upon by biologists, sex must be something slippery and undefinable, and therefore not very clear-cut.  But they mistake the refinement of our understanding (based largely on apprehending evolution) with biological confusion. To wit:

While we tend to rely on genital appearance at birth (more directly, the presence or absence of a phallus) as the basis of our sex assignment, what constitutes the essential sign of sex has varied over the years. Genital appearance, sex hormones, sex chromosomes, and the brain have each been used to sex categorize bodies at different points in time. Sex hasn’t always been a simple binary divide, either: pathologist Theodore Klebs, for instance, first classified anatomical sex into five categories in 1876, using the presence of gonads (ovaries, testes, or a mix of ovarian and testicular tissue) as his guide, and biologist and gender scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling further described these divisions in her influential 1993 piece, “The Five Sexes.”

Krebs’s view, and those other views, have been outmoded for well over 50 years.  As for individuals having both ovarian and testicular tissue, they can still be called “male” or “female” based on whether that tissue makes eggs or sperm. There are less than a handful of cases in history in which individuals make both eggs and sperm, and those might be called either a “third” sex or “intersex”, but most hermaphrodites are completely sterile.

Here’s another error: the authors conflate the hormonal criteria used by the International Olympic Committee to see who is allowed to compete in “men’s” or “women’s” categories with the definition of sexes themselves. This is not true: the Olympics is simply trying to place individuals into the category in which their participation leads to fair competition, not define “male” and “female”:

More recently, hormonal levels have been used to categorize sex, as is the case in sex testing conducted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). In 2009, South African runner Caster Semenya won the 800-meter race at the Berlin World Championships in Athletics. The media and several of Semenya’s competitors seized on her appearance and performance to pose stigmatizing questions about whether she was eligible to compete as a female. Semenya was temporarily banned from competition. In a purported effort to prevent another such fiasco, in 2012, the IOC and IAAF issued sex-testing policies centered on hyperandrogenism (a medical term describing, in females, higher than “normal” levels of androgen, including testosterone, and often associated with intersex traits). The groups claimed the guidelines were not about sex testing women athletes, but about ensuring fairness in elite athletic competitions. After years of scrutiny, Semenya (who has never self-identified as hyperandrogenic or intersex) was reinstated. She won silver at the 2012 Olympic Games. In the summer of 2015, the sex-testing policies were suspended after Dutee Chand, an Indian 100-meter sprinter, successfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Chand didn’t advance to the semi-finals in the 2016 Olympic Games, but Semenya won gold in the 800-meter race. Immediately following her win, the IAAF made a statement that they would consider the possibility of reinstating hyperadrogenism testing.
Semenya would be classified as having a disorder of sex development, perhaps as an intersex. Her chromosomes are XY but she has 5α-Reductase 2 deficiency, a mutation that causes elevated testosterone and produces rudimentary male gonadal tissue. These individuals vary in “bodily presentation”: while Semenya has male gonadal tissue, she is one of the individuals with this condition that has a vagina. I would call her an “intersex” individual: one of the 0.02% of people who don’t fall neatly into male or female. But she is not a member of a third “sex”, either, as these individuals are sterile.  As for her ability to compete as a woman, I have no judgment on that.  But the authors conclude this:


That one’s eligibility to compete as a female athlete is debatable and that the physical criteria used to judge femaleness have changed over time are evidence that the categorization of sex is a social, variable process.

Nope. Semenya was allowed to compete as a woman. This does not mean she was deemed a biological women.

It’s hard to make so many errors and promulgate so many misconceptions on a single page, but Dais and Preves have succeeded. At the end they underscore once again their incorrect view that sex is not a real phenomenon but a social construct:

Perhaps, then, we ought to ask parents “Who is it?” rather than “What is it?” when we meet a child. That way, the focus might rest more holistically on the newborn as a human being, rather than the predetermined product of a historically variable and socially constructed sex and gender system. Maybe then we can get to the root of why, as a society, we are so quick to categorize babies as “females” or “males” ascribed with “feminine” or “masculine” personalities. Doing so would require wrestling with, and perhaps unraveling, our widely held beliefs that both sex and gender are binary, neatly correlated phenomena. Simply changing the focus of the conversation seems a good place to start acknowledging the diversity of sex development.

Why do the authors do this? Well, perhaps they’re ignorant of biology, but I won’t accuse them of this. More likely they’re guilty of making a fallacious “appeal to nature”: because we see intersex individuals like Semenya, this means not only that biological sex doesn’t exist, but somehow vindicates the gender identity of those who see themselves as bisexual or one of the many other gender categories that don’t correspond with “male” and “female”.

55 thoughts on “Is “sex” socially constructed?

  1. I suspect that the disconnect between biological sex and woke beliefs arises from people not thinking and speaking clearly.

    Is biological sex “the category containing individuals whose bodies are organized around producing one kind of gamete”? Absolutely, scientifically true. But there are social constructions perched on top of this scientific truth, and the social constructions vary over time depending on circumstances and, well, fashion. The social champions are unwilling (or perhaps unable) to see the biological foundations they attempt to build their principles upon. They are building castles in the air, and dare not look down.

  2. Frans de Waal has a new book out, “Different: Gender through the Eyes of a Primatologist” and was recently on Lawrence Krauss’ Origins podcast (video of yootoobs). I know that many here take issue with de Waal’s opinions on atheism, and I’m still not sure how to view Krauss after his “me too”** moment, but it was an interesting interview. Krauss even lets de Waal talk once in a while. But they cover many aspects of this issue and how they are experienced in non-human primates and how that relates to human primates.

    And let me add that “Mis-gendering” an infant or small child may be a bit of a social faux pas, but asking a parent “Who is it?”, seriously?! Are you answering the door? Is this, a knock-knock joke? Besides, isn’t it the child has gets to decide? And change their minds whenever they feel differently?

    **and I am interested in what others think about LK now. He’s had Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Charles Murray, and many others on his podcast. I’ve ignored in until last week and have since watched several, but as I don’t know the full story, I’m still hesitant about fully embracing him again.

    1. If we are free will skeptics, we will understand he could not have done otherwise. Some deem he has done sufficient penance others will argue not. They too can’t do otherwise.

      1. I don’t know, to be honest. It’s a tough question, and I suppose I’d need all the relevant facts to know for sure. But PCC(E) did post something, maybe a tweet by him the other day, and I knew Dawkins had been on his podcast so I gave it a try.

        What I can say for sure is he talks too much, and needs to let the guest speak more, but he does have interesting, long form interviews. The one with de Waal discussed some relevant issues about how the apes, chimpanzees I think, in his research lab could tell in a heartbeat the sex of the researchers. The chimps were male, so I’ll let you guess how they knew the chimps knew. They did not respond the same way with male researchers, that’s for sure.

        1. He does indeed talk to much, and he too often interrupts his guests. He also needs to make an effort to speak in sentences, not mashes of sentence fragments. But, the podcasts can still be worthwhile.

    2. LK is smart and says interesting things, but there are other smart and interesting people that one could listen to instead. I no longer listen to him.
      I wish that Dawkins, Fry, and others would pass on him as well since it is bad optics.

    3. Frans de Waal may have a jaundiced view of the proponents of atheism, but there is no doubt he is an atheist. I think he just doesn’t like the scathing, active atheism of Dawkins, Coyne and co (Note, I do).
      I think Lawrence Krauss’s falling into the crosshairs of the ‘me too’ movement (deserved as it appears to be, I’m not privy to the details), should not deflect from the many good ideas he has. If we were to ostracise his ideas because they came from a ‘sexual harasser’ we would be no better than the ‘Woke’.
      If Feynman (or even Einstein) had lived these days he would have certainly be targeted by the ‘me too’, but we still are admiring -for good reason- his ideas.

  3. Their confusion or attempted deception (I’d guess confusion) once again comes down to the difference (which I first learned about from this website) between ontology and epistemology. All of these sorts of writings confound sex and ‘gender’ (itself a polysemous term), but they also use problems of epistemology (how can we tell what sex an individual is?) as if they call into question the ontology (how many sexes are there?). But they do not.

  4. I hope that wasn’t me, because I know I was scrutinizing “binary” and its use.

    So now I need to know the distinction between “personality” and “gender”. Sounds like its the Venn diagram intersection of sex and personality.

    1. RE binary vs nearly binary: Humans are a bipedal species. This isn’t contradicted by the fact that occasionally a baby is born with one leg only. There are exceptions to most rules.

  5. If biological sex is socially constructed then that construction is only within the current human species. The great apes I assume don’t have this social constructions. One wonders when in the evolutionary process this emerged. Did Neanderthals share this construction? Further work is definitely needed on these questions. 🙂

    1. Assuming that a ‘social construct’ is about how we categorize people based on our perceptions of them, then apes and other animals also use social constructs when it comes to sex. Male and female monkeys will behave differently toward one another based on the perceived sex of other monkeys. They don’t examine gonadal tissue under a microscope.

      1. But if a social construct is built around perceived sex, then it isn’t a social construct. No, they don’t examine gonadal tissue under a microscope, but they sure do examine each other’s private parts.

  6. Surely the definition of biological can exist along with gender identity because one does not have to define the other.

  7. Serious, not snarky. Can anyone here explain for me how the concept of “gender” or “gender identity” illumines anything about the human condition? Once we accept that there are nearly countless ways to feel, act, present, perform, etc. etc. as either a man or a woman, then what does “gender” do for us? It strikes me as an unnecessary abstraction prone to all types of confusion, but I am open to ideas.

    Along with this, what does it even mean to “feel” like a man? Anyone? I am one, and perhaps I am just obtuse, but I have no damned idea what this even means.

    1. It would be helpful to find a counterexample – something like handedness.

      I identify as right-handed. The doors are all designed just for me, just like Douglas Adam’s sentient puddle’s hole is made precisely for the sentient puddle and comforts it so.

      The Left-handed identity, on the other hand… makes the gas-powered cars burn more fuel taking left-handed turns. Except in England…?

      1. I’ll assume there is some seriousness here, because I could be missing the more subtle humor!

        It strikes me that you “are” right-handed. What work is “identify as” doing?

        Also, handedness is discrete: you are either right, left, or ambidextrous. Unless I am missing something, there are not endless degrees of “handedness”. Are you proposing that “gender” is similarly discrete: masculine, feminine, or “swing both ways”, so to speak? (And that society somehow favors the masculine?) How is this different from suggesting that masculinity and femininity simply boil down to stereotypes?

        1. “What work is “identify as” doing?”

          If I identify as right-handed, then I suppose it tells you – and, I am telling you – that all the doorknobs and doors work better for me. I am on the side that doesn’t block traffic with disturbing left-hand turns. I like right-handed shells. I do not need special scissors like left-handed people.

          … I’m letting the facetiousness and silliness through, but what else would a handed-ness identity look like?

        2. Unless I am missing something, there are not endless degrees of “handedness”.

          I write left handed, play tennis left handed, play a guitar left handed and hold a spoon left handed. I hold a cricket bat right handed, a golf club right handed and a knife and fork right handed.

          So, while the degrees may not exactly be endless, there are degrees.

    2. Or how about



      … are there things of experience associated with those above that are perhaps unlike those of the opposite?

      That could be construed as identity.

      I’m just brainstorming here.

  8. All the scientific attempts to show that trans people are what (not “who”) “they say they are” seem to rest on scientific assertions which would never have been asserted if they weren’t trying to show that. As far as I know biologists weren’t long puzzled by a gap in their understanding which has now been filled by the discovery of transgender identities.

    At least part of the reason for the focus on sex being socially constructed is I think that some advocates are claiming that being trans is a Disorder (or Difference) In Sexual Development. Gender identity is supposed to be a neurological state found somewhere in almost every human brain at birth (evolved for what reason they don’t say) and therefore a mismatched Gender Identity is a DSD.

    A “spectrum” of people along a line of typical female blending into typical male requires social decisions. If we allow some people with extreme cases of DSDs such as CAIS or Hyperandrogenism to count as or choose whether they’re men or women, then the argument is we ought to do the same for DSDs like a transgender identity.

    1. There was a reference in Abigail Shrier’s book titled something like “you don’t have a disorder – you have feelings.”

  9. The number of exceptions to the definition I’ve given is tiny–less than 0.05%, comprising individuals who are hermaphrodites or have disorders of sex development. Thus, more than 99.5% of human fit neatly into one or the two sexes, and that’s about as “binary” as you can get.

    Minor point: that should be 99.95%, not 99.5%, given the preceding line.

    Major point: on the “almost binary is not binary” claim, I would disagree. Sex is still binary. Intersex people contribute to sexual reproduction either in the male fashion or in the female fashion or not at all. Thus, at root, sex is indeed absolutely binary. The fact that some people have developmental disorders or are infertile doesn’t change that.

    1. I’ve heard a saying that comes from the legal profession: hard cases make bad law.

      If you want a definition it’s much better to concentrate on the 99.95% and acknowledge the rare exceptions on a case by case basis than to try to come up with something that fits absolutely every possibility.

      1. Especially when the 0.05% are
        1) clearly disorders, mistakes, diseases, or abnormalities, in no way considered a variant of normal, particularly by the people born that way, and
        2) clearly not a third sex, not intermediate between two sexes, and not a labile transition state between one sex and the other—I.e.,we’re not clownfish.

  10. It seems to me that to say something is socially constructed is to say it was historically constructed, and that assertion should be accompanied by evidence of its construction. At what point, by whom, was the idea of two sexes imposed on this spectrum? It seems clear that it is gender which is the socialogical construct.

    1. If we are to declare that sex is socially constructed, then does that mean that since I’m 45 I’m going to have to start getting mammograms? And I’m really not looking forward to my first Pap smear.

      1. I have gynecomastia as a side effect of some drug and just got my first mammogram (at 81). It seems to be subsiding now, but when I had it was I on the spectrum and not wholly male? I won’t even think of a Pap smear.

        1. That’s sucks. Hope you are in the mend. Obviously males can get breast cancer, but of course we all have breasts to some extent, and even nonfunctional ones go awry. obviously I was being a bit of a smart ass. If I were female, I’d have commented about getting a prostate exam…hopefully no offense was taken. But, medical care is an aspect that is thrown into the mix of sex gender construct ideology confusion we find ourselves in these days. If sex is a social construct, as is claimed, then yes, we all need mammograms, and Pap smears, prostate exams, testicular cancer screening, and I guess we all should wear condoms and/or take the pill. And damn it, I demand that my life expectancy now increase to be equal to that of “womxn”. And as I was a single parent, I can say that breastfeeding, sorry, chest feeding, would have been a helluva lot easier than having to make up a bottle of formula with bleary eyes trying to scoop and measure and safely heat in the middle of the night.

          1. I will resist making a pun on “that sucks.” It does seem to be receding now, thanks. The mammogram showed no cancer, just normal breast tissue, tho I was tempted to ask, “Normal for whom?” It was actually fairly sore for a month or so, and my wife said I must be having my period. I think I may have had one hot flash, but if so it was fairly mild. I have a cousin with the same affliction, also iatrogenic, and my cardiologist thinks that is not entirely coincidental. An interesting affliction, tho perhaps less so if it happens to you.

    1. Yes. Gender being a social construct along the axis of feminine to masculine, being “trans-gender” ought to mean being Gender Non-Conforming (girl with truck; boy with doll.)

  11. So does this mean a hundred years from now we will have a new stock philosophical conundrum question:

    “What came first the sex or the society?”

  12. I assume there will be, if there isn’t already, a push in some circles to have parents not declare their children a boy or a girl at birth but to allow the child to assume what ever gender they want as they grow up. Will people be ostracized by some if they said ‘baby boy’ or ‘baby girl’?

    1. Already here. They’re called “Theybies.”
      Every article I’ve seen on it either mixes up sex and gender/gender roles, or treats them as equivalent.

      1. It’s something like:
        1.) We’re not revealing the baby’s sex/gender to them or anyone else because we don’t want sexist ideas about boys and girls imposed on them. We’re just letting our kids be kids.

        2.) Then, when they’re old enough to decide whether they feel like a boy or feel more comfortable as a girl (or both or neither) they will pick which one fits them and that’s what they really are.

        Other objections aside, I just see a major ideological contradiction here between Step 1 and Step 2.

        1. Yup, with out sexist stereotypes of what a boy or a girl is or behaves like the whole thing falls apart.

          There are sadly too many instances of parents opting to have a “straight trans kid” rather than accept that they have a gay one – these people unwittingly share a lot of homophobia with the mullahs in Iran.

          So-called “transing away the gay” was so prevalent at the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) as the number of children being referred to it skyrocketed over the past decade that some staff bleakly joked “soon there’ll be no gay kids left”.

          1. Good point. In any group there can be a wide range of “normal” behaviors. Homosexual behavior has been with us since as long as we have historical evidence (and really before that) and it can be observed in animals. And if you think about it, the fact that such young children act in contrary to socially set gender behavior expectations is evidence that this behavior is “natural” for many individuals.

        2. Based on my experience as a parent, if any of these “theyists” have a male and female child close in age, the kids will figure out the differences between each other pretty quickly. I think such parents are more likely to confuse their kids than anything else.

          1. “I think such parents are more likely to confuse their kids than anything else.”

            Perhaps less likely, but would this be less significant : angering them?

          2. Probably not until about middle school age I’d guess, but yes. Anger seems to be a pretty plausible result at some point, for some “theybies.”

    2. Abigail Shrier describes a Jew who escaped the Holocaust by assuming a Catholic identity. She says it was profoundly consequential, to deny one identity and assume another – the result : the woman felt excluded from both. Alienated. It’s a tactic of cults as well – to destroy one identity and impose another.

  13. Just filled out a US passport renewal form and was amused ,more than I would have been if not a regular reader of this bl*g, at the sex question. Three choices now, M, F, and X. “X” has a bunch of cascading explanations and qualifications (many many many bureaucrat committees have worked the passport forms over so they are nearly incomprehensible, but this was a fairly new entry, so while confusing, it was more focused). One reason to pick “X” is that you can then get your passport changed to reflect your gender — should have done some screenshots, but was too focused on getting through the maze with my simple renewal requirements. Still, it was interesting to see it. Also the qualifications on the passport photo which allowed for some head coverings, but seemed designed to placate strict head-religions, like Islam, Sikh, etc., but exclude the FSM pasta strainer.

  14. I am shocked, shocked that I cannot wear my FSM pasta strainer for my passport photo. Fortunately, I have evolved since my FSM days, and now, bearing in mind that species is a social construct, I identify as a golden lion Tamarin, and we Callitrichidae don’t need headgear.

  15. We rely on “the presence or absence of a phallus” to “assign” sex?

    Not on the presence of a vulva and a vagina? Women are defined by what they lack, not by what they have? And two women wrote this?!?

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