Sex and Gender

A Blank-Verse Proem

On a pretty regular basis, I get into an argument with somebody about what gender means.

Now, I can hear you now, saying, "what do you mean 'what gender means'? Isn't that part obvious? There are men and there are women, and they're different. It's simple, isn't it?" Well, no, I'm afraid. It isn't simple.

Let's ask a very basic question: what is a man? When I look at my Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary (1976), I get the following definition:

man n.

  1. An adult male human being.
  2. Human beings collectively; the human race; mankind.
  3. A person or individual.
  4. One having pronounced masculine traits and virtues; a genuine male.
  5. An adult male subordinate or employee; as: a) A worker in a factory, office, etc. b) A servent, esp. a valet.
  6. A husband.
  7. A piece or counter used in certain games, as chess, checkers, etc.

Hurm. Clealy, to understand man, we need to understand male.

male adj.

  1. Of or belonging to the sex that begets young or produces sperm.
  2. Of, characteristic of, or suitable for members of this sex; masculine.
  3. Made up of men or boys.
  4. Botany a) Designating a plant having stamens but no pistil. b) Adapted to fertilize, but not to produce fruit, as stamens
  5. Mechanics Denoting a part, as in some electric plugs, etc., designed to be inserted into a correlated slot or bore known as female
- n.
  1. A male person or animal.
  2. Bot A plant with only staminate flowers.

Okay, now that seems to be a bit clearer. If you produce sperm, you're male.

Oh, no, wait. Young boys don't produce sperm. But when they grow up they will. So if you produce sperm, or, I guess, if you will produce sperm when you're grown, then you're male.

Wait a minute. I happen to know some guys who don't produce sperm (for a variety of reasons). Accidents. Infertility. Birth defects. Genetic abnormalities. Hormonal imbalance. All that sort of stuff. But we can kind of see that maybe they're suppsed to produce sperm.

Now isn't that interesting? I can classify someone not by the features that they really do have, but by features that I think they're supposed to have. This is what's known as a normative statement. I hold them up to a standard (ie. the "standard male" produces sperm), and I say that if you're male you're supposed to produce sperm. But doesn't that seem a little bit like the tail wagging the dog? How do I know that someone is male, if they don't demonstrate the defining characteristics of a male (ie. they don't produce sperm)?

Let's come back to these questions in a little while. For now, let's just talk about some words that a lot of transgendered people use.

Terms Engendered With Meaning

One of the first distinctions that TGs usually come to accept is the distinction between sex and gender. Dr. John Money, in the 1950s, gave the words the following meanings:

Refers to the biological classification of an individual into either "male" or "female" based on chromosomes, genitalia, secondary sexual characteristics, etc.
Refers to a psychological identification that a person has as either "man" or "woman".

Using these definitions, Dr. Money was able to talk about individuals for whom sex and gender were not congruent, that is to say, not the same. This terminology has been used by other medical professionals who have written about transgenderism, including Robert Stoller, and Harry Benjamin. It has also found its way into other areas of academia, such as feminism.

The medical community uses these terms to define transgenderism. For example, they would state that an M2F transsexual is someone who was born with one sex, and a non-congruent gender: the mind is "female" but the body is "male". The proper medical response, these people would tell us, is to "fix" either the person's sex or the person's gender so that they are congruent. Since psychologists have had little success changing a person's gender, and since surgery is a lucrative business, typically the sex is adjusted.

Into the Woods!

Here's an old brain-teaser: suppose they transplanted your brain into Cindy Crawford's body. Would the person being wheeled out of the operating room be you, or Cindy?

Now let's apply that thinking to transgendered people: is an F2M transsexual supposed to be a man because that's what her brain was, or was he supposed to be female because that's what his body was? (Aren't pronouns fun?) Does sex override gender or is it the other way around?

And does it have to be one or the other? There's a lyric in the musical, Into the Woods, that asks: "Is it always or? Is it never and?"

Leaving Normal

There have been people who've come along and said that maybe it's okay to have a man's brain in a female body. Laura Masters, a Canadian TG, for example proposed the following "Sociotypes":

  • woman-male
  • man-male
  • man-female
  • woman-female

And that's kind of an interesting idea. But, interestingly, when you talk to many transgendered people, they don't want to be woman-males or man-females. They want to be normal men and women. But why do they want to be normal men and women? Is it because people are supposed to be normal -- people are suppose to have congruent sex and gender?

Or is it because people who aren't normal have a hard time in life? It's much easier to be normal than it is to be different.

The Infants and the Elders

Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the former US Surgeon General has been under fire recently from some political groups: Hermaphrodites With Attitude (HWA), and the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA). It seems that these groups have grievances with the practice of "fixing" babies -- a practice that Dr. Elders supports.

Here's the situation: every year, over 1% of the babies born in North America have "ambiguous genitals". Traditionally, these contiditions were called hermaphroditism, or pseudo-hermaphroditism, but these days the common label is intersexed. A baby girl might be born with clitoris that is large enough that it looks like a small penis. A baby boy might be born with a urethral opening at the base of the penis instead of the head of the penis. Situations like this make doctors very uncomfortable.

You know how you watch Baywatch, and then you see yourself in the mirror and you feel really fat. But is the problem with your body, or because of Baywatch? If all the people we saw on TV were Rubinesque, wouldn't we think of ourselves differently? This happened to a friend of mine. For years, she was considered to be a skinny kid. But as the years went by, and glamour models became skinnier and skinnier, people suddenly started telling her how beautiful she was.

You know that we think about ourselves differently because of all the images of thin, perfect bodies we see in advertisements, and movies. Now, imagine what it must be like to grow up with "ambiguous genitals". Imagine being a 10-year old girl with an enlarged clitoris that looks like a small penis; even if nobody ever saw it, wouldn't you feel funny about yourself? But, again, is the problem with your body, or because of Baywatch?

Let's look at things from the other perspective: suppose you're an infant girl born with an enlarged clitoris. Just after your mother gave birth to you, your doctor notices the enlarged clitoris, and realizes that it's not supposed to be that way. So the doctor performs a quick surgical operation. You grow up with fairly normal-looking genitals. But, as an adult, you discover that you don't respond to sexual stimulation of the clitoris, or maybe it's even painful. How would you feel about yourself, then? Many people in that situation feel very angry.

In today's world, this seems like a hard call to make: a life filled with body-image problems versus a life of genital discomfort, or at the very least, lacking full sexual function. But does it have to be so hard? I mean, if we didn't live in a world where being different was so heavily stigmatized, would these surgical "corrections" on infants ever be seen as necessary? If there were lots of people with "ambiguous genitals", would it be stigmatized? And doesn't it follow that every time we perform a surgical "correction", we're reinforcing the idea that different genitals are wrong?

What's more, Phyllis Burke (1996) argues that surgical "correction" doesn't make one feel better about one's body. Instead, she says, these so-called "corrected" kids know that something has been done to them.  There are scars, and when they ask why the scars are there, the parents become uncomfortable.  The intersexed kids grow up feeling that there was something shameful about themselves that no one wants to talk about.

What Should Be, Could Be, or Would Be

Okay, it's clear to me that all our problems with intersexed people begin when we started thinking about how their bodies are supposed to look. We had a very simple, binary notion of how bodies should look: "male" bodies look one way, and "female" bodies look another way. And if those rules aren't followed, then you're just not normal.

An interesting question to ask, as this point, is this: how much of our knowledge of sex and gender is based on real, tangible science, and how much of it is based upon our innate assumptions about what's supposed to be?

I can hear the objections, even now! "Wait a minute," you say. "Gender differences are real! We can see that. We can do genetic testing. There's big implications regarding reproduction."

And while I agree that to a large extent, we are talking about real biological difference, humans do have an insidious way of throwing assumptions into our observations. In many ways, it's really hard to split off assumptions from facts because we often don't notice that we've made assumptions. Before Einstein proposed his theory of special relativity, everyone assumed that time was constant ("Of course time's constant! Don't be silly"). Once someone questioned that assumption, it became obvious that it wasn't scientifically sound.

And one of the ways that we build in assumptions is by unconsciously making definitions about just what biological differences make up "male" and "female"

So Long as We're Talking About Biology...

I'm a mathematician by training, and as a result, my way of dealing with concepts is to start making definitions. So let's try to find a better definition of male and female as biological concepts.

First, let's start with a list of biological traits: traits like body hair, ovaries, genes, breasts, testosterone, penises...

There's also some traits that I'm not sure if they're biological or not. How about sexual orientation? I think the jury's still out on that one. Or what about gait? Do women walk differently than men because that's the way they learned it, or is it because of the way their thighs are shaped? Hmmm. For now, if a trait is not obviously biological, I'm going to exclude it from my list.

For now, this will be my list:

  • has Y chromosome
  • high concentrations of testosterone
  • has a penis
  • has testicles
  • produces sperm
  • produces eggs
  • has ovaries
  • has a vagina
  • has breasts
  • mentruates
  • high concentrations of estrogen
  • has more than one X chromosome

It looks like some of the items on my list are mutually exclusive, but they're not. For example, the condition that we used to call "true hermaphroditism" describes people that have both a penis and a vagina.

Similarly, the criteria of chromosomes look like they're mutually exclusive but they're not. Here are a number of chromosomal combinations that have been observed:

has Y chromosomeYesYesNoNo
has more than one X chromosomeYesNoYesNo

If all 12 of these categories are unrelated, then there are over 4000 possible combinations of these traits (we can derive each in a table, such as the one, below):

Biological SexM?????????F
has Y chromosomeYesYesYesYesYes...NoNoNoNoNo
high concentrations of testosteroneYesYesYesYesYes...NoNoNoNoNo
has a penisYesYesYesYesYes...NoNoNoNoNo
has testiclesYesYesYesYesYes...NoNoNoNoNo
produces spermYesYesYesYesYes...NoNoNoNoNo
produces eggsNoNoNoNoNo...YesYesYesYesYes
has ovariesNoNoNoNoNo...YesYesYesYesYes
has a vaginaNoNoNoNoNo...YesYesYesYesYes
has breastsNoNoNoNoNo...YesYesYesYesYes
high concentrations of estrogenNoNoYesYesNo...YesNoNoYesYes
has more than one X chromosomeNoYesNoYesNo...YesNoYesNoYes

There are, however, a couple of items on my list that appear to be related -- for example, it may be impossible to produce sperm without testicles, but I'm not sure. Nonetheless, I'm pretty sure that at least 500 of the 4000 cases represent "real world" possibilities.

Now it's time for some definitions. I define all of the people who fit the left-most configuration as "biologically male", and all of the people who fit the right-most configuration as "biologically female", and everyone else is "biologically intersexed". By this definition, young boys are not "biologically male" because they're not sperm producers, and post-menopausal women are not "biologically female" because they don't menstruate.

I think that my definition is specific, measurable, biologically sound, and scientifically useful. And it really sucks.

Why does the definition suck? It sucks because it fails to recognize the fact that scientific definitions leak out into the "real" world, and become used in contexts that they were never designed for. Suddenly, "Joe", who was castrated because of testicular cancer feels like he isn't a "real man" anymore, and is traumatized by that. And "Debbie" isn't allowed to play in the Women's International Pong Tournament because genetic testing shows that she's androgen insensitive and has XY chromosomes. And the government refuses to allow "Melissa" to change her birth certificate to say "female" because she's a post-operative transsexual and doesn't have ovaries.

A Postmodernist Look at Gender

Remember how I said that I get into arguments about gender? I recently posted some of these postmodernist ideas about what gender means to the internet. Of course, someone told me that I was being silly and unscientific. There's one in every crowd.

Here's what I said in response:

While anatomical differences are a "real world" thing, the knowledge that organizes those differences is gender. Anatomical difference isn't just a fact of biology, it is a classification that achieves utility because of gender.

Again, going back to postmodernism, [Michel] Foucault had a notion of "epistemes", (which he later reworked into a notion of discourses), which he describes as the underground network of assumptions around which "facts" could be organized.

This notion of obvious anatomical difference is really recent (since the 17th century). The earlier "Gallenic" tradition focussed on anatomical sameness. In this tradition, both men and women had testicles. The women's testicles are just inside the body, whereas men's are outside the body. Gender still organized the knowledge, but meaning was considerably different.

The problems with assuming that anatomical differences are a "fact" of gender brings up the problems of assumed congruence. By organizing anatomical differences around gender, we tend, therefore, to presume that breasts on people with penises is wrong, or that facial hair on people with vaginas is wrong, even though both phenomenon occur in nature.

Even DNA, perhaps the clearest anatomical marker of gender, is problematic. First up, XY and XX aren't the only possibilities. Secondly, the relationship between XX/woman and XY/man isn't as certain as most people like to believe. For example, as of 1992, the Olympic games have discarded chromosome tests as a determinant of someone's gender, because the incident of XY women was so high.

Riki Anne Wilchins (1997) tells the story of suddenly becoming tall at age 26. At that point, people started saying to her "My, you're tall, aren't you?" Except, at the level of pure anatomical fact, her height hadn't changed since she was 15. So what had happened? Why had she suddenly become tall? She changed genders. As a woman, her height meant something different. Knowledge about gender attached meaning to her anatomy.

He didn't buy this argument. For him, science was synonymous with truth and reality.

Linda Nicholson (1995), tells us that "the body is itself seen through social interprettation" and that people are not really using well-defined bodily differences to explain the difference in gender, but rather that "gender is the knowledge that establishes meanings for bodily differences [...] We cannot see sexual differences except as a function of our knowledge about the body and that knowledge is not 'pure.'" Nicholson argues, then, that sex is not neatly distinct from gender, as Dr. Money would have us believe.

The transgendered theorist/playwright Kate Bornstein (1995) takes this route as well. To her, sex is word to describe the act of fucking. Everything else is gender.

Wilchins says that the truly revolutionary move is to subvert and reject gender as a basis for identities. She says that gender identities invariably become essentialized, and serve only to reinforce oppressive power structures. Like the situation with intersexed infants. If you start performing "corrective" surgery, you reinforce an artificial sense of what "normal" bodies look like.

Bah. Gender. Who needs it?

Copyright © 1996, 1999 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated July 17th, 1999.

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