Sex

This page is about sex. I devote a page to gender here.

Definitions

Let’s start with a few definitions. Here are some lifted from the Oxford dictionary:

Sex  Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.

Male Of or denoting the sex that produces gametes, especially spermatozoa, with which a female may be fertilized or inseminated to produce offspring.

Female Of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes.

What does the science say?

As far as most people are concerned, the above definitions of male and female as biological categories are likely to be uncontroversial and I suspect they would be as surprised as I once was to learn that they are hotly disputed. A 2015 article in the science journal, Nature, entitled Sex Redefined, informs us that,

The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.

More surprisingly, the article claims that,

Many transgender and intersex activists dream of a world where a person’s sex or gender is irrelevant.

I’d say that’s a highly questionable claim. If transgender activists would like gender to be irrelevant, why switch from one gender to another? Why not campaign to make gender irrelevant instead of doing something that reinforces it?

The article was publicised by at least one science blogger I used to respect, namely PZ Myers

biology verifies the existence of a continuum of sexual differentiation. Drag this article out next time someone tries to argue that biology supports their simplistic version of a discrete sexual dichotomy.

That’s really bad advice, actually, PZ, because we all know that the words ‘women’ and ‘men’ are globally understood in terms of our respective roles in the reproductive process (regardless of whether we fulfil those roles or not) and that understanding isn’t actually going to change whatever biologists say – particularly when what they say is offered as a narrative to validate a particular moral conclusion.

A nice debunking by a biologist who isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes can be read here:

Is Sex Really a Spectrum? Tricia Frasman

Oh, and here’s a helpful explanation from Dr Emma Hilton (originally found here).

Males and females do not represent opposing ends of a spectrum; males and females are qualitatively, not quantitatively, different, from early embryonic development. Advocates of “sex is a spectrum” (very few of whom are biologists) argue that intersex conditions represent a “middle ground” between male and female states and thus, an intrinsically ordered spectrum is formed. There is no such intrinsic ordering. Except for the vanishingly rare and clinically traumatic few, intersex conditions affect either males or females and are categorised within the relevant sex. For example, an intersex female with an enlarged clitoris is not somehow “more male”, nor does she “have a penis”. This is an utterly regressive and male-centred view of biological sex.

Regarding the assertion that biological sex is a social construction, the words “male” and “female” have a very clear biological meaning, not up for postmodern deconstruction. They do not refer to social categories, but to the meat, gristle and bones of human anatomy and scientific study. Trying to change what “male” and “female” describe scientifically not only erases female sexed reality but also the tools we use to study that reality. The words I use in my job aren’t assigned “meaning” beyond physical understanding, and they are key to conveying that understanding.

Now back to the ideologically motivated narrative: an article by Dr Rachel Hall, entitled, Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: It’s Complicated, preceded the Nature paper by two years:

Science has not been able to categorically distinguish a male from a female. There’s no one simple test to determine whether an individual is a woman or a man. It’s not an either/or dichotomy, but a multidimensional spectrum on several axes, from the biological to the social to the psychological. And science has not conclusively shown which characteristics are biologically determined. Nature and nurture interact and influence each other; it’s difficult to tease out the contributions of each. Each axis has its own continuum, with degrees of strength. A person can fall at the male end of the spectrum on some axes and at the female end of the spectrum on others.

None of this matters in the slightest.

Women’s oppression

While the news that there isn’t a “simplistic sexual dichotomy” has been greeted enthusiastically by many in the trans lobby, the fact remains that throughout history and across cultures, the social construct that is gender and all that it entails has been “assigned” according to our customary understanding of biological sex, i.e male for those carrying sperm and female for those carrying eggs. It is on the basis of that understanding of biological sex that women have been systematically oppressed and marginalised and the cultural expectations of gender roles is part of that oppression.

Those who, in keeping with cultural norms that value male children more, abort female fetuses, those who denied women the vote, the right to drive cars or pilot planes, who demand that women should be submissive, should forgo careers for marriage and motherhood or cover themselves from head to toe or have their genitals mutilated at puberty, those who objectify, harass, rape, traffic and kill girls and women see us only as female and aren’t interested in what points on the psychological or social gender spectrums we fall. Those who are, by virtue of being the sperm-carriers, members of the oppressor class and who can detransition back to being a member of that class, do not know what being female in that globally understood sense actually means or feels like.

A woman can identify as a man if she likes but it won’t necessarily stop a rapist identifying her as a woman.

 

The sex binary matters!

Another crucial point is included at the end of Rachel Hall’s article:

So what are we to do? Reject the very ideas of sex and gender and stop trying to classify people? Reject the dichotomy? Of course not! The binary classification is sufficient for most practical purposes and is very useful. In medicine, the knowledge that a patient is male or female helps to guide diagnosis and treatment. We know that men and women have different responses to medications and different incidences of various diseases.

Unfortunately, that last sentence about medicine and disease comes across as an incidental afterthought. Thankfully we have David Page, Director of the Whitehead Institute and professor of biology at MIT, to tell us more about this aspect in his TEDx talk from 2013, called Why Sex Really Matters. Page tells us that, contrary to what most scientists still believed at the time of his talk, it is now known that the Y chromosome is not just functioning in the reproductive organs but throughout the body. The once widely promoted idea that human beings are 99.9% identical from one individual to the next is in fact only true if all the individuals are all men or all women. Comparing the genome of a man to that of a woman shows they are only 98.5% identical, which has huge implications for health care. Anatomical difference between men and women cannot account for the dramatic differences in incidence and severity of certain conditions and diseases as they affect men and women.

A  short article about David Page’s research can be read here: Every Cell Has a Sex: X and Y and the Future of Health Care

 

Thus, there is more than one reason why the concluding sentence to the Nature article is wrong as well as abysmally crass:

If you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.

 

 

An article by Robert Jensen entitled Critical questions need to be answered in transgender debate argues – correctly, in my opinion, – that:

an internal subjective experience doesn’t change physical realities in the world. For example, people who are dangerously underweight sometimes report an internal subjective experience of being overweight, but we don’t embrace that as reality and encourage them to diet.

(Emphasis added)

Is biological sex a social construct?

A quick internet search reveals there is an idea taking hold amongst trans activists and their allies that biological sex is a social construct. An example is this blog post entitled, It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny. Much of it is devoted to disdaining those of us who defend the notion of biological sex as hateful bigots. There is something of an argument in there but it is patent nonsense.

Sex isn’t something we’re actually born with, it’s something that doctors or our parents assign us at birth.

On the contrary, most of are born either male or female, according to how most people understand those words.

Riley J. Dennis also offers unbelievably silly arguments in his video entitled, Biological Sex is a Social Construct, while ignoring the fact that humans are classified male and female according to our role in reproduction. The sex of each one of us is recorded at birth according to the appearance of our primary sexual characteristics. As with any complex biological system, errors expressing genotype can occur but the relatively tiny number of people who are born intersex or with disorders of sexual development does not negate and shouldn’t be used to obfuscate the fact that we are a sexually dimorphic species.

I frankly couldn’t be bothered to engage with Riley’s arguments but I did come across a blog by biologist Jerry A Coyne doing a concise demolition job.

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.

Source: Is sex a social construct like gender? Nope.

And here’s some more from Robert Jensen:

The responses of transgender activists and supporters vary widely. Some argue that not just gender but even sex categories, male and female, are socially constructed, a claim that seems nonsensical to me and many others (the realities of sexual reproduction do not change based on social norms). Others propose that there can be a disconnection between chromosomal/gonadal/genital sex and “brain sex,” which could make sense only if there are meaningfully distinct male and female brains, which there aren’t. Others reject the idea of a binary, but human reproductive cells (called gametes) are either egg or sperm, which is a binary that can’t be wished away.

And finally…

The New Evolution Deniers Colin Wright, Quillette 30.11.18

More peak trans…

My peak trans experience was enhanced when I got involved in a discussion below a particularly daft Riley J Denis vid, Are genital preferences transphobic? where I made dozens of what I thought were uncontroversial comments and I was getting sheer lunacy back from somebody who claimed to be a heterosexual man. Whatever he was, one thing I’m sure about was that he was serious ­and not just a wind-up merchant.

In one exchange I mentioned that,

Every human who has ever lived has developed inside a female body, from a female egg fertilised by a male sperm.

He responded with,

Every human who has ever lived has developed inside a body with a womb, or at least some internal structure to house a fertilized egg that will feed it nutrients. That body doesn’t have to be “female.” There is nothing inherently “female” or “male” about a womb, a vagina, testicles, penises, etc. Our current construction of sex is completely arbitrary. 

This was probably the first time in my peak trans experience that I really felt I had wandered into the twilight zone and I feel obliged to post the disclaimer that I know not all trans folk share his beliefs. But plenty of those who are active online have expressed ideas that come close enough. I owe a debt of gratitude to this individual for helping me understand what radical feminists mean when they talk of female ‘erasure’. I felt it keenly after engaging with him.

 

Updated 5.02.18