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There is no such thing as concrete, binary "biological sex."
July 11, 2014 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Secular trans feminist Zinnia Jones debunks the myth of biological sex and the inaccurate ways the concept has been used to invalidate trans people.

Mey from Autostraddle explains why it’s time for people to stop using the social construct of “biological sex” to defend their transmisogyny.

Inter/act explains that intersex people, despite having disorders of sex development (DSDs) that contribute to what doctors define as a "biological sex other than male or female," may identify as male, female, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum.

Current preferred terminology for an intersex person is "intersex" or "person with a DSD." There's some debate there on the preferable term, but keep in mind other terms may be considered outdated and offensive. Intersex FAQ. Trans 101.
posted by Juliet Banana (96 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't think she debunks the concept of biological sex, but rather complicates it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:19 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


These articles open up a really neat set of questions. I'd love to read some more about this. Does anyone know of people coming at trans and intersex issues from an anatomical or physiological perspective (maybe academically?) who is not trying to TERF people out of existance?

When I'm teaching about animal behavior, a lot of the behaviors that are typically "male" or "female" are hormonally regulated, but I still feel very prescriptive and sort of close-minded while discussing "Male vervet monkeys do x. Female vervet monkeys do y." I've had some gender nonconforming students and I always feel kind of insensitive during these parts of class. I took a women's studies class and was explaining to the professor what my research entails, and she asked me how my monkeys perform their gender. Which totally flabbergasted me, because to me gender is such a culturally mediated thing, that I can't really come up with a good answer. Is it really just hormones that make male Diana monkeys do one thing and female Diana monkeys do another? Is there some sort of environmental mediation that happens? How much of human gender is evolutionarily filtered and how much of it is culturally filtered?
posted by ChuraChura at 12:21 PM on July 11 [22 favorites]


Earlier this week the Atlantic ran a piece about the horrors our medical establishment visits on intersex children:
When Aliya’s children were born, her son weighed only one and a half pounds and had a very small penis. His urethral opening was near his perineum, not the tip of his phallus.

Multiple doctors told Aliya that she should do surgery immediately. The first time was in the hot, bustling, intensive care unit at the University of Florida where she was uncertain whether or not her son would live. A doctor Aliya didn’t know recommended that she raise her son as a girl. Then, after the baby's condition had stabilized, a surgeon told Aliya that she should allow him to operate to make her son's penis appear more normal, "if you want your child to be a real man.”

By that stage, Aliya had researched some of the risks of the surgery—urethral tissue that is unable to withstand urine and becomes damaged; nerve impairment; scar tissue; loss of sensation. The surgeon acknowledged these complications when Aliya raised them, but she says he didn’t want to discuss them. Fearing her son “might come out of surgery worse off than he went in,” she walked away.

When he was seven, she told him about the operation. “I like my penis just the way it is,” he said, and hasn’t brought it up since.
posted by Corinth at 12:22 PM on July 11 [22 favorites]


Good articles. This paragraph from a piece by Natalie Reed was what really made it click for me:
I’ve heard as an argument to prove how I’m really ‘scientifically’ male the hypothetical situation in which my horrifically disfigured, mutilated, unrecognizable corpse turns up in some abandoned building. A forensic pathologist, in an effort to determine my identity, conducts a DNA test and comes to the conclusion that I was male. Therefore, goes the argument, since the scientist using her scientific tests came to the conclusion that I’m male, that’s what I ‘scientifically’ am. But that’s only one particular inaccurate conclusion, made from the results of one particular test, that one particular type of scientist would make in one particular situation that has been contrived specifically to provide incomplete information. It’s easy to imagine another hypothetical: a doctor is trying to ascertain my identity based solely on a blood sample. He checks the hormone levels and comes to the conclusion that I’m a cisgender (not trans) woman at the mid-point in her cycle with a slightly low testosterone level. By that scientific test I’m ‘scientifically’ female. What makes the one inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information more scientific and correct than the other inaccurate conclusion drawn from incomplete information?
posted by daisyk at 12:22 PM on July 11 [38 favorites]


ChuraChura, I'm really interested in those questions too, but I don't have any good links for you as I'm really not a biologist. I also like your use of TERF as a verb.
posted by daisyk at 12:25 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


(Metafilter's own?) Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello (link maybe NSFW) has written a lot about intersex biology and how it interacts with ideas of sex and gender.
posted by thug unicorn at 12:43 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


[big reproductive derail deleted, carry on]
posted by mathowie at 12:45 PM on July 11 [10 favorites]


Arg. I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but I wish that you'd delved deeper into the science of why this is so complicated (PDF, not a totally comprehensive guide).

I also know there's a comment from a biologist here somewhere that discusses the complications of chromosomes and phenotypes, but I can't seem to find it. (I thought it was in the Neotrogla article, but I can't seem to lay my hands on it now.)

Another thing that bothers me is that by framing the argument as "biological sex is socially constructed," it ends up emphasizing that this is really only meaningful around the edges, and reinforces the normative view of sex corresponding to gender through phenotype except in "other" situations, rather than recognizing that the "social construction" isn't so much in the categories themselves, but rather the (generally gender) implications. It shouldn't matter for social roles that a man was born with larger gametes, and arguing that the distinction itself is socially constructed is ceding the importance of that biological narrative. It's similar (but not identical) to the "born this way" rhetoric of homosexuality ceding the rhetorical position of justification to biology.

And to echo yasaman a bit, it strikes me as similar to the way reductionist definitions get used to define "life" as having a single sine qua non, rather than recognizing that biological sex and gender are based on many different co-existing variables.

The final reason that I don't like this is that one of the things that is a priority in LGBT equality is ensuring effective medical care (both mental health and physical care) for transgender people, and the reactionary assertion of sex as purely socially constructed ignores that transgender men and women often have different health needs from cis men and women, so treating them as biologically indistinct can lead to things like, say, transgender women not getting adequate care for prostate problems, or transgender men not getting adequate care for cervical cancers. Some women have penises, some men have vaginas, and ensuring effective medical care and competency training means recognizing that gender identity and expression shouldn't be impediments to getting effective health care, rather than declaring that chromosomal, gamete and phenotypical differences are post facto social constructions without an impact on health.
posted by klangklangston at 12:53 PM on July 11 [26 favorites]


Jones talks about HRT — but sex isn't binary, in the sense that most people believe, even at birth.

Chromosomal sex determines the hormonal cascade that causes sex differentiation during fetal development (and later), but that's a cascade that affects many levels of anatomical development and function and — here's the important part — those sex differentiations vary from person to person and within the individual's body at these different levels of differentiation.

Sex differentiation happens during fetal development and then, to a lesser extent, early childhood and then goes through another stage of differentiation at puberty. Maybe for complicated systemic reasons the fetal differentiation was very strong but the adolescent differentiation was weak. Maybe reproductive organ differentiation was strong, but developmental brain sex differentiation was weak. There are many developmental possibilities.

And, as Jones describes, all of this is dependent upon the ongoing differential function/development maintained by hormones, throughout life.

What this means, taken together, is that for all of us, whether we're cis or trans* or straight or gay or whatever, all of us have anatomically and functionally varied sex differentiation.

Sure, obviously, if we could aggregate all the sex differentiations possible and quantify them and then graph all humans accordingly, then we'd see two strong, overlapping humps in the distribution that correspond to what people generally think of as "male" and "female".

But that doesn't mean that there's any one anatomical feature that unambiguously determines what "biological sex" someone is, it doesn't mean that most people correspond to the extreme, mutually exclusive ideal of biological sex that most people have in mind. In a very real sense, most of us are intersex.

That this isn't more apparent than it is, is the result of cultural forces that in various ways push people to hiding those parts of themselves which don't conform to these social sexual expectations of gender and to emphasize the parts which do. This is everything from the abhorrent sex-assignment plastic surgery at birth that is still routine in many places, to strongly gendered behavioral pressures.

None of this is to validate the transphobic view that denies the validity of gender roles and sex differentiation altogether. Quite the contrary. The fact is that sex exists, but is ambiguous and alterable in different ways at different levels. There are good reasons why someone might have a very strong biological sense that they are a different sex than the one they have been assigned. And HRT will, for them, just nudge the parts of their body toward those other parts. There are good reasons why someone might feel, biologically, that they don't really have a gender.

The biological fact that sex is very far from the platonic ideal we think it is, yet biological sexual differentiation is very real, is why cisfolk should take the experiences of transfolk seriously; it's why we should generally allow for a wide range of gender identities that include both highly differentiated and exclusive gender identities and undifferentiated and inclusive gender identities. All this applies to sexual orientation, as well.

Because there's a wide range of biological differentiation, if we're taking that as essential, which many people do, and so there's very good reasons why there should be a wide range of how people experience their own body's sex. But also, because sex differentiation is complex and ambiguous and mutable, then there's more room for people to stake out their claims for who they feel themselves to be with regard to sex. And because gender is cultural and mutable and a sort of negotiation, then ultimately a liberal society is a society which provides the space for individuals to be who they believe themselves to be and/or who they want to become.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:54 PM on July 11 [20 favorites]


It's kind of ridiculous how hard people cling to sex distinctions as 'biological reality' in general, when in the vast majority of situations where sex is invoked, the person drawing the distinction has no way to actually know karyotype (they most likely don't even know their own) or genital arrangement, let alone gamete size (which anyway implies infertile people don't possess a sex). Yet people don't typically interact with each other as an undifferentiated mass of sex-unknowns until evidence of this 'biological reality' is demonstrated. In actual fact, a distinction is being made based on visible externalities - which say little to nothing about genitals, chromosomes, gametes, and in many cases are largely gender presentation - and the biology is being assumed to conform to expectations, while simultaneously being regarded as Fact.

I also just want to add that I am loving the crap out of Autostraddle lately. Having a prominent feminist and especially lesbian-focused site be so enthusiastically trans-positive and trans woman-inclusive is amazing, and is precisely the sort of allyship on the part of the cis women there that I want to throw a parade for.
posted by emmtee at 12:55 PM on July 11 [15 favorites]


(It's similar to how I sometimes get grumpy about LGBT being treated as a single cohort because of political expediency when it can sometimes have deleterious effects within the LGBT population, e.g. the overwhelming emphasis of Californian LGBT mental health care on gay cis men with the assumption that resources for gay cis men serve all members of the LGBT community equally.)
posted by klangklangston at 12:55 PM on July 11 [6 favorites]


Is it really just hormones that make male Diana monkeys do one thing and female Diana monkeys do another? Is there some sort of environmental mediation that happens? How much of human gender is evolutionarily filtered and how much of it is culturally filtered?

And how much of your interpretation of what the male vs female monkeys do because of their maleness or femaleness is influenced/mediated by your own (subconscious) gendered cultural biases?
posted by rtha at 12:57 PM on July 11 [12 favorites]


These exercises inevitably just come down to arguments against reductionism. Which is a useful perspective. At the same time biological sex ain't nothing.
Shuzan held out a short stick and said, "If you call this a short stick, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short stick, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?"
posted by crayz at 1:02 PM on July 11 [10 favorites]


I got my first taste of a lot of these issues as a Unitarian Universalist sex educator (OWL callout!), and the training makes it very clear that biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression are 4 totally different unrelated categories. They are often confused with each other, or assumed to be correlated. All 4 categories are on a continuum, though all are often presumed to be binary. I got that. But I'm still confused, especially as a parent, about what I can and should do in light of this information. When they hand you your baby, you get a sense of where the kid falls on one of those 4 categories (biological sex, though with all the caveats of the FPP). 2 categories (gender identity and sexual orientation) are currently thought of as mostly innate, though not necessarily discovered or expressed pre-puberty. That leaves me as a parent with control over 1 category: gender expression.

So yeah, I've had talks with my son about how some people don't feel aligned with either the male or female gender, some people like to be called by different pronouns, some people identify with a different gender than the parts they were born with, and so on. And we've tried to follow up his interests and expose him to lots of different things and not dress him in an overly gendered way. I guess statistically he's likely to be cis and straight, but I don't want to assume that. But the way our culture treats all 4 categories as assumed and binary kind of steamrolls everything.

I guess I feel like I should be doing more to support him than just raising his awareness and providing a good example with my own gender expression. He does get very indignant when people assume gender based on hairstyles or the way people are dressed. I can imagine a future society where kids are not sorted into categories at birth, but I can't imagine how we would get there from here.
posted by rikschell at 1:08 PM on July 11 [8 favorites]


Of course biological sex isn't binary. Very few categories created by humans are. But saying that you shouldn't call things male and female because the edges are fuzzy is like saying you shouldn't call things blue and green because of colorblind people, the Himba and all these cultures. And besides, who can really tell where blue ends and green begins on the spectrum?

It's messed up that some people try to misgender trans people by referring to their biology, but pretending sexual dimorphism isn't real a real thing that exists in real life isn't gonna help anything.

I'll stop referring to penises as male and vaginas as female when doctors and biologists do. If it upsets a specific trans person, I won't call them that, but science is the most useful thing humans have ever come up with and I'm not going to throw any of it out because of ideology.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:09 PM on July 11 [26 favorites]


but pretending sexual dimorphism isn't real a real thing that exists in real life isn't gonna help anything.

Pretending that it's as dimorphic as we pretend we do also, demonstrably, does not help.
posted by rtha at 1:11 PM on July 11 [6 favorites]


it’s time for people to stop using the social construct of “biological sex” to defend their transmisogyny.

I completely agree with this.

At the same time, I do not think that biological sex is a myth (although "biological sex" is a sort of vague term). I do think that it is completely irrelevant to the vast majority of things that are attributed to it by our culture.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:12 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


Biologists recognize that genitalia doesn't necessarily = sex. There are all sorts of really interesting examples of ambiguous genitalia in nature, and similarly ambigious behaviors. Kay Holekamp, who studies hyenas (a species where females typically have "masculinized" external genitalia, probably as a result of lots and lots of testosterone in the womb) has a great Journal From the Field about how complex detecting sex can be just based on genital features. Hyena's external genitalia is basically NOT sexually dimorphic.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:15 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


> transmisogyny

Shouldn't that be "mistransony"? Unless it refers only to transwomen, I guess.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:17 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


"Another thing that bothers me is that by framing the argument as 'biological sex is socially constructed,' it ends up emphasizing that this is really only meaningful around the edges, and reinforces the normative view of sex corresponding to gender through phenotype except in 'other' situations, rather than recognizing that the 'social construction' isn't so much in the categories themselves, but rather the (generally gender) implications. It shouldn't matter for social roles that a man was born with larger gametes, and arguing that the distinction itself is socially constructed is ceding the importance of that biological narrative. It's similar (but not identical) to the 'born this way' rhetoric of homosexuality ceding the rhetorical position of justification to biology."

I share all your concerns and frustrations, and this is especially true with regard to orientation, as I have long been extremely unhappy with the implicit concession of defending homosexuality on the basis of biological essentialism.

But my comment was all about how there's a way around all these problems. These problems are all the result of three very strong examples of a cultural tendency to vastly oversimplify and dichotomize. So people insist that sex reduces to exclusive male/female, orientation to straight/gay, and (any given aspect of identity to) nature/nurture.

If you reject these dichotomies, but accept interrelation and continuous differentiation, then most of the arguments people have disappear. (Well, they'll just argue about different things, because what's really happening is arguments about values and culture. Okay, but at least people won't have available these pseudo-scientific rationales for their extreme dichotomized positions.)

On most every other aspect of personality, of how people experience themselves and how they live, we don't insist on the universality of these dichotomized extremes. We're willing to accept that, say, someone was born with a sweet-tooth while someone else wasn't, but acquired it. And someone else once had a sweet-tooth, but no longer; while another person is indifferent. And yet someone else doesn't have a sweet-tooth because, for them, this preference has been highly culturally mediated. That any of these things are true for one of these people doesn't imply that everyone else's contrary experience is false.

To some degree, people naturally simplify and generalize and so some of this is just humans thinking the way that humans tend to think. But I think it's pretty clear that with sex, gender, and orientation this tendency is greatly intensified because it provides a strong and convenient normalizing hammer with which to beat other people. (As I think some comments above demonstrate.)
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:18 PM on July 11 [9 favorites]


Regardless of the reality of biological sex, but taking into consideration the immense trauma our society seems to heap on intersex kids, would it maybe make more sense to not assign gender at birth, but rather allow a child's gender identity to develop organically and just roll with it? How would that work? We'd need to get our pronouns sorted first, that's for sure.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:19 PM on July 11 [8 favorites]


nooneyouknow: "I'll stop referring to penises as male and vaginas as female when doctors and biologists do."

By extension, I assume that you'll only refer to an individual as male or female when you've seen their genitals? Will it take proof of fertility, or is everyone sex-unknown for a couple of weeks until the karyotype comes back from the lab? Given that we're invoking doctors and biologists, people who tend to favour empirical evidence over assumption.

There are absolutely categories of reproductive compatibility. These bear so little relation to the concept of 'sex' as applied to humans across every level of our society that to use the same word in reference to both is to make the issue almost incomprehensibly muddy.

I should add that this is in no way a theoretical debate or an exercise for trans women. Any way in which TERFs can classify us male is a way they can keep trans women in desperate need from accessing women's shelters, domestic violence resources, portray us as a rape threat and all the rest. Even in those cases where a shelter or similar aid provider allows trans women, the 'biological realities' of sex often mean there's a requirement that the woman be on HRT or have undergone surgery to meet an arbitrary set of criteria for acceptable femaleness, which serves only to keep out the poorest and most marginalised women who need their services the most.
posted by emmtee at 1:21 PM on July 11 [25 favorites]


Personally, the long term goal is the smash the gender binary altogether. It would, of course, involve smashing some other things.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 1:23 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


Can we smash gendered pronouns as a first step?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:25 PM on July 11 [6 favorites]


It got deleted in the derail, but I did want to say again that I really appreciate that the Autostraddle article forced me to take a look at my kneejerk reaction to want to qualify and rules-lawyer its very valid points. It's easy and blithe to say "all people with XX chromosomes are biologically female," and "all people with XY chromosomes are biologically male," but there is indeed a lot of variation beyond and besides that. Unless you're the physician of the person in question, you don't need to know what someone's "biological sex" is, or what that means for them.

Language just doesn't account for all this variability yet, and I don't know what we can do about it, other than not be rude assholes. Sex and gender are so entrenched in our societies and cultures, it's really hard to think beyond them. On reflection, my initial kneejerk "words mean things!" reaction to the Autostraddle article as I was reading it seems kind of over the top. Like, what does it matter to me? What do I have invested in the enforcement of the binary? I think those are important questions to ask yourself, before you start arguing for the necessity of binary biological sex.
posted by yasaman at 1:30 PM on July 11 [8 favorites]


In case anyone wants to see Fox News have a tiny comeuppance after reading about their portayal of intersex people, Media Matters has this example of them trying to stir up panic and confusion and failing.
posted by Corinth at 1:30 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


It's not an abstract debate for cis women, either. It's important to note that being sexed as female results in an individual experiencing sexism from birth on, including the sexist violence that is gender socialization.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:31 PM on July 11 [18 favorites]


The isna.org FAQ uses the phrase "people whose bodies differ from standard male or female." If I can generalize a bit from that, it's not that sexual dimorphism or biological sex are being ignored, just that they're correctly framed as concepts that exclude, ignore, or mischaracterize large numbers of people.
posted by knuckle tattoos at 1:35 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


the young rope-rider: "It's not an abstract debate for cis women, either. It's important to note that being sexed as female results in an individual experiencing sexism from birth on, including the sexist violence that is gender socialization."

Yeah, it's very much the same for trans women. Coercive sexing is bad for all women.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:38 PM on July 11 [15 favorites]


Two questions:

The media matters link above: Wouldn't it make more sense to have to symbol for the gender neutral bathroom be female left side, male right side instead of male top female bottom?

Is the only difference between using the term biological sex and using the prefix cis the connotation that biological sex is the true sex? Both create sometimes useful subcategories of men and women. Is the goal that there be no distinction made between trans and cis (gender) or is the goal that there be no distinction that implies one is actually (gender)?
posted by pseudonick at 1:46 PM on July 11


"I'll stop referring to penises as male and vaginas as female when doctors and biologists do. If it upsets a specific trans person, I won't call them that, but science is the most useful thing humans have ever come up with and I'm not going to throw any of it out because of ideology."

That's pretty fallacious reasoning, for a variety of reasons.

1) Doctors are not necessarily experts on sex differentiation, or on plenty of other gender issues. This is particularly obvious if you listen to women's descriptions of dealing with crazy sexist bullshit from doctors.

2) Biologists who deal with sexual differentiation rarely base "male" and "female" on genitals, and almost never without the qualifying "phenotypical."

3) "Science" isn't one big authority from which to draw. "Science" believed in phrenology and plenty of scientists still advance dubious genetic theories, including James Watson's belief that Africans are genetically less intelligent than Europeans.

So, denying on an oversimplification because of dubious authorities should not be likened to throwing out "the most useful thing humans have ever come up with," but rather using science to dispel lazy reductionism.
posted by klangklangston at 1:48 PM on July 11 [24 favorites]


Maybe it would have been more all-encompassingly accurate to say, "Strictly binary biological sex as most laymen think of it, is a myth," but it would also have been more cumbersome and awkward.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:52 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it's very much the same for trans women. Coercive sexing is bad for all women.

I agree that coercive sexing is bad for trans women. I do not see how it is bad in the same way. I think it is bad in a very different way. I think it is important not to minimize the horrific systemic societal oppression and literal violence that trans women (and trans men) experience, or justify the exclusion of trans women from resources. I also think it is important to acknowledge that even when assigned sex and gender self-identification match, to be sexed as female is to be the victim of sexism, including gendered socialization. In that sense, one's biological sex very much matters.

The importance of perceived biological sex is most obvious in places where fetuses and babies who are identified as female are murdered or neglected, but perceived biological sex is important everywhere.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:56 PM on July 11 [8 favorites]


I guess I am a layman here.

It's simple - I just want people to be happy with who they are and what they are, regardless of, well, everything. male, female, gay, transgender, of any of the many other terms mentioned above. Really, I wish you all the best, whoever you are.

But somehow we humans have made this issue so complicated, with so much hate and misunderstanding going around, that it has basically become impossible for me to comment on this. Last time did so my comment was quickly deleted. As it turns out, I had used one phrase in a way that might be misinterpreted. I had to have it explained to me, for there was no bad intent on my side whatsoever. After the explanation, I understood why the comment was deleted, but I was sad it was that sensitive an issue.

So, no comment from me this time apart from this: I love you all. Be good.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:00 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


"Good articles. This paragraph from a piece by Natalie Reed was what really made it click for me:"

That piece by Reed does include an inaccurate mention of the nominal default female fetus, something that I'd alluded to before and got called out on. In reading up on Wolffian ducts (really, so many ducts) and sex differentiation, this was a previous biological theory that turns out not to be true.
posted by klangklangston at 2:02 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


"when in the vast majority of situations where sex is invoked, the person drawing the distinction has no way to actually know karyotype (they most likely don't even know their own) "

Until today, I didn't even know I had one!

Seriously, is there some sort of genetics/chromosones & karyotypes 101 which could lead on to then explain this: (as Ivan Fyedorivich put it) "Chromosomal sex determines the hormonal cascade that causes sex differentiation during fetal development (and later), but that's a cascade that affects many levels of anatomical development and function and — here's the important part — those sex differentiations vary from person to person and within the individual's body at these different levels of differentiation." & I mean something anyone can understand?

Seriously, I looked up chromosone and Karyotpe on wiki and it said:

"In general, the karyotype is the characteristic chromosome complement of a eukaryote species"

Yeah, thanks wiki, that is so unuseful.
posted by marienbad at 2:06 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


Can we smash gendered pronouns as a first step?

One of the things that made me happy reading Tobias Buckell's Hurricane Fever was that he actually used singular they/their for people whose gender is unknown or irrelevant.

But the correct use of gendered pronouns for those people who actually would like to be identified as male or female is important too.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:07 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


ChuraChura: "Kay Holekamp, who studies hyenas"

Total derail, but Kay was on my PhD thesis committee. Always nice to see her and her work getting notice. (Also hyenas are awesome, and a great animal to study if you want to look at interactions between hormone levels and fertility. As far as I know, we still don't fully understand how female hyenas end up fertile given the massive testosterone levels the cubs are exposed to during development. Hormone levels are not equal to sex, sex isn't equal to gender, and if you want to get really freaky remember that some species can even fully change gender if the opportunity arises. Animal behavior is fun!)
posted by caution live frogs at 2:07 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]


the young rope-rider, I am struggling with replying to your comment. "Gendered socialisation," posited as something experienced by cis women and not by trans women, is an extremely common TERF dog whistle.

My interpretation of what you are saying is that there is an experience of socialisation that is common to cis women and not experienced by trans women; is that correct?

If it wasn't you, I'd be reading some extremely unpleasant stuff into your comment, but I'm assuming I've simply misread you.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:07 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


Parallel to gender identity, the reality is that people have a sex identity, which is to say that how we choose to sex (that is, to assign sex to) bodies is flexible and individuals build an internal sense of how to sex their own body.

If everything lines up, it's easy- one of the binary sexes, done.

If someone is intersex, then I think a lot of people will understand that sexing their body is a process of choosing certain features to emphasize and certain features to downplay, but that choosing a particular way to sex a body is not the same as ignoring what features exist.

When someone is trans but not intersex, it gets interesting. Sex identity draws heavily from the body and how society understands paricular body parts in relation to sex, but also from gender identity. Gender and sex identity blend into each other, and cannot be cleanly separated. Different trans people have different ways of dealing with this tension, and the community as a whole is engaged in working on finding ways to work with that. To take the genital example, some trans women are comfortable naming their genitals as a penis but read it as female because they and their bodies are female, some trans women resist the name penis in favor of clitoris, and some trans women name it a penis and read it as male, and all three happen at varying levels of comfort or dysmorphia. All three are okay, because sex identity is self-identified, just like gender identity, and none of them are done in dispute of what the physical facts of the body are, only the interpretation.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:08 PM on July 11 [7 favorites]


psuedonick:

I don't think anyone's actually trying to eliminate conceptualizing any distinctions between trans and cis people of the same gender. But "assigned sex at birth" would be the way I'd talk about that, not "biological sex".

Maybe I'm just too used to tumblr, but I'm surprised I don't see more people using AFAB, AMAB, or variations here.
posted by thug unicorn at 2:16 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


Can we smash gendered pronouns as a first step?

But the correct use of gendered pronouns for those people who actually would like to be identified as male or female is important too.


Blah on them. We don't change pronouns based on skin tone or hair color or basically anything but number and gender. Let's get rid of the latter. It's not as useful as we think it is.
posted by Etrigan at 2:19 PM on July 11 [8 favorites]


But the correct use of gendered pronouns for those people who actually would like to be identified as male or female is important too.

I disagree. English has managed to ditch grammatical gender in nearly every respect, and the fact that we still have a vestige of it in our pronouns is a wart on the language.

Plenty of other languages get along perfectly well without gendered pronouns. Speakers of those languages generally don't feel that their language expresses their gender inadequately.
posted by baf at 2:20 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


thug unicorn: "Maybe I'm just too used to tumblr, but I'm surprised I don't see more people using AFAB, AMAB, or variations here."

I use them all the time (on tumblr; I don't comment here much any more!). I'm particularly fond of them because you can use AMAB or CAMAB depending on if you identify with your assigned gender, and because the old MTF/FTM terms for trans people posited being trans as a "journey" from one sex to another and implicitly validated the M as something I'd genuinely been rather than something that was forced on me, sometimes violently.

I was CAMAB'd. My female socialisation was punished with violence and shaming whenever I failed to hide it. I was never male.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:21 PM on July 11 [18 favorites]


In a future world where gender expression is undifferentiated (isn't that the goal?), would gender identity have any meaning? How would sexual orientation work? I mean, I can see that large chunks of these things are cultural. But it seems like large chunks are biological, too, and my mind is pretty well blown that we can't tell one from the other. But I love how Ivan F. described the sweet-tooth. Maybe in the end we all spend way too much time thinking about sex and cake.
posted by rikschell at 2:29 PM on July 11


pseudonick: "The media matters link above: Wouldn't it make more sense to have to symbol for the gender neutral bathroom be female left side, male right side instead of male top female bottom? "

I got the impression from the article that the sign depicted is just a mockup, made by the Fox News crew. Actual gender-neutral bathroom signs look more like this, for example.

thug unicorn: "I don't think anyone's actually trying to eliminate conceptualizing any distinctions between trans and cis people of the same gender. But "assigned sex at birth" would be the way I'd talk about that, not "biological sex"."

I was struggling to answer pseudonick's question in a concise way, but this is pretty much what I wanted to say. :)

This taking apart of the idea of biological sex as a discrete binary is something I've found eye-opening in a very positive way, both from the point of view of someone who just likes learning new things, and from an anti-transphobia perspective. Being aware of the ways in which the sexing of bodies, as well as the gender of the people who have those bodies, is messy and unpredictable and on a spectrum, helps in dismantling the arguments of those who think one's "biological sex" = the sex/gender one was assigned at birth = one's sole true identity.
posted by daisyk at 2:33 PM on July 11


Well, there are a few countries where one does not have to be assigned "f" or "m". Germany introduced that third indeterminate gender on birth certificates last year and allows to choose it for passports as well. Same goes for passports in New Zealand and Australia, for the latter birth certificates can be altered after the fact without proof of reassignment surgery. Nepal, Pakistan and India allow a third (indeterminate/unspecified) gender for IDs.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:34 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


the young rope-rider, I am struggling with replying to your comment. "Gendered socialisation," posited as something experienced by cis women and not by trans women, is an extremely common TERF dog whistle.

You are absolutely right that TERF rhetoric has poisoned the well substantially when it comes to discussing this topic. That is an understatement, of course, because their rhetoric is both hateful and reflective of real-world violence and exclusion.

I appreciate you giving me the benefit of the doubt and I do want to explain my comments further, but I want to do so in a nuanced and thoughtful way and my current situation is making that hard. I hope this placeholder feels like a respectful response to your comment, as I did not want to leave you hanging.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:55 PM on July 11 [14 favorites]


There is no need to rush back to this thread! Whenever you feel up to it is fine, or never is also fine. I hope everything's okay!
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:57 PM on July 11 [7 favorites]


Imagine a world in which biological sex really was 100% binary. Every person's brain, genes, and body are either all male or all female. Even in that world, if someone asked to be treated as the opposite of their biological sex, the right thing to do would be to respect their wishes.

There are all kinds of cases where we ignore science in favor of human decency. We don't call senior citizens "almost dead people," we educate disabled people regardless of whether the investment will ever be profitable, and we don't lock people up just for being likely to commit a crime in the future. We get to build whatever kind of society we want regardless of what science says.
posted by miyabo at 3:05 PM on July 11 [13 favorites]


Nothing makes me angrier than medically unnecessary surgeries on babies for fucked up paternal "doctor knows best" reasons. The medical profession has a long history of treating babies like objects to experiment on as they please: babies were routinely operated on without anesthesia in the US through the 70s. The practice wasn't completely stopped until IIRC 1984 (!).

The arrogance of many doctors on this issue astounds me, they are literally flipping a coin and hoping the babies they do genital surgery on a) end up with the matching cis genitals for their gender, and b) nothing in the surgery gets botched, leaving babies with a lifetime of sexual dysfunction ahead of them.

I couldn't even finish this article. I really hope non-medically necessary genital surgeries on babies is outlawed. Doctors have thoroughly proven they cannot be trusted on this issue.
posted by zug at 3:12 PM on July 11 [10 favorites]


In a future world where gender expression is undifferentiated (isn't that the goal?),

This is not the goal. The goal is a world where gender expression is not coercive.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:15 PM on July 11 [14 favorites]


We don't call senior citizens "almost dead people,"

The analog would be a senior citizen identifying as young.
posted by jpe at 3:28 PM on July 11


Define "senior citizen." Like gender, it's a continuum. Someone who is 60 is indeed young compared to someone who's 90, but if you're 15 (or 30) you might call both of them senior citizens. Someone who's 30 probably doesn't think of themselves as old, but to that 15-year-old they might well be ancient.
posted by rtha at 3:33 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


Kadin2048: > transmisogyny

Shouldn't that be "mistransony"? Unless it refers only to transwomen, I guess.


Transmisanthopy sounds better to my ear. But it's all really just specialized misanthropy.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:42 PM on July 11


I've always understood transmisogyny to be a handy word describing the combination of transphobia and misogyny that commonly manifest together as a bizzaro-world Reese Peanut Butter cup of hate.

I think it's a useful and descriptive term.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 4:03 PM on July 11 [8 favorites]


transmisogyny
Shouldn't that be "mistransony"? Unless it refers only to transwomen, I guess.
You guessed correctly: "transmisogyny" describes prejudice against trans women, and frames that prejudice as a product of general all-around misogyny.

The idea is that we're living in a society that denigrates femininity in certain specific ways: femininity is seen as inherently sexual, as irrational, as shallow, as playful and unserious, as deceptive, and so on. Those same characteristics are projected even more intensely onto trans women than they are onto cis women. One especially egregious example of this: most people wouldn't assume that all cis women are sex workers, even though cis femininity is plenty sexualized, but it's easy to find people who assume that all trans women are.*

And in particular, those characteristics are projected onto the decisions we make around our transitions, and onto our reasons for transitioning. So it's common for people to assume that we transition to satisfy some sort of fetish (because femininity is all about sex appeal, right?), or as some sort of flamboyant theatrical stunt (because femininity is seen as basically just a costume, as shallow and unserious), or to infiltrate women's spaces (because femininity that doesn't "come naturally" is already seen as a form of deception).

Another element of transmisogyny is the pervasive (and misogynistic!) belief that femininity is less normal or less natural than masculinity — that being feminine means Having A Lot Of Gender and masculinity is basically a blank slate, No Gender At All. This is part of why people project all that shit onto our reasons for transitioning — we're transitioning from the "normal" unmarked state to the "weird" marked state, and that feels like such an unnatural thing to do that there must be a sensational reason for it. Similarly, there are some people who see trans men as progressive and radical because they're "leaving gender roles behind," but who see trans women as weird and anti-feminist because they're "putting on old-fashioned gender roles."

None of this is to deny that trans men take a lot of shit too. But they take different kinds of shit. Comparatively few people, for instance, are obsessed with the idea of trans masculinity as a kind of sexual perversion, or as a sneaky deceptive way of infiltrating men's bathrooms. So it's useful to have a specific word that refers to the specific kinds of shit that trans women take due to the ways that misogyny is projected onto us and our decisions.

*...and that assumption tends to go hand-in-hand with some really nasty beliefs about sex workers. The guys who assume a trans woman out at night is looking for tricks are probably not going to be like "And hey, good for her! That's a career choice that I can respect! I'm gonna try to be a good honest customer, or else leave her alone so she can do her job."
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:19 PM on July 11 [29 favorites]


OK, since I was name-checked in this thread, I will out myself here--I'm Cary Gabriel Costello, intersex advocate. I was assigned female at birth, and transitioned to male status in my 40s; my wife was also born intersex, assigned male at birth, and began her gender transition as soon as she reached legal adulthood.

I want to underline that the belief that sex is binary is indeed an ideology. “Ideology” is a funny word. We are happy to apply it to others—people from other cultures, other political groups, other historical periods. There were some Medieval oddballs who tried and then burnt a rooster at the stake in the 15th century for "the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg”--what a strange ideology they had, that animals could choose to defy God's laws, and must be punished for it! Look! they actually believed that there was such a thing as a “cock egg,” which could spawn a cockatrice, as if roosters regularly went around laying eggs. What a strange, magical ideology of physical sex they held, we say.

Most of us believe that we, on the other hand, see the world clearly, as it is, unblinded by ideologies. There are hens and there are roosters. Sex is a binary, and the laws of nature can't be disregarded by rebellious livestock.

Except this is no less of an ideology about the way nature works. That's the thing about ideologies: they're easy to spot when you don't share them, but really difficult to recognize when you and the people all around you take them for granted as “the way the world works.”

In fact, sex is by nature a spectrum, not a binary. Intersexuality happens, and chickens with a coxcomb and wattles that crow cock-a-doodle-do can lay eggs. Occasionally this makes the news, but generally, we don't notice the intersex animals and people around us, because we're blinded by a binary gender ideology that tells us they aren't there.

There is a lot of variation in how assorted elements of the reproductive organs develop from person to person in all of us. For example, people acknowledge with a lot of rib-elbowing the variation in penile size. Variation in the size and shape of genitalia, and in other parts of the body, is part of human diversity. Doctors are well aware that livers and lungs and blood vessels vary between individuals, and may look quite different from an iconic anatomical diagram. But we rarely care about having an unusually shaped liver. The shape of genitals, however, is given huge cultural weight, because we pin our commitment to binary gender roles on them.

In the U.S., looking at diagnostic categories, at least 1 in 142 people is medically classified as having a “disorder of sex development.” [Disclaimer--that's a self-link to a blog post of mine.] Projecting this out onto the world population, there are around fifty million people alive today whom doctors would classify as intersex.

Intersex people are all around you, but we're rendered invisible by the ideology of the sex binary that doctors and legal systems enforce. This is hardly inevitable. It's the product of a social system for categorizing sex, and other societies have classified sex differently. Many societies have had additional sex categories to which they have assigned visibly intersex individuals, such as the Hawai'ian mahu, the Mexican Zapotec muxe, and the Indonesian bissu. In my own Jewish tradition, four sexes have been halachically recognized: male, female, tumtum (neither) and androgyne (both). A person designated an androgyne must fulfill the religious requirements proscribed for both men and women; a tumtum individual is required to fulfill neither. Sex is a spectrum, and societies have divided it up into different numbers of categories, just as they have divided the color spectrum into different numbers of named colors. The underlying natural reality remains a continuous rainbow of colors or bodies. Binary sex is no more "correct" that trinary, quartic, or quintic sex systems.

To say that binary sex is a social construct is NOT to say it isn't our lived social reality. It is not at statement that bodies are imaginary, that we can choose to have any chromosomes we would like, that sex steroids don't have real, measurable effects. What it does mean is that bodies are extraordinarily variable, but are viewed through simplifying lenses. Binary sex is one such simple lens. There's nothing wrong with using social categories--except to the extent that they are used to harm people. Coercive sex "normalizing" surgeries performed upon infants do great harm. So does defining "true" gender by reference to binary genital anatomy.

Most of us identify with binary gender in the contemporary West, and I have no desire to treat people's gender identities as invalid. But I do want to make it very clear that binary sex is an ideology.
posted by DrMew at 5:00 PM on July 11 [110 favorites]


DrMew, there's not a lot of writing about this issue out there right now that is easily understandable to laypeople, but your comment just phrased a lot of things I knew in my heart into words for the first time. Honestly, if that comment had existed somewhere else before I made this post, I would have included in the FPP.

Thank you for that comment. Flagged as fantastic.
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:44 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]


DrMew, for myself as a supportive but largely uninvolved bystander to this, that was one of the most helpful, interesting, and flat out intellectually provocative comments I have ever read here.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:55 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


Whoa, thanks, Juliet Banana and Dip Flash, I'm honored.

Living with an intersex body that "doesn't compute" to the people around you is something that's pretty hard to talk about, which is one of the reasons most intersex people are in the closet. So I've had to do a lot of thinking about how to explain my experiences so as not to get the usual response ("Wow you're a real hermaphrodite? I thought they were a myth/I hear there have only been seven cases ever confirmed! Can you make yourself pregnant?"). I've gotten better at it over time. Still get that Usual Response a lot, though.
posted by DrMew at 6:09 PM on July 11


I don't think anyone's actually trying to eliminate conceptualizing any distinctions between trans and cis people of the same gender. But "assigned sex at birth" would be the way I'd talk about that, not "biological sex".

I also like this way of doing it, but last year when I used it to describe our AFAB son to tge doctor at the Children's Gender Clinic, the doc thought I meant that our son's sex had been ambiguous at birth & we'd chosen to go with female. Resolved the confusion in 30 seconds, so no big deal, but a good example of how, with a lot of new usages, you don't know what they mean unless you already know what they mean.

/end of friendly anecdote; little winky face here
posted by not that girl at 6:28 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


And add me to the list of Dr. Mew fans.
posted by not that girl at 6:28 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


That's pretty fallacious reasoning, for a variety of reasons.

1) Doctors are not necessarily experts on sex differentiation, or on plenty of other gender issues. This is particularly obvious if you listen to women's descriptions of dealing with crazy sexist bullshit from doctors.


I wasn't clear. I was talking about doctors as a community, i.e. the medical community. Yes, sometimes medical community is fucked up, but in the whole, I trust them over internet people.

2) Biologists who deal with sexual differentiation rarely base "male" and "female" on genitals, and almost never without the qualifying "phenotypical."

I can't speak to your experience and I'm not widely read in biology but I'm reading the Evolution of Primary Sexual Characters in Animals right now and a book about parthenogenesis that is not the case for this either book.

3) "Science" isn't one big authority from which to draw. "Science" believed in phrenology and plenty of scientists still advance dubious genetic theories, including James Watson's belief that Africans are genetically less intelligent than Europeans.

I agree. (My favorite psuedoscience is drapetomania.) But how do we know now that phrenology is bullshit? Is it because non-scientists read it in the 19th century equivalent of tumblr? Or because other scientists looked at and said "this is ridiculous", investigated, did experiments, found out it was ridiculous and let the public know.

My trust in the scientific community is because it is self correcting, unlike most other communities. It may take 50 or 100 years but eventually the truth outs and paradigms shift.

So, denying on an oversimplification because of dubious authorities should not be likened to throwing out "the most useful thing humans have ever come up with," but rather using science to dispel lazy reductionism.

The argument, as I understand it, is that "Biological sex is a social construct because there is no bright line between male and female. Therefore, humans with male reproductive systems/male secondary sex characteristics/male chromosomes should not be referred to as male and humans with female reproductive systems/female secondary sex characteristics/female chromosomes should not be referred to as female."

"Biological sex is a social construct because there is no bright line between male and female." - This is what is anti science. It's like creationists saying "evolution is just a theory." It's not rare for a scientific concept to not have a bright line between it's components. Sex not a defective concept because it doesn't have this. "Species" also does not have a bright line definition. But I'd be an idiot if I walked around saying lions and tigers are the same species because they can interbreed. And "life" as well - my mind was blown in high school biology when we learned that scientists can't really define the difference between things that are alive and things that are not alive.

As in Zinnia Jones' last paragraph, the real argument against biological sex is that some transwomen reject being men and also reject being biologically male. And so they want to get rid of the concept of "male". It has nothing to do with science. It seems have more to due with the fact that "You're male so you can't be a woman" is a common argument used by transphobes. Some transgender women respond by saying "I'm male and a woman." Others, by trying to get rid of the concept of male.


By extension, I assume that you'll only refer to an individual as male or female when you've seen their genitals? Will it take proof of fertility, or is everyone sex-unknown for a couple of weeks until the karyotype comes back from the lab? Given that we're invoking doctors and biologists, people who tend to favour empirical evidence over assumption.

Nope. Because like most people I use generalizations to get through the day. If someone looks like a man, I assume that they are male as that is true for 98% of men. (In addition, I assume his penis is circumcised and that it's not a micro-penis.) I also assume that someone wearing a wedding ring is married and don't actually demand to see their marriage certificate. Also, no doctor of mine has asked for a karyotype. They look at me and assume female and I am female, so that works out for me. I am not speaking for other people who look female.

There are absolutely categories of reproductive compatibility. These bear so little relation to the concept of 'sex' as applied to humans across every level of our society that to use the same word in reference to both is to make the issue almost incomprehensibly muddy.

I kind of agree. But I don't think trying to change the meaning of sex is going to fix that. It might be better to come up with a new word.
posted by nooneyouknow at 6:41 PM on July 11 [7 favorites]


Alice Dreger: Is Anatomy Destiny?
posted by divabat at 6:44 PM on July 11


Wow, DrMew, you post where you convincingly argue for a 1 in 150 number for intersex people really drives it home. That's more common than amputees of all kinds. If anyone really wants to argue that binary sex isn't an ideology, imagine a world that went to the same kinds of lengths to hide that fact that not everybody had four limbs with 10 fingers and 10 toes.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:28 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]


The argument is less "biological sex is a social construct because there is no bright line between male and female" as you have disastrously summed it up and more "when assholes on the internet say 'biological sex' it doesn't really mean what they think it means." It's that there are numerous variable ways to "scientifically" "determine" "biological sex" and that there is no One True Concept to which you can appeal to make shitty proclamations about trans people. I can say my genitalia are female because I am female and therefore my body is female. Or I can say my biological sex is female because I run on estrogen. Or I can say my body is female because it's got female secondary sex characteristics. Or whatever! You can say the opposite of these things (if you want to be an asshole on the internet saying mean things about my body, which you have never observed in any capacity, scientific or otherwise), but you won't be any more rules-lawyeringly "technically" correct than I am. You may have missed Ivan Fyodorovich's posts, which lay this out pretty well.

Just because 98% of the men you meet are cis doesn't mean that 100% of the men you meet are cis. Your assumption about the size and shape of someone's penis (WTF?) has nothing to do with what that person's penis actually looks like, or whether they even have one, or whether you're entitled to know anything about it. Arbitrarily picking and choosing which test to use to collapse a complex set of variables into the exact binary result you preselected ahead of time is, like, the least science-y thing you can do.
posted by Corinth at 7:54 PM on July 11 [19 favorites]


Nooneyouknow, let me just say that as an intersex individual who has spent much of his life dealing with the normative beliefs of the medical profession about sex, I've found both individual doctors and scholarly medical journals to often be sadly no more sophisticated than an elementary school child when talking about sex. Some examples related to the penis: medical professionals today assert that an individual with a phallus whose urethra opens on the shaft or at the level of the perineum will be infertile unless the urethral opening is surgically moved to the phallic tip. (Good grief.) They also claim that if a child is born diphallic with two penises, that unless one is removed, infertility will again result because intercourse will be impossible. (And of course, the only reason anyone would want to keep a penis would be to have normative procreative intercourse!) Also, they assert that if a child is born with XY chromosomes and typical testes but no penis, the child should be surgically assigned female in infancy, on the presumption that everyone would prefer to be an infertile woman without a clitoris to being a fertile man without a penis. (Wait, wasn't fertility the primary factor a moment ago?)

These treatment paradigms are not based on empirical research of any kind, they are based on gender ideology and fear of sex variance.

In making their determinations about how to alter intersex bodies, as they presume they must, medical professionals do the opposite of basing sex determinations on genitals. (If they wanted to do that, they'd need at least one more sex category.) For many decades, starting in the late 19th century, doctors defined "true" binary sex by gonads. A person with a penis but ovaries they termed a "female pseudohermaphrodite." An individual with vulva but internal testes they termed a "male pseudohermaphrodite." Only those with ovotestes or an ovary/testis combination were named "true hermaphrodites"--and 99+% of intersex people have either ovaries or testes. Thus, medical researchers claimed, they had proved that they could find the "true" binary sex of an intermediately-sexed person almost all of the time, and they defined intersexuality away, by doing autopsies on intersex decedents and classifying us by gonad type.

The gonad rule was replaced in the latter part of the 20th century with a surgery-based rule centering "normalization" of infant genitals to the binary. Basically, that rule went like this: "Does the infant have external testes and a sufficiently substantial phallus? If yes, remove any vagina and move the urethra to the phallic tip. If no, surgically assign the child female." Thus, children with normal-looking phalli and scrota, but no testes and internal ovaries, had their phalli removed and a vagina made. Children with typical testes but penises simply deemed too puny were assigned female. Children with intermediate phalloclitori were assigned female. This rule had nothing to do with gonads or chromosomes, fertility or identity, and everything to do with cosmetics. The guiding principle was that if the child could be made to look sufficiently genitally binary by age two, they would develop the "correct" assigned binary gender identity, and their intersex status could be kept secret, which was imperative for mental health. An individual known to be intersex by others, it was claimed, was at high risk of suicide.

That paradigm has been little changed since then in the U.S.--though in Europe and Australia, genital "normalizing" surgeries performed without the full informed consent of the individual involved (not a parental proxy) is now deemed unethical. That's because many of us wind up sexually insensate, infertile, and/or assigned to a sex with which we do not identify . . . But in the U.S., medical science continues to hold that intersex bodies are disordered, defective, and tragic, and surgeries that "normalize" our bodies to a binary sex idea continue to be framed as heroic.

One more thing. . . you say that calling something related to the biological body a social construct (like sex; often also cited is race) denies scientific fact. As a social scientist, when I hear someone attack the idea that something is socially constructed, I hear ignorance of the social sciences. As a society, we privilege the "hard" sciences over the "soft" ones (oy, the gender ideology in those terms), so it's common enough that social scientists have much more familiarity with genetics and chemistry than chemists know about sociology or cultural anthropology. But believe me, ideas that you dismiss as antiscientific are well-studied and long accepted in large fields of (social) scientific endeavor.
posted by DrMew at 7:55 PM on July 11 [51 favorites]


DrMew FTW.
posted by triage_lazarus at 8:07 PM on July 11 [6 favorites]


Sex is just gender wearing a lab coat.

If someone were to even define The Platonically Ultimate Biological And Internally Consistent Descriptive Definition Of Binary Sex Definitely Not Gender, that's something that's going to be prima fascia useless for everything outside of that narrow scope.

You'd need a reason to do that, like, I don't know, some kind of socially constructed ideology.
posted by thug unicorn at 8:44 PM on July 11 [7 favorites]


A slight derail perhaps, but a lot of the gender essentialism arguments appeal to nature. It turns out that it's pretty much a total myth that animal systems commonly have only a male and a female sex. Evolution's Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden is a pretty sizable look at non-binary systems within animals. The book itself is a little ranty at times, but the mating systems she describes are pretty cool.
posted by zug at 11:45 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


nebulawindphone, I am saving your perfect comment for the next time I need to explain what transmisogyny is.
posted by daisyk at 2:20 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


DrMew, I found the post you linked to from your blog fascinating and enlightening (I am a cis woman, always seeking to educate myself here). I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this subject with you here in this thread.

One thing bothered me about your post, and I am hoping you can shed some light on it here. You laid out your reasoning for how you feel that you feel common estimates of persons being intersex are off, as you say, by "a factor of ten".

In doing so, you used specific percentages to support your conclusions, which I appreciated. I applaud the attempt to go from handwavey numbers to more fact-based estimates.

However, you did not cite any sources for the percentages you used, which, given that you are making the case for a vastly higher percentage than commonly cited, is baffling. As someone quite open to the concept that people who are intersex are under-represented, I am disappointed by that omission.

Attempting to fact-check for myself only led to confusion. You mention the CDC by name within the body of your post, specifically regarding the prevalence of hypospadias. Here's what you wrote: "According to the CDC, hypospadias occurs in the U.S. in one in 125 children labeled as “boys,” or 1 in 250 births."

But... That's not correct?

At least, a quick trip to the CDC's page on hypospadias gives us this: "It is estimated that each year about 5 boys out of every 1,000 born in the United States have hypospadias." They cite a study on intersex prevalence to back up that estimate.

Five in 1000, of course, translates to 1 in 200 children labeled as boys, or 1 in 400 births, going by your own metric.

That's quite a discrepancy (1 in 125/250 as opposed to 1 in 200/400), and given that your premise is based on those numbers, I am hoping you can shed some light on how you arrived at your own figures?

Any sources at all that you could share for your work would be more than welcome.
posted by misha at 10:25 AM on July 12


It turns out that it's pretty much a total myth that animal systems commonly have only a male and a female sex. Evolution's Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden is a pretty sizable look at non-binary systems within animals.

That book doesn't say that it's a myth that animal systems only have two sexes. She says that it's two genders that are a myth, but she's very clear that animals have two sexes.

I have the book here, so I am just going to copy and paste some paragraphs from chapter 2 "Sex vs Gender" bold emphasis is mine:
“Men” and “women” are social categories. We have the freedom to decide who counts as a man and who counts as a woman. The criteria change from time to time. In some circles, a “real man” can’t eat quiche. In other circles, people seize on physical traits to define manhood: height, voice, Y chromosome, or penis. Yet these traits don’t always go together: some men are short, others are tenors, some don’t have a Y chromosome, and others don’t have a penis. Still, we may choose to consider all such people as men anyway for purposes like deciding which jobs they can apply for, which clubs they can join, which sports they may play, and whom they may marry.

To a biologist, “male” means making small gametes, and “female” means making large gametes. Period! By definition, the smaller of the two gametes is called a sperm, and the larger an egg.

The key point here is that “male” and “female” are biological categories, whereas “man” and “woman” are social categories. Poetry and art are about men and women, not males and females. Men and women differ in many social dimensions in addition to the biological dimension of gamete size.

If further research reveals that the sperm makers differ in the ratio of sperm sizes they produce, we will have discovered a species with more than two sexes. Such a discovery would not violate any law of nature, but it would be very rare and would certainly make headlines. So, for practical purposes, male and female are universal biological categories defined by a binary distinction between small and large gametes, sperm and egg.

Only two genders occur, corresponding to the two sexes. No, many species have three or more genders, with individuals of each sex occurring in two or more forms.
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:21 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


oh god i don't make any gametes what am i what has science done
posted by Corinth at 11:40 AM on July 12 [12 favorites]


Misha, I'm at an event, but to address your question quickly, reported rates of hypospadias vary for many reasons. They have been increasing over time; they vary by race/ethnicity; they vary by nation; they vary by classificatory system. Like everything having to do with intersex conditions, many cases go unreported, and there is no clear line between what is "intersex enough" to count and what is "normal." The rate reported in the US has been on the rise since the 1960s, but the CDC reported a rate of 80 per 10,000 as of 1993. That's 8 in 1000, or 1 in 125 children assigned male at birth.

If you'd like to learn more about my thoughts on hypospadias, you can look at my blog post on that topic here.
posted by DrMew at 11:41 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


I think the way that medical science is helping me (HRT, my estrogen lab pegs me as female now) has really screwed all that up, nooneyouknow.

The model itself is too simplistic and it causes harm to people. Why do we need to care so much about defending it?
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:45 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


Responding to that post is pretty much the entire point of the FPP.
posted by Corinth at 11:49 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


Corinth, I see your premise as that unless someone qualifies as female in all biological categories where they could be female, then calling them female is ridiculous. I disagree. You can be male and yet qualify as female in some categories. And female and qualify as male in some categories. When I first heard the argument that calling trans women* as male is scientifically incorrect, I looked to actual scientists, e.g. biologists to see if they agreed. None of the biology that I have looked agrees that a female has to be female in all categories in order to qualify as female. They all acknowledge that differentiating between male and female can be difficult in a minority of cases and is more complex than it seems, but none of them state that they should just base sex off of the person's gender because of that difficulty. I'd refer you to my comment about Evolution's Rainbow as an example, but you have already read it.

Also, I interpret you as saying that "trans women are biologically male" inevitably leads to or is the same as saying "trans women are men/can never be women." I disagree there as well. It is possible to view trans women as male and still see them as women. I am sorry that your experience as only been with people who can't do that.


Dr. Mew, as a black woman I know that there is a lot of bad with the good when it comes to the medical community. It is tragic that they are letting biases and prejudice determine the treatment of intersex people.

About social construction, I'm not completely ignorant of social science, I do read psychology, anthropology, history, linguistics, but I don't read about how the sausage is made so to speak, so I"ll plead to ignorance there. The point I was trying to make is that if "biological sex" is viewed as a social construction than everything medical and scientific is, and e.g. "heart disease" and "cancer" are social constructions. But no one is going around saying you can't say someone has cancer because it's a social construction.


The model itself is too simplistic and it causes harm to people. Why do we need to care so much about defending it?

Annika, just because something causes harm doesn't mean it doesn't cause more good overall. I do think that if "male" and "female" are actually not useful for biologists and other scientists, then they will be abandoned by them and replaced by something more useful. Some young biologist or doctor more committed to the truth than ideology will rise up and change biology forever.


In other news, I was re-reading the tumblr and autostraddle posts and neither one mentions gamete size. And it occurred to me that they either failed to mention it because they know they can't refute it or that this argument isn't about people like me who know some biology, it's about people who only have a shallow understanding of biological sex (and then are dicks to trans people). As option B is 99.9% more likely than option A, I am bowing out of this thread and apologies for all the ruckus.


*I forgot if Metafilter convention is for the space or not for the space, so I went with the space. Apologies for any offense.
posted by nooneyouknow at 12:56 PM on July 12


[CIS PERSON] yeah, but the only thing that matters is how you reproduce!

[EVERYONE ELSE] actually, a ton of people can't reproduce for many, many different reasons, and it makes no sense to use that as the one "true" biological test more than anything else

[MATHOWIE] ok this is a derail, knock it off, i'm deleting it

[EVERYONE ELSE] whew cool ok let's have a really cool nuanced discussion that explores new concepts

[CIS PERSON] yeah, but the only thing that matters is how you reproduce!
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:26 PM on July 12 [14 favorites]


[Yeah, at this point I think the insistence on gamete size as the one true criterion is getting to be kind of an unhelpful eddy, and let's maybe leave that as having been addressed and let ourselves move on from there?]
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:28 PM on July 12 [4 favorites]


Some of this discussion is really illustrative of why more education is needed on the inadequacies of binary gender classification.

"No wait, I can come up with a consistent way of making it all work and I can totally fit you into this category, just give me a second, see? It still works just fine, no need to do away with the way we've been doing things, see?

"What do you mean I picked wrong?"
posted by tigrrrlily at 2:22 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]


I do think that if "male" and "female" are actually not useful for biologists and other scientists,

I do some citizen-science volunteering where we need to sex raptors on sight; this is not possible for some species, so we just ID by species and age (if possible). So for us, yes, sex is a useful category!

But when it comes to working with my fellow human volunteers, knowing what gametes they produce, what arrangement of Xs and/or Ys their genes are in, or what their genitals look like - none of that would actually be useful for me. I need to know things like Bill uses male pronouns and is crap at telling Coops from Sharpies and Linda uses female pronouns and wants to make every gull into an osprey.

Do you really feel like you need this information about everyone you interact with? I've never understood the emphasis some people place on this bit of SCIENCE! when it's not data you need or otherwise think about in your daily, non-science-lab life.
posted by rtha at 2:55 PM on July 12 [14 favorites]


That book doesn't say that it's a myth that animal systems only have two sexes. She says that it's two genders that are a myth, but she's very clear that animals have two sexes.

Gah, it's amazing sometimes how easy it is to screw up terminology with this stuff, even though I darn well know better. Thank you for the correction!
posted by zug at 3:51 PM on July 12


"The point I was trying to make is that if 'biological sex' is viewed as a social construction than everything medical and scientific is, and e.g. 'heart disease' and 'cancer' are social constructions. But no one is going around saying you can't say someone has cancer because it's a social construction."

Allow me to use an example that maps very closely with the various ways in which your argument is faulty — the argument about whether glass is a liquid. (There's a reason I italicized both words.)

The genesis of almost every instance of this argument is that someone was told in a classroom (in high school or an intro university class) that "glass isn't a solid; it's actually an extremely viscous liquid", and/or were told something similar to this with regard to an example of several hundred year old window glass that is supposedly visibly "sagging" in its window pane.

Now, when people hear this and talk about it, they have in mind liquid and solid and, for that matter, glass as these words are understood in everyday language, not as they are defined within the context of a particular scientific discipline. However, when they argue about it, people will appeal to a scientific definition of these words to support their claim.

Unfortunately, different disciplines define these terms differently. A materials scientist, a chemist, and a solid state physicist will each define liquid and solid differently. Your high school science teacher who explained to you that simple, categorical definition of states of matter was, in some very real sense, misleading you. It's not that simple. Even worse, as is pretty much the case for each scientific discipline, the stuff you learn in the your lower-level classes will prove to be oversimplified and often unreliable by the time you are working at the graduate level. It's never as simple as it's made out to be in your survey course or your high school class. Never.

Meanwhile, someone is arguing on the internet that, yes, window glass is absolutely a liquid, it says so right here in my handbook of physics, and someone else is saying, no, here's another reference that defines it as a kind of solid.

And the funny thing about all this is that the whole impetus behind this argument was wrong. Several hundred year-old window glass isn't visibly sagging because the viscosity of glass is so enormously high (assuming that it makes sense to talk about this, which you shouldn't) that under its own weight it would take geological time for glass to visibly flow. The window glass that people have in mind was made unevenly because of the limitations of the technology of the time and it was almost always, naturally, installed with the thicker portion at the bottom.

In no everyday sense, not even remotely, does glass "flow". The only reason anyone is interested in this, as opposed to say, that granite might be classified as a liquid with very high viscosity, is because the appearance of glass leads people to find the idea that it's a liquid to be very appealing and because they therefore believe, whether they were told this or not, that glass will visibly flow on human timescales. But it won't.

The technical, scientific definitions of liquid, solid, amorphous solid, and glass vary by field and subfield because ultimately there are no universally applicable categorical distinctions that can be made about the properties involved. And yet the way that people use everyday language incline them to want universal categorical distinctions and people now typically look to science to supply them. The end result is that people misuse science that they cherry-pick and don't understand to defend their naive understanding of the natural world, a naive understanding which is primarily a product of ideology. You better believe that liquid and cancer and species, as they are understood popularly, are "social constructions".

In my example of glass and liquid, people pick and choose scientific technical usages to support their everyday speech usage as a means for defending an empirical claim that happens to be false. This is is just what's usually happening when someone insists that biological sex — or race — are not socially constructed. Does what we call "sex" and what we call "race" have some relationship to biology? Yes, of course. Are those relationships established scientifically? Yes, of course. Do various scientific disciplines define and use these terms? Yes, they do. Does this mean that what laypeople have in mind when they use the words sex and race in everyday language is fully and precisely validated by science? No. Emphatically: no. Not even close. In fact, many of the implications of the everyday meaning of these terms are empirically false.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:15 PM on July 12 [25 favorites]


Raises a, er, glass, to Ivan Fyodorovich. Superbly put. (*checks windows*)
posted by marienbad at 1:31 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


Do you really feel like you need this information about everyone you interact with? I've never understood the emphasis some people place on this bit of SCIENCE! when it's not data you need or otherwise think about in your daily, non-science-lab life.

The argument for the insistence on SCIENCE! is that women are predominantly oppressed because of their biology - their fitness for breeding, their use as a sexual release, their weaker (on average) physiques, their physical attractiveness to men etc.

If you enact laws forbidding the reproductive freedom gained from contraception and abortion, for example, you are using a woman's biological reality to keep her in her place. We don't have any problem pointing this out in other threads and calling it for what it is - misogyny.

(I am aware, of course, that a lot of misogyny is also based on things that aren't based in biology)

Now I don't personally see why that should stop someone identifying as a man or a woman if they feel that is what they are. I disagree with the rad fem position that trans people have a fetish for the other gender or for subjugation or are just confused gay people.

I suspect there is some part of the brain that is specifically for identifying yourself as a particular gender which has switched in trans people, and even if society was less fixated on outwards shows of gender such as clothing, hair, behaviour etc, trans people would nevertheless still exist.

But patriarchy is very fixed on the biological basis of sex and actively oppresses a set of people based on it.

It doesn't help the fight against oppression to pretend it's not important or not a thing. We may say 'yeah, well, I don't really recognise the biological sex binary', but when the rest of the world is using physical reality as a tool to subjugate one set of people then it doesn't help to fudge that reality.
posted by Summer at 4:45 AM on July 13 [3 favorites]


So it's common for people to assume that we transition to satisfy some sort of fetish (because femininity is all about sex appeal, right?), or as some sort of flamboyant theatrical stunt (because femininity is seen as basically just a costume, as shallow and unserious), or to infiltrate women's spaces (because femininity that doesn't "come naturally" is already seen as a form of deception).
Damn if that is the most concise, clear explenation of the intersection of TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) "ideology" and rightwing transphobia.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:24 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


It doesn't help the fight against oppression to pretend it's not important or not a thing. We may say 'yeah, well, I don't really recognise the biological sex binary', but when the rest of the world is using physical reality as a tool to subjugate one set of people then it doesn't help to fudge that reality.

I think it might be just as accurate to say that the oppressors are using the ideology of biological sex (thanks, Dr. Mew), rather than the "physical reality" of it, to oppress people.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:19 AM on July 13 [3 favorites]


Or both, since culture and legislation are biased against both someone who needs access to contraception or abortion services (regardless of whether they present as and/or identify as female), and also someone who presents and identifies as female (regardless of whether or not female reproductive services have any relevance to them). The ideology and the biology are both used as levers of oppression, sometimes separately and sometimes together.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:33 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


So it's common for people to assume that we transition to satisfy some sort of fetish (because femininity is all about sex appeal, right?), or as some sort of flamboyant theatrical stunt (because femininity is seen as basically just a costume, as shallow and unserious), or to infiltrate women's spaces (because femininity that doesn't "come naturally" is already seen as a form of deception).

Damn if that is the most concise, clear explenation of the intersection of TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) "ideology" and rightwing transphobia.


Well. the rad fem position is that transpeople are fetishising the performance of femininity, which is socially coerced and has nothing to do with 'femaleness', rather than aspiring to something that is real.

I don't personally think that that is what's going on with transpeople, but the rad fem position bears little relation to right wing transphobia, which is just another form of misogyny, or fear of femaleness.

The idea that gender as performance is socially coerced (to whatever extent) is pretty fundamental to feminists of many stripes.
posted by Summer at 7:58 AM on July 13


It doesn't help the fight against oppression to pretend it's not important or not a thing. We may say 'yeah, well, I don't really recognise the biological sex binary', but when the rest of the world is using physical reality as a tool to subjugate one set of people then it doesn't help to fudge that reality.

No one here is pretending it doesn't exist or is not a thing. Some of us are arguing that its actual existence is quite different from the one we make a lot of assumptions about (see Ivan's glass comment), and many of those assumptions are therefore wrong. No one here is pretending that some people are not going get all "biology biology biology!" about this subject - see DrMew's (many!) excellent blog posts addressing this exact argument, for example.

And anyway, you didn't actually address my point, which is that for the vast, overwhelming majority of us, there is no earthly reason why we need to have a printout of someone's medical history before we know how to refer to them in the third person let alone need a reason to be civil and polite. For those purposes, whether or not sex is binary is fucking irrelevant.
posted by rtha at 8:01 AM on July 13 [5 favorites]


I think there are many ways that women are oppressed through their biology/medical needs.

Some women have a difficult time obtaining contraception and reproductive health screenings due to people's misogynist beliefs.

Some women have a difficult time obtaining hormone therapy and gender affirming procedures due to people's transmisogynist beliefs.

So yes, women are oppressed by control of their bodies, and often by the specific way that their particular body functions. But I don't think you can use that to say that all women have the same type of bodies.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:30 AM on July 13 [9 favorites]


It doesn't help the fight against oppression to pretend it's not important or not a thing.

Jeez, that sounds awful! Point me at the people pretending that cis women aren't oppressed and I'll tar and feather them right along with you!

We may say 'yeah, well, I don't really recognise the biological sex binary', but when the rest of the world is using physical reality as a tool to subjugate one set of people then it doesn't help to fudge that reality.

Hey! Your "biological sex binary" is actually not "physical reality!" I know that's surprising! If you're interested in reading more about this, I recommend this FPP. Both the links and the comments are pretty good!
posted by Corinth at 9:53 AM on July 13 [9 favorites]


Trans women are women. period. Include us in your definition. That means some of want to be female, and we have medical options to pursue in order to be female, end of story. We aren't a threat and we don't create any situation that denies any other woman access to care. Science makes available to trans women options to be female in every meaningful way that matters in everyday functional life, society and civilization.

As women, the options available to us to be scientifically designated as "female enough for everyday reasons" are routinely denied. Like how women with a working uterus are denied birth control or access to other forms of affordable and preventative women's care. The care I require as a woman does not match fully 1:1 what other women may require, but it it still women's care.

Past a certain point of HRT and other surgeries, "science" can call me female and not GAF, while future archeologists would designate me male due to the effects of testosterone on my skeletal structure, but that really doesn't mean much of anything to me right now and shouldn't to anyone else in everyday conversation either.
posted by Annika Cicada at 2:40 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]


Autostraddle: Science Will Not Save Us: Medicine, Research Ethics, and My Transgender Body
posted by Corinth at 12:56 PM on July 17 [1 favorite]


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