Sex redefined: the spectrum between male and female
February 18, 2015 6:00 PM   Subscribe

Really interesting. Thanks.
posted by rtha at 6:14 PM on February 18, 2015

Chromosomes, schmomosomes. If she says she's a woman, I'll address her as such, no questions asked. But hey, if this kind of case will shut up the gender essentialists of all stripes, all the better.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:26 PM on February 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Fabulous article.

This is really revolutionary stuff.
posted by jamjam at 6:26 PM on February 18, 2015

If she says she's a woman, I'll address her as such, no questions asked.

Which seems to be the conclusion in the article too.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:43 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

What really gets me is how long this has taken. To say 'biologists now' is totally misleading: biologists (and other scientists) have long been arguing about the reality of sex, of gender, and of the intersection, if any, between the two. Those involved with discovering the Barr body in the early 1950s had figured out it was not a reliable way of determining sex or gender by the end of that decade; many geneticists and others have been campaigning against the variety of chromosomal and genetic tests for sex used in sports for at least 30 years. Surgeons and endocrinologists had pretty mutable ideas about sex at least as early as the 1930s, as they treated intersex and transgendered people.

And, of course, sociologists and historians and philosophers and half the fields of the humanities have been making points about the fluidity and non-binary nature of gender for a good half century.

Rather than a revolution, this feels more like the picking off of a horrible biodeterministic scab that grew over our intellectual life sometime in the 1980s and solidified sometime in the pop-sci boom of the 1990s.

(would love to link sources but they'd all be stuff I've written on this which I understand is Not Done, right?)
posted by AFII at 6:45 PM on February 18, 2015 [26 favorites]

AFII, posting your own work in an FPP is a big no-no, but linking it in a relevant thread (and being clear that it's yours) in order to contribute to the conversation is absolutely fine.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:48 PM on February 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah, linking to one's own work in a comment is generally considered OK. So… sources, yes please.
posted by Lexica at 6:50 PM on February 18, 2015

Oh, well in that case if anyone wants an academic read on sex testing/sport/science that covers some early ideas about the fluidity/non-binary nature of sex and gender, may I recommend this short chapter
posted by AFII at 6:51 PM on February 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

But hey, if this kind of case will shut up the gender essentialists of all stripes, all the better.

There's one of two reactions they tend to have when I bring up things like this: completely ignore me, or slink away without attempting to answer.
posted by Foosnark at 7:38 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

The part about how the fetal cells can live on and get integrated into mom's body...MOTHERHOOD REALLY DOES CHANGE YOU!
posted by double bubble at 7:42 PM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

This was really interesting and I am so excited to see an article in Nature not just talking about the biological spectrum of sex, but what those findings mean in the context of our ideas about gender.

I was a little uncomfortable with some of the language - like disorders of sexual development or calling facial hair a symptom. I felt a bit like I was reading old texts on "inverts."

"They think that changing medical practice by legal ruling is not ideal, and would like to see more data collected on outcomes such as quality of life and sexual function to help decide the best course of action for people with DSDs — something that researchers are starting to do."

Doctors and scientists are part of the same society as everybody else and have plenty of biases about gender and sex that affect their practice and screw up the lives of intersex people, so maybe the courts should step in and set some ground rules. Historically, the medical establishment doesn't have the very best track record about the best course of action for treating gender and sexual stuff. I don't really have any idea what helpful ground rules would look like though.
posted by congen at 7:57 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's interesting to think about the best place to begin to overturn these odd ideas about sex and gender that seem so immutable. As AFII points out above, this isn't really news to the scientists and doctors (and presumably nurses) who have been studying and working with the reality for years. And arguably the evidence-based nature of the scientific professions should predispose them to lead changes. But it ain't necessarily so.

I think a good place to start would be breaking down the binary of male and female, which has started happening here in Australia anyway, where the passing of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 means that Australians can now identify themselves as male, female or X. But that only covers adults, of course; there needs to be more done to look after children whose anatomy or DNA falls into the intersex part of the spectrum to make sure they're not artificially forced into one end or the other. I think it's going to take effort on many fronts.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:37 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

horrible biodeterministic scab that grew over our intellectual life sometime in the 1980s

To some extent I'd argue that started in the '70's, not the '80's, and within the academy...especially in the social sciences...was a rather unfortunate outgrowth of some of the conclusions of second-wave feminism, which in some respects is kind of biologically essentialist: "gender is a social construct imposed by patriarchy! Transgender women can't exist because they were socialised as male therefore they're actually men seeking to subvert feminism and gain access to women's spaces so they can commit rape!" (Yes, there are people who actually believe these things.)

Psychology and psychiatry have had their own part to play in reinforcing biological determinism (see especially the work of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the former Clarke Institute at the University of Toronto, with people like Raymond Blanchard with his ideas of transgender women being "autogynephiliac homosexuals" and "transvestic fetishists" and Kenneth Zucker (who was an adviser on the gender and sexuality section of the DSM-V) with his programme of "reparative therapy" for transgender children, most of which is based on outdated and harmful Freudian ideas of "dysfunctional family environment centred on the mother".

Gender, sex, and sexuality are issues where we've been learning (slowly!) how wrong a lot of dominant ideas were: biological research is showing that "biological sex" exists on a spectrum, not as a strict binary, neurological research is showing that there's measurable differentiation in the brains of transgender people related to foetal hormone exposure, and the past 40 years of research on sexuality have shown that sexual preference is to some degree an innate thing and not the product of socialisation and environment. Unfortunately a lot of old and wrong thinking still has a great deal of traction and is causing measurable harm to far too many people.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 10:53 PM on February 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

When the story about the British decision to allow reproductive technology that would incorporate mitochondrial DNA from a third person, resulting in a child who would "have three parents", was in the news, I was extremely annoyed that none of the news stories I saw covering it pointed out that three-bio-parent-people (specifically two-bio-dad people) is already a possibility in nature—thanks to chimerism, the condition in the case of the woman in the OP quote whose "body was built of cells from two individuals, probably from twin embryos that had merged in her own mother's womb"—and the salient thing is that legal systems haven't gotten around to dealing with this possibility in the decades since it was discovered, not that such a situation arising from medical technology is "playing God" because three-parent kids have never existed before or whatever bullshit objection all the news coverage did see fit to mention.
posted by XMLicious at 4:23 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

(If you want to mention God, a much more fun question is to ask people who believe that life begins at conception whether such a person has two souls, if their body was formed by the combination of two embryos.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:26 AM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

A friend of mine is an identical twin. Do these people think that she has half a soul, or that either she or her twin has no soul? Or can souls split like fertilized eggs can? If souls could split, I suppose they could also merge...
posted by Anne Neville at 6:26 AM on February 19, 2015

Heh, my thoughts encountering this article elsewhere:

You have more than two genes expressed in variable ways across millions of cells, two primary sex hormones produced in varying amounts with varying timing interacting with varying quantities of receptors, thrown into a mess of arbitrary cultural constructions, resulting in distributions that, in spite of widespread discrimination, are only technically bimodal across most traits with overlapping ranges that don't fully separate until you get into the one-in-a-million category of elite sports.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:43 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

So is this cell mixing happening on an organ-by-organ basis so she might have "male" lungs but "female" kidneys, or is her body more of an spread out mix of XX/XY cells? (apart from obvious female reproductive organs)
posted by ymgve at 7:35 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

If souls could split, I suppose they could also merge...

Now I've got the theme for my next year's homemade Valentine's Day card!
posted by XMLicious at 9:56 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

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