Sex: It's Not What You Think
Have you seen the news items about Thomas Beatie and his wife expecting a child August 2008? Mr. Beatie was born female but transitioned to a man by undergoing hormone therapy and having sex reassignment surgery on his breasts but not on his lower anatomy. When they decided to have a baby, he stopped taking the hormones, they used artificial insemination, and he successfully got pregnant.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Beatie were on Oprah recently and the news media picked up the story: Pregnant Man! Oprah’s interview was very careful but thorough, asking the Beaties questions about who they were and how this pregnancy thing worked. Mr. Beatie was quite open about how he came to be a man, how he met and married his wife, how and why they got pregnant, how their neighbors feel about it, and how life has changed since they went to People magazine and Oprah to share their story (see clips).
TV Interview with Oprah
Since the new media has gotten the story, various sources have been handling it with differing degrees of care. CNN interviewed his neighbors who look incredulous about Mr. Beatie’s pregnancy.
While there are plenty of other examples of how the news media is (mis)handling this story, I’d like to point out that this situation really shouldn’t be unexpected, nor should it be surprising.
Looking at this situation from a sociological perspective, we remember that sex and gender and sexual orientation are three distinct and separate, albeit related, concepts. Sex has to do with the body, gender has to do with the social roles we ascribe to people in various sex categories, and sexual orientation has to do with to whom and/or what types of people one is attracted sexually. While we are taught and socialized to think that sex and gender are dichotomous categories that are inextricably linked (male=men and female=women) and that sexual orientation has a normative form (heterosexuality), the research shows that these categories are more fluid and flexible.
Even something that seems straightforward--sex—varies. Some “intersex” babies have chromosomal variations that make their sex indeterminate (Not just XY and XX but also XXY, X0, XXX, those with the mosaic pattern of both XX and XY, and others) and others are born with hormonal or other developmental variations (for example, humans with XX chromosomes but whose bodies appear male, those with XY who appear female, those who appear female but puberty brings them into full functioning male form, and those whose genitalia are ambiguous).
Gender varies too, despite the tremendous social pressures to socialize males into “masculine” men and females into “feminine” women. Men experience pressure to be one type of “masculine” with few variations, and though women have more latitude in our culture to express their femininity in different ways, there is still pressure for them to be traditionally “feminine” in some way.
And of course, sexual orientation varies. We currently use the terms heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual (but interestingly, rarely asexual) to depict those categories into which people fit. This concept is a difficult one to study scientifically since concepts should ideally be clearly defined and applicable – something that sexual orientation surely isn’t.
We use these terms as if they clearly defines our sexual identity and lets us and others know the gender of our preferred sex partner. For example, heterosexual signifies that the person prefers the other gender for their sex partner(s). However, we do know that many people who will say they are heterosexual have had same-sex sex partners, thus how meaningful is the term? In their studies on sexual behavior, the Centers for Disease Control has abandoned these terms in favor of identifying the gender of sex partners (Men who have Sex with Men, or MSM) to clarify the behavior rather than the identity.
We not only prioritize sexual orientation categories, we normalize them by socializing people to believe that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else is deviant. While more Americans accept homosexuality and bisexuality now compared with previous generations, people who aren’t heterosexual still do not experience the same acceptance as heterosexual couples.
In many contemporary societies and cultures, people whose sexual orientation doesn’t align with the normative category are either killed by the state (as in Iran), jailed by the authorities or considered mentally ill by medical professionals, mentally reprogrammed by religious and other groups who think gay and lesbian people can think themselves straight, or physically attacked by people whose own self identity is threatened by their very existence.
Historically the medical establishment has defined sex, gender, and sexual orientation variations as syndromes, diseases, and genetic or other types of defects and thus potentially fixable by medical or psychological technologies. Thus sexual ambiguity often results in medical intervention and surgery to “normalize” the appearance of the genitalia even if surgery impairs functioning.
In recent years, transgender people have, like Mr. Beatie, come out of the shadows and have spoken out about their wish to live as normal a life as possible. For example, Mianne Bagger asked the LPGA if she could compete in their women’s golfing competitions but they refused since she was formerly male. Lynn Conway proved her expertise and brilliant mind with her advances in computer science but lost her job when she transitioned to become a woman.
Ms. Bagger has played in other golf tournaments and Ms. Conway has found work with other companies. The limited acceptance they’ve received may be in part because they consistently present themselves as female and have adopted a consistent gendered social role.
Mr. Beatie, on the other hand, did not change his genitalia and reproductive system, and provides us with a situation that tests our resolve to understand sex and gender, since he is legally a man and he is indeed pregnant. Prior to this event, he and his wife had led a life similar to their neighbors. Like their neighbors, wanted to reproduce and did so in the way that was possible for them. (Mrs. Beatie is infertile).
The Beaties have used reproductive and sex assignment technologies to enhance their lives. The concept of “cultural lag” suggests that as our technology changes, our culture doesn’t always equip us with ways to understand these changes right away. The Beaties used our technologies in the way we have designed them, but it’s safe to say that most people have trouble understanding and respecting their choices.
If a man can get pregnant, a woman can be a father. It’s possible that a male-to-female transgendered person can father a child, probably with a surrogate if she is married to a man or with her female partner if she is partnered with a woman. I imagine this has already happened somewhere and people simply thought it was a woman and her partner who had to use a surrogate or a lesbian couple who used a donor.
If this situation (a pregnant man!) disturbs you, consider that all the years we have been donating sperm and adopting kids. Having children through these means is typically socially acceptable to just about everyone, right? These alternative ways to build a family are also quite common. Think of the people you know who have been involved in an adoption or who had used a sperm donor or, more recently, in egg donations or surrogacy.
We tend not to find practices that reinforce our societal values and norms problematic. But when people use technology to become visibly different what we expect, they might wind up on Oprah.