March 06, 2015

Engendering Sex and Gender

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

In sociology, and some other social sciences, we take a close look at sex and gender and identify how those concepts are quite different even though society conflates them together.

Sex, being the more biological dimension of body type differences, and gender, the more social construction linked to identity and social roles, both define us as individuals and both are built into the very fabric of human societies.

In our society, we have long had the assumption that sex has only two categories, male and female, and upon that we build gender into two categories, men and women. Biology informed us that those two sex categories are the way it is. Since we put sex and gender together, our society then has traditionally recognized only those two genders.

As we do more research with empirical data, we have realized that this dichotomy is insufficient for explaining the lived experience of sex and gender for human beings (and perhaps other species).

One of the fascinating aspects of sex and gender is that different cultures and points in history have had very different conceptions of what sex/gender are or could be. These studies point out the fluid nature of these concepts and suggest that they are socially constructed, not just a biological given.

However, societies do not change easily or quickly, thus what the science shows and what the public believes to be true are often quite different. This pattern holds for sexual orientation, opinions on global climate change, and many other facets of personhood and social issues. (Can you think of other examples in which the science says one thing – confirmed and replicated over many years and studies – and the public denies or ignores those findings?)

In any case, some news this week got my attention in relation to sex and gender.

Facebook has again revised its gender categories; the list is up to 59, from last year’s 58. While Facebook is not the end-all be-all of society and its norms, it does have a very large user base and may reflect some aspect of social change for some issues. The long list of categories, introduced last year, does include an “Other” but it was not possible to write in what one meant when choosing “Other.”

Facebook, in adding one more category, allows its users to now fill-in-the-blank and write in whatever word captures their gender identity. Now Facebook’s gender measure is exhaustive!

However, as I mention in my blog post last year about this, Facebook does conflate sex with gender – and with sexual orientation. All three concepts are distinctly different when analyzed sociologically. Sex, the physical aspect, gender, the social aspect, and sexual orientation, which is simply about to whom (or what type of person) one is oriented sexually.

Does Facebook need to pull all those apart? They are a social networking site, not a research center. Asking sex and gender and sexual orientation, especially in this social context, would not work well. Who would answer all three? Does the public really know how and why they are separate? Not typically.  

Biologists are increasingly theorizing that sex is more a continuum rather than a dichotomous set of traits. Historically, biology and medical science has called any situation that is different from an XX female and an XY male as a syndrome or other medical condition that signifies deviance. Intersex has emerged as a term that captures situations in between the two dichotomous poles of XY-male and XX-female. However, the current biological nomenclature classifies these more diverse situations as Disorders of Sex Differences (DSD), thus intersex is still considered deviant from the norms of XX-female and XY-male.  

A recent article in Nature lays out the biological research on this issue, which clearly acknowledges the diversity and nuances of what we call sex. There are those chromosomes that start things off, but there is also hormonal sex, cellular sex… all of which may not produce a human being who is clearly XX-female and XY-male when studied at all of these levels.

Estimates of how often intersex happens were 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 500, yet acknowledging the totality of the research at this point in time, some estimates are down to 1 in 100 births. With any of these estimates, this appears to be a common occurrence. At the very least, it serves as evidence of a wide natural variation within our species (and possibly others). Thus the question emerges, why do we treat this as deviance when it may account for a large portion of the human population?

The Nature article is cited in a number of other news outlets but the interpretation is not always consistent with the research. Medical Daily’s headline “Challenging Gender Identity: Biologists Say Gender Expands Across A Spectrum, Rather Than Simply Boy And Girl” which obviously conflates gender with sex, a mistake not at all apparent in the Nature article itself.

It’s always a good idea to look at the original research, not just the one news story, to be sure the research is described accurately.

How do you think we will move forward in society with respect to embracing (or at least not rejecting) what science tells us about sex? (And gender? And sexual orientation?)

Will our society continue to see intersex as a disorder or deviance? Or will we someday be able to embrace the idea of a wide diversity along a spectrum of possibilities for defining sex?

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