Gender and Sex: More Thoughts

I saw a Twitter post this morning that may or may not have been satirical. The post was referencing the ongoing debate in the United States concerning the use of public toilets by transgender people and the associated debate regarding biological sex, gender and gender identity. The tweet went along the lines of (and I paraphrase) ‘if you do not know which toilet to use, ask someone and they will tell you, god only made two genders’.

I posted about the difference between sex and gender some time ago. That was in the context of Richard Dawkins and Germaine Greer questioning the validity of the transgender identity. I think it is worth revisiting the question regarding gender and biological sex.

The Twitter user who wrote the tweet I saw is clearly confused. For the sake of argument, I am not going to challenge the underlying assumption that a being (god?) created the universe and therefore life on earth. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant to my argument. I would rather deal with the notions of biological sex and gender.

Firstly we need to understand the difference between the two. Gender is a psycho-social construct. It describes the role one adopts in a psycho-social setting. It is about the expression of the self (clothing, hairstyles etc) and the roles that one plays. Now of course this gets complicated: gender roles can and do change. They are contextual. An early twentieth century man may look at the modern family and be totally flummoxed by the gender roles. Modern men care for children, do household chores and express their emotions in ways that early twentieth century men (at least in the White Anglo-Saxon social construct) would find downright ‘girly’. Similarly people from the nineteenth century looking at modern women, wearing denim jeans, pants-suits and working in all sorts of ‘manly’ professions, would find the gender roles confusing and disturbing. To be clear I am all in favour of more fluid gender roles and I am fully supportive of greater equality between and among genders and the sexes. I merely use these examples to show that gender roles (and by extension) gender is contextual and thus mutable. A person who is biologically male can fulfill a gender role that is different to the one that we may come to expect from what his genitals may suggest to the observer.

Now as to biological sex. Biologists observe organisms and they see that there are (broadly) two types of reproduction, sexual (where two organisms are required to create offspring) and asexual (where the organism creates offspring without the need for a second organism, in essence the organism clones itself). When observing sexual reproduction, biologists see that either an organism is a hermaphrodite (capable of producing both sperm/sperm like cells and an egg cell) or organisms produce egg cells or sperm/sperm like cells. Biologists term egg producing organisms ‘female’ and sperm producing organisms ‘male’. Plants, invertebrates and vertebrates can all be ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘hermaphrodite’. The classification is based purely on sexual function. It is true that various characteristics may flow from the characterisation, but these are not universal truths. For example typically females receive sperm into their bodies where fertilisation occurs, but external fertilisation also takes place. Where offspring are cared for by adults this is often (primarily) done by the female  of the species, but sea horses are a well known exception. Males are often bigger than females, but in many species of avian raptors this is reversed and even within species individual variations take place and it is possible to find female tigers that are larger than males even though the reverse is the norm. In short biological sex does not necessarily determine the role that is taken by any organism. In humans this is even more obvious. The incidence of intersex individuals (those with at least some sex organs that are shared by both males and females) complicates the dichotomy.

I would therefore argue that biological sex is a human construct. We observe something and need to explain it. We do so by categorising organisms as either male or female. We do so based on observable behaviour and traits. However the crucial this is that this is not an a priori truth. We are attributing meaning to something that we observe. Individuals may or may not conform to this behaviour but in general the majority probably do.

Crucially however the sex organs (that is those organs that play a role in reproduction and that biologists have arbitrarily described as ‘male’ or ‘female’) play no role in gender. It is true that a species of tree has both male and female organs, the tree however behaves no differently to any other tree.

Therefore we can conclude that sex organs play no role in gender. We can also see that biological sex is a human construct. We use the words and the concepts of ‘sex’ to explain what we observe in the world around us. These observations are not however universal laws. Individual organisms display a great degree of variation. At best sex can describe general principles. It is not a universal law. Gender is a construct and thus we can deduce that gender identity is also constructed. We can therefore conclude that neither our sex nor our gender is something that can be determined by anybody else. Another person can look at us and say we have sex organs that are typical of an adult male of the species. That does not necessarily mean that the person in question is male. They can also see that the person is expressing their gender in a particular way. That gender expression indicates nothing about the person’s sex organs which in turn may or may not infer something about their biological sex.

So asking someone which toilet to use will be unhelpful. No one can tell anything useful about our sex or gender by merely looking at us. What we should rather focus on is creating greater equality for all human beings, regardless of gender or indeed sex. We should worry about changing the behaviour and attitudes of all people so that anyone is safe using any facility no matter their age, gender or anything else. Let’s focus on what matters and stop worrying about these immaterial factors.

Finally there are not only two genders, nor are there only two sexes and these genders and sexes are neither innate nor are they immutable. Both gender and sex are human constructs let’s stop pretending otherwise. A person’s gender and sex is only of concern to that individual.

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gender, language, society, transgender

2 Comments

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  1. notathoughtgiven March 5, 2017 — 7:00 am

    You said

    “Gender is a psycho-social construct. It describes the role one adopts in a psycho-social setting. It is about the expression of the self (clothing, hairstyles etc) and the roles that one plays.”

    Gender might have been that at one time, but I would argue that gender is more an individual construct not a social one now. We all have our own construct what constitutes gender being male or female or another gender.

    For example I would have my construct of how someone whose gender is female should express themselves and what roles they would play as a female. You would have the same kind of construct. We might agree on some points and disagree on other points.

    I think as a society that we need to recognize that. That gender is an individual construct now and it will vary from one person to another. My gender is female to me because that is how I see myself, but someone else with a different construct would see me as male. That there are other people whose construct of gender matches their construct of sex so I am male to them.

    If we can recognize that aspect of gender now maybe we can cut down on a lot of the bickering. Recognize that people are not going to see us the same way as we do ourselves. That to me I am female, other people might see me as female and other people will see me as male. The people that see me as male are not wrong just having a different construct so they classify my gender different. As long as they respect me as person who can make their own choices in how I can express myself and what roles I will play then it doesn’t matter if my gender is male or female to them.

    How does this relate to the bathroom issue. The issue about bathrooms is a symptom of something bigger. That being the fight between those who construct of gender matches their construct of sex and those who are not that way. A fight between those who think there is a social construct that everyone should adopt and those who do not see it that way. But also about respect.

    If we want to settle the issue of bathrooms, then get the government out of the issue and let the one person who does matter make the choice. That is the owner of the bathroom. Let them decide who can use what bathroom. Us as individuals should respect that decision they made. If we cannot use the bathroom of our choice because of the decision they made or other people can that we don’t like then act like adults and not use their bathrooms.

    Simple as that. Sure it can cause inconvenience. We can complain to the person that owns the bathroom about their decision in an attempt to change their thinking about who can use what bathroom, but if they decide not to change it then respect it and move on. Change our choices about what to do in the future in regards to them not having bathrooms to our liking instead of trying to force them to see it our way through laws and other means.

    In the end this whole exercise about what constitutes gender and sex and who can use the bathroom is an individual construct. That we need to recognize that and let the individual decide for themselves. Recognize that there is not one construct that fits everyone and quit trying to make people submit to our construct. Discuss it yes, but in the end respect what the individual decides for themselves and how they see us. Because in the end its all the same, we are human beings living our lives in accordance to what we think is right regardless if someone call us male or female or something else and what bathroom we can use.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting point of view… I definitely see what you are saying. On the other hand whilst we have our own identity that is individual and perhaps individually constructed, society also imposes various layers of behaviour. Society expects that we behave in certain ways. At least some of this has to do with our gender. True, many of these gendered behaviours are breaking down. And this is a very good thing. But there is still some societally imposed gendering going on. Sadly as much as we may have our own identity, if that identity is at odds with another person’s socialisation, we will be misgendered. I am not saying I agree with or support this, it is just the way it is. FOR NOW. Society will move along. This will change. But whilst gender may be moving towards an individual construct, it is still largely a societal construct. It may be different where you are, but where I am, even in more progressive schools, boys play soccer and cricket, girls play netball. We have even had boys telling our daughter (in terms of a game played at lunch break) that girls must clean the fort, the boys are knights and in charge… At the school play some boys refused to wear makeup because ‘boys don’t wear makeup’. These are all socially imposed ideas of gender. They are real and have very real effects…
      But yes I hear you… And I look forward to a tome where individuals can reasonably assert their identity and have that respected. Right now, I fear we are some way away from that.
      However, no matter whether an individual or social construct, the fact remains both gender and biological sex are CONSTRUCTS they are not innate and immutable… Anything that is constructed can be deconstructed and reconstructed. So I think the argument remains valid.
      As always thanks for contributing.

      Like

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