Sex and Gender Part I: The Structure of Sex

There is a distinction between sex and gender: sex is a categorization that is determined by the  anatomy of one’s reproductive system, chromosomes, genitalia, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics, whereas gender is a social role based off of the sex of a person or their own identification through self-awareness. Both are constructs, malleable, and are subjected to societal standards, but they are not interchangeable. This post will talk about sex and how it is a construct.

Some say that sex is determined by one’s reproductive system, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics and are immutable, but that argument does not hold together. There are many reasons why it does not hold together - let’s start with reproductive systems. As humans, we generally use sexual intercourse to fertilize eggs [Note 1] and continue the species. However, one may not have a complete reproductive system due to abnormalities due to genetic disorders, removal because of cancer, sexual transmitted infections, or other functional issues caused by anything ranging from environmental effects to physical damage [Note 2].
People can be born with ambiguous genitalia [7], and are assigned a sex at birth (a practice that Americans are slowly moving away from [Note 3]) or can face stigmatization, discrimination, and/or death. But it is possible for one’s genitalia to not match their reproductive system - for example, someone with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome may have undescended testes and no uterus or ovaries while having female external sex characteristics [2].
Secondary sex characteristics are characteristics that appear at puberty [15], namely body hair, breast growth, increased muscle mass, and so forth. These secondary characteristics are not very good indicators either, as almost everybody has breast tissue, there are many factors that play into how body hair grows and where, and humans have the ability to work on muscle mass through activity. Plus, we have the medical knowledge and technology to change genitalia and secondary sex characteristics - we are able to conform them to who we are and what societal constructs we recognize.

Others say that sex is determined purely by chromosomes and by hormones. While we are unable to change chromosomes, we are able to change hormones [9]. Also, everybody has a different hormone balance, and hormone levels fluctuate over time as people age and go through major life milestones. For many reasons, hormones are not immutable - and aside from environmental factors that can damage chromosomes [11], chromosomes are immutable. But most people never have their chromosomes looked at without a good reason [Note 4] - very few of us know what our chromosomal structure is. Though at least 2% of human births are known to be chromosomally intersex [3] [9], the number may be quite higher because of the fact that most people never get their chromosomes checked.

In this video, I make the argument that transgender women are not biologically male (and transgender men are not biologically female) by explaining that sex is a social construct just like gender.

There are many other reasons why sex is a construct. Riley J. Dennis has made a wonderful YouTube video about it - I suggest that you all watch it. Also, you can read more about sex being a social construct on Autostraddle, Paste Magazine, and Sociology In Focus. Stay tuned for Part II where I write about how gender is a construct.


Note 1: I say generally use sexual intercourse, because there are other ways to fertilize eggs, mainly in vitro fertilization [12]. However, there are other forms of assisted reproductive technology, including gamete intrafallopian transfer [10] [14] and zygote intrafallopian transfer [10] [13].

Note 2: Just because someone does not have a complete reproductive system, or a reproductive system at all, that does not make them less of a person, no matter their sex. There is a social stigma that goes along with not being able to reproduce, which is just foolish on its face. I will not go into it in this post, but I want to make it clear that that this unacceptable. 

Note 3: Historically, American physicians would coerce parents to assign a sex to their child at birth or just assign the child at will. This has had disastrous results; for example, the suicide of David Reimer after he was raised as a girl due to a botched circumcision [5] [8] [16]. The practice of assigning sexual characteristics to children at birth has been fought against by the intersex rights movement [7] [16], and is also now being discouraged by physicians [6] [9] [16].

In the 1960s and 1970s geneticists pursued a fascinating hypothesis: Is it possible that a man could be born with a criminal gene? For more: http://www.vox.com/2015/2/25/8103965/genetics-crime-xyy Subscribe to our channel! http://goo.gl/0bsAjO Produced & narrated by Estelle Caswell Vox.com is news website that helps you cut through the noise and understand what's really driving the events in the headlines.

Note 4: According to a Vox report, “in the 1960s and 1970s research scientists conducted dozens of surveys in mental institutions, maximum security hospitals, and prisons across the world” [4], trying to link violent crime to XYY syndrome - while having the extra Y chromosome may have some effects [1], there is no correlation between the extra Y chromosome and criminal behavior.


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1. “47,XYY syndrome - Genetics Home Reference.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/47xyy-syndrome.

2. “Androgen insensitivity syndrome - Genetics Home Reference.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/androgen-insensitivity-syndrome.

3. Blackless, Melanie, et al. “How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and synthesis.” American Journal of Human Biology, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 11 Feb. 2000, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/(SICI)1520-6300(200003/04)12:2%3C151::AID-AJHB1%3E3.0.CO;2-F/abstract.

4. Caswell, Estelle. “The myth of the "supermale" and the extra Y chromosome.” Vox, 25 Feb. 2015, www.vox.com/2015/2/25/8103965/genetics-crime-xyy.

5. “David Reimer, 38, Subject of the John/Joan Case.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 May 2004, www.nytimes.com/2004/05/12/us/david-reimer-38-subject-of-the-john-joan-case.html.

6. Davis, Jeanie Lerche. “Clitoral Surgery Bad For Babies?” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/news/20030411/clitoral-surgery-bad-for-babies#1.

7. DeMello, Margo. Body studies an introduction. Routledge, 2014, books.google.com/books?id=-XxiAgAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

8. “Dr. Money And The Boy With No Penis.” Documentary Storm, 13 June 2012, documentarystorm.com/dr-money-and-the-boy-with-no-penis/.

9. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Perseus Books, LLC, 2000.

10. “Gamete and Zygote Intrafallopian Transfer (GIFT and ZIFT) for Infertility.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/gamete-and-zygote-intrafallopian-transfer-gift-and-zift-for-infertility.

11. “How Does Radiation Affect Humans?” Bioethics Research Library of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/achre/final/intro_9_5.html.

12. “In vitro fertilization (IVF).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 Aug. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/in-vitro-fertilization/home/ovc-20206838.

13. Pool, T B, et al. “Zygote intrafallopian transfer as a treatment for nontubal infertility: a 2-Year study.” Fertility and sterility., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 1990, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2397791.

14. Silva, Paul D., et al. “Gamete intrafallopian transfer. A cost-Effective alternative to donor oocyte in vitro fertilization in women aged 40-42 years.” US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9883404.

15. “What are secondary sex characteristics?” What are secondary sex characteristics? | HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 20 June 2011, health.howstuffworks.com/sexual-health/sexuality/secondary-sex-characteristics.htm.

16. “What's the history behind the intersex rights movement?” What's the history behind the intersex rights movement? | Intersex Society of North America, Intersex Society of North America, www.isna.org/faq/history.