Reflections on Sex

The role of sex is a preoccupation of both the second and third waves of feminism. In the second wave, the discrimination that women faced on the basis of their biological sex, was starting to come to the fore of public consciousness with increased access to legal abortion, reliable free contraception and control over pregnancy and birthing. The third wave has highlighted the existence of intersex and transsexuality as complications in the assumed rigid sex binary.

Those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce egg cells, vaginas, a relatively high proportion of estrogen and progesterone, and other secondary sex characteristics, such as pronounced breasts and menstruation count as biologically female. Those with X-chromosomes, testes that produce sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of testosterone and other secondary sex traits such as deeper voices and more pronounced body hair count as male.   A surprising number of people, just under 2%,  don’t meet all of the characteristics of their assumed sex.  Most never even realise it.

Someone is male or female if they have a sufficient number of the relevant properties; being male or female is a matter of degree.

Stone, An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy

Sex can thus be thought of as a cluster concept rather than a strict binary – that if you have more characteristics of one sex than the other then you will be assigned to that category.  Traditionally, babies and infants who were identified as intersex at birth, would have medical interventions to assign them more positively within the sex which they had been allocated.  Such practices have now gone out of fashion, mainly due to the lobbying efforts of intersexed people who have been negatively affected by interventions.

Thus sex is a continuum, from male through intersex to female.  Yet there are abilities that only those towards at the ends of the spectrum can activate.  In females, the ability to conceive, gestate and bear children, and in males, the ability to impregnate.  Those who have the ability may never activate it, but having these differential abilities in relation to reproduction is a key distinction between humans.  Moreover, females in particular are only able to realise their abilities during a particular time-span in their lives.

There are three biological components to sex – chromosomal, corporeal and hormonal.  While the most reliable (although not perfect) and commonly used scientific indicator of sex is chromosomal, corporeal differences in appearance are most usually used to assign a newborn to the categories of male or female.  Differences in exposure to hormones, both pre-natally, naturally throughout life and through forced or chosen intervention can also affect the position on the “sex continuum”.

One of the widest forms of hormonal intervention to alter the position on the sex continuum is the use of the contraceptive pill.  By introducing hormones into a reproductive female’s body, it stops ovulation and consequently any potential for pregnancy. In doing so, it pushes a female along the sex continuum reducing the female clustering.  Alternatively hormone intervention in females who are unable to conceive naturally can allow them to do so, increasing the female clustering.  The other major use of hormone therapy is with menopausal women who are given synthetic replacements for the hormones which their bodies are now not producing at the same rate.  The menopause in women signifies the end of reproductive life, the end of being able to realise the potential of being fully female – HRT pushes menopausal women back along the sex continuum as they naturally drift towards the middle.

The use of the contraceptive pill and HRT for menopausal females is relatively uncontroversial.  It involves women being given hormones which are already designated “female”, more controversial is people being given hormones which are identified as being associated with the opposite sex to which they are assigned.  But if we accept, and we do, that people can be use synthetic hormones to move backwards and forwards along the sex continuum using the hormones which are associated with their sex, there is no good reason not to allow similar movement along the continuum using all human hormones according to the desired positioning.

Similarly surgical intervention, such as sterilisation, mastectomy and hysterectomy, although primarily done for medical reasons, can also remove elements of the sex clustering, towards a more neutral or intersexed position on the continuum, on the other hand breast enlargements and other forms of cosmetic surgery can emphasise secondary sexual characteristics to enhance the sex clustering. Additionally, a number of people, unhappy at their positioning on the sex continuum have sought more radical surgery to push their position from their assigned sex towards that of the opposite.  Such intervention, commonly known as “sex reassignment surgery”, seeks to move the recipient sufficiently from their current position on the sex continuum to a position where they would be regarded as a member of the opposite sex.  The most common of these interventions include the surgical construction of a vagina or penis, masectomy or breast augmentation.

Although this may change in future, there is currently no way to actually “change sex” to the point at which the reproductive capacities which mark out the distinctions of sex can be altered.  Sex reassignment surgery can move someone along the continuum sufficiently far that they may be considered more associated with the opposite sex to which they were assigned at birth, ultimately putting them in the position of an intersexed individual with both male and female biological elements.

For unlike gender, sex is a material difference between humans, it is their relationship to the means of reproduction.

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26 comments
Jodley
Jodley

This is very interesting work.

I'm not sure your description of how hormones work on the 'sex continuum'. In order for your argument to work, 'female-sexed' has to mean something like 'capable of conceiving'.  As you've described it, bodies upon which hormonal contraceptives are acting are not capable of conceiving, therefore those bodies are, on a continuum, 'less female' than those upon which no hormonal contraceptives are acting.  

This assertion leads to certain obvious questions.  The pregnant body is obviously not capable of conceiving, is it therefore less female than the non-pregnant body?  I raise this particular example since the hormones used in contraceptives somewhat 'mimic' the pregnant state. Oestrogens taken by people with male-sexed bodies do not, obviously, suppress ovulation. Lactation also suppresses fertility in female-sexed bodies, is the lactating body less female than the non-lactating one?   It should be, if the definition of 'less female on the sex continuum' is a body under the influence of hormones that reduce reproductive capacity.  Mechanical methods of contraception can be just at effective at disrupting the capacity to conceive, sometimes permanently, as hormonal methods - do these equally move the body along a sex continuum?  If hormonal contraceptives move people along a sex continuum presumably every person with a female-sexed body between menarche and menopause is constantly shifting along that continuum according to their monthly cycle - being 'most female' in the days surrounding ovulation and 'least female' on the vast majority of infertile days of the cycle - an entirely biological cycling between a 'sexed' and 'unsexed' condition.  This doesn't seem to me to be a tenable way of thinking about sex.

Jodley
Jodley

This is very interesting work. I'm not sure your description of how hormones work on the 'sex continuum'. In order for your argument to work, 'female-sexed' has to mean something like 'capable of conceiving'.  As you've described it, bodies upon which hormonal contraceptives are acting are not capable of conceiving, therefore those bodies are, on a continuum, 'less female' than those upon which no hormonal contraceptives are acting.   This assertion leads to certain obvious questions.  The pregnant body is obviously not capable of conceiving, is it therefore less female than the non-pregnant body?  I raise this particular example since the hormones used in contraceptives somewhat 'mimic' the pregnant state. Oestrogens taken by people with male-sexed bodies do not, obviously, suppress ovulation. Lactation also suppresses fertility in female-sexed bodies, is the lactating body less female than the non-lactating one?   It should be, if the definition of 'less female on the sex continuum' is a body under the influence of hormones that reduce reproductive capacity.  Mechanical methods of contraception can be just at effective at disrupting the capacity to conceive, sometimes permanently, as hormonal methods - do these equally move the body along a sex continuum?  If hormonal contraceptives move people along a sex continuum presumably every person with a female-sexed body between menarche and menopause is constantly shifting along that continuum according to their monthly cycle - being 'most female' in the days surrounding ovulation and 'least female' on the vast majority of infertile days of the cycle - an entirely biological cycling between a 'sexed' and 'unsexed' condition.  This doesn't seem to me to be a tenable way of thinking about sex.

Kate Liz
Kate Liz

Christ. Don't have time to comment right now but this is not true.

Kate Liz
Kate Liz

Christ. Don't have time to comment right now but this is not true.

Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

Yes I think this very sound and compliments your previous article well. There is a false dichotomy in gender stereotypes which arises as a consequence of a division of labour and imposed by cultural rules. There are I believe however, behavioural differences along a femininity/masculinity spectrum which I think can best be described by a series of overlapping bell curves and some of these are intrinsic rather than socially constrewed. 

Chromosomes as such are instructions that need to work in conjunction with other factors in producing a real life person and it appears that a very important factor in producing the real person is sex hormones. These don't only shift a person along the continuum in terms of physical appearance but seem to affect behaviour and even brain structure. 

Of course I'm leaning here in the direction of Pinker et alia and evolutionary psychology. I know that school of thought is often accused of being anti-feminist and indeed if applied crudely it can be. However I believe that if applied with sufficient rigour it does no such thing. It can help to throw new light on behavioural traits that arose during our long pre-history as hunter-gatherers but which are unsuited to a knowledge based city dwelling modern society. 

It also helps to re-engage our understanding of patriarchy with materialist dialectics and can take Marxist-Feminism to a new level. What I'm saying here is extending historic materialism into gender politics rather than leaving it at the door. I must emphasise that this goes beyond Marxist orthodoxy and rejects wholeheartedly the old mantra that everything will be fine after the revolution. 



Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

Yes I think this very sound and compliments your previous article well. There is a false dichotomy in gender stereotypes which arises as a consequence of a division of labour and imposed by cultural rules. There are I believe however, behavioural differences along a femininity/masculinity spectrum which I think can best be described by a series of overlapping bell curves and some of these are intrinsic rather than socially constrewed.  Chromosomes as such are instructions that need to work in conjunction with other factors in producing a real life person and it appears that a very important factor in producing the real person is sex hormones. These don't only shift a person along the continuum in terms of physical appearance but seem to affect behaviour and even brain structure.  Of course I'm leaning here in the direction of Pinker et alia and evolutionary psychology. I know that school of thought is often accused of being anti-feminist and indeed if applied crudely it can be. However I believe that if applied with sufficient rigour it does no such thing. It can help to throw new light on behavioural traits that arose during our long pre-history as hunter-gatherers but which are unsuited to a knowledge based city dwelling modern society.  It also helps to re-engage our understanding of patriarchy with materialist dialectics and can take Marxist-Feminism to a new level. What I'm saying here is extending historic materialism into gender politics rather than leaving it at the door. I must emphasise that this goes beyond Marxist orthodoxy and rejects wholeheartedly the old mantra that everything will be fine after the revolution.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

 @Jodley Thank you for your comment.

I would argue that - yes - on the continuum, female sexed bodies which are incapable of conceiving as a result of hormonal intervention  (or other reasons) are "less female" than those who are capable of conceiving.  think that there is a difference in mechanical methods of contraception.  An IUD for example is a bodily intervention to stop conception, so - like sterilisation - yes, it would decrease the "sexed nature" of the body, barrier methods however don't work on the body, simply put you in a reproductive state which is the same as celibacy, capable of conceiving but without the opportunity to.  

Both pregnancy and lactation are elements of being reproductively female, they are an instantiation of the sexed body, not a negation of it.  Similarly with the
 menstrual cycle, although you might be only capable of conceiving on certain days, during the other 20 odd, a reproductively female body is creating conditions pertinent to reproduction.   

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Jodley Thank you for your comment. I would argue that - yes - on the continuum, female sexed bodies which are incapable of conceiving as a result of hormonal intervention  (or other reasons) are "less female" than those who are capable of conceiving.  think that there is a difference in mechanical methods of contraception.  An IUD for example is a bodily intervention to stop conception, so - like sterilisation - yes, it would decrease the "sexed nature" of the body, barrier methods however don't work on the body, simply put you in a reproductive state which is the same as celibacy, capable of conceiving but without the opportunity to.   Both pregnancy and lactation are elements of being reproductively female, they are an instantiation of the sexed body, not a negation of it.  Similarly with the menstrual cycle, although you might be only capable of conceiving on certain days, during the other 20 odd, a reproductively female body is creating conditions pertinent to reproduction.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Joanne Telfer Thanks for reading and commenting.

I tend to take the view that although biology may influence behavioural traits, which have then become reified into gender, ultimately its irrelevant, particularly if people can choose hormones which give them the desired material and psychological experience.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Joanne Telfer Thanks for reading and commenting. I tend to take the view that although biology may influence behavioural traits, which have then become reified into gender, ultimately its irrelevant, particularly if people can choose hormones which give them the desired material and psychological experience.

Jodley
Jodley

@mhairimcalpine @Jodley I think your use of 'instantiation' and 'negation' is referring to social phenomenon rather than physiological ones  

The endocrine system of the female-sexed body, being insentient, has no knowledge of whether hormones interrupting the female reproductive cycle are endogenous or exogenous.  That is to say, female-sexed bodies respond to certain hormones in predictable ways (with due regard to the fact that some variety that can be expected in living organisms) on account of being female-sexed.  A body in which ovulation is disrupted by the use of specified exogenous hormones is behaving exactly as you would expect a female-sexed body to do - I don't understand how responding to certain hormones in a typically female way can be 'less female' physiologically.  The differing length of the reproductive lifespan (on average) of the male-sexed and female-sexed body arises from biology - insofar as female-sexed bodies are born with their entire lifetime of gametes already in existence, whereas the male-sexed body produces their gametes on approximately a three-week cycle.  How can post-menopause females are 'less female' when menopause is a specifically female condition?

Jodley
Jodley

mhairimcalpine Jodley I think your use of 'instantiation' and 'negation' is referring to social phenomenon rather than physiological ones   The endocrine system of the female-sexed body, being insentient, has no knowledge of whether hormones interrupting the female reproductive cycle are endogenous or exogenous.  That is to say, female-sexed bodies respond to certain hormones in predictable ways (with due regard to the fact that some variety that can be expected in living organisms) on account of being female-sexed.  A body in which ovulation is disrupted by the use of specified exogenous hormones is behaving exactly as you would expect a female-sexed body to do - I don't understand how responding to certain hormones in a typically female way can be 'less female' physiologically.  The differing length of the reproductive lifespan (on average) of the male-sexed and female-sexed body arises from biology - insofar as female-sexed bodies are born with their entire lifetime of gametes already in existence, whereas the male-sexed body produces their gametes on approximately a three-week cycle.  How can post-menopause females are 'less female' when menopause is a specifically female condition?

Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

@mhairimcalpine @Joanne Telfer 

Then I'll give you one example. Irrespective of any choice of hormones, young men have a penchant for warfare because of their high levels of testosterone. 

Joanne Telfer
Joanne Telfer

mhairimcalpine Joanne Telfer  Then I'll give you one example. Irrespective of any choice of hormones, young men have a penchant for warfare because of their high levels of testosterone.

Jodley
Jodley

@mhairimcalpine @Jodley I think we agree that the sex/gender link should be broken - in my view the link breaks with the ending of gender and by allowing people of any sex develop their behaviours, personality, characteristics, presentation without reference to their sex (i.e. neither 'congruent' or 'incongruent' from their sex).  How do you propose that the sex/gender link be broken?  

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Jodley

I cant pretend to have the same knowledge of biology that you do, but I entirely accept what you are saying - that it is a bimodal distribution with a small number (approx 2%)not falling at the ends.

Politically however, the important part is 
"this would all be purely a scientific question were it not for the fact that in babies the external genitalia observed not only maps (usually accurately) with sex, but is also the basis for the socialisation of girls and boys, which has nothing to do with reproductive capacity (babies have none) but the creation of gendered roles."

Yup - and this is the point.  We gender people from birth on the basis of the sex ascribed to them. Girl babies are assumed to (although not all of them will or indeed will be able to) gestate future babies.  They are prepared for their future reproductive role through gender. 

Once we break the sex/gender link, such gendering becomes apparent as a form of coersive indoctrination - in the same way as we jokingly ask primary school girls if they have a "boyfriend" but never a "girlfriend", or ascribe different connotations to infants holding hands with other infants of the opposite sex vs the same sex.  One reinforces cisnormativity, the other heteronormativity.

For all that homosexuality is far, far more accepted now than say 40 years ago, the coersive heteronormativity persists, but its reducing because people are more aware that just because people now have a greater understanding that people are not always attracted to members of the opposite sex.  Similarly once it becomes acceptable to adopt a non-normative gender, then the compulsory gendering of babies will be seen as similiarly coercive and will start to die.

Jodley
Jodley

@mhairimcalpine @Jodley It's simply not true that there is no distinctive scientific test for sex. Mature female and male reproductive systems are distinctive in producing female and male gametes respectively.* This capacity can, in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases be correctly read from the presence of external genitalia, vulva and penis & scrotum respectively.  If we were to perform chromonsonal testing routinely, we would likely also find external genitalia very highly predictive of chromosones XX or XY.  We can anticipate this, since the observable presence of a variety of intersex conditions is somewhat predictive of having a chromosonal configuration other than either XX or XY (though the majority  is still either XX or XY).

From a biological and scientific standpoint this can be described as a strongly bimodal statistical distribution, with a small number in individuals falling into other categories that may be regarded as intermediate.  (But for various reasons probably shouldn't be understood as a single category - there is no single eitiology of intersex conditions, because the term groups together a number of different conditions with different eitiologies on the basis of 'not clearly belonging to either male or female category' rather than their eitiology).

Sex dictates how bodies respond to hormones. No hormones induce female reproductive systems to produce male gametes (though there are hormones that suppress the production of female gametes).  No hormones induce male reproductive systems to produce female gametes.  No male reproductive system respondes to exogenous hormones by ceasing to produce female gametes or producing more female gametes (since male reproductive systems do not produce female gametes - by definition). 

*(under normal circumstances, i.e. if not artificially suppressed).

Of course, this would all be purely a scientific question were it not for the fact that in babies the external genitalia observed not only maps (usually accurately) with sex, but is also the basis for the socialisation of girls and boys, which has nothing to do with reproductive capacity (babies have none) but the creation of gendered roles.

Obviously stuff like prominence of body hair is on a continuum (and there is a lot of overlap - more hairy females, less hairy males).  Nobody defines sex that way.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Jodley  I guess it depends how you define "female" - there is no distinctive test for it, scientifically.  From a political standpoint, the question of sex is best addressed from the question of the relationship to reproduction - ie the production of future labour units.

Most bodies - regardless of sex - respond to hormones in particular ways, the question of whether they what they are prior to their introduction is mute, the most important thing is the effect that it has.


Jodley
Jodley

mhairimcalpine Jodley I think we agree that the sex/gender link should be broken - in my view the link breaks with the ending of gender and by allowing people of any sex develop their behaviours, personality, characteristics, presentation without reference to their sex (i.e. neither 'congruent' or 'incongruent' from their sex).  How do you propose that the sex/gender link be broken?

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Jodley I cant pretend to have the same knowledge of biology that you do, but I entirely accept what you are saying - that it is a bimodal distribution with a small number (approx 2%)not falling at the ends. Politically however, the important part is  "this would all be purely a scientific question were it not for the fact that in babies the external genitalia observed not only maps (usually accurately) with sex, but is also the basis for the socialisation of girls and boys, which has nothing to do with reproductive capacity (babies have none) but the creation of gendered roles." Yup - and this is the point.  We gender people from birth on the basis of the sex ascribed to them. Girl babies are assumed to (although not all of them will or indeed will be able to) gestate future babies.  They are prepared for their future reproductive role through gender.  Once we break the sex/gender link, such gendering becomes apparent as a form of coersive indoctrination - in the same way as we jokingly ask primary school girls if they have a "boyfriend" but never a "girlfriend", or ascribe different connotations to infants holding hands with other infants of the opposite sex vs the same sex.  One reinforces cisnormativity, the other heteronormativity. For all that homosexuality is far, far more accepted now than say 40 years ago, the coersive heteronormativity persists, but its reducing because people are more aware that just because people now have a greater understanding that people are not always attracted to members of the opposite sex.  Similarly once it becomes acceptable to adopt a non-normative gender, then the compulsory gendering of babies will be seen as similiarly coercive and will start to die.

Jodley
Jodley

mhairimcalpine Jodley It's simply not true that there is no distinctive scientific test for sex. Mature female and male reproductive systems are distinctive in producing female and male gametes respectively.* This capacity can, in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases be correctly read from the presence of external genitalia, vulva and penis & scrotum respectively.  If we were to perform chromonsonal testing routinely, we would likely also find external genitalia very highly predictive of chromosones XX or XY.  We can anticipate this, since the observable presence of a variety of intersex conditions is somewhat predictive of having a chromosonal configuration other than either XX or XY (though the majority  is still either XX or XY). From a biological and scientific standpoint this can be described as a strongly bimodal statistical distribution, with a small number in individuals falling into other categories that may be regarded as intermediate.  (But for various reasons probably shouldn't be understood as a single category - there is no single eitiology of intersex conditions, because the term groups together a number of different conditions with different eitiologies on the basis of 'not clearly belonging to either male or female category' rather than their eitiology). Sex dictates how bodies respond to hormones. No hormones induce female reproductive systems to produce male gametes (though there are hormones that suppress the production of female gametes).  No hormones induce male reproductive systems to produce female gametes.  No male reproductive system respondes to exogenous hormones by ceasing to produce female gametes or producing more female gametes (since male reproductive systems do not produce female gametes - by definition).  *(under normal circumstances, i.e. if not artificially suppressed). Of course, this would all be purely a scientific question were it not for the fact that in babies the external genitalia observed not only maps (usually accurately) with sex, but is also the basis for the socialisation of girls and boys, which has nothing to do with reproductive capacity (babies have none) but the creation of gendered roles. Obviously stuff like prominence of body hair is on a continuum (and there is a lot of overlap - more hairy females, less hairy males).  Nobody defines sex that way.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Jodley  I guess it depends how you define "female" - there is no distinctive test for it, scientifically.  From a political standpoint, the question of sex is best addressed from the question of the relationship to reproduction - ie the production of future labour units. Most bodies - regardless of sex - respond to hormones in particular ways, the question of whether they what they are prior to their introduction is mute, the most important thing is the effect that it has.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Joanne Telfer Mmm...yeah.  Thats true. 

And you get hormone taking in sports as well (I think, or is it other things), although I dont know much about that.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Joanne Telfer Mmm...yeah.  Thats true.  And you get hormone taking in sports as well (I think, or is it other things), although I dont know much about that.

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