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.
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.