Eater of Trees

Sex is Also a Social Construct

Posted on: January 11, 2011

Something I have heard a lot, often from well meaning people: “Gender is social, sex is biological.” Okay I’ll give you that (mostly).  But then it turns into something like “So your gender can be whatever you want, your sex is the biology, and fixed.”  or even “Your sex is what your genitalia are” (or less often, your genes).  And that is completely bullshit.

Sex is not just genitalia.  That’s something that’s really obvious when you put a couple seconds of thought into.  Genitalia are one part of your body that is pretty much inevitably covered all the time.  Which is to say, for most people you will probably never see their genitalia, unless you’re a doctor or someone who has a specific reason to interact with them en masse.

Ergo, whenever you decide the sex (or gender) of a person, you’re not deciding it based on their genitalia.  Unless they’re an infant who’s just been born, then that’s pretty much the only sexual characteristic you can see.  For that matter, that’s pretty much the case until puberty.  Hence why coercively assigned birth genders are based on that.

And genes are even less important.  Certainly they decide quite a bit about how you develop, but you don’t see them.  A lot of people have probably never seen their genes.  Whether you have one or two X chromosomes is pretty much irrelevant to your interactions with people, except indirectly through how that manifests sexual characteristics.

(I can be pretty certain I have one X chromosome due to the genetics of colorblindness–my maternal grandfather was also color blind and my mom wasn’t, and nobody on my dad’s side of the family was, which is pretty much a situation that’s only possible if you’re genetically male.  But beyond that, I’ve never seen any direct evidence either way as to what my genes are.)

Thus you cannot reduce sex to either genitalia or genetics, as in practice neither are traits used to determine what it is in interactions with people.  But it isn’t just that.  Sex is not one single unambigous trait, it is composed of a large collection of different characteristics (mostly biological, but the line between sociology and biology can get really thin sometimes.)  And these traits are not always unambiguous–intersex people exist for a reason–nor do they necessarily all correspond.  It is entirely possible to have some traits of one sex and some of another.  For example it’s not too hard for trans women to have both breasts and male genitalia, which are both really strongly associated with their respective sexes, but with both it becomes rather hard to rely on either to dictate sex.

(You can, of course, declare people with ambiguous sexual characteristics to be one or the other sex, which you generally can and should do by asking them what they prefer to be.  What you can’t do is reduce their sex to one trait without consulting them on it, especially when other traits directly contradict the one you’re trying to reduce them to.)

Further, many sexual characteristics are really not that unambiguous even on their own.  Even breasts come in a variety of sizes on both men and women, and they can blur together.  And traits like body hair, size, voice, and the like vary more between people than they do between sexes.  As such, sex can become ambiguous on cis people, and what traits you reduce sex to is mostly a judgment call.  And certain characteristics that do have a basis in biology (eg regarding women as more “emotional”, or men as being easily aroused) really blur the line between sex and gender.

The fact is, there is no a priori reason to treat sex as either genetics or genitalia.  The decision to attempt to do so is purely a social construct, and in addition, not particularly practical as neither is readily visible.  And other sexually associated characteristics are even less unambiguous.  Furthermore, such ideas are inherently erasing and discriminatory to trans people who can and are attempting to alter their sex and to intersex people, who cannot really be put into even a biological box in the first place.

This is actually a normal characteristic of language.  Most words refer to a really wide variety of things that may be really ambiguous as to whether the word can apply to them as you move away from the core of the semantic space.  (This is also why I really hate the concept of ‘definitions’ because they tend to create these rigid boundaries between semantic fields that don’t actually exist when you actually speak or think.  Though to be fair they can be useful for scientific jargon.)  This is especially important to be aware of as the tendency for words to imply certain traits that may be pretty fuzzy around the edges or are not universal can easily be used to further oppressive systems, often unintentionally and especially when you are unaware of these things.  (For instance the tendency to assume “person” implies “white” and “male” when not otherwise specified tends to lead to unintentional exclusion of POC and women.)

(Disclaimer: I’m not particularly an expert on semantics–I mostly studied it in high school so I could make my own (naturalistic) languages :P–so I may have screwed up something–and I know I simplified it–in that last bit.)

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