“Sex,” why I’m conflicted.


I’m a Biologist but I’m also an advocate for LGBTQA persons, and a Feminist.

So it has bothered me for sometime now to hear the growing idea that the word “Sex” is being seen by many to be nothing more then a social construct. A tool used to quickly label, but that sorely falls apart under scrutiny. Particularly under the light that is the diversity of humanity, and should probably be tossed out. Well I don’t completely disagree with that, but I also don’t want to throw out the word “sex.” To understand why I hold both of these opinions you have to understand that my definitions and understanding of “Sex” is radically different then how the general population tends to use the word.

In general, English speaking cultures, even our governments view the words Sex and Gender as synonymous. This is the root of my conflict because as a biologist I have a precise and well defined notion of sex, and one which does not tread into the territory of gender.

But as a feminist and an advocate for LGBTQA I understand that conflating these terms is dangerous. Both because is misses a wide variety of people who do not fit neatly in to the male and female genders, but worse of all it confused a whole bunch of biology, and physical structures, with social and cultural constructs. This is in no way to say we ought ignore these constructs or that they are not important. However, how you are conditioned, and taught to present as a child doesn’t have much relationship sex you might have.

Though I or Hessian will defend more fully the diffrences between gender and sex in a later post for now I’d like to focus on what I think of when I talk about a person’s sex.

Sex in biology is not a cut and dry, male and female affair. For the majority of biologists discussing sex female and male are only used when there are a few obvious traits that can be used to distinguish different types of gametes in a single species. In species with the male and female classification. Your male if the gametes you produce are smaller and/or more mobile. Your female if the gametes are larger and/or less mobile. That’s generally all there is too it.

You can probably already tell that this isn’t cut and dry by my use of and/or, but it does map nicely on to the general view with humans, since male humans produce sperm which are small and mobile, where the eggs produced by female humans are larger and lack the ability to propel themselves. Although quite often people who are called women, or men are not always female and male.

Sexual reproduction is an old trait, and exists in many forms. Many organisms have male and female style gamete production, but fungus and many sexually reproducing single celled organism being a key example have many sexes or as they are often called “strains” a whole variety of different sexes each often only comparable with  select few other strains. And even in organisms with gametes which fit neatly into the male/female divide such as plants you quickly realize that many organism, including most seed plants, contain both types of sex organs in the same individual (being hermaphroditic), not to mention the massive numbers of organism which can both reproduce sexually and asexually.

This plurality is the context I bring my understand of sex from. Sex is a really useful categorization for organizing reproductive capacity. Outside the frame work of ‘how can you produce offspring’ sex does not have much that is useful to say, and human’s are not exceptions to this rule either.

Certainty it’s true that there is some link between physical traits in humans and what gametes you produce, but these links are not cut and dry.  Not everyone can produce gametes,  and there are nor shortage of people (including trans* and intersex people) with physical traits which do not match what you’d expect by what gamete producing structures they possess. All of this is made more complex by the simple fact that the variety between even “typically” male and female people overlaps far more then in it differs, but if you willing to define sex by gametes like most biologists do, the vast majority of ambiguity goes right out the window.

Though there is a bit more of a downside from a social acceptance perspective. There are no shortage of people whom are for a variety of reasons unable to produce gametes. Now in cases where you  have lost the ability to produce viable gametes, such as people who go through menopause. I’m entirely willing to grant them the sex that they would otherwise have, but in the chance of people who can’t and could never produce gametes? Well I’m force to say they are sexless. Now from a biology perspective I have no problem accepting this, but I can understand that others might not be so happy about it.

Further because of how male and female have become conflated with man and woman, there are not shortage of people, largely intersex, Trans*, and gender nonconforming people who wouldn’t be too happy  if I was to start calling them male, female or sexless based on the gametes they do or don’t produce (assuming I could tell).  That and I don’t blame them for a second. There is tons of baggage tied up with these terms so one can not just ignore the history. Though it happens to not be something that should come up in conversation often, since really you shouldn’t be trying to find out what gamete a person produces. It’s rather personal and you can’t even figure it out just by knowing a persons genitalia, which is also something you shouldn’t be asking people about anyway.

But this is why I’m conflicted, I use sex in the scientific manner, so I’m not talking about the same thing as most people when I’m discussing sex. But I don’t want sex to be thrown out of the common dialogue either. Rather I want more people to discuss the ideas of female and male in term of gametes. It’s simple and it’s clear, but best of all it doesn’t conflate sex and gender. It might ignore issue of secondary “sex” characteristics, but those aren’t actually controlled by your gamete production, so when we are talking about breasts, voices, body hair, muscle mass, and the like we aren’t actually talking about sex we are talking about a whole swath of biological controls. Most notably hormones.

I’m interested to see what questions and ideas everyone has, I couldn’t be a through as I’d like given the breadth of these topics, but for those new to most of this I hope I’ve at least opened your eyes to the complex nature of life on our planet and within our species in nothing else.

Withteeth

 

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25 responses to ““Sex,” why I’m conflicted.

  • 2wheels12strings

    Labeling something as normal doesn’t make it so. The clinical evidence strongly suggests LGBT is a mental disorder.

    http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/michael-w-chapman/johns-hopkins-psychiatrist-transgender-mental-disorder-sex-change

    Like

  • Jack

    Great post! I too am a biologist and a feminist/supporter of LGBT rights, so this is something I struggle with too. I’ve encountered so many left-wing people (usually scientists) who are almost totally pro-equality but who can be quite aggressive regarding trans* issues for this very reason, and it’s difficult to explain it to them because they’re *technically* correct…

    Like

  • D.T. Nova

    I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen anyone say that sex is entirely a social construct.

    This topic is kind of important to me as a writer because I have an intersex character in my WIP novel. What I’ve written says that she was assigned male at birth (and narrowly avoided surgery), started identifying as a girl as soon as she could articulate the concept, and then turned out to have ovaries, which, from my perspective and hers (and, I’m pretty sure, the definitions used by medical doctors), means her original assignment was outright incorrect. But by your definition, she doesn’t really have a known biological sex unless it’s mentioned that she produces eggs?

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  • jkkidwell

    Reblogged this on FoRGeS Blog.

    Like

  • jkkidwell

    I think this is a great perspective with which to look at the sex/gender issue. However, I think this line of reasoning does lead to sex being thrown out of common dialogue simply because it has no place there. The problem is that, as you say, a person’s sex is really no one’s business, but redefining the popular understanding of sex in this manner requires it to be talked about. Language is defined by use. And unfortunately, most people’s knowledge of biology is not up to par. But I do think this is an understanding worth promoting.

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  • Diversity Jane

    The difference between sex and gender is very clear to me, but probably because I’m very active in the LGBTQ community, where they are universally seen as completely separate things. Sex = biology; Gender = a social construct. You can be biologically one sex, but present as a different gender.So I guess I’m confused as to why you’re conflicted! Most people I know recognize the difference and don’t conflate sex and gender – so I’m sorry you’re seeing otherwise!

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    • hessianwithteeth

      I’m not very conflicted in truth, but the conflict is in how many folks what to toss out the use of sex. I want to keep it, but I the very specific and scientific sense, and I’d love to see others start using it in that sense, but I also do not want to enforce my views and I don’t disagree with the reasons they want to throw out the term sex due to how it’s used. It’s a subtle conflict I know, but it is why I’m conflicted.

      Like

  • mgrace58

    Are we talking about sex? Or are we talking about sex? Two different things and it’s no wonder it can get confusing. Interesting post!

    Like

  • equippedcat

    From an “accuracy” standpoint, it is an exciting concept. The practicality seems in doubt. If anyone were to ask someone what sex they were, how would many people be able to answer definitively? Most would have a clue, but unless they had children to verify that guess, or had been tested, how could they know for sure?

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    • hessianwithteeth

      They wouldn’t, the point is to point out knowing a persons sex isn’t terriably useful they want to knw if they can reproduce with a gven person. You get tested if you end up having difficultys in that regard.

      Like

  • iancoates2014

    This is not the subject i was thinkng of when I clicked on your blog, I feel robbed. When I think of sex the only conflict i have is YES or no…but then thats a whole other story.

    For me, sex is just another label that people want to use. it doesn’t matter wether your man, woman, or any of the other ones in between. People should just have to be themselves and everyone should accept that. No one needs to be categorised until it omes down to, like you say biology and they need to make babies. you have sperms and eggs and the magic happens. Anything else is irrelevant.

    I still feel robbed…….. 🙂

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  • damianpacanowski

    1 -If you are a biologist know that organs women and men are created for one purpose biological.
    2 -Sex is an activity leading by many factors to activate the appropriate responses in the brain energy and chemical, leading to the reproduction of the human species

    Human as creature with the highest level of consciousness of the other beings on Earth, should understand these facts.

    Like

    • hessianwithteeth

      1- well yes and no there can be a lot going on and not everyone who can produce gametes can actually successfully reproduce. Further Your conflating the gendered terms Woman and Man with the sex terms female and male. Easy enough to do, but give common usage that tend to be how the distinction is drawn, when it is drawn at all. But next our sex organs tend to he multiple roles, including hormone production, but all of that can become fuzzy when you look at particular cases, so needless to say human biology is more complex then that.

      2- Well one can argue that all thought are chemical (not energy, but doesn’t really mean anything) reactions in the brain that lead to some thing or another, but sex is important for a lot more then just reproduction, such as bonding, stress relief and just plain pleasure. People rarely have sex just to have babies, even if evolutionarily speaking that’s the main goal.

      “Human as creature with the highest level of consciousness” quite possibly, but we should understand this fact not because we are more intelligent or what have you then other organism, but because it’s in our best interests to understand these thing. Or at least that’s my ever pragmatic view on things.

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      • damianpacanowski

        You know what hard to understand you, what do you mean
        separating every statement with a newline because
        then it is easier to translat to me

        1- So what for you is a hormone?
        -So what for you is a sex hormone?

        2- Sex is an activity only for reproduction and nothing more.
        Pleasure which is linked to this
        is the result of the evolution of our species.
        Only from Consciousness
        that activates brain function in an appropriate manner.makes it a pleasure.

        Using sex for other purposes is primitive.
        IIt’s as like you are a dog or some animal
        which, as we know
        have consciousness on a primitive level (instinctive)

        If a person is infertile
        you need to find the cause of the infertility
        and this change on a fertile

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        • hessianwithteeth

          No no your misunderstand many concepts here. One evolution does not wrk toward ward one single “ultimate goal” in the sense that there is some single purpose. English is limited in the means which we can effectively communicate evolution with out anthropomorphizing it, so I apologize for being confusing myself.

          All that is needed for evolution is for there to some selective advantage for something. Yes as the end of the day reproduction of genes is hugely important, but evolution isn’t so picky, all you need to the genes to say alive in the population not in any given individual.

          However, I’m not really willing to give you a full primer on evolution I’m sure you can find a crash course video on it. Needless to say, pleasure from sex is selected for because it leads over all to more reproduction, but you don’t actually get pleasure from reproducing directly, so the sole purpose of sex is not reproduction it’s the evolutionary outcome in many regards, but not exclusively. Pleasure and social cohesion are also strong positive selection pressures. To ignore them mean your not doing your due diligence.

          Reproduction is a big part of sex with out doubt, but your too focused on the individual. Evolution is about populations not individuals. And there are many species wide benefits to sex that don’t directly relate to reproduction.

          “If a person is infertile
          you need to find the cause of the infertility
          and this change on a fertile”

          No you act as though this is a standard normal state, thing are not cut and dry in biology. We often look at it this way, but some time organism are just born with out the correct parts to reproduce. This is perfectly natural, and we may want to “fix it.” It is really we are just adding a capacity that was not present before.

          As for your use of the word “consciousness” I can find with in your use of the word a consistent understanding. You seem to pull it out to explain a bunch of different things, but I don’t have the slightest idea what you mean. If you where to define it perhaps I could comment on what your saying, but at this moment I can not.

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        • hessianwithteeth

          Oh I see, your grammer make this rather difficult to understand but you think that sex for anything other then reproduction is “primitive.”

          If that’s the case then no you have it backwards sex for only reproduction is the most primitive trait as we see it in many single celled organism which do it for no other reason (Beyond the many benefit of sexual over asexual reproduction). Other reasons to have sex arise after reproduction, and are more complex in the reasons “why.”

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  • tycheent

    In writing Young Adult fantasy, I used gender to refer to the male or female appearance of individuals, rather than the term ‘sex’. I also used ‘gender specific’ when referring to beings made of energy that had no gender of their own, but could appear any way they needed to at a particular time. The specific instance I’m thinking of was when matching such energy beings up to children, and haveing them be ‘gender specific’ so there was no embarassment for the child, nor social issues with the parents. You’re right, though, that society seems to tend to conflate ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. I think most people consider ‘sex’ to be both an action and a condition of biology.

    Like

    • hessianwithteeth

      Though that condition of biology is not nearly as far reaching as people think. To your novel. How will you deal with androgynous folk who are neither clearly male or female?

      Like

      • tycheent

        Actually, I may have a couple like that in my books. Meaning that I refer to them by their gender or apparent gender and let their ambiguous state evolve through their behavior. I don’t make a big thing of it because I don’t think it’s necessary to the story.

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  • jamesclegg2013

    Imagine the chat-up line, “what kind of gamete production does your body support?”

    Jokes aside (and a bad one at that), I like the way (rigorous) science supports the diversity of the things it encounters. Modern Science tended to be beholden to structures, and divided everything in to categories, taxonomies. Do you think contemporary science is moving towards something that can account for transformations and generative characteristics?

    Best,

    James

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Sorry I’d love to awnser you question, but I’m not sure what you means by “transformations and generative characteristics” could you explain tat in a bit more detail, and maybe give an example? 🙂

      Like

      • jamesclegg2013

        Hi Withteeth, thanks for the desire to help. I’m winging it in biology terms – so that’s why it wasn’t a clear question. Let me try harder.

        In psychology it has been shown how adaptable the brain is. It changes itself to fit the circumstances of a person’s surroundings and activities. They can plot the neural connections that occur when people learn something, like playing the piano or memorising things. There are discrete parts of the brain, yes, but to properly understand it you need to account for transformation and generative characteristics, i.e. characteristics that come in to being by chance.

        I wondered if ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ – in the context of your blog – could the thought of in a similar way?

        (One of the physics teachers once told me that if you want to know if you really understand something try explaining it to a child. I’m not sure I could do that in this case as – as mentioned – I’m winging it a bit).

        Best,

        James.

        Like

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