Sex is a Social Construct

Editing Note, May 1, 2012: This post is highly problematic, especially in regards to transnormative prescriptiveness, and not questioning the racism in the term “gender abolitionist”). I’ve made a few edits to it to, um, slightly alleviate this. Excising the problematicness from it will probably mean rewriting it completely. I don’t recommend anyone use it as anything except evidence of how I believed terrible things last year.

Oct 17, 2012: Clarifying, since I’m still getting hits on this: I still believe the point I’m making. I just can make it without being such a fuckup.

“Sex is biological, gender is a social construct”

This is a classic truism of feminist theory. It’s also completely wrong. The existence of trans and intersex people demonstrates this on both halves of the statement. I’m not going to address what gender is in this post, and am instead going to focus on sex here, leaving gender to a future post. There’s a fair bit of existing trans theory on this subject that this essay is built on. Many ideas here will be cribbed from those articles.

Asher Bauer describes it like this: “The entire concept of “sex” is simply a way of attaching something social– gender– to bodies”. This is completely true, and merits exploration in more detail. He also lays out the right way to gender a body: a male body belongs to a male person, a female body belongs to a female person, a neutrois body to a neutrois person, a genderqueer body to a genderqueer person, an agender body to an agender person, a multigendered body to a multigendered person, a genderfluid body to a genderfluid person, and so on (although these rules get more complicated when the person in question is a member of a multiple system); literally every other method of labelling a body “male” or “female” that will be given later in this article is wrong.

There’s a lot of resistance to this idea. Because of the culture we’re soaking in, it seems like common sense that there genuinely are two immutable, binarily-opposed sexes that have a certain collection of traits, even though that’s not true.

“Sex is between your legs”
The first thing many people will point to when they decide to say that sex is physical is to say that it’s based on what genitals a person has. Of course, these same people will then go on to say “male bodied” or “female bodied” about people when they’re being “polite” and “hip” and “trans-positive”, and deliberately misgendering trans people when they’re not1, without ever once checking the person in question’s genital status. They’ll do the same for the cis people in their life. For instance, a person might say that they know their cis female boss to have a female body, and say that the state of a body’s genitals determines its sex, that a body is female because it has a vagina and male because it has a penis, without ever having once checked to see if she has a vagina. The very idea of checking would be considered a tremendous invasion of privacy, and for good reason. People don’t even ask (as long as they continue to assume the person they’re talking to is cis).

This sets aside the whole rant Asher went on about how people make exceptions to this all the time. It’s considered extremely rude to, outside of the occasional joke, tell a man who lost his penis in an accident or to violence that his body is no longer male, that he2 is no longer male, because of it.

Then there’s a third thing, where the two supposedly dramatically different structures (penis and testicles or vulva with clitoris and ovaries) are actually not fundamentally different. Proponents of the view that sex is based on physical configuration of the genitals usually argue one of two things: either that having a penis makes a body male, and not having one makes the body female, or, the more “biologically accurate” view of the medical profession, that having testicles, even undescended, makes a person male (trans people are, of course, ignored when we don’t force them to pay attention to us), and ovaries makes a person female.

Kinsey Hope breaks down the first of these views just by asking a single question: how large must the external part of the sensitive end of the genitals be to be a penis? There’s no sharp line with penises on one side and clits on the other. The second view is dissected in more detail here; it was created to maintain the sex dyad3, and a related view will be analyzed later in this piece.

So, sex is absolutely not between your legs. People will label other people by one supposed biological sex or another without ever checking between their legs (although they will use what’s between someone’s legs as a pretext to misgender them or out them as trans).

Boobs and Beards
Most people don’t examine others’ genitals when trying to figure out whether to call them “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” because their genitals are usually hidden under clothes. But there are sex-associated traits that aren’t as hidden. These are collectively lumped together as “secondary sexual characteristics” and include, basically, everything but the state of your genitals that is commonly linked to sex. This includes the presence or absence of breast fat, volume of facial and body hair, and subtle things like the texture of one’s skin and so on.

Most of these are responses to levels of various hormones (testosterone and estrogen, primarily), which makes the far from immutable, as transitioners prove every day. They don’t even always come in the same stereotypical clusters. A cis woman might have a visible adam’s apple, body hair, or facial hair. A cis man might be unable to grow a beard, or might have never had his voice drop, or might have breast fat.

This demonstrates that the structure of two opposite sexes based on secondary sexual characteristics doesn’t accurately represent nature. What actually exists is a space with more dimensions than I care to count (and any attempt to count would almost certainly miss at least one), with two clusters separated by a long diagonal and plenty of people in between.

Then there’s the other questionable part, where people still try to assign a sex to children’s prebusescent bodies. Here they can’t even rely on secondary sexual characteristics, because children don’t develop those until either puberty or the onset of testosterone/estrogen poisoning (in many trans children). Here they go by gender presentation, which is, although not perfect, a better way of guessing someone’s gender than any of the others (or would be, if children were routinely allowed to choose their presentation).

Fertility Type
This is the elephant in the room that people point to when attempting to sex a body: fertility type. Under this structure, bodies that produce sperm are male, and bodies that produce ova and/or gestate fetuses are female. Two sexes that, because of the way human biology works, are mutually-exclusive and all-encompassing.

Or not.

See, there’s a huge population of people that, for whatever reason (age, congenital genetic condition, physical damage, disease, the list goes on), don’t produce either ova or sperm. Prepubescent children are the obvious example here. A prepubescent child has never produced an ovum or sperm in their life, and there’s no guarantee they ever will. Maybe they’re infertile for genetic reasons. Maybe they’re trans and in need of transition treatment and will have the good fortune to go on blockers before puberty. Maybe they’ll have the grave misfortune to lose their fertility organs to injury before reaching puberty.

If fertility type defines a body’s sex, then it makes no sense to call a child “male-bodied” or “female-bodied”. You need a third term for a body’s sex to describe a cis woman who’s had her ovaries removed or damaged by an STD. Trans people would join this third, infertile sex when and if they take hormone blockers to full effect, and would stop being “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” at that point.

Everything said about genital status as a determinant of a body’s sex goes quadruple for this one. The only way to know for sure that someone produces working sperm or ova is to fertilize them (although you can get a close approximation by looking at their gametes under a microscope). By this measure, you can’t be sure that a body is “female” unless it’s gotten pregnant without using donor ova, and you can’t be sure a body is “male” unless a “female-bodied” person gets pregnant without contact with any other sperm. Nobody checks that intrusively, or even demands to look at someone’s sexual fluids under a microscope to know their sex.

Do I even need to attack this one? This entire argument is based on the idea that what they taught you about biology in elementary school is completely true without exception. Nothing they taught you in elementary school is completely true without exception.

1) It’s not an immutable XX/XY binary. There’s also XXY, XXX, XYY, X, and so on.
2) When was your last karyotype taken?
3) It doesn’t directly cause any of the traits you can see. XY cis women exist.
4) Chimerism. What sex is a body where some cells are XY and others are XX?

There. Done.

(Credit to those who’ve gone before, Lisa Harney laid out these same arguments years ago)

Why Sex?
Given that no definition of biological sex exists that is entirely consistent with the way it is used, the question opens: Why do people insist on thinking under this concept? There are a few major reasons.

First, you can get away with using these concepts in speech in polite company even when you can’t get away with saying what you mean. You can say “ze is male-bodied” to mean “ze has a penis” in circumstances where the latter would be seen as a breach of decorum. This is actually fairly cissexist, since this kind of speculation as to someone’s genital status is only done to trans people and perceived trans people.

Second, it’s shorter than saying what you mean in a lot of cases. Precisely because it means a lot of things, some of them very involved, it can be used as a shorthand to convey a group of related concepts that often occur together, such as wide hips, small stature, and a high-pitched voice, for instance. This comes at the cost of gendering someone’s body, often against their will, that is, of exercising cis-privileged gender entitlement over them. But what’s a little misgendering of a trans person compared to the convenience of a cis person’s speech?

Third, there’s the deliberate misgendering of trans people. By calling a DFAB4 trans person of any gender “female-bodied” or a DMAB trans person of any gender “male-bodied”, one can reconcile the belief that the person is “really female” or “really male” with the belief that one accepts the person in their real gender. Yes, the belief that the speaker accepts the trans person in their real gender, not the belief that the trans person is their real gender; if they held that belief, they wouldn’t need to reconcile it with the belief that they’re “really” whatever gender. Most cis people who are clinging to this are deliberately misgendering trans people. Trans people using it for themselves probably aren’t; I neither use this term for myself nor read minds, so I’m not going to say that you can’t call yourself “$GDAB-bodied”, I can’t know whether that’s from a theory that helps you feel comfortable in your skin doing what you need to do or internalized cissexism (only you can do that), but cut out externalizing that onto other people without our consent.

I wouldn’t be doing my duty as a trans/feminist bloggeress if I didn’t point out that there’s a substantial contingent of feminists (mostly radical feminists and gender deconstructionists) who use sex for exactly this purpose. By calling trans men “female-bodied” and trans women “male-bodied” (and erasing non-binary trans folks), they’re able to pull a linguistic sleight of hand with the term “male privilege” to claim that trans men never attain it and trans women cannot abandon it. Neither of those is true; if a trans person passes for cis, they are by definition treated by society at large with the same privilege or lack thereof as a cis person of their gender, and passing for a cis person of some binary gender is often a matter of safety.

That actually brings us to the fourth reason. Some radical feminists, including self-styled “gender abolitionists”, claim that gender is nothing but an oppressive social construct (word-by-word, false, half-true, and false, but that’s for another post) and should be destroyed, and then in the next breath alleviate the gender dissonance that faking an agendered identity would cause them by identifying with their supposed biological sex. Put more simply, they use it as a way to retain their (and all other cis people’s) genders while claiming they want to destroy gender. They often overlap with the last group, and even when they don’t they seem to believe that trans people have more of a duty to destroy the oppressiveness of gender than they do.

1 This piece will, for the most part, use “male bodied” and “female bodied” language to describe the ways sex is constructed, even though the construct of “biological sex” is most commonly used in relation to trans people with the purpose of either misgendering them or allowing cissexist people (including trans people with internalized cissexism) to cling to the trans person’s birth sex.

2 I’m going to need to lay out a post on mind/body duality at some point. I’m not actually equipped to do theory on this myself, though, since as a singlet I don’t have actual experience with it. In this case, though, I believe that most instances of gendering a trans person’s body are attempts to misgender the person in it.

3 I’m using the term “dyad” here instead of “binary” as is more common in trans activism because I am referencing intersex theory here, and “dyad” is the preferred intersex jargon. Like with mind/body theory, I am not qualified to generate intersex theory, since I’m not intersex myself, only to repeat what others have said. As with all paraphrase, there’s a chance that I’ll get a key point wrong; people who know intersex theory better than me are welcome to correct me.

4 D(F/M)AB: Designated (Female/Male) At Birth. Also GDAB, Gender Designated Assigned At Birth

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