note: a disclaimer below
Sex and gender
In this paper I will define sex and gender; I will distinguish one from the other, and then I will illuminate how they are so connected to essentially be as one. Joan Roughgarden speaks in a way as to suggest that we ought to treat gender, as opposed to sex, as that fundamental characteristic of persons, worthy of printing on a drivers licence next to height (figuratively speaking); I will support this view. And finally, with regard to the appropriate number of genders, I will offer a solution which treats the continuum of genders not as two camps, five, or more, but as the continuum of being as it is distributed among/between/beyond the two essential genders, and sexes, of male and female.
Sex is the function of living creatures who themselves individually do not have the sufficient materials for reproduction. This act of sex is of combining, of complementing one another’s genetic materials so as to create life anew from the material of two parents. The genetic material, be it the egg or the sperm, the large gamete or the small gamete, is a determining factor of sex as the functional category of that thing which sexually reproduces. “To a biologist, “male” means making small gametes and “female” means making large gametes…By definition, the smaller of the two gametes is called a sperm, and the larger an egg.” (Roughgarden, 9).
In addition to gamete production, another divisive factor between the two complimentary sexes is that of the internal sexual organs; with regard to men, the internal organs are the gonads, and for the women it is the ovaries, the womb, etc. Externally, either sex – when we consider the aesthetically pleasing, those specimens and their actions which seem to exude excellence – possess characteristics like the child-bearing hips of a woman (in a woman), the broad shoulders of a man (in a man), the breasts of a woman, the penis of the man respectively. And finally, the contrast between one sex and the other is that typically the male is chemically characterized by testosterone, and women, estrogen. These chemicals promote either masculine (male-like) or feminine (female-like) bodily characteristics, and, when exposed/combined/in play with the culturally constructed social world, so too do they foster/promote certain emotional dispositions, and social expectations and responsibilities.
Where the internal bits, the external organs, and the chemical disposition of the brain find congruency in one body, we may with certainty call that one sex or the other. Where a human creates sperm, has a penis, and otherwise is built as a science textbook may illustrate the typical ‘man’ of the present, we call this a human of the male sex. When the conditions converge to have a trinity of woman inside, out, and in psychological dispositions, we may call this human a female. Of the males and females, heterosexual sex is the thing that the two of them do; they do this not so much because man and women are meant to have sex and procreate. Rather, from whatever beginning form the life associated with the common ancestor of all humans, there has been some way of passing the genetic makeup through time, from one mortal body to the next. Somewhere along the way there came the practice of sexual reproduction, where rather than one life form copying itself over and over, that two such life forms would combine and pass on puzzle pieces to form a new picture, similar in one respect to the two creators, and novel in another sense (owing to the randomness of the process of cell division, and genetic information integration). This new picture would then in turn break apart and combine with other pieces of another image, and the result is that some information is lost, and some created anew by the combinations each time. And given enough repetition of this, our great success in rising from the floor of mere animalia, modern humans rose up and named the things of the world, we separated this from that, and observed, recorded, predicted the laws of nature. And along this road, as sexual creatures, we were having sex essentially as we always had been. We see what is, and from this we value what ought to be, and we make our textbooks, and we say what is proper to this and what is insufficient. And from this valuation of everything, from the categorization of nature, we lose the fact that up until this point (in the long scheme of things) life has just been living. It has not been that biologically-typical men and biologically-typical women have been having sex and producing either a man or a woman. Instead, each embodied instance of human life does what it can with the hand which it has been dealt. Sex is had among men, between ill-equipped (with regard to procreation) men and women, and even between humans and animals which cannot produce offspring for them. It is from the success stories that there comes life via sexual reproduction. And from this, man and woman, and heterosexuality originate as the models of human life.
Indeed, though the production of offspring seems to be indicative of the correct sexual unity of the correct sexes, there does exist more than the binary male and female. Anne Fausto-Sterling, in the paper ‘The five sexes: why male and female are not enough’ illuminates three other sexes. First she illustrates the obfuscation of what is, with limiting the recognition of the sexes to three: male, female, and trans sex, where trans sex refers to an incomplete, or ambiguous, or otherwise atypical sex in relation to male and female dynamic. Fausto-Sterling breaks this idea of trans-gender open, and argues for five in total: male, female, true hermaphrodite, the merms and the ferms, where the true hermaphrodite “… possess(es) one testis and one ovary…the male pseudohermaphrodites (the “merms”), who have testes and some aspects of the female genitalia but no ovaries; and the female pseudohermaphrodites (the “[f]erms”), who have ovaries and some aspects of the male genitalia but lack testes.” (Fausto-Sterling)
The way of the human mind, this social web which we spin, be it the basis for civilization, for the individual, or be it merely a side effect of either, there is a distinction between the way which we are physically, and how one acts. Here we find gender. Gender, apart from the biological sex, is the living sex (Roughgarden), it is how we behave given our physical disposition (with regard to sex) in relation to other humans of this sex or that. As Roughgarden says, “”Gender” usually refers to the way a person expresses sexual identity in a cultural context. Gender reflects both the individual reaching out to cultural norms and society imposing its expectations on the individual.”(Roughgarden, 12). In this way, our actions are led by the social constructs which have gotten society this far, and by observing these constructs we enforce them; it is a closed loop which reinforces itself.
Were we to plot humans along a graph where on one side one is very masculine in body and mind, and on the other, one is very feminine in body and mind, we would find that humans appear all over this chart. But, be it through the success of so many generations reproducing heterosexually and/or so many years of civilization where such actions are viewed as hallowed, as life creating, as necessary, there will be a bi-modal property to such a graph where humans fit everywhere on this graph, but they tend to bunch in two spikes of data, one more or less male, and the other more or less female.
From this there can be great suffering and confusion on the part of one who exists outside of these data peaks of typical male / female physical composition and the resultant behaviour. The suffering is less a result of the sex which one is born, so much as it is the difficulty in developing with a gender which is compatible with the configuration of the gender-based zeitgeist of the time. Here we can observe both the distinction of the two, and the impossibility for any kind of true disconnect between the two (sex and gender).
Sex and gender are different insofar as someone can be born with all of the male bits, but still feel that inside their minds, that they ought to be and live like a woman. But, the distinction between sex and gender is like the distinction between the seed and/or roots of a plant, and the environmentally-exposed flower, above ground, that acts and reacts to the environment based on what its initial allowance provided it (the body which met the world), and the give and take of a fluid system of living that life. How can sex and gender be connected if one contradicts the other? Well, if someone were born with the body of a man, though the gender may be that of a woman, the feelings, the posturing of one’s self as a woman with a man’s body would be connected to one who was born with a man’s body; one cannot choose to be gender-x without any regard (consciously or otherwise) for what one has as one’s body. Often we are not aware of our ‘choosing’ of a gender, in fact it is more common that it is assigned by those developed humans who observe the initial body characteristics of the child (ie, in simple instances, the outward genitalia). We are like trees growing into where the light is; we begin as we do and right away we get on living, and those who nurture us (departing from the tree analogy) indoctrinate us as they themselves had been. Gender indoctrination is part of a fundamental baptism of most (if not all) cultures.
When Roughgarden, a thinker on the issue of sex and gender, talks of gender as fundamental, rather than sex being the root and gender being merely result of it, I believe Roughgarden does so for a reason both noble and appropriate. For, to observe someone’s sex and then treat them accordingly is to ignore the life that they actually lead! And, as humans come in all shapes and sizes (as the bimodal continuum above outlined), and lead all kinds of lives, to speak of sex as the defining characteristic of their way of life is to speak in ignorance of what they are today, and how they will act in the future. For, to do so is to speak of a seed, and then to pass judgments on the plant which one supposes will spring from it is a incongruous path. As one does not know what soil the seed was put in to, nor does one know of the environmental conditions above the ground at any given time, to make a recommendation would only be of help to those plants which are planted in ideal conditions as would be prescribed for said seed. And as is said above, we come in many shapes and sizes, in varying environments which are constantly changing.
I must agree that we should treat people not based on their sex, but of their gender. For, by speaking of gender, we better capture the form of their being. Being (speaking of identity), being immaterial itself is better described with the immaterial form of gender, of the aggregate of actions and feelings and propensities than to understand a person by what meat and fluids they live their life from the vantage of.
With regard to the number of genders that one ought to recognize, the idea of five seems as fair to five, and as unfair to the rest as two genders is fair to two and unfair to the rest. The male/female distinction in the face of the true hermaphrodite is to the recognition of the North and South Pole, the equator. Moreover, the addition of the herm and the ferm is akin to the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Just as the reduction of the planet to North and South Poles ignores the reality of these other three geographical lines, the five genders ignore the infinite number of degrees; so too does man proper, woman proper, true hermaphrodite, herm, and ferm ignore the infinite degrees of gender between (and perhaps beyond, in some way which I cannot at present imagine).
Is the solution to the problem of there being more than male and female genders to be solved by bifurcating the arrangement once, and then again for each new lobe? It seems to be a foot in the door toward an endless task of futility, to name the infinite shades between the colours of a rainbow which will change with the weather through which the light is refracted (as the human body, and social constructs change with time). I am unconvinced; man and woman, physically and psychologically are not achievable by all. However, for all they provide angles of attack, familiar ways of approaching one another toward the desired end of compatibility, for the purpose of escaping the isolation of being an individual, of social communion, of physical connection, and in cases where there can be such, procreation.
Speaking of the rainbow, colours are varied, but each is either darker or lighter. Let our genders (of male and female) act as poles by which the confusion of human life and identity be navigated. Let those of compatible magnetism connect; let those of ambiguous polarity seek connection within the paradigm of North and South, of light and dark, of masculine and feminine.
In closing, I believe two genders are fine, for we require not defined states, but directions by which we may orient ourselves, more or less in a system where people can have common expectations and of their behavior and of others.
Joan Roughgarden: Evolution’s Rainbow, University of California Press, pp 13‐42
Anne Fausto-Sterling: The five sexes: why male and female are not enough, The Sciences, March-April 1993 v33 n2 p20(6)
edit: I feel that I should note. This is a paper written at the behest of someone. The upshot of this is that the judgements, arguments, “conclusions” here noted are done within the time constraints provided for the exercise. And really, such things as are talked about above are worthy of greater time and examination than (as can be argued) I have done above.
I welcome counter claims and/or arguments purporting that I have made errors in reasoning/definition, obvious or otherwise.
So if I have offended anyone, I do apologize. Similarly if I have missed the mark (I would like to hear from you below), sorry about that too.