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How Many Sexes Are There?

kcough's picture

In a world where we are bombarded with sexuality nearly every minute of our lives and the sexual norms are increasingly expanding, how many sexes are there really? Must our sex and our gender always be aligned? Who should determine whether or not we are male, female, or a little bit of both? Should it be us or our parents and doctors? Focusing on the case in the 1960’s of John/Joan, I argue that this clearly evidences that sexuality isn’t solely determined by the development of our external genitalia but is also inherent from birth and therefore, Intersex children should be allowed to choose for themselves, when the time is right, whether or not they identify with one sex or the other, as sexuality cannot be taught or learned. If, however, the individual decides that they are comfortable in a role that is neither male nor female, it should also be socially acceptable for them to choose to live their lives as ambi-gendered. Our problem lies not in when we should assign a child’s sexuality, but whether or not we should do so at all. The social construction of sexuality and gender requires that one be in line with the other, when many times this is not truly the case. We should strive for a society in which individuals who feel that their sexual and gender identities do not match are comfortable and accepted.

John Money, renowned sex researcher and founder of the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, produced what was originally thought of as a concrete answer to the nature vs. nurture question in his case study of two twins, John/Joan and Kevin. His conclusions were drawn from a study of two twin boys, both of whom were anatomically “normal” males at birth. Through an unfortunate accident, however, directly following the birth, one of the boy’s penises was removed, and the decision was made to have the child undergo vaginal reconstruction and be raised as a female. As this child, dubbed “John/Joan” in the medical world, matured, it became clear that she felt uncomfortable in her female role. Money, however, chose to overlook this, maintaining that the she was a happy, well-adjusted female, and that this confirmed that sexuality and gender can be altered by environment—essentially, that humans are sexually “neutral” at birth. He maintained that it was solely environment, and not genes, that determined a child’s sexual identity, and that that identity, provided it were early enough in development, could be shaped and the child raised as a boy or girl, depending on the parenting: “…the observable differences in the tastes, attitudes, and behaviors of men and women are attributable solely to cultural expectations.” He argued that sexuality is not an inherent trait, but rather that “…it is no longer possible to attribute psychological maleness or femaleness to chromosomal, gonadal, or hormonal origins…The evidence of hermaphroditism lends support to a conception that, psychologically, sexuality is undifferentiated at birth and that it becomes differentiated as masculine or feminine in the course of the various experiences of growing up.” It would follow then that those children who identify with the opposite sex (transgender) do so because they were raised in such an environment, and that assigning a child a sex at birth would be beneficial rather than detrimental for the child, who would then be able to identify with a particular gender. If, however, we take into account the research of Dr. Diamond, we may conclude that children are actually not sexually neutral at birth, but that gender and sexuality are hardwired into us.

Studying endocrinology in graduate school, Diamond challenged Milton’s assumption that gender was “fixable” and instead said that gender is inherent, innate, something we are born with. After speaking with John/Joan and learning that she felt truly uncomfortable in her role as a female (ultimately undergoing sexual reassignment surgery to become a male), Diamond published a paper claiming that sexuality and gender are inherent. He argued that “sexuality may, from birth, provide a built-in "bias" with which the individual interacts with his environment.” Diamond maintained that sexuality is neurological, and may be altered but not totally reversed. His reference studies that show distinct neurological differences between boys and girls, namely that girls are more interested in colors and shapes, that they are more “affectionate” while boys are more “aggressive,” and that there truly are very noticeable differences between the sexes, and while environment and parenting may “accentuate” such differences, it cannot eradicate or reverse them completely. This would make sense—if we follow Money’s theory that children are sexually “neutral,” how then are we to explain transgendered individuals, who were (most likely) raised as their birth sex and yet always felt “out of place?”

In order to fit into society’s constructs of gender and sexuality, we say that those children born with XY chromosomes, in order to be considered “male” must have “adequate penises,” of (arguably) at least 2.5 centimeters in length. They must also have urethral openings at the tip of the penis. For those who are born with XX chromosomes and are considered female, even if their genitalia are “ambivalent,” such as an enlarged clitoris (over 1 centimeter) or conjoined labia, are considered female regardless. The idea is to preserve the “female reproductive capabilities.”3 Neither of these categories, however, accounts for the many other sexes that are present in society: those children born with an XXY chromosome spectrum, or with both vaginal and testicular tissues—those who, in short, identify as neither male nor female. The Intersex society of North America likens this “sexual spectrum” to the color spectrum: “In the same way, nature presents us with sex anatomy spectrums. Breasts, penises, clitorises, scrotums, labia, gonads—all of these vary in size and shape and morphology. So-called “sex” chromosomes can vary quite a bit, too. But in human cultures, sex categories get simplified into male, female [and, occasionally, intersex] in order to simplify social interactions, express what we know and feel, and maintain order.” Our societies are still considerably uncomfortable with the idea that an individual does not fit a simple, predetermined gender role of male or female. Money said in one interview that “you cannot be an it.” And yet, what if you indeed can be an “it”? It is our society, not nature, that says we cannot be an “it,” that our gender must align with our external genitalia and sexuality. Our environment has provided us with the possibility of many genders and sexualities, and it is our culture that has determined there must be only two. Instead of focusing on surgeries and assigning genders to ambiguous children, we should instead focus on changing societal perceptions of the strict, binary lines of gender and sexuality.

 While I do believe that children should be able to choose for themselves what they feel is their gender and sexuality, I realize that waiting to decide has its own, possibly detrimental consequences, especially as children grow and begin attending school, where they may be subject to harsh criticism from their peers until ambi-gendered individuals are accepted by society. Extensive family counseling would need to be made available to help families of intersexual children to deal with difficulties until they were mature enough to make a decision regarding their gender. Also, because this is not a wide-spread practice, there is little research as to what happens when intersex children decide to wait and whether or not this adversely affects their genitalia and complicates further surgery.

The world is never black and white, as much as we like to make it seem so. Everything is shades of gray—gender and sexual identity being no exception. The problem with both Money’s and Diamond’s assertions are that they are both concerned with the placement of intersex individuals into society’s predetermined categories of male and female. In reality, however, sexuality and gender are much more complex. They are undeniably inextricably linked—not, however, in the sense that both the sexuality and the gender of an XY child are male and vice versa, but in that it is the combination of both our gender and our sexuality that determine who we are. We must strive not for perfection of gender reassignment or gender reconstructive surgeries, but for society’s wider acceptance that there are not one or two but many different genders and sexualities, and that everyone, not matter their identification, deserves a place in society.



1Answers to Your Questions About Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity,

2 Gender Identity Disorder,

3 What is Intersex?

4  A Critical Evaluation of the Ontology of Human Sexual Behavior,