Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Sure, because a "Fact" is simply Unquestionable

Owl's picture


It is a well known “fact” in American Society that the categories that are woman and man respectively correspond to their feminine and masculine gender categories. But what happens when this so called “fact” is blurred by individuals that do not fit into the sex category they are “born” into? What happens when one is born male, XY chromosomes and all, but develops as a female because the “XY embryo doesn’t respond to the crucial hormones that tell the penis and scrotum to form?” (Sophie Moura 1). How is that person supposed to be seen in terms of gender?  Does this well established “fact” suddenly become a lie? Do females who always thought they were feminine, due to their reproductive organs and ability to bear children, suddenly become ambiguous in the eyes of society? The sex/gender binary which is greatly deep-rooted in societies around the world becomes oxymoronic in that it “paradoxically reveals its constructedness, its fragility, its revisability; in short, it’s “fictionality” (Serendip).

It becomes clear, with the uprising of sex and gender “deviants”, that there is a variety of sexes that range far beyond the “normal” man and woman. Throughout history we have seen countless people get ignored and deemed abnormal for the sake of maintaining a structure that states that “science reveals the Truth about Nature” (Ruth Hubbard 157). Truth here, meaning an unquestionable “fact”. As a society we are so engrained in tradition so much that we fail to realize that the “binary concept does not reflect biological reality. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling estimates that approximately 1 or 2 percent of children are born with mixed or ambiguous characteristics…” (Hubbard 158). Katie Bratz a woman who was born having androgen insensitivity syndrome, or AIS, is but only one example of people in societies around the world that cannot clearly check off that female box on the application despite the fact that she might think of herself as such. Katie was born male according to her chromosomes and gonads, but “…developed as a girl, with a clitoris and vulva” (Moura 1). Katie spent her childhood and adolescent stages of life trying to get “validation” (Moura 2) for a body she felt “betrayed” (Moura 2) her. This feeling can be seen as having been derived from the culture we so greatly bind ourselves to in order to explain what surrounds us.

“AIS affects one in 20,000 people, but disorders of sex development occur in one in 2,000 babies, so issues like this are more common than you’d think”(Moura 3). In past times, AIS and other so called sex disorders were very common. However, because doctors viewed sex and gender through binary spectacles, they surgically assigned babies with a sex and gender believing that “following that course…would eliminate psychological distress for both the patient and the parents;”… “Through surgery, the physicians were merely completing nature’s intention” (Anne Fausto-Sterling 20). What sex a person became was totally dependent on two things 1) the physicians opinion and 2) whether they thought the child would “be more successful in producing a girl or a boy” in terms of both psyche and body. What doctors failed to realize however, is that their decision depends wholly upon a socially constructed idea. In actuality, babies are not “cured” forever for they still maintain a chance of rejecting the sex and gender imposed on them. “As recently chronicled by John Colapinto, in his book As Nature Made him, Joan—now known to be an adult male named David Reimer— eventually rejected his female assignment. Even without a functioning penis and testes (which had been removed as part of the reassignment) John/Joan sought masculinizing medication, and married a woman with children (whom he adopted)” (Fausto-Sterling21). It is cases like that of Katie and David’s that depict the varying degrees of being male, female, masculine, and feminine and thus distort the “fact” of being a woman or man.

 Cases like the ones mentioned depict the disconnection between “fact” and “fiction,” in that they illustrate how it is that what we believe to be “fact” may just be an illusion that we construct in order to categorize the world which surrounds us. I guess in the end, the notion of “fact” is just that, a notion. “Fact” is not something that is there but it is what it is to every individual person. “Fact” is “fiction” and “fiction” is “fact”; they are one in the same; every individual determines what it is for them.  As a society we just gather what the majority thinks is not “fact” but rather common, and turn it into an unquestionable straight out fact, or at least we try. According to David Shield’s Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, if facts are constructions, we should “emphasize on their common sources and begin thinking about how to reconceive property as a shared source rather than as an individual creation” (Serendip). In other words instead of thinking as sex and gender as well defined and discrete categories, as belonging to particular individuals, think of these phenomenon as a shared source that any person can maintain from birth. Therefore, instead of declaring that sex and gender are questions of which there could only be one answer, let us declare that sex and gender can be grouped together in different ways without them being manipulated by a social construct.

“The time is ripe for physicians and scientists also to remove their binary spectacles and, rather than explore what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female,’ look into what it means to be neither as or both…”(Hubbard 164). The times I right for all people to change their perspective on sex and gender. Although some may see sex and gender categories as crucial to the structure, for even I can agree that categories are needed in most cases, such as foods, for people it is not. The limits that are inevitably enabled by categories ignore those that do not fit within the boundaries and consequently negatively affect other structures within societies, such as that of the education structure, by neglecting the children that cannot respond to the teacher because they are not considered girls or boys. When it comes to the human being there is no limit to what or who what we are, thus, the “fact” about sex and gender is that there is none.



Works Cited

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The five sexes, revisited”. Sciences; Jul/Aug 2000; 40, 4; Research

Library pg. 18-23.

Hubbark, Ruth. “Gender and Genitals: Constructs of Sex and Gender”. Social Text, NO. 46/47,

Science Wars (Spring-Summer, 1996). pp. 157-165. Duke University Press.

Moura, Sophie. “I’m a woman with Male Chormosomes”. marie claire.

“Towards Day 5: Having Fun @ Home”. Non-Fictional Prose Course. 9/9/2010










Owl's picture

hopefully this clears things up =]

First off, I am not sure what you mean by: "is there (for example) a category of "sports gender," which differs from the genders we use to divide ourselves up for the purposes of education (women's colleges, anyone)? When does the division between male and female--constructed as it may be--matter? Are there ways to make it matter less?"

Response to question posed in 3rd paragraph:

The fictionality of gender is that of the “fact” that is imposed by society: The “fact” that gender is just masculinity and femininity. Gender, however, as I have said, is not such a restricted notion as the latter implies. This is where Shields concept takes place. The notion of gender in it of itself belongs to everyone. It is how the individual presents it, that it becomes an individual creation.

Response to question posed in 4th paragraph:

As for your other question, I meant to say that individuals can choose to group together what they feel describes them in terms of gender and sex (grouping in terms of categories not people- if this makes an sense). Not that society can group people. To be clearer, what I wanted to come across is that categories are not bad if they are chosen and widened to fit individual characteristics by such individual, not by the norms of society.

Response to question posed in 5th paragraph:   

As for your last question, what would be the evidence regarding the limitations of who one can be? And as for the other counter-argument, I think that is what I was trying to convey in saying that there is no gender and sex. I meant to say that gender and sex as we know it, is non-existent.


Anne Dalke's picture

individual or social?

Thanks for keeping this conversation going....

what i meant was do we have different ways of dividing boys from girls if we're looking @ who gets to go to a woman's college, vs. who gets to participate in women's sports competitions? are the "categories" of boy and girl different, depending on the context? (for example, in sports is it really muscle mass that matters?? and in an educational context..what matters? social experience? why divide the boys from the girls? to give a hand up to those who have experienced gender oppression??).

I'd like to hear you say more about how you understand gender as an individual creation. I thought that is was a socially-agreed-upon category: we think that women look and behave in a certain way, and that men look and behave in a certain way, and get confused when folks don't follow those social scripts (though none of us can ever follow it precisely....) But how can a category be an individual rather than a social creation? And how much are those categories limited (if not determined) by biology?

Anne Dalke's picture

The fictionality of gender

It's a real delight to me to see you bringing some of the discussion we had in GASWorks last fall, about the construction of gender, to enrich our discussion in this course on the construction of "facts." As the image of Caster Semenya, which I include above, suggests, the questions you raise are not abstract, not just philosophical, but very practical ones: is there (for example) a category of "sports gender," which differs from the genders we use to divide ourselves up for the purposes of education (women's colleges, anyone)? When does the division between male and female--constructed as it may be--matter? Are there ways to make it matter less?

As you know, I find the paradoxical "constructedness," "fragility," "revisability" and "fictionality" of reality a very hopeful notion to think with and work with: it tells me not only that we have made our "real" world, but that we can re-make it, change it up so that those who apparently differ from one another can be treated (for starters!) more equitably.

I think on those points we agree. Where I get confused, though, in your essay is where you go once you've demonstrated the "fictionality" of gender. You say, first, that "facts" are personal, determined by individual experience. But then you suggest that we might reconceive gender (on the model of how David Shields and Lewis Hyde reconceive property) "as a shared source rather than as an individual creation.” Can you explain to me the relation between these two claims? (Real question! Please respond!)

You also go on to say that people might be "grouped together in different ways without them being manipulated by a social construct." I think I also don't understand what you mean there. Isn't the act of grouping ALWAYS a social construct? (I can't imagine an alternative, so please tell me!)

You end by saying that "categories are needed in most cases, such as foods," but not for people: "When it comes to the human being there is no limit to what or who what we are...the 'fact' about sex and gender is that there is none." Well, I'd like to talk those claims through w/ you also: what would you say to a counter-argument claiming that there are limits on who we can be (and on our gender expression)? Or to another, that it's not that there is "no sex and gender," but rather that the options (and optional categories to put them in are (nearly) infinite?

For a recent, local on-line discussion of this topic, see the archive from the Senior Seminar on Biology in Society: "She's a woman": "Fact" or....? And for a recently reported international example of the social construction (=fictionality!) of gender, see Facing Social Pressures, Families Disguise Girls as Boys in Afghanistan.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
3 + 4 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.