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RachelBrady's picture


Senior Seminar in Biology and Society

September 15, 2009


Borghese Hermaphroditus, Louvre Museum

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."
Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex)


Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex (2002) focuses on the chronicle of forty-one-year-old, hermaphroditic Calliope Stephanides, which presents her multigenerational Greek-American family and her struggle to establish a clear sense of self. After opening with the story of her grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, and their subsequent union, Cal traces the damaged gene that this brother and sister passed down through the generations to Cal, which causes her gender irregularity. Cal weaves together the story of her grandparents and their descendents with her own, comparing the problems they faced in their efforts to reconcile their Greek heritage with their adopted U.S. culture to Cal's attempts to find balance between her female and male halves.


Caster Semenya, woman who rocked athletics world, 'is hermaphrodite'

           How Not to Solve Gender Dispute

What makes you male or female?

►Now you are a judge in the olympic games, how do you decide?

Chromosomal sex → Gonadal sex → Hormonal sex → Morphological sex - - → Behavioral sex

         î _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ î



 Diagram of Sex and Gender

(anatomy, chromosomes, hormones)
 male ------------------------- intersex --------------------- female
(psychological sense of self)
 man -------------------- two spirit/third gender ------------- woman
(communication of gender)
 masculine ------------------ androgynous ------------------- feminine
(romantic/erotic response)
 attracted to women -------- bisexual/asexual --------- attracted to men


Gender and Biology

 ►Fate of Genes

Pink Brain, Blue Brain

          The Promise and Peril of Same-sex Education


Percentage of students scoring proficient on the FCAT

boys in coed classes: 37% scored proficient

girls in coed classes: 59% scored proficient

girls in single-sex classes: 75% scored proficient

boys in single-sex classes: 86% scored proficient. 







Paul Grobstein's picture

follow up on olympics gender case

IOC panel calls for treatment in sex ambiguity cases NYTimes 20 Jan 2010

"Athletes who identify themselves as female but have medical disorders that give them masculine characteristics should have their disorders diagnosed and treated, the group concluded"

This seems to me not only to be missing the point but to be adding insult ... "disorders"?

Anne Dalke's picture

Open Conversation with Kate Bornstein

You and your classmates might be interested in this upcoming visit:

On Thursday, November 5, from 10-11:30 a.m., author, playwright and performance artist Kate Bornstein will be holding an "Informal Conversation about Transcending Gender" in the Quita Woodward Room @ Bryn Mawr. Sandwiches and drinks will be served.

You may have seen one of Kate's performances; you may have read one of her books--Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us; My Gender Workbook; or (most recently) Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives To Suicide For Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws. Or you may not have heard of her and her work. But here's your chance to talk with her about artistry and activism; about sex positivity, gender anarchy, and building a coalition of those who live on cultural margins. She's eager to hear your thoughts and questions.

Sponsored by the Bi-College Program in Gender and Sexuality and the Greater Philadelphia Women's Studies consortium.
Questions? Please contact Anne Dalke:

jrieders's picture

Just another complication- we

Just another complication- we learned in Genetics the other day that during Meiosis cross over occurs between the X Y in the pseudo autosomal region, which is right above the sry region on the Y chromosome which holds all the male sex genes. Very rarely the X and Y have cross over of the sry region, so that the male sex genes would end up on the X chromosome. This means that we could have an XX male, or an XY female.

Anna Dela Cruz's picture

The task of defining gender

The task of defining gender has been tough for me especially after taking Gender and Technology last semester. Looking back at students' thoughts on gender after having conversations on intersexuality in that class, it is evident that there are still disagreements in interpreting its meaning. These disagreements are summed up in an excerpt from that class:

In my retrospective of these collected thoughts, two notions oppose each other: that a "Y chromosome doesn't make someone male" and that "being female is to lack a Y chromosome". The latter rumination implies a chromosomal/biological root gender while the former transcends, perhaps, any biological cause for gender--that life experiences shape self-gender perceptions. Seeing that both life experiences and biology have influence over gender (as discussed in the seminar) I am now convinced that gender is "a socially/culturally constructed representation or performance, perhaps in harmony or at odds with one's biological sex".


Paul Grobstein's picture

biology/sex/gender: to explore further

Sundry thoughts from our conversation interspersed among comments below.  An additional issue that arose that seems to me very much worth some future exploration is that of a "continuum" in sex/gender.  Its clear that each of the multiple influences on sex/gender (genes, hormones, effects of experiences/culture, personal choice, etc) are multiple valued rather than two valued.  What's less clear is what happens when one takes account of all of them, does one get a sharply bimodal distribution or a more continuous, unimodal one? Do cultures tend to force individual sex/gender identities to the polar extremes?  I'd like to know more about the actual percentage of individuals with something other than XX and XY chromosomes, the percentage of individuals born with ambiguous genitalia for reasons other than chromosomal variation, the percentage of individuals born without ambiguous genitalia who feel anomolous sex/gender idendity, etc.  My guess is that such data would show a quite significant population between the poles of culturally defined male and female and a significant effect of culture in moving an otherwise less bimodal distribution to a more extreme bimodal one.

For more conversation on the sex/gender issue in general from a usefully different set of perspectives, see

jrlewis's picture

Found an interesting article

Found an interesting article in the New York Times about the genetics  and microbiology of sex determination.  It seemed to suggest a spectrum of disorders.  Some empirical evidence against a two-sex system...

Paul Grobstein's picture

sex/gender: individuals as mosaics

Yep, not only a spectrum among individuals but, more surprisingly/interestingly, a variation WITHIN individuals. 

jrieders's picture

animal sex, everyone's favorite topic

Julia told us a story about a female horse displaying male behavior (aggression, mounting) because it had abnormally high testosterone levels due to the tumor on it's ovaries. This is a convincing argument that hormones play a huge role in gender.
But as Pink Brain, Blue Brain points out, we too often assume just because one affect is seen in one species that it applies to other species. Some animals might have developed mechanisms that are more sensitive to hormone levels or allow hormone levels greater control.
In the book BONK by Mary Roach, she talks about how some female cows will mount and hump, some female monkeys will make the characteristic "male orgasm face", and many animals (such as pigs, cows, and horses, that are often artificially inseminated) are aroused by both males and females. Hormones must influence this behavior in part, but not in a naturally occurring way.
Is sex a special case when examining male and female behavior? Does sexual preference really play a strong role in gender?

jrlewis's picture

"we too often assume just

"we too often assume just because one affect is seen in one species that it applies to other species"

Good point.  Here's a counter example... It has been recognized that women living together will eventually all have the same menstrual cycle.  This is because of chemical signals called phermones that are emitted by all the women.  Mares living in the same barn or field will do the same thing.  What is interesting, is that one woman and two mares living in the same barn can sync up cycles.  This indicates that the pheromones are common across some species of mammals. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

sex/gender in animals, including humans

Yes, of course, there are differences between rats, horses, humans, and other animals, and so what is true of one may or may not be true of another. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence of lots of similarities.  And, in particular, there is substantial evidence for variation in human sex/gender experience/behavior with variation in hormonal status, both normally (menstrual cycles) and associated with various pathologies and treatments. 

On another note, people may, as Julia says, not pay attention to human sex/gender distinctions in some riding competitions, but they clearly pay attention to sex/gender distinctions among horses in others.  See Another sex dispute but this athlete has four legs.

ttruong's picture

Gender in sports, gender in society.

At the end of the discussion, I couldn't answer the question of what should be done to Semenya concerning her medals and being able compete in Olympic games. From a social standpoint she is a woman because that is what she feels best describes her as a person. However, from a practical standpoint within the context of gender-segregated sports, I think she is not a woman nor a man, as sports has described woman and man in the past. I think we can choose one way or the other, and it would still be fair, in so long that we are consistent with that decision henceforth. I concede that when we must make this distinction, especially with such limited knowledge, it can be arbitrary, but must be made for practical purposes nonetheless.

Outside of the clean cut distinctions of gender in sports, I like the idea of gradations of gender rather than two polarized categories. I have to think further to reconcile these two contradictory conclusions when they appear in different contexts. Although I'm not sure how the act of separating different intermediates would work in society, I think changing people's view about gender and enlightening them to the concept of intermediate sex will be a baby step forward in better understanding ourselves.

Paul Grobstein's picture

intermediate sex/gender and some additional baby steps?

How about we not only acknowlege intermediates but also that individuals may vary over time in their sex/gender identity and can legitimately exercise some personal choice with regard to it?

Lisa B.'s picture

Gender and Sports


The discussion of whether sports should be restructured without gender is unreasonable. Not only does this proposal aim to rewrite over two thousand years of sports history, but it also would inconvenience millions of athletes around the world. Sports are gendered to maximize potential from athletes, and not as an additional means to polarize the two genders. A failed experiment of women competing with men is Annika Sorenstam, the record holder for lowest round in LPGA Tour history with a 59. While on the men’s PGA tour, Sorenstam shot 71-75 and missed the cut. After this experience, she returned to the LPGA and is now considered one of the greatest women golfers ever. This experiment shows that, even though Sorenstam was probably the best women in the LPGA before her retirement in 2008, the other women in the LPGA were fair competition unlike her male competitors in the PGA tour.  


Paul Grobstein's picture

male/female in sports and beyond

I agree that rethinking sex/gender organization in sports would involve a significant rewrite of "sports history" and might well "inconvenience millions of athletes around the world" but don't think either or the two together is a strong reason not to do it.  Efforts to get "less wrong" (the abolition of slavery?) often both require a rewriting of history and inconvenience many people who have lived their lives by the status quo.  As for golf, there are lots of women who can't compete successfully with the best men and, conversely, lots of men who can't compete successfully with the best women.  I see that not as a reason to maintain a particular social categorization but rather as a reason to encourage people in general to opt to compete with others at a comparable level of achievement.  Why do we care who is "best"?

More generally, the issue for me isn't whether groups of people (ie athletic organizations or clubs or societies) decide they want to try and put people into two mutually exclusive categories but rather what arguments they use for doing so.  Like a number of other biologists, I don't think that biological observations support the notion that there is something "biological" or "natural" about the exclusive categories of men and women, and so doubt there can be/will ever be an adequate "biological" test to determine which one a given person is.   If people wanted to use the two categories for some other reasons, and can, based on those reasons, come up with an unambiguous test to designate the category into which any given individual belongs, I'd have no objection.  

Lisa B.'s picture

Profit is the reason we care who is best

Money generated from advertisements is the reason we care who is best. Sports depend on their star players to attract fans to pay for game tickets or boost ratings on television. The profit from these sales could then be used to hire additional coaches, draft or trade promising players, or update facilities. All of these improvements to sport provide the best competition between athletes, which I believe is the point to sports. 

jrieders's picture

Who to trust?

After reading these articles, I feel more confused than anything. Are the authors simply using the most available information or are they selecting for their argument? The Pink Brain, Blue Brain review was the most appealing to me because it promises to address issues like study size and how many times it has been replicated.
As discussed in The Promise and Peril of Same-sex Education one has to take into account that there are categories or continuums for sex and gender, even on a biological level. With that in mind, what conditions/categories should researches consider when designing an experiment? How are conclusions from research turned into something applicable to education, the work place, etc? How do educators utilize this information, knowing that they may be harming some individuals rather than helping?

Paul Grobstein's picture

sex/gender continua and their implications for research

If one acknowledges "continuums for sex and gender," it has some quite important implications for research.  Among them is that one can't start a study of sex/gender in relation to anything else by categorizing people as male and female at the outset.  This procedure significantly biases possible findings.