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One Sex, Two Sex...More?

sarina's picture
My thoughts on sex and gender have been shifting throughout this course. When Paul Grobstein came to speak, I entered and left the classroom with the deep-set belief that there are two sexes, and two only. After thinking about it further, I’ve pondered about this idea, toying with the notion that perhaps there can be more than two sexes. Already I agree with the theory that gender is social and not always dependent on sex. Transgendered individuals struggle so much to switch genders that there must be some internal force pushing them to a gender different from their sex. No one would go through the ordeal of transitioning if there was no strong drive to do so, and therefore I must view sex and gender as occasionally independent.
This leaves the hypothesis of there being more than two sexes, despite what my rigorous education has taught me until now. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around this idea because of my high school biology courses and upbringing. Both my parents are scientists and when I was a child they showed me my karyotype (a picture of one person’s chromosomes), pointing out how I had two X’s, making me a girl. My father studies genomes, so this was not completely out of nowhere. Still, this memory stands out to me.
Despite my background, this class had led me to a few questions. As I’ve been told for so long, are there only two sexes, with some mistakes in between? Is intersex in between male and female, or something else entirely? How much does gender depend on sex? If there are only two sexes needed for human reproduction, how can there be more than this? If there are more than two sexes, is the entire concept of sex invalid, or does it mean there are more sexes? Should each form of intersexism should get its own label? We could have boxes for female, male, XXY, androgen insensitive, and every other syndrome or genetic variation on tax forms, passports, and anywhere else people indicate their sex.
Before my inquiry into this topic, I had heard of intersexuals under the term hermaphrodites. I vaguely remember reading an article in Time magazine (or perhaps it was the New York Times magazine) years ago and being so startled that someone could not clearly fit into one sex or another. The article described the struggles with having a baby whose sex is unclear, and I was surprised by how many complications intersexism can cause.
In the book “Hermaphrodites  and the Medical Invention of Sex,” the author Alica Domurat Dreger, among other topics, goes through the history of how intersexuals were always forced to fit into one sex or another, no matter their gender identity. This decision was made solely by doctors who studied their patients’ genitalia, internal organs, and sexual attractions, often with disregard to what gender the patient was living as. Dreger describes the case of “Sophie V.” a woman who had a small penis and no vagina (1). Only after visiting a doctor due to her inability to have sexual intercourse did Sophie find out about this condition. The doctor insisted to her that she was a man, no matter how she had lived her life previously or how she felt inside. In cases like this, sex is entirely created. For these intersex individuals, a sex was chosen for them. The categories of male and female clearly do not fit everyone if cases like this exist.
Picking a sex for adults like in the case of Sophie V. does not occur anymore as far as I know. However, for newborns this practice is holding strong in place. I was bothered by this sentence in Dreger’s book: “Today in the United States, for example, sex assignment is based largely on a concern for penis functionality in males and for reproductive functionality in females” (37). To me, this is a mix-up of sex and gender. I was appalled that babies were deemed male for sexual purposes (penis functionality implied potential for penetrative sex), and others were deemed female based only on their chances of reproduction. Men do more than have sex and women do more than have babies. Sex cannot be that inherent if its parameters have such a clear social base. Sex assignment is much more than a genetic test for intersex cases, unsettling my idea of the sex binary.
In only recognizing two sexes, there is an inherent guarantee that everyone will fit into one of the categories. For intersex individuals, this just isn’t always the case. Babies are forced to be male or female, only to occasionally grow up and feel like their sex was assigned incorrectly.
Despite these disturbing examples of arbitrary sex assignment, I still believe that sex cannot be a completely made up idea. Except in the case of a transgendered person who has not had sex-reassignment surgery on their genitals, only the combination of eggs from a fertile female and the sperm from a fertile male will make a new human being. The idea of humans as sexed organisms seems so logical when looked at from the point of view of reproduction. If the determination of sex only affected a person’s place in creating life, then perhaps it would not affect other parts of life as much.
However, a person’s role in reproduction influences their role in their family, and historically in culture as a whole. Even today, with women “liberated” from the constraints of the home, many women still choose their careers based on their desire to have children. Women must find a job that allows them to leave work to at least recover from birth, and some women also want to take a few years off to raise their offspring. Small numbers of men are taking time off to care for new children, but they will never have to medical necessity of doing so . In this way, the binary sex system (still current for the world) profoundly impacts life.
What about having more than two genders? I could see this actually working, except I don’t know how long it would take to get adapted into world culture. There could be male, female, and other categories with new names a lucky person would get to make up. I feel like there are non-intersexed people who would like to chose a new sex. Transgendered people would have less trouble if sex became as fluid as gender.
Where does intersexism fit in with feminism, a movement and idea founded solely on women’s rights? How does a world without the two-sex system fit into feminism? This depends on what definition of feminism one follows. My definition is the idea that someone should not be held back in life or discriminated against because of their gender. People should be considered and treated equally without regard to their gender or sex. Without sexes, I believe that feminism would not have a place anymore. Instead we will need new ideas of equality because surely people will be discriminated against for something else. Equalism could be the feminism of the future.
Now, after reading, research, and discussion, I take a different view than I did years ago (or in early September). Intersexism should be considered “natural”. I generally don’t like using the term natural because it usually implies goodness, ignoring the non-intentional evils of nature. Nature is not human, and does not care. Still, if I can accept having two sexes as part of a regular human order—as a natural phenomenon so to speak—then surely I can accept a genetic mutation that occurs all on its own, without purposeful prodding from anyone. Intersexism must be equally as valid as male or female, despite being a minority. Hopefully one day sex will be considered fluid, like gender is.


Anne Dalke's picture



what I appreciate most here is your willingness to think through, and to re-think, categories of thought that have guided you thus far. You've done additional reading and reflecting on the varieties of forms that human life might take, and what the implications of that diversity might be for the sorts of feminists we might want to be.

There is of course much more research you could do; if you are interested in reading further, you might look @ Joan Roughgarden's Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, and Anne Fausto-Sterling's "The five sexes: Why male and female are not enough," The Sciences (March-April 1993).

But back to what you have already done. Most striking to me is your analysis of the "mix-up of sex and gender" that occurs in sex assignments (which are "based on penis functionality in males and reproductive functionality in females"). But I was curious why, later in the paper, you claimed that "a person's role in reproduction influences...culture as a whole." Isn't that also "mixing up"sex and gender, making (the consequences of) sexual activity--which you suggest might require "a few years" of childrearing--a decades-long assignment? As Kessler and McKenna argue in "Towards a Theory of Gender" (which we read for last Thursday's class) "reproduction not a continuous fact of life"; why enforce a "lifetime dicotomy"?

I was also struck by your observation, in ending, that "Nature is not human, and does not care." There's much more to say about that, in terms of our default use of "the natural" (as you say) as an index to "the good." I look forward to further conversation on this topic--