Concepts of sex and gender

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birdtiem
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Feb 28 2019 09:31
Concepts of sex and gender

I don't come on libcom often and frankly don't have a lot of mental energy to type up a long post delving into all of the aspects of this question. I'm pretty confident in my political outlook in general. Except where it concerns conceptions of sex and gender and their relationship to one another.

Let me say off the bat that I absolutely regard trans people as the gender they identify with (and support their right to be legally recognized as that gender). I am opposed to the bigotry (and shitty politics more generally) of TERFs, and I am really sorry if raising this issue makes people here - particularly trans people - uncomfortable. But this is a complicated, convoluted subject and I think that makes open discussion about it all the more important.

Part of the reason I bring this up is because I look around and see a lot of people with shitty, bigoted, and often openly right-wing politics who, on a couple questions only, make arguments that I actually feel are accurate, and that worries me! Of course, a libertarian communist can be an atheist, and the fact that racist 'New Atheist' types would agree on that one particular point doesn't mean that there is any broader agreement. But still, it makes me pretty concerned that I could be missing something in my view on this. What I'm talking about specifically is the conception of sex as an immutable biological characteristic. I don't see how this particular piece of information is not - in and of itself - accurate. It is a distinction between gametes that is applicable to the vast overwhelming majority of sexually reproducing organisms*... This is something very different from 1) gender roles, which are human-specific sets of behavioral norms/expectations socially prescribed on the basis of sex, and 2) gender identity, which is... well...complicated.. I guess that latter point is at the heart of my discomfort around this issue. I am skeptical that 'gender identity' is something that exists innately in humans, rather than something that is bound up with social roles connected to the sexual division of labor and social stratification that arose with the transition to agriculture...

Anyway, I hope people will take this post in good faith. And, oh look, despite saying I wouldn't, I went ahead and typed a textwall. Sorry for the long read.

*Re the thing about the arguments around the definition of 'sex' and the line of argument I find myself in agreement with despite finding the people often taking that view to be absolute scum, there's a thread on twitter that is a good example of what I am referring to. Here is a link if you're interested: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1100155220301094913.html

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darren p
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Feb 28 2019 11:36

Sex is biological and gender roles are social. Is that what you are saying? Seems like something that should be uncontroversial to me.. Otherwise we are getting into Humpty Dumpty territory.

Though, admittedly, this isn't something I have read much about - Twitter and Youtube are really bad places to get decent analysis. There's some starters here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-gender

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R Totale
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Feb 28 2019 13:36

I guess the question I'd ask is: does it matter? Like, if we agree to use "gender" to mean all social constructs related to this subject, and "sex" as something different, then... I'm not really sure what the purpose is served by arguing about what sex is? Like, to me the point where it gets dodgy is when people say "sex" is this or that biological characteristic, and then start saying "sex" for things when they obviously mean gender, as with "sex-based protections" and so on. But if you're not making that move, and agreeing to treat all questions about how we define someone socially, how they're treated, what spaces they have access to etc as being questions of gender, then I'm not really sure what consequences follow on from defining sex one way or another. Does that make sense?

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darren p
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Feb 28 2019 15:48
R Totale wrote:
Like, to me the point where it gets dodgy is when people say "sex" is this or that biological characteristic, and then start saying "sex" for things when they obviously mean gender, as with "sex-based protections" and so on.

I'm not sure if something like this is what you had in mind, but I do think there is a valid case for making distinctions based on body-type in certain circumstances, regardless of gender, like in this case for example:

https://www.economist.com/briefing/2018/10/25/when-one-persons-right-is-...

Mike Harman
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Feb 28 2019 19:28

I think this is a good subject for a thread, I will try to keep an eye on it to stop it going off track too much...

I've read up on this a bit, only because of trying to understand arguments on twitter and etc. a bit better, do not have any background though so take all of this with a huge pinch of salt.

One article I found useful when trying to improve my understanding of sex and gender, was this article by an intersex person (who also transitioned from their assigned gender), which explicitly looks at the 'sex isn't a binary' stuff https://www.transadvocate.com/an-intersex-perspective-on-the-trans-inter...

The other case I've looked at a bit is Caster Semenya who has Hyperandrogenism - has been in the news a lot recently, but has been facing issues for about a decade.

The IAAF is trying to introduce testosterone limits for women's sports - this would force Semenya to take hormone suppressants in order to compete, even though hyperandrogenism is a completely natural condition. There are not such limitations for having bigger lungs, longer legs, higher haemoglobin production (can't find it to link now, but one high-performing athlete was found to have abnormally high haemoglobin levels) or other things that would give people a natural advantage over other athletes (or equally might not, compared to other physical attributes of other athletes).

Couple of articles here: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/caster-semenya-gold-rio-2016-inters...

https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/97/11/3902/2836438

I saw a twitter thread recently about testosterone. I can't find that, but I found this Wired article that is similar. Testosterone was one of the first ever hormones identified, and it was associated purely with maleness for decades (centuries? maybe if you include people doing weird shit with testicles before they knew what hormones were) - but both men and women produce it and require it. https://www.wired.com/story/testosterone-treatment-myth/

Another case where this becomes not a pure 'science' issue is medicalisation of intersex. There's been some articles recently comparing intersex surgery on babies to FGM. Teen Vogue has done an explainer: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/intersex-genital-mutilation And this makes the FGM comparison explicit https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789004358829/B9789004358829_009.xml

The thread you linked seems to mostly just wave away intersex conditions as a tiny number - the Intersex Campaign for Equality states a range between 1 or 2 in 2000 and 1.7% - based on differing definitions of intersex (i.e. intersex is not purely visually ambiguous genitalia, and it can go undiagnosed at birth when it isn't) https://www.intersexequality.com/how-common-is-intersex-in-humans/

Now a range between 0.01% and 1.7% is small (although 1.7% is not that small), but the sex being a strict binary or spectrum seems for me to hinge on whether intersex is a medicalised abnormality or a natural variation.

More numbers in this article. https://oiieurope.org/recent-study-frequency-genital-surgeries-children-...

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jef costello
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Feb 28 2019 20:43
Quote:
What I'm talking about specifically is the conception of sex as an immutable biological characteristic. I don't see how this particular piece of information is not - in and of itself - accurate. It is a distinction between gametes that is applicable to the vast overwhelming majority of sexually reproducing organisms

It is, to an extent, accurate, but it is in that sense meaningless as well. If you strip out everything apart from the simple biology then this is correct, as long as you ignore all the biological variations. I don't see why the biological aspect (especially as it doesn't support a deterministic binary) has much relevance unless it is being used to make a deterministic argument.

It would be like arguing that there are no differences between white and black people's experience of society because both groups can have blue eyes.

I don't know what it is that makes a person trans, I don't think I really need to know. Someone is trans, that's it really.

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darren p
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Mar 1 2019 10:21

The sex gender debate is concerned with more than just transgender issues. And intersex isn't transgender, of course, so I'm not sure if anything hangs on it in that regard. On sex as a spectrum I found this article by Julian Baggini quite illuminating:

Julian Baggini wrote:
We are right to see that there are spectrums of gender and sexuality rather than discrete categories. But the existence of a spectrum does not make the use of such categories redundant. There is a spectrum between red and orange, for example, but most of the time it makes perfect sense to talk of red and orange as two distinct colours.

[...]

The same applies to gender. Those who would rather do away with categories of male and female are therefore rejecting one binary choice while unwittingly assuming another: that we must choose between thinking in terms of absolutes or spectrums, because if gender is on a spectrum it never makes sense to use binary distinctions at all.

This misses the fact that while there are infinite shades of grey, most of us are merely slightly off-white or not quite solid black.

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/philosophy/gender-is-not-a-binary-nor...

Mike Harman
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Mar 1 2019 10:43
darren p wrote:
The sex gender debate is concerned with more than just transgender issues. And intersex isn't transgender, of course, so I'm not sure if anything hangs on it in that regard. On sex as a spectrum I found this article by Julian Baggini quite illuminating:

Except the OP is specifically about whether sex (as opposed to gender) can be considered a spectrum. The question often comes up in discussion of trans issues, but it's a distinct question.

Baggini's article is not bad and boils down to the following:

1. On anything where there's a spectrum, most people fall into easily recognisable categories on that spectrum.

2. Social constructs are real. i.e. just because something is a social construct, doesn't mean it's imaginary - social constructs like gender, race, nation have real material effects on society, you can't pretend they aren't there, rather you have to fight against those social structures.

birdtiem
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Mar 2 2019 13:40

I think my original post was about a couple different things, and probably they were muddled together, partly because they are interrelated and partly because I'm just freaking mentally exhausted.

There was the idea of biological sex as a pretty simple scientific category (which I think is a lot more sound than arguments in some circles that it is a spectrum). And then there was a sort of skepticism of the concept of 'gender identity' as something innate, although I probably didn't lay out this latter question very explicitly.

I just know that, for me, being a woman is a question of biological sex and the social classification/socialization I have experienced all my life as a result of my biological sex - nothing more. It has nothing to do with any kind of innate alignment between who I am internally and 'femininity' (however defined); it has no deeper significance at all, in fact. And so what I am expressing is also a sort of skepticism about the idea of gender identity as some kind of universal experience that exists independently of patriarchal gender roles and gendered socialization...

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Ed
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Mar 6 2019 11:45

So, this article came out on the Guardian today written by an academic specialising in the science behind sex and gender. It's very readable and seems relevant to this discussion, particularly this bit:

Quote:
For decades, sports governing bodies have sought a single biological criterion by which to exclude certain some women from the female category; yet the idea of a true sex is mistaken, and tries to make something incredibly complex seem simple and binary. The latest effort claims that gonads – and the testosterone they have a role in producing – as the key factor in what constitutes a “biological male”. But to reduce sex to a single trait is to profoundly mischaracterise decades of research into sex biology. The science is clear: there is no single physiological or biological marker that allows for the simple categorisation of people as male or female. Gonads were once thought to define one’s sex. In the 1800s. By the 1950s scientists had identified at least six markers of sex: chromosomes, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia and internal genitalia. While these markers may align along a female-typical or male-typical path, that’s not always the case.

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darren p
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Mar 6 2019 15:42
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...there is no single physiological or biological marker that allows for the simple categorisation of people as male or female....

But then there's no single physiological or biological marker that will categorize an individual organism as belonging to a particular species either. But that's not to say that species is a useless category, or that we cannot speak of species in a meaningful way. Or to take a non-biological example: there's no single simple factor that makes something a car or a non-car either. (If I remove the wheels and engine from my car is it still a car?). Are we not just running up against general problems with categories in general here? Pretty much everything is fuzzy around the edges once you start to think about it.

Mike Harman
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Mar 6 2019 17:36
darren p wrote:
Quote:
...there is no single physiological or biological marker that allows for the simple categorisation of people as male or female....

But then there's no single physiological or biological marker that will categorize an individual organism as belonging to a particular species either. But that's not to say that species is a useless category, or that we cannot speak of species in a meaningful way.

But when people say 'sex is a spectrum' they're not saying that male and female are useless categories, they're saying that there are grey areas between categories or whatever and that the way we determine those categories changes over time. Your example of species is a good one, because really what makes two closely related species, or genus or watever, different is socially constructed/a spectrum too - but I'm sure I've seen people say "You can't just say species are socially constructed??!?!?!?!".

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darren p
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Mar 6 2019 18:24
Mike Harman wrote:
there are grey areas between categories or whatever and that the way we determine those categories changes over time.

For sure. And you can't have categories without groups of people applying them and agreeing on how to apply them.

I guess the only kinds of people this is going to be controversial with are Jordan Peterson types...