If Sex is Real, How Come I Haven’t Had Any in Ages?

Wordcloud with keywords from the text like "words, how do they work"Of course, you can all see what I did there. Instead of using the meaning “collection of properties of the body usually labelled “male” or “female” ” I used the meaning “having sexual intercourse” and made a bad joke about it, swapping one flawed and socially constructed meaning for another, and everybody got the joke, even if you don’t find it funny. Yet many transphobes suddenly act like language works in a completely different way once we’re talking about sex and gender, insisting that while gender may be socially constructed, sex isn’t, and that people who are saying that sex is socially constructed as well are claiming that sex isn’t “real”.

Now, I could forgive that confusion in somebody who has never thought about how language works. For somebody with little or no background in the relevant fields it’s kind of intuitive: we can easily see how “femininity” and “masculinity” change through place and time and therefore accept that gender is socially constructed, but dicks and pussies are basically the same and babies are made the same way across the globe (except, of course, when they aren’t but bioethics in repro medicine is a topic for another day) and conclude that sex is biologically constructed. But it’s also intuitive that the sun moves around the earth because that’s what i see every day.

It’s of course much less forgivable when the people spouting such nonsense are college professors, journalists and authors, i.e. people whose jobs are words. Words do have meanings, precisely the ones we agree upon as a society. 19th century British people had a different agreement on what “gay” means than we have today, which confused the hell out of  your resident non native speaker when reading Frankenstein in college. At one point I had to admit that I was mistaken about at least one thing: either early 19th century Brits were really cool with homosexuality and the history books had lied to me, or that the word didn’t mean what I thought it means (inconceivable!).

You won’t get a biologist and a farmer to agree upon what a berry is, but transphobes want us to believe that “male” and “female” sex are two immutable definitions set in stone at the dawn of time (by whom exactly?) with no input from pesky humans with their flawed reasoning and changing horizon. Now, I won’t go into the historical construction of sex (just as a spoiler: the Christian worldview used to be very occupied with souls, regarding the body as a mere temporary vessel), but usually when pressed on the point, transphobes will say something about “chromosomes”, which most of us don’t know anyway, or organs like penises and vaginas and uteri, which most of us do know, but if that was all there was to the construct “sex”, then we wouldn’t need it (spoiler, we actually don’t need it) because then saying “this person has x genital” would be enough, though usually seen as a tad impolite. But then there’s this bazillion of other things that get typically lumped in the category of sex, like the shape and the size of tits, beard or no beard (my gran’s care timetable had a timeslot for “shaving”…), to such inconsequential things like “jaw shape”. And from what I know, trans people are very acutely aware of all those physical properties of their bodies. None of them denies having a certain physiology (though it’s really, really creepy how obsessed and intrusive transphobes are when it comes to the genitals part). But that physiology can be more accurately described with the more precise words. Because the word “sex” is not. It often includes things that are inconsequential (jaws, shoulders), or vary greatly within the population (tits, beards, height), have many variations (intersex folks) or are simply not observed (chromosomes). Sure, it serves as a handy shorthand, and in colloquial talk it will often be enough, but as soon as we are having deeper conversations, the terms need to be defined more precisely. So no, sex isn’t real, just like unicorns, but bodies are, while magical white horses with horns are not.


  1. anat says

    The more some people insist on identifying ‘sex’ with genitals (at time of birth, of course) the more my internal response tends to be ‘why do you care? are you some kind of creep?’

  2. says

    Sex is, of course, real. But that does not mean that it is binary, or that it has any integer number of nice and clear-cut categories. It has two major categories that are the biological basis for our reproduction as mammalian species, but not every single individual falls into those two main categories.

    Language is an excellent tool for communication, but it has its limitations. Distinct words are poorly equipped for describing graduations. How many colors are there really in a rainbow? Precisely?

    It is important to not lose sight of the fact that words are tools to describe reality, they do not define it. Therefore they will always fall short of describing it perfectly in all its nuances.

    Also, just because something is real does not preclude it from being a social construct too. Race, gender, sex -- those are real things. They are also social constructs. Just as nations, governments, and money.

  3. says

    As I usually say, the Mississippi River is a social construct. That doesn’t mean that you cannot drown in it or get eaten by gators.
    As you yay, Charly, words describe reality, they don’t define it, they can only be more or less precise. Everybody who has ever written a scientific paper knows that and it’s why you have to spend a lot of time on defining your terms first.

  4. voyager says

    The people who insist on precise terms of definition, generally want to be exclusionary, and they are not open to having their world-view changed

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