Sex as a social construct

I had a lot of people click on the hyperlink I provided on my last long-form post in support of the claim that what is commonly referred to as “biological sex” is itself still a social model, and one that is often taught at an incomplete level at most public education institutions. Since I take the disproportionately large number of clicks to be an implicit interest in the idea, I’ve decided to signal boost another argument that explores this further. This is an oldie-but-goodie from Alex, a former FTB blogger:

A framework, not a fact

In her monologue above, Milinovich actually gives four criteria (by my count) for male/female sex determination.

  • Chromosomes: ‘[A] male has XY chromosomes and female, XX’.
  • Penis/vagina: ‘A male mammal has a penis . . . a female mammal has a vagina’.
  • Other sex organs: ‘A male mammal has . . . seminal vesicles, a prostate gland; a female has a . . . cervix, uterus, oviducts’.
  • Secondary sex characteristics: ‘size, vocal cartilage and musculature’, ‘a female mammal has . . . mammary glands’, a male facial hair, etc.

A longer, fuller list could look like this:

  • Chromosomes (XX/XY)
  • Penis/vagina
  • Gonads (testes/ovaries)
  • Other sex organs: seminal vesicle, prostate gland/oviducts, Skene’s gland, cervix, uterus
  • Secondary sex characteristics: facial hair, greater height and breadth, deeper voice/wider hips, breasts, etc.
  • Gametes: sperm production/menstruation
  • Hormone levels: high testosterone, low oestrogen/high oestrogen, low testosterone

Milinovich runs those traits she does name together, suggesting a male necessarily has XY chromosomes and a penis and a prostate gland and seminal vesicles and a distinct build and a deeper voice (her blog adds sperm production to this list) – that biological maleness requires all ‘male’ features to be present. Especially with others in the mix like those above, this co-presence is far from reliable.

Chromosomes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling details in Sexing the Body, can’t be relied on as indicators of the other traits here – sets exist beyond XX and XY, as do humans in whom both are found and outwardly ‘female-bodied’ people with the latter. Anatomy comes in endless combinations, such that estimates of ‘ambiguous’ sets’ commonness vary wildly, with some as high as one in twenty-five (John Money, cited in Fausto-Sterling’s work). Bodies with the ‘wrong’ features – height, hair, breast tissue, Adam’s apples – are common. Everyone preadolescent, postmenopausal or otherwise infertile is sexless judging by sperm and ova. Hormones, like most of these attributes, can be altered at will.

When not all these tests are passed, which overrule which? Milinovich describes people with ‘female’ anatomy and XY chromosomes as male, for example – suggesting, confusingly, that she doesn’t think maleness requires physical traits. What reason is there to choose genes rather than body parts when diagnosing sex, and not vice versa? In practice, things tend to go the other way: medics who judge a foetus’s sex via ultrasound, for instance, do so only by identifying outer sex organs, and I know nothing about my chromosomes, interior sex organs, hormones or fertility. The fact (or assumption) I have a penis is seen as enough, most of the time, to classify my sex as male, but why should it outweigh these unknown factors?

It’s common enough for adult cisgender men – deemed male at birth, with bodies read straightforwardly that way – not to grow facial hair. I know two or three who don’t; so probably do you. This isn’t seen to affect their physical sex. Why then, barring blunt intuition, should the absence of a penis? We can argue facial hair is only a secondary sex characteristic, and penises a primary one, but this relies itself on defining sex by reproductive role: the logic is circular. From that standpoint, moreover, why not make testes the sole determinant, so people possessing them and a vulva were ‘males’? Testes have, after all, the more distinct and self-contained function of sperm production. A penis, being a shell for the urethra, is just another pipe among the plumbing – we’ve no grounds except cultural ones to treat it differently from a vas deferens. So why is it more necessary for ‘maleness’?

Milinovich calls sex a static, stubborn fact, then moves inconsistently between ideas (see above) about what it is. If she herself can’t pick a definition, what does this suggest?

Sex is a framework, not a fact – a means of interpreting biology, but not a part of it. Of course menstruation, chromosomes and so on aren’t social constructs, but the argument isn’t over their existence, it’s over what they mean. That’s not about empirical reality. Vaginas are as real as Pluto is; defining them as female is like defining Pluto as a planet, a question of inscription not description.

Alex is quite humble in estimating his own ability, but he’s nailed it.



  1. says

    It seems to me that gender is a ‘vague concept’ [vagueness] which implies that we should re-litigate it for every case, in every situation. But, more interestingly, that assessment takes place in two places, which don’t necessarily agree. That puts it in the realm of consensus reality, which is a nice way of saying “unreality” if we’re not meeting the consensus.

    Being a heteronormative/white/cis/male I never had “any reason” (i.e.: it had no impact on me) to question my own gender or normativity – I guess that’s the point. But I don’t see why so many people are so uncomfortable about how other people experience the world. Preconceptions, how do they work?

  2. Siobhan says


    It seems to me that gender is a ‘vague concept’ [vagueness] which implies that we should re-litigate it for every case, in every situation.

    To some extent and depending on context, that is already what happens. It technically happens to everyone, but trans people–and trans women especially, due to the confluence of femmephobia, misogyny, male-bias in perception, and transphobia–are more likely to encounter it. Zinnia Jones writes about it in depth here:

    Trans people already have our genders thoroughly litigated, whether we care for it or not. This is what makes the trans-antagonistic strains of feminism so exhausting to deal with when one is the subject of their phantasms. I’m not sure I’d want *more* litigation as the solution. I’d rather people just accept self-identification at face value, because that would account for a pretty decent portion of trans folk’s oppression.

  3. says

    Well yes, all of our concepts and beliefs are constructs. We piece our understanding together, and our understanding is the “map”, not the “territory”.

    And (I suspect) the word “social” is thrown in there because that’s the kind of constructs that sociologists study, and somehow, socially, that’s how the idea spread to you, and now is part of your construct about constructs :P

  4. Siobhan says

    @Brian Pansky

    your construct about constructs

    Epistemology? :P

    Anyway it might seem obvious to you but there’s literally an entire strain of feminism dedicated to upholding said social construct like a religion, so obviously some people don’t have it figured out.

  5. says

    It’S important to remember that the distinction between sex and gender is a fairly recent one in and on itself and that also most of our cherished beliefs about men, women and sex are pretty new as well.
    Nobody in the middle ages gave a lot of thoughts about genitals. While they were used to categorise people, they were also seen as a expression of being a man or a woman, something that god decided.
    Chromosomes are a very recent discovery and most people don’t know much about theirs.
    So, most people don’t know shit about their chromosomes, genitals are usually hidden*, but tell me again about how they are the defining criteria.

    *Today I had a special teacher training session about a project to raise LGBTQ awareness in schools. They talked about the methods they use and one is to let groups students colour in “a typical man” and “a typical woman”. Interesting observation is that while women typically get drawn with a long dress and long hair, men get drawn naked with a big dick….

  6. brucegee1962 says

    Good points, Giliell.

    Also, ask historians “How common was it for girls to run away from home and live their entire lives passing as men?” and they’ll say “we have absolutely no idea.” We know of a few cases because the runaway joined the military, a profession where it’s likely that at some point a doctor will examine you when you’re unconscious. But how many chose safer professions like tanners and coopers and brewers?

    Of course, we do know from Shakespeare that women passing as men was a topic much on peoples’ minds…

  7. Florian Blaschke says

    “According to Barbara Kerr and Karen Multon, many parents would be puzzled to know ‘the tendency of little children to think that it is their clothing or toys that make them boy or girl.'”

    I’ve also heard that little children tend to think that their parents had arbitrarily decided their gender, according to the parents’ personal preferences. I suspect that typically changes when they have little siblings, as they learn that some children have penises and others not and make the connection.

  8. says

    I’m not sure I’d want *more* litigation as the solution. I’d rather people just accept self-identification at face value, because that would account for a pretty decent portion of trans folk’s oppression.

    I apologize; I wasn’t clear. I do not favor re-litigating anyone – when dealing with vague concepts I think it’s best to accept the person who’s involved’s judgement always.

    If I say “I am bald” I do not expect you to try to argue me out of it. It’s a vague concept and it’s part of my self-definition and it’s not appropriate for anyone to try to re-litigate my assessment. Accept it, and move on. (I used that example because I actually appear to have a lot of hair. But if I tell you I’m bald, I expect you to accept it, right?)

    The only way to reduce the argument is to accept others’ assessments about themselves. I’m comfortable doing that regarding others’ choice of bathrooms (as long as they don’t pee on the seat) or sexual partners or politics or whether or not they like The Ramones. It’s always seemed a bit perverse to me that there are so many people so concerned about others’ sexuality. But that’s certainly my privilege talking.

  9. says

    I think Florian is trying to add that it’s not “obvious” and “natural” that penises and vulvae make boys and girls, that children have a more performative understanding of gender (and sex) which is then systematically corrected by the cis world.