Social constructionism in sex


My inestimable colleague Crip Dyke reminded me that I’ve never justified the vocabulary I use in my writings on trans issues. In her post, “Every Other Trans Person is Wrong,” she explains that consensus is seldom achieved among minority communities, and yet this does not excuse inaction in the face of oppression on the part of majorities. It’s true–I couldn’t possibly hope to wrangle in the entirety of all trans people on the planet, but she is correct when she writes elsewhere that my word choices on trans issues are deliberate and calculated to achieve specific ends, despite the lack of universal agreement among those for whom the terms may apply. So today I’d like to show my work and demonstrate that calculation. I can’t form The Official Consensus of Teh Trans, but if you understand why I use the words that I do, you’ll be better equipped to respond to differences of opinion within the trans community, and thus the lack of apparent consensus may be less intimidating in your wish to materialize your good will towards trans folk into substantive action. (This post obviously assumes you have that good will. If you don’t, that’s a tirade for another day.)

Content Notice: I am going to invoke cissexism and endosex supremacy specifically as a means to discuss it. In addition there is a sex ed component where I show variations in genitalia in a non-sexualized fashion, but in our sadly unenlightened society that is nonetheless NSFW.

Perhaps most hotly disputed terminology in this conversation are the words commonly used in reference to the sex of a given body: male and female. You’ll notice if you go creeping through my archives that I seldom use these terms anymore without qualifiers, often attaching some kind of condition such as “perceived as” or “culturally understood to be” or “assigned.” The big turning point in the development of my feminist theory, and the work that inspired me to use these qualifiers, was Cristan Williams’ series called “Sexing the Body,” a development she wrote building from the works of Monica Wittig and Sandy Stone. While I recommend the series as a whole (as well as Sandy Stone in particular), there’s one particular passage that stood out to me as the final Jenga block which toppled the tower down. Every word is important, so I urge you to slow down and read it carefully: (emphasis added)

It is important to note that there is a difference between our (mental) contextualization of a physical phenomena and the physical phenomena itself. For instance, there is a difference between a sound and the mental contextualization of that sound. Contextualizationis the process of organizing data as being situationally and functionally interconnected to other concepts. In other words, depending on one’s experience, two people may hear the same sound differently. One person may hear the sound of a strange bird chirp while another might hear the resulting chirp of a car alarm becoming armed. In short, a sound is itself different than our understanding of that sound.

With this distinction between a physical phenomena and our mental contextualization of that physical phenomena in mind, recall that sex attributes and gender are different as well. A sex attribute is a physical phenomena while gender is our mental contextualization of that attribute – in all its myriad ways, both complex and nuanced – personally and collectively.  The thoughts we have about the body as a binary sex is gender.[1]

The terms we use to collectively group and therefore conceptualize sex are nuanced cultural artifacts. Sexing a body is different than having a body that has some male and/or female sex attributes. A lexical binary body labeling system has no existence independent of the human mind.  Yes, sex attributes really do exist; however, gender –the labeling of and inevitable contextualization of sex attributes – exist within the human mind. When we sex a body, we are mentally moving the totality of a human body into an intertextual binary.[2]

Socially, gender is the mental contextualization of a human body as a sex attribute which, consequently, must fit into a binary mold. Subjectively, gender is the sex labels we utilize, the emotional states and contextual memories associated with those labels, our mental embodiment of self as being related to those labels, the way we subjectively experience our body, the way we communicate – express – these understandings, our understanding of the way our society responds to these expressions and our awareness of the normative sex-designated cultural structures that are collectively reinforced.  ALL of this (and more) is how we mentally contextualize sex attributes, which is to say, how we do gender.

And this point is also captured in Williams’ Trans 101:

Socially, gender is the mental contextualization of a human body as a sex attribute which, consequently, must fit into a binary mold. Socially, we don’t simply note that each body has X number of male and/or female sexed attributes; instead, we contextualize the entire body itself as a sex attribute.

I want to emphasize the Earth-shattering revelation for baby feminist Siobhan here: We contextualize bodies as single sex attribute, rather than understanding all bodies to be the assembly of many attributes, of varying types and intensities. When I hear terminology like “born male” or “female” without qualifiers, I hear the re-ification of this reductionist thought–the idea that a body is one singular characteristic, contrary to the breadth of diversity in human biology, and contrary to the fact that we all gender every person we see based on a plethora of different properties.

But let’s apply this concept:

Source: Generic bimodal graph, Wikipedia.

How convenient in a post about gender that the generic bimodal distribution on Wikipedia features pink and blue!

Let’s pretend the x-axis is “quantity of estrogen in the blood” and the y-axis is the quantity of people who have that amount of estrogen. In reality, the distribution would be multi-modal on the right half of the graph because of menstrual cycles, but the general principle is good enough for us.

We are in the realm of empirical facts if we point at one subject and say “you had 40 pg/mL of estrogen in your blood on the day we took your sample.” However, if that is the only information we have about the subject, we don’t actually know anything about that person’s sex. 40 pg/mL of estrogen is above average for men and below average for women, but it is not atypical for women to have that quantity during the mid-follicular phase of menstruation. Per our above graph, 40 pg/mL would be somewhere in that ambiguous pink-blue range. So while we can point at a particular subject and say what quantity of estrogen they have on this particular day, there is nothing in the bimodal distribution to arbitrarily separate that outcome from the rest. To point at one section on this distribution and name it “female” has ceased to be an empirical fact, and started to become a social one–we are deliberately creating that sharp division where none in the data actually exists, because the distribution is truly continuous.

The distinction didn’t exist before hand, we had to create it.

Imagine if one of the men in our experiment gets a surprising result and learns that he has 120 pg/mL of estrogen in his blood. Socially, per Williams’ observations, we aren’t going to suddenly stop calling him a man, just because that quantity is more typical in women. Similarly if a woman gets her mid-follicular measurement and finds out that she’s only got 5 pg/mL, we aren’t going to stop calling her a woman. While assholes in either scenario may take the measurement to be an indication of “suspect” fe/maleness, they are still being compared as if their body possessed a singular sex characteristicIn other words, we’re not typically telling the man he has “female blood” and “male everything else,” we’re instead often saying he’s still male, with “male-atypical” blood, and all of that could only be defined in relation to the line we draw over our data. There’s nothing in the data to necessitate this distinction: We must carve the graph into pieces for this to even be possible. In Williams’ words, the division between these two modes of distribution is a way of organizing the data, a mental contextualization of the data, but it isn’t the data itself. In that sense, a man may or may not continue to be a man depending on his estrogen result, but this dispute, if it occurs, is not over whether he has 120 pg/mL of estrogen (the empirical or “brute” fact), but rather the dispute is over what having 120 pg/mL of estrogen “means” (the social fact).

And this, friends, is what I mean when I state that “biological sex is still socially constructed.” These disputes are far from hypothetical–yours truly must respond to an entire brand of politics that is defined at its core by carving these graphs into pieces (typically two AND ONLY TWO!1 pieces). The borders are “written in crayon,” to borrow Marcus’ turn of phrase, but water flows downhill regardless of which nation is said to “own” it:

What I am saying is that one of the ways that people justify oppressing people of any alternative gender or sexuality is by saying that the social norm is natural. That is, it originates in the authority of Nature itself. In other words, it comes from god, an authority to which to appeal. All of this is, in fact, a complete fabrication, a construction. There is no ‘natural‘ sex, because ‘sex’ itself as a medical or cultural category is nothing more the momentary outcome of battles over who owns the meanings of the category.  There is a great deal wider variation in genetics than most people except geneticists realize, but we make that invisible through language. The way we make it invisible through language is by having no words for anything except male and female. One of the ways our culture erases people is by not having words for them. That does it absolutely. When there’s nothing to describe you, you are effectively invisible.

– Sandy Stone, 1995

This then nicely segues into why I prefer describing sex (as in bodies, not the activity) as a process of assignment, as opposed to some kind of a priori truth.

The basis on which your sex was declared was your genitalia. Nowadays it is more likely to get the first visual inspection with the help of an ultrasound much earlier than birth, but whether via ultrasound or after birth it is what is observed between your legs that informs the doctor’s decision as to which box to check, M or F. However, that does not mean the two AND ONLY TWO genital configurations exist. As was the case with hormones, the attributes of genitalia are many, and if mapped also compose a bimodal distribution.

Lots of people received little or no sex education, so I’ll give you the textbook version I received.

In textbook females: The vulva consists of a bigger set of lips on the exterior called the labia majora. Tucked inside the labia majora is a second set of lips called the labia minora. The actual canal between them is the vagina. Above the vagina and between either set of labia is the urethra, and above that the a small button called the clitoris.

In reality:

The labia majora may or may not be bigger than the labia minora. The labia minora may or may not be smaller than the labia majora. The clitoris may or may not be a button, it may be positioned more between one labia than the other, it may not even be immediately obvious. I blame the abysmal state of sex education for most people not realizing this, but all the structures we call vulvae and vaginas and clitorises and labia do not necessarily look the same between people who have them, even if we use the same vocabulary to describe them. There is nothing about this that supports it being the “off” position in an on/off switch–this, too, would be a normal distribution if we mapped it.

The same is true of penises. There will be varieties in testes symmetry as well as length and girth of the penis itself. The glans can take on all sorts of shapes. The urethral opening can develop with a fair bit of vertical variation as to where it ends up. How big the bulb is in relation to the shaft can vary. As with vulvae, these attributes would map to a normal distribution, with some traits being more common than other, but still a wide variety of traits that are possible.

And what do two normal distributions with different averages look like when you mash them together?

Source: Generic bimodal graph, Wikipedia.

The possibilities of genital development are well and truly far more varied than most people realize. In the middle of this graph, we have intermediate development outcomes. Though often characterized by the anti-trans types as a “distraction” from the issue, the possibility of intersex development brings us to the same place as our hormone exercise: Establishing that a wide variety of possibilities exist, and that to assign ownership of some possibilities and not others requires us to carve up the graph–or, tragically in the case of many intersex newborns, carve up the child without their consent to move their place on the graph. But the boundaries are something we have to impose after the fact, the “momentary outcome of battles” described in Sandy Stone’s work, as the data refuses to cleft itself in twain. There exists nothing from the air from which we can pluck a line that demarcates the end of male and the beginning of intersex, or the end of intersex and the beginning of female. Those lines are drawn. Drawn around chromosomes (still bimodal, btw), drawn around torsos (“chest” vs. “breast”), drawn around your body fat distribution (hour glass vs. upside down pyramid), drawn around your face (round vs. sharp), drawn around your hair (present vs. absent), and drawn around dozens of other things people are far more likely to notice about you other than your genitalia.

Of course the terminology I use is “assigned sex at birth.” This temporal constraint is also important. There are many assumptions made about your later adult body that are made upon the cursory examination of your newborn body, but not all of them will come true. You could, for example, intercept those assumptions by transitioning, as I have. Or it could simply be by luck of the draw that your particular set of genetics under- or over-play some of those assumptions. Or you could in fact be defined as intersex by the medical establishment later on in your life while also being assigned a binary sex at birth. The temporal element matters because we are not simply an assembly of characteristics that exist, we are also an assembly of characteristics that move through time and change. The characteristics do not cease to be real because some of us have induced this change willingly. It is only what the characteristics mean that remains in dispute.

It is these observations that better encapsulate conceiving of sex as something you are assigned. The many aspects of your biology were not likely litigated to determine where in the bimodal distribution each of your attributes fall. Your sex was not determined through a careful measurement of these qualities, totaled and summed and mapped on a grid, “oh, you are right of the line, so you are female.” You certainly were not asked for your opinion. All that mattered in that momentary battle was what the shape of the flesh between your legs meant to those around you. If the crayon boundaries did not exist, you would just be you, with the specifics and needs pertinent to your body, an assembly of diverse traits, in possession of a constellation rather than a single star. Instead you are given a destiny by a cruel god, a permanent brand by which you are exclusively described for the rest of your life (at least by those bereft of curiosity), an orbit that you must obey, this utterly manufactured condition thrust upon you by forces beyond your control. An assignment, given to you at birth, and due at the end of time.

And that is why I think it is reductive to think of sex as a singular thing that we are, and why I avoid phrases like “born fe/male” in favour of assigned fe/male at birth (or intersex, if the medical establishment ever pulls its collective head out of its collective asses). Given how the lives of intersex folk and transgender folk are so heavily shaped by the dispute over the meanings of these characteristics, it would be negligent to deny that these conflicts arise from perfectly changeable ideas held by others. “Male” or “female” without qualifiers makes gender and sex sound as if it were as inevitable as gravity rather than the entirely editable borders drawn in crayon that they really are.

-Shiv

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