I keep seeing these naive pop culture simplifications of sex and gender — it’s all about gametes, or Y chromosomes, or hormone titers. It’s all about finding the one magic criterion that defines the unambiguous binary that certain people want. It’s the opposite of good science. You should be looking at the evidence to see that sex is messy and complicated and defies reduction to the state of a single variable.
It’s a relief, then, to look at the actual scientific literature and see that scientists working in the field all pretty much agree — it’s not a simple binary. So here’s an article by real, genuine, qualified neuroendocrinologists declaring that they’re fed up with the notion of a simple binary. It’s titled Deconstructing sex: Strategies for undoing binary thinking in neuroendocrinology and behavior by Massa, Aghi, and Hill. It’s also behind a paywall, goddamn it, but at least I have access. Here’s the introduction, which is pretty strong.
Neuroendocrinologists have long known that “sex” is a specious category. Much of our research relies on identifying mechanisms that produce differences in brain morphologies and behaviors, including how factors like hormones, chromosomes, and life experiences differences across “the sexes.” This work makes evident that “sex” is not a biologically coherent concept (Karkazis, 2019; Roughgarden, 2013) but is instead a constructed category reliant on several biological criteria that do not always align (Ainsworth, 2015). However, research across the biomedical sciences regularly treats “sex” as a single, internally consistent variable. And even while recognizing that “sex” is multifaceted and dynamic, even neuroendocrinologists often collapse the multiplicity (Karkazis, 2019) by selecting a single trait to sort research subjects and specimens into sex categories – a practice that obscures relevant physiologies and precludes the possibility of more specific (and more accurate) analyses.
While its shortcomings are well-established, “sex” remains deeply entrenched in our field. Scientists seeking to adopt more nuanced frameworks must contend with the limitations of existing resources, methods, and practices, much of which rely on binary (or otherwise simplistic) sex categorization. To encourage support for this paradigm shift, we first delineate how reliance on gross “sex” categories damages scientific knowledge and leads to harm of marginalized communities. We then examine how current policies may exacerbate these problems before providing reflective questions to help scientists critically examine the use of “sex” across the scientific enterprise. These questions, supported by a litany of neuroendocrine research, encourage researchers to conceptualize and study sexed physiologies as multiple, interacting, and variable. Furthermore, as an extension of discussions held during the SBN 2022 Symposium on Hormones and Trans Health, our guidance challenges researchers to break free of gendered preconceptions and conduct research which centers the impact, direct or indirect, on marginalized groups. We believe this critical reflection and scientific reorientation is vital to improve our science, widen the applicability of our findings, and deter the (mis)use of our research against marginalized groups.
This is what I’ve been saying all along, so obviously I agree with it. The authors go on to point out that sex is a multi-dimension category, not a simple variable.
“Sex” is a constructed category, not a biological variable – and our science should reflect that. Deconstructing “sex” and moving away from reductive approaches requires immediate local changes to experimental design and methodology as well as a deeper understanding of social influences on and of the scientific enterprise (purple and green, respectively, in Fig. 1). What follows are guiding questions we offer to facilitate this much-needed shift. We hope that thinking through these questions will impact how science is conducted – whether that means using specific relevant physiologies to determine sex category; moving to a multivariate, interacting, and continuous conceptualization of sexed variables; or moving past sex categories all together – and lead to a more comprehensive, accurate, and responsible scientific enterprise.
I have to say, though, that I’m not a fan of those kinds of meaningless diagrams. I’ll let it slide out of appreciation for the context.