Addressing the sex/gender conundrum
According to the postmodernist thinking associated with Jacques Derrida and others, “binaries” are bad per se. End of argument--unless you reject Derrida, as an increasing number of observers, including some former acolytes, are beginning to do.
Still, there is also a common-sense objection to any overrigid and categorical contrast between the sexes. That is the fact there are plenty of confident heterosexual males and females who have some characteristics and preferences that seem to transgress the accepted binary norms. One of my friends, for example, is a man who is as butch and het as anyone could expect, but who likes to bring the tapestry that he is currently working on to social gatherings. He says that the patient effort of threading calms him. Historically, of course, both men and women have served as textile workers, so that my friend is simply reviving a venerable tradition that had fallen into disuse.
In the professions, we have seen women “invade"--in a most salutary fashion--professions formerly thought to be the preserve of men. This is true of aviation, medicine, the law, and politics, to name just four major walks of life.
Confronted with such an array of “exceptional” behavior, it seems to me that the best solution is enlarge the categories, which have tended to be artificially constrained. Accepted notions of “what is appropriate” for men and women have been narrow, unduly so. By enlarging the boundaries, we help human beings to be truer to themselves, while retaining the biologically-based contrast between male and female
Uh, oh. “Biologically-based,” that sounds scary! Don’t we all know about the fundamental distinction between sex and gender? There may be (mostly) only two sexes, but there is an almost limitless repertoire of genders. So at least, we are told. I confess that I have come to question the cogency of the sex/gender distinction, which is of relatively recent origin. In fact, cross-cultural studies indicate that there are a limited number of role-sets that can be erected on the foundation of biological sex. Of course, Margaret Mead famously argued the opposite, but her standing does not seem very high now.
So I tend to use the terms “sex” and “gender” synonymously. This practice is not as much a heresy as it may seem at first sight. There is a growing tendency to disregard the dichotomy, and this neglect is not just the product of carelessles.
And after all, aren’t “binaries” simply bad? Well, some binaries are needed; others are not. The now-hallowed sex/gender contrast is one that we entitled to question. All too often, the contrast is simply parroted, as if assertion constituted proof.
I turn now to the larger context: sexual malleability. This line of thinking takes two forms 1) the notion of absolute fluidity; and 2) the idea of a populous realm of intersexual individuals of all sorts.
The first approach is associated with John Money, a sexologist connected with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Money held that at birth we all all psychosexually neutral: our subsequent sense of being male or female was entirely contingent on the intervention of the environment. This view is of course a version of the famous nature/nurture argument. For Money, those assigned the male label came to understand that they were expected to display certain masculine-gendered behavior. Social pressure forced them into that pattern; environment, and environment alone, made them "male." Nature had nothing to do with this process.
Notoriously, Money came a cropper with the David Reimer case. Reimer was a Canadian boy whose penis was zapped off in a botched circumcision operation. When the parents consulted Money, he decreed that the child must be raised as a girl. The parents complied, but the child rebelled. Somehow, despite all the appropriate socialization, and the accompanying hormone treatments (an exception to the pure-environmental argument) the “little girl” insisted that she was a boy. When Reimer became an adult he freed himself from the annual ritual of visiting Money’s clinic, and had himself fitted with a constructed penis. He began dating. Such, however, were the sufferings that he had undergone as a result of being a guinea pig for Money’s false theories, that he finally committed suicide.
As a result of this, and other grotesque applications of the theory of absolute malleability in the realm of sex/gender, the concept has come under a cloud, though some still support modified versions of it.
It is of course possible to compromise, recognizing both nature and nuture. I quote from the excellent blog of an Australian scientist, Zoe Brain (aebrain.blogspot.com). “[S]exually-differentiated neurology exists at birth, and while no-one is born knowing they're male or female, the biasses, the hard-wired tendencies mean that as soon as they're exposed to other adults and children, it becomes obvious to them which group they belong to. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, depending upon how strongly they conform to either ‘typically male’ or ‘typically female’ stereotypes in their lymbic system (part of the brain).”
At all events, the hypothesis of absolute gender malleability is no longer viable.
A more common theory these days recognizes that there are male and female poles. However, the theory asserts that there is a large and varied terrain--the Zwischenstufen of the early German sexologists--of provinces that lie between. The attempts to “correct” the genitalia and behavior of theintermediate types dwelling in these territories have led to great unhappiness. The latter assertion is certainly true.
What then do these intermediate populations consist of? I quote Brain again. “There are over a hundred relatively common Intersex conditions, and almost as many definitions of the word "Intersex." The most useful one is "having a body neither stereotypically male nor stereotypically female." While 1 in 60 people are technically Intersexed, most are asymtomatic, and never know. About 1 in 1000 have symptoms so obvious they're readily apparent. And Mother Nature provides a wide variety of conditions - 1 in 500 people who look apparently male don't have the usual 46xy chromosomes, but 47xxy. Perhaps 1 in 100,000 people who look apparently female are also 47xxy. Then there are some men and women who are mosaics, a mix of 46xy/47xxy, or 46xy/46xx, or 47xxy/46xx, or 45x/46xy or.... you get the idea. There's people with non-genetic intersex conditions, such as persistent mullerian duct syndrome, who have partial male and partial female reproductive systems. There's Swyer syndrome females, who have the 46xy chromosomes usually only found in men, and Turner Syndrome females, Kennedy Syndrome males, De La Chapelle syndrome males etc etc.
“Those with 5ARD or 17BHDD syndromes look female(mostly, partly, or completely) at birth, but masculinise to look (mostly, partly, or completely) male later in life. The change varies a lot from a very masculine girl getting slightly more masculinised, to a complete "natural sex change". 17BHDD and 5ARD are each about 1 in 100,000 in the general population, so there's several thousand men in the USA who were born looking like little girls.”
Zoe Brain’s site (aebrain. blogspot.com) cites a number of scientific papers. Consulting these and others like them will deepen one's knowledge. With all such findings, however, several interpretations are possible, and it is by no means inevitable that informed study must compel us to accept the views of the gender-bender advocates. Their views may be “scientific,” but so too are the conclusions of some who disagree with them. It will not do to adopt the ploy of some of these advocates, who simply seek to clobber anyone who disagrees with them. I at any rate will not be clobbered.
Let us take a condition that is fairly common among young females, who have a clitoris that is “too big.” Once upon a time, it was common to amputate these outsized clits, so as to “round out” as it were the femininity of the patient. In many cases, such operations are a tragic mistake. If they are to be performed at all, the surgery should be undertaken in adulthood, when the patient can give informed consent.
Moreover, and most importantly, the idea that so-and-so’s clitoris is too big is a subjective judgment. Nature evidently intended for the individual to have such an organ. Assuming that the person has a fully functioning set of female reproductive organs, the person is a woman, and there should be no question about it--surgery or no surgery.
The operative term is of course “functioning.” It is true that morphogenetically the penis and and clitoris have a common origin. Yet the clitoris lacks the crucial attributes of the completely formed male organ, namely a urethra running the length of the center of the shaft, and connected to a pair of testes.
As far as I know, medical science has never detected even one specimen of a true hermaphrodite, that is a person who has a fully functioning set of the organs of both sexes. Such a legendary creature (known to us only from the fantasies of classical literature and art) would be able to both impregnate and be impregnated.
Thus at the center of the supposedly vast spectrum of the intersexes lies a void. Everyone in this realm falls somewhat (or a good deal) to the left or right side of this mythical point.
At this point I turn to a case that has received a good deal of media attention: that of a man who has given birth twice. In June of this year Thomas Beatie, the so-called "pregnant man," gave birth to his second child, a healthy baby boy. We are told that it was a "natural childbirth.” Beatie's wife, Nancy, will be breastfeeding their son, as she did with their daughter, Susan Juliette, who was born the previous June. Last year photos of a bearded Beatie with a pregnant belly caused a sensation.
Born a woman named Tracy, Thomas Beatie, now 35, had sex-reassignment surgery, and legally changed his gender from female to male in Hawaii.
I am sorry to rain on this couple’s parade, but Beatie is not a man--I repeat, not a man. It seems that the surgery was limited to “doing the top,” that is, breast removal. Her (yes, HER) beard was the result of the administration of hormones.
As you can see, when appropriate I freely violate the taboo on labeling “transgender” individuals according to their own preference. The precept may seem harsh, but it must be pronounced: if it has feathers, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it IS a duck.
As I indicated above, the key element is function. There is much disagreement about which criteria are most relevant for determining sex. Not all women (including Beatie’s spouse) are able to give birth. Yet anyone who gives birth is, at least at that point, a woman. Some things are beyond dispute.
I turn now to the final point. Many transgender advocates revel in the set of intermediate categories calendared by Zoe Brain (see above), implying that such status is overwhelmingly typical of those who have adopted a transgender identity, regardless of whether this status is "confirmed" through the intervention of surgery.
Statistics are hard to come by in this contested realm. My own sense, however, is that many, perhaps even most are not somatically deviant, even within the expansive framwork of Brain's enumeration. This is obviously true of most drag queens, who it seems to possess a fully functional set of male genitalia. In fact, the notion that they rank as pre-ops is false; most have no intention of having surgery to “return them to their true sex.” Just as they are, they a r e their true sex; they simply choose to make their own choices regarding clothing and deportment. For this independence I salute them. I do not, however, regard myself as obliged to call them "she."
What then about those who elect the full course of transition, with the surgery, hormones, behavioral retraining and all? Here too I suspect that many (what proportion I do not know) begin with fully functioning sexual organs, the equipment characteristic of their respective genders of origin. In due course, they can ejaculate and menstruate, toutes proportons reservees. Thus their intersexuality starts out as a psychosexual, not somatic condition. Because of the nature of their "head trip," some have concluded that they must seek surgery to make a 180-degree turn. In this way, they achieve an intersexuality they were not born with.
This whole area is bedeviled by many confusions, Sadly, some of these seem deliberate. Not infrequently, in fact, the confusions that swirl about the subject are the product of self-serving and deliberate obfuscation.
I will go further. Some individuals who advocate and undergo these fundamental bodily alterations are probably disturbed. Why not? After all a good many people who are psychosexually orthodox ("cis-gendered") are disturbed as well. All things considered, disturbed individuals do not make good role models.
A hundred years ago, the great German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld explored the whole range of sexual variation. He was himself an androphile homosexual, and not a habitual cross-dresser as has recently been alleged. (He did coin the term "transvestite," now banned, in 1910). As a scientist, Hirschfeld fully understood the importance of making careful distinctions. Today, it seems, we have lost sight of the core of the German savant's teaching.
Labels: Sexual dimorphism