How much of gender is a social construct?

Check out this National Geographic article “How science is helping us understand gender.” Author Robin Henig outlines different intersex conditions that can be more complicated than the typical XX vs XY binary. But here’s the quote that really caught my eye:

Gender is an amalgamation of several elements: chromosomes (those X’s and Y’s), anatomy (internal sex organs and external genitals), hormones (relative levels of testosterone and estrogen), psychology (self-defined gender identity), and culture (socially defined gender behaviors).

This is a good summary of the factors that could contribute to a person’s understanding of gender, but it also helps demonstrate why conversations about gender get confusing fast. Two thoughts:

1. Intersex =/= Transgender

To my understanding (which I admit is limited), intersex issues are not the same as transgender issues, and in fact people with intersex conditions don’t necessarily appreciate being used as the wedge to push society to accept transgender issues.

Intersexuality is not the same as a transsexuality (gender dysphoria) and is not a transgender state. Neither of the latter terms is one that we recognise as belonging in any general discussion of intersex. We are not happy with the recent tendency of some trans groups/people to promote transgender as an umbrella term to encompass, for example, transsexuality, transvestitism and intersex. We object to other organisations/individuals putting us in categories without consulting us, especially categories that imply that interexed people, of necessity, have gender identity issues.

2. Gender cannot be just a social construct.

If gender were only a social construct, it would be hard to explain why a trans man could not more easily exist simply as a masculine cis woman, i.e. a tomboy or someone similar. If gender is unrelated to sexuality and genitalia, transitioning seems like an unnecessarily difficult undertaking (financially, emotionally, physically, and socially).

That’s not suggest that gender is wholly unrelated to culture. It seems intuitive to me that at least some aspect of gender, especially society’s understanding of gender, is based more on cultural norms than biology. The extreme and perhaps tired example is that girls like pink and boys like blue. Presumably if we birthed children in a society where the opposite was the norm, they’d just go with it. But here and now dressing a baby in pink is a way to signal to others “this baby is a girl,” and while of course you can dress your baby girl in blue, you will probably confuse strangers who think you’re signaling “this baby is a boy” instead of just “I like blue.” Maybe you don’t care about that (I don’t) but that’s the cultural norm and I expect it influences the relative proportion of boys and men willing to wear pink. I digress.

What does it mean, for example, for a person to have all the biological traits (chromosomes, sex organs, genitalia, and hormone levels) of a male but “feel” female? What is the difference between a biological male who identifies as female and a biological male who identifies as a male who is partial to activities and preferences culturally viewed as female? This distinction especially gets confusing when we add in the idea that your sexuality and sexual preferences are not related to your gender. So what drives the difference between a cis straight male who is comfortable with the color pink, being a stay-at-home parent, and [insert female stereotypes here] versus a homosexual trans woman who also likes all of those things?

I ask these questions sincerely. I recognize that people feel very differently about these topics and I don’t begrudge anyone that. And, in terms of policy, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the government to get very strict about what constitutes male and female, not only because intersex conditions complicate matters but also because it’s not hard to imagine situations that would put trans people in danger if they are narrowed to the options of traditional cis sexuality. As the New York Times explains:

Several agencies have withdrawn Obama-era policies that recognized gender identity in schools, prisons and homeless shelters.

I suspect that as we learn more about human physiology and particularly neurology, we’ll gain more insight into the phenomenon of transgenderism. But if that turns out to be the case, to my mind it would be further evidence that gender is biological, as long as we recognize that biology includes more than our genitalia. National Geographic hints at this possibility (same article linked above) when Henig explains:

At least a few brain characteristics, such as density of the gray matter or size of the hypothalamus, do tend to differ between genders. It turns out transgender people’s brains may more closely resemble brains of their self-identified gender than those of the gender assigned at birth. In one study, for example, Swaab and his colleagues found that in one region of the brain, transgender women, like other women, have fewer cells associated with the regulator hormone somatostatin than men. In another study scientists from Spain conducted brain scans on transgender men and found that their white matter was neither typically male nor typically female, but somewhere in between.

Maybe all of this musing is getting to a broader question: can psychology exist independent from biology? If someone is psychologically male can we assume, by definition, that some part of that person’s brain structures, neural connectivity, whatever, will look more similar to cis male brains? I’m interested to see what we learn as time goes on.

Maybe both sides oversimplify transgender issues.

spectrum stick figures

I don’t speak out on transgender issues much, for a bunch of reasons. I’m a cis woman, and I don’t really have any idea what it would be like to be trans. I have only a few friends who are trans (that I know of) to even talk to about it. Also, I’m concerned about multiple factors in the debates around this issue, and I haven’t figured out how heavily I weigh each factor and thus what my position is.

I’m irritated at some of my leftist friends for being unwilling or incapable of considering that anyone could have concerns, questions, or objections about trans issues and policies based on anything other than bigotry. I find that ridiculously simplistic and also really counterproductive if the goal is to get more people to understand and accept people who are trans.

I’m also irritated with some of my right-wing friends for depicting these issues as nothing more than a cavalier preference chosen for trivial reasons, as if people just wake up one day and “feel like” being a different gender. In particular I get annoyed at people for greatly oversimplifying biology. My writing today was inspired by a random comment I saw on a friend’s post:

born xy die xy

Whatever your thoughts on the moral, social, political, and legal implications of trans issues, the statement above (and others similar to it) are overgeneralizations. And, as with most generalizations, they won’t hurt most people because most of the time they’ll be true. But they can cause problems for the exceptions, and I think we should be mindful of that.

So, continuing the biology lesson:

(Typically) our mother’s eggs each contain an X chromosome and our father’s sperm each contain either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. When egg and sperm meet, the sperm’s chromosome determines the sex of the resulting child. A person with both an X and Y chromosome is male, and a person with two X chromosomes is female. Generally.

However, when we talk about someone being “biologically female” or “biologically male,” there are multiple  factors to consider. The ones we talk about most are:

  1. Chromosomes (female = XX, male = XY)
  2. Gonads (female = ovaries, male = testes)
  3. External genitalia (female = vagina, male = penis)

Most people either possess all three of the female traits or all three of the male traits. However some people instead have some combination of male and female traits. For example, there are multiple ways an XY person could lack specifically male genitalia (or an XX person could lack specifically female genitalia). Mayo Clinic has a good summary here:

  • A lack or deficiency of male hormones in a genetic male fetus can cause ambiguous genitalia, while exposure to male hormones during development results in ambiguous genitalia in a genetic female.
  • Mutations in certain genes can influence fetal sex development and cause ambiguous genitalia.
  • Chromosomal abnormalities, such as a missing sex chromosome or an extra one, also can cause ambiguous genitalia.

For example, Swyer syndrome is a condition in which an XY person develops female reproductive organs. There are several different gene mutations that have been associated with the phenomenon. People with Swyer syndrome often grow up with the female gender identity and keep that identity throughout their lives.

As another example, a condition called 5-alpha reductase deficiency (5aR deficiency) means XY people don’t produce enough of a certain hormone to form male external sex organs. They typically grow up with the female gender identity, however they may adopt a male gender role later in life.

There are other conditions that can have these kinds of “misalignment” effects. As far as I know, none of these conditions are very common. Swyer syndrome is thought to happen in 1 out of 80,000 people, and 5aR deficiency is rare enough it’s unclear how many people have it.

However I don’t think that because these issues are rare, we should act as if they don’t exist. I imagine it can be very difficult for people with these conditions to process both how they view themselves and how society views them. Insisting there is nothing more to sex or gender than either our chromosomes or our genitalia is untrue and, in some cases, I think it’s unkind.

That being said, intersex issues like the ones I mentioned don’t cover the whole scope of trans issues. In fact if there was a Venn Diagram of the two, I’m unclear on how much it would cross over.

intersex vs trans venn diagrams

Intersex issues occur when a person’s biological traits aren’t all either male or female. Trans issues occur when a person identifies as a gender other than the gender normally associated with their biological traits. A trans man could be intersex: he could have external female genitalia but testes and XY chromosomes (intersex) and identify as male (trans). But a trans man isn’t necessarily intersex: he could have external female genitalia, ovaries, and XX chromosomes (not intersex) and identify as male (trans).

And likewise, an intersex person isn’t necessarily trans. Many intersex people don’t have gender identity issues; they spend their entire lives identifying as one gender and having society recognize them as that gender and it isn’t something they struggle with. In fact, some intersex people really object to having intersex issues conflated with trans issues.

So there is some overlap between intersex and trans people, but the extent of the overlap is unclear. And if we assume it’s 1:1 we ignore all the intersex and trans people for whom the overlap doesn’t apply.

Not only that, but if we assume it’s 1:1 we oversimplify the cultural discussion. Just as it’s too black and white to act as if biological sex is always straightforward, it’s too black and white to act as if trans issues are always, much less solely, based on biological “misalignments.” I object to both those oversimplifications. We should be able to make our points and explore our arguments without having to dismiss inconvenient truths.

T&S Post: “A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.”

861 - The Suicide of Edouard Manet LARGE

In keeping with my renewed every-other-week schedule at T&S, I posted some speculations about theology and gender at Times and Seasons yesterday: “A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.” The article is about as popular as you’d expect, which is to say: not very.

I am reasonably certain that the rise of gender and sexuality politics in our culture is an opportunity for theological and cultural growth, but also that neither of the prevailing political attitudes are capable of revealing the lessons that are there to be learned. Social liberals are too committed to a view of human nature that is too shallow and superficial to do anyone any good. (In this, I’m basically echoing Pinker’s critique in The Blank Slate.) Social conservatives, I think, are doing a good job of holding onto important traditions that are necessary for a healthy society, but are also too willing to veer towards fearfulness that leads to bigotry on the one hand and prevents consideration of new explanations for why these traditions are important on the other.

This article is just another example of me trying to extricate myself a bit from this morass–without abandoning positions I think are important–and reach for new understandings of old truths.

Why Social Conservatives Fight the Culture Wars

875 - Family Portrait

I just read David Brooks’ most recent column: The Next Culture War. In a nutshell, he argues that Christians ought to abandon their decades-long, fighting retreat against the sexual revolution. “Consider putting aside,” he writes, “the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution.” Channeling Disney’s Frozen, he argues that Christians should just let it go. After all, aren’t there enough other problems to tackle? “We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed,” he writes.

I have a lot of respect for David Brooks. He’s one the people I’d most love to have a lunch conversation with. But, he doesn’t seem to understand that his suggestion asks for Christians to bail the water out of a sinking boat while ignoring the hole in the hull.

You see, the sexual revolution is the reason that we live in a society that is “plagued by formlessness and radical flux.” In The Social Animal, Brooks argues against the atomization of society on both the left and on the right, with each side focusing myopically on divisible, separable, self-contained individualism. The left argues that human individuals can construct their own gender and sexual identities free from repercussions and it therefore sees free birth control and elective abortion as fundamental rights. The right views collectivism with a hostile gaze, channeling Ayn Rand at times, and argues for personal responsibility sometimes to the point of callousness. These are twin heads of the same coin, and Brooks is right to focus on it. It is one of the defining philosophical tragedies of our age.

But what he seems to fail to grasp is that this radically individualized view of human nature follows in part directly from the sexual revolution. To the extent that the sexual revolution has been about excising sex from the context of marriage and family, it has been an assault on the biological family unit. And this unit–including the bond of husband and wife to each other and also to their children–comprises the two most essential bonds in human society.

To put it simply, social conservatism is animated in no small part by the conviction that biological families are irreplaceable. And so, to the extent that Brooks’ invitation is for social conservatives to give up and try to replace them, he is asking something of us that we simply cannot provide.

As a brief caveat, it’s not entirely clear that that is what he’s asking. He writes that we ought to “help nurture stable families.” I’m just not sure how he imagines this should be accomplished in practice. At one point, he suggests that conservatives abandon the culture wars while at another point he says that “I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex.” Which is it? Because conservative positions on sex are their participation in the culture wars. It may be the he merely thinks we should keep those beliefs quiet, but again: how does one practically “help nurture stable families” while abandoning resistance to the sexual revolution? Subjective sexual morality, open relationships, sex before marriage, pornography: these are not incidental things that happen to exist alongside “formlessness and radical flux.” These are the acids in which the stable family–as a normative and aspirational social beacon–dissolves.

And this cuts both ways, by the way. To the extent that social conservatives are unwilling to abandon their commitments, their opponents are equally unlikely to let the issue go. Thus, I have to express a deep skepticism of the upside of Brooks’ plan. His idea is that–if we assume for a moment that it is possible to meaningfully nurture families without participating in the culture wars–that suddenly religion will be well-thought of in the world. All of a sudden, we would be known as “the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.”

This is impossible, because the commitment social conservatives have to their values is mirrored by the commitment social liberals have to their mutually contradictory values. And as long as social liberals dominate the opinion-making sectors of our society their animosity will continue to be expressed in part by ongoing negative characterization of social conservatives as backwards bigots. And, make no mistake, social liberals do dominate the opinion making sectors of our society: academia, the press, the entertainment industry, and the Internet. Even if social conservatives did go quiet on their beliefs, I have very, very little confidence that our image would suddenly be rehabilitated.

Graph from Business Insider article about political makeup of American industries. Click image for link to article.
Graph from Business Insider article about political makeup of American industries. Click image for link to article.

Here is the reality: social conservatives are fighting the sexual revolution–despite it being a losing proposition thus far–because we believe that nothing does more good for children than being raised by their biological parents and that very little does more harm than for little children to be deprived of this natural right. This belief necessitates viewing sex as more than merely a recreational activity or even a question of strictly intrapersonal, subjective meaning to be negotiated between the willing adult participants. The belief that immature human beings have a strong moral claim on their parents for protection logically requires a view of sex as a deeply significant act for which consenting adults–male and female together–ought to be morally, socially, and legally responsible.

There is certainly room for compromise and innovation within this conflict. The idea that social conservatives want to wholesale turn back the clock to an imaginary 1950s is an unfair stereotype. Much of the progress–both for women and for minorities–since the 1950s comes to us as precious treasure, dearly purchased and should be treated with humility, gratitude, and respect. Many of the contentious technologies that have fueled this debate–from the pill to IVF–are morally neutral technologies which can certainly coexist with a thoughtful, robust view of normative sexual ethics. There is room for these views to be better articulated within social conservatism, and for some social conservatives to take them more seriously and moderate their positions.

And so I do not want to meet Brooks’ call with a hardline refusal. It’s worth considering. What I wish to convey is that social conservatism is restricted in its freedom to adapt. That is not a design flaw. The point of having principles at all is that–while they may be interpreted or applied in innovative or flexible ways–there is a limit to that flexibility. There are some things that a person cannot do without abandoning principle. For social conservatives, the central principle is the care and protection of society’s most vulnerable, which means our children (before and after birth). An additional article of faith is that no institution can replace the biological family in filling that role. As a result, social conservatives not only will not abandon their opposition to the sexual revolution, they cannot do so and remain social conservatives. Can we do more without abandoning that opposition? I’m sure we can, and I hope we never stop being motivated by that question.

Porn Leads Teens to Coerce Girlfriends into Sex

2014-09-12 Porn Coerce Sex

I don’t like writing about porn any more than I like writing about sex, but I think it’s important. Earlier this week I posted an article about how one man stopped watching porn because he felt it was warping his ability to express warm, respectful, and compassionate sexuality. This link is to the flip-side of that, a study in England that demonstrates how boys who don’t moderate or (better still) abstain from pornographic content end up coercing their girlfriends into sex. Where does one draw the line between convincing a partner to do something, pressuring a partner to do something, and outright rape? No matter where that line is, it seems clear at least some of these young men have crossed it.

Researchers interviewed 130 men and women aged 16–18 from diverse social backgrounds in three different locations in England. The report, published last month, states that young people “frequently cited pornography as the ‘explanation’ for [engaging in] anal sex,” although masculine competition between boys to see who could engage in the activity the most often also played a role.

They found a “key element” in this risky new behavior is the “normalization of coercion and ‘accidental’ penetration. It seemed that men were expected to persuade or coerce reluctant partners.”

“Some events, particularly the ‘accidental’ penetration reported by some interviewees, were ambiguous in terms of whether or not they would be classed as rape (i.e., non-consensual penetration), but we know from [one] interview that ‘accidents’ may happen on purpose,” wrote Dr. Cicely Marston and Ruth Lewis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in a report published in BMJ Open.

Historically, social conservatives have a reputation for crying wolf about dangers to children. The usual examples are the Dungeons and Dragons scare in the early 1980s and, more recently, the connection between violent video games and real-world violence. This history of hysteria is going to make it easy for articles and studies like this to be dismissed as “social conservatives say Playboy turns normal kids into rapists.” That’s the exaggerated version. The actual point is that pornography–especially hardcore pornography that is easy to find online–correlate with violence towards women and that we have good reason to suspect some of that relationship is causal. This doesn’t mean a nice, caring man will turn into a serial rapist after watching 30 minutes of porn one day, but it does mean that–aggregated across society–porn is very likely having an impact in fueling a very real culture of rape that treats women as objects to be exploited for pleasure and prestige.

TEDx Talk: Why I Stopped Watching Porn

2014-09-08 Why I Stopped Watching Porn

Criticizing porn is not popular, but it’s important. It’s important because pornography does a lot of damage to men, women, to relationships, and to families. Often it’s religious individuals and groups who lead the charge on this topic, so I thought this TEDx talk was particularly interesting because it comes from a man who is not religious (as far as I can tell) and who doesn’t embrace the religious ideals of chastity, monogamy, and waiting for marriage to have sex. His reasons for removing porn from his life, therefore, are kind of the lowest-common denominator, most generic, most widely relatable. The short version: porn kills love.

It’s an insightful and humorous talk, however, and definitely worth the listen. Be forewarned, however, that it does veer into some frank description of sex and pornography. It’s never salacious or disrespectful, but some of his argument for what is wrong with porn involves describing what specifically takes place in porn that is very different from the kind of sex real people have with the ones they love in real life. As a side note, I think being able to talk frankly and directly about sex is an important skill for a social conservative to have. We can’t articulate our views on healthy sexuality in the public sphere if we’re afraid to raise the topic at all. And we can’t articulate these views to our own children if we’re silent, either. Sex is sacred, as the saying goes, but it needn’t be secret.

Email subscribers will have to go to the site to watch the video because videos don’t embed in the email versions of the post for some reason. I’ll try to figure that out.

No Such Thing as Safe Sex

2014-09-06 No Such Thing As Safe Sex

It seems that whenever I post a particularly controversial topic I end up getting compared to Matt Walsh by people who don’t like what I’m writing. I can see the comparison: Matt Walsh is a social conservative who tackles controversial issues head-on. His approach is more combative than mine and I don’t always agree with that or with his arguments, but as a general rule I admire his writing. And I’d like to show you why. In a typical incendiary post called I will not teach my kids about safe sex because there is no such thing he includes this, I think, moving and beautiful account of human sexuality.

[N]o sex is safe. Sex is not supposed to be safe. Sex isn’t supposed to be physically perilous… but it is supposed to be an act of great depth and consequence. Sex is meant to be open and exposed. It’s meant to bring out scary and mysterious feelings of desire and devotion. Call that whatever you like, but you can’t call it safe.

Sex itself isn’t safe. On the other hand, committed relationships, fortified by the vows of marriage and reaffirmed daily by both spouses, are safe — and it is only in this context that the inherent vulnerability of sex can be made secure and comfortable.

I’ve done some chopping (not the brackets and ellipses) to remove some of the partisan barbs and get to the essence of his point.

So two things. One, as I said, I really do like this model of human sexuality where sex is viewed with something like awe and committed relationships become the safe environment for the raw and mysterious experience. Second thing: I think it’s always best to try and be charitable when reading folks who might have an ax to grind. I once had a professor (philosophy) who taught us that we should always read everything twice. Once, with maximum skepticism to refute everything wrong. And a second time, with maximum charity, to glean every drop of wisdom we could from it. I like that, and I think it’s something we can all strive for.