On the Social Construction of Sex (Part 1)
Bourgeois ideology has long presented us with a vulgar conception of gender which reduces the essence of what it “means” to be a man or woman to a rigid set of biological characteristics. Over the past few decades, a great deal of progress has been made in exposing this idea for what it is: a set of baseless myths meant to reinforce and ideologically justify the oppression of women in our society. Among other things, the way in which cultural ideas about gender impact development has been explored rather thoroughly, which renders empty the idea that gender differences are, in the final instance, determined by biology.
In place of the biological essentialist view of gender, more (nominally) progressive elements have put forward a theory which posits a dichotomy between gender and sex. Gender, it is argued, is socially constructed, something that is performed and enforced by society in accordance with conceptions of “masculinity” and “femininity”. Sex, on the other hand, is claimed to be “innate,” based on immutable biological factors. This view still upholds an essential “maleness” and “femaleness.” Males have penises, females have vaginas, females develop breasts and the ability to bear children, males do not, or so it goes, but it is acknowledged that gender expression may not be tied to these characteristics in a rigid way. This conception of sex as being distinct from gender can still be controversial in the popular discourse, but in academia, it is today somewhat mainstream.
While it is in some degree a step forward from older theories, the sex/gender dichotomy still leaves a lot to be desired. In reality, our bodies are quite complex and there is a wide degree of variance from person to person, yet we rigidly categorize our bodies into two classes. “Sex characteristics” form a continuum, and in order to place bodies in one of two categories, it will be argued that we necessarily make this categorization on the basis of gender conceptions. Both sex and gender are socially constructed, and they are interrelated. At the end of the day, the sex/gender dichotomy is part of patriarchal ideology, and it is an idea that we need to break with in favor of a theory which is revolutionary and Marxist in character. The purpose of the present article is to provide an initial counter to the idea that sex assignment is “just biology.” A properly Marxist theory of sex will be more thoroughly explored in part two.
Sex characteristics form a continuum
Primarily, there are five criteria that biologists look at when analyzing sex characteristics:
In humans, there is a pair of chromosomes which help determine what we consider to be sex characteristics. Males are supposed to have the combination XY, and females are supposed to have the combination XX. The problem is that these are not the only two variations Others include XO (missing second chromosome), XXY, XYY, and XXXX. Moreover, even for those who have the more common pairs of “sex chromosomes,” these chromosomes do not affect everyone in the same way. Someone with the chromosomes XY can develop what we consider to be “female” sex characteristics if their body is much less sensitive to androgen than average, for example.
Gonads are reproductive organs. Males are supposed to have testes, and females are supposed to have ovaries. However, one’s gonads can sometimes “conflict” with other sex characteristics. For example, one can have ovaries but have a penis, or have a vagina and testes, or one can have both ovaries and testes. It is difficult to say with precision how often these “intersex” cases happen, because instances of this are often immediately erased upon birth with “corrective” surgeries and hormone treatments. But occurrences along these lines are far from insignificant.
Males are supposed to have penises, and females are supposed to have vaginas. As already mentioned though, people with penises can have ovaries and/or vaginas also, people with vaginas can have testes and/or penises also, etc. And once again, these instances are often immediately “corrected” upon birth through surgery, etc. Despite this, with the limited data we do have, we can give an order of magnitude estimate of the number of those who don’t fit into the sex binary in these first three categories (chromosomes, gonads, and genitalia). Some combination of “abnormality” in these first three categories affects in the order of tens to hundreds of millions of people world-wide.
4. Secondary sex characteristics
Males are supposed to develop deeper voices, grow facial hair, develop stronger upper-body muscles, etc. while females are supposed to develop higher voices than males, develop breasts, have more “curves” (i.e. narrower waist, wider hips), etc. There is however an incredible amount of variation and overlap here. There are plenty of people assigned male of have higher voices than some assigned female, who develop breasts and even lactate, and there are plenty of people assigned female who develop facial hair, more upper-body strength than assigned males, broader shoulders, and so on.
“Each” sex is supposed to have certain hormone patters. For example, males are supposed to be higher in androgen, while females are supposed to be higher in estrogen. However, there is more variation in hormone patterns within “each” sex than there is between the sexes.
When we consider all five of these criteria, it becomes clear that a majority of humanity does not fit neatly into the “male” and “female” classifications. Having all “male” characteristics in each of the five categories, or having all “female” characteristics, are two extremes, but there are a great number of people who fall somewhere in between. In other words, there is clearly a continuum of sex characteristics that people can express. Yet, in society, people are classified rigidly into one or the other categories, “male” or “female.” How is this carried out?
Sex assignment is based on gender
[A quick note: what follows holds true for western societies generally, but the process of sex assignment may differ between cultures. The general point to be drawn from this is universal though, i.e. that sex is as socially constructed as gender and the two are fundamentally interrelated.]
The process of sex assignment begins before we are born. Parents hold the assumption that their child will be “one or the other,” and this affects how they will treat any perceived “abnormality” their child exhibits upon birth and throughout the child’s life. Modern ultrasound technology even allows parents the potential to become aware of the child’s genitalia during prenatal development, which of course already solidifies in the parents’ minds what the “sex” of their child will be. And of course, the parents’ ideas about the sex of their child are fundamentally intertwined with social conceptions of gender.
But one of the most important moments in the sex assignment process happens in the first hours after birth. The case of those considered “intersex” can be illustrative here. Suppose a child is born in a western country who has ovaries on the inside, but a penis on the outside. Alternatively, suppose a child is born with labia and a vagina, but also with testes (once again, these cases are not so uncommon; intersex individuals account for around 2% of all births, and in some regions of the world this rate is considerably higher). The first thing that typically happens is that this situation is declared to be a medical emergency. Think about this for a second. Intersex “conditions” present few if any health risks. There is of course a social stigma associated with any appearance of not fitting rigidly into one of the two sex classes. Yet there is also a social stigma associated with being gay, and we don’t consider homosexuality a “condition” or a “disorder” that needs to be medically treated. Moreover, the treatments used to “correct” intersex characteristics sometimes carry substantial risks, and the long-term effects they have are still relatively ill-researched. The motivation behind “correcting” intersex characteristics is thus not one related to the health of the child, it is entirely one of enforcing the sex binary. Any variance from the rigidly defined “male” and “female” classes is an emergency that must be snuffed out as soon as possible.
The way in which “corrections” are made is also telling. Consider for example this quote from Patricia K. Donahoe (a well-published and frequently read authority on pediatric surgery) et al. on “intersex abnormalities”:
Genetic females should always be raised as females, preserving reproductive potential, regardless of how severely the patients are virilized [i.e. even if they are born with a penis, for example - M. E.]. In the genetic male, however, the gender assignment [sic] is based on the infant’s anatomy, predominantly the size of the phallus.
In the case of a child with ambiguous sex characteristics but who has ovaries, they will usually be assigned the female sex regardless of other characteristics, largely due to the fact that the individual can theoretically bear children later in life. In other words, the reduction of “female” to “child-bearer”, clearly a manifestation of gender, is what ultimately makes the decision in these cases. A child who has ovaries and/or is “genetically female” has any “non-female” sex characteristics erased and their anatomy restructured so that they can properly fulfill the role of “child-bearer.”
On the other hand, in the case of a child who, for example, has a vagina but also has testes (and/or is “genetically male”), the assignment of sex is typically based on the size of the phallus (whether it is a clitoris or a penis, or is ambiguous). After all, according to the dominant view, “males” should be able to pee standing up and be able to penetrate a vagina with their phallus (!), so if an individual’s anatomy fits those criteria (even loosely), the individual is generally assigned “male,” and any “non-male” characteristics are surgically removed or hormonally treated. In these cases too, ideas about gender are what largely determines the sex assignment in situations where the anatomy does not fit into the rigid binary. Anne Fausto-Sterling on the subject:
The worries of male gender choice are more social than medical. Physical health is usually not an issue, although some intersexed babies might have problems with urinary tract infection, which, if very severe, can lead to kidney damage. Rather, early genital surgery has a set of psychological goals. Can the surgery convince parents, caretakers, and peers—and, through them, the child him/herself—that the intersexual is really a male? Most intersexual males are infertile, so what counts especially is how the penis functions in social interactions—whether it “looks right” to other boys, whether it can “perform satisfactorily” in intercourse. It is not what the sex organ does for the body to which it is attached that defines the body as male. It is what it does vis-a-vis other bodies…
Deciding whether to call a child a boy or a girl [or male or female — M.E.], then, employs the social definitions of the essential components of gender. Such definitions, as the social psychologist Suzanne Kessler observes in her book Lessons from the Intersexed, are primarily cultural, not biological.
Of course, parents also play a significant role. They are the ones who must ultimately make the decision to have surgeries and other treatments carried out if their child does not visibly fit into the sex binary. Parents also help enforce the sex categorization of children as they grow up. But what specific actions are on the table to be decided upon by parents are determined by doctors, and doctors routinely refrain from giving parents all of the information. Characteristics which conflict with a male or female sex assignment are routinely framed by doctors are “incomplete” or “not fully developed” and thus they must be removed. So parents rarely get the entire picture. This is not to suggest that this is an evil conspiracy on the part of doctors. The issue is that doctors really believe that there are “two sexes,” which informs their practice. And this idea is fundamentally a product of the patriarchal, bourgeois ideology which dominates our society. This is of course to say nothing of how this conception gets reinforced at every level of society generally.
We have focused thus far on those whose anatomy varies from the sex binary in the first three aspects of “sex”—chromosomes, gonads, and genitalia. This is because looking at society’s categorization of intersex people into one of the two rigid sex classes makes the fact that sex is a social construct fundamentally intertwined with gender very obvious. We should remind ourselves, though, that if we expand our analysis to look at all five aspects of “sex,” a majority of people do not fit neatly into the “male” or “female” class in all five areas. Even among those born with one of the two most common combinations of “sex chromosomes,” and those who have both “male” gonads and genitalia, or both “female” gonads and genitalia, there is a great deal of variation. A child born with XX chromosomes and a vagina, uterus, and ovaries may yet grow up and develop some “male” characteristics, for instance. Yet this person is still classified by society at birth as “one or the other.”
If anything should be taken from this, it is that human bodies are extremely complex, and it is far too simplistic to consider there to be an essentially “male body” or essentially “female body.” Moreover, our ideas about what constitutes a “male” or “female” body are, in the final instance, rooted in the gender division and the ideology produced by that division. People are assigned “male” or “female” to the extent that it is perceived their anatomy allows them to fit into, even if only theoretically, the roles assigned to men and women.
Transmisogyny and the sex/gender dichotomy
One thing that the sex/gender dichotomy (to remind ourselves—the idea that gender is socially constructed but sex is “innate”) ostensibly allows for is a theory of what it means to be transgender. The liberal theory is that trans women have “male bodies” but by gender are women, while trans men have “female bodies” but are men by gender.
This view, like the sex/gender dichotomy generally, leaves a lot to be desired. In particular it leaves in tact justifications for transmisogyny—hatred of trans women, the ideological product and justification of the structural oppression of trans women. This is not to imply that trans men face no hardships or that they benefit from the current structure to the same extent cis men do. However, trans men are often able to largely assimilate into what tends to be called “male privilege” (a topic for another article, perhaps). Thus, we will focus herein primarily on how the sex/gender dichotomy can ideologically justify the oppression of trans women.
It is often claimed that, while trans women may present as women, they still have “male bodies.” As we have discussed already however, this is a nearly meaningless statement. There really is no such thing as an essentially “male body” (given the wide variance in sex characteristics between bodies which are classified by society as “male”). All the assignment of “male” at birth tells us is that within the first few hours of neonatal life (and in most cases the first few minutes), an individual was assigned to the “male” category based on the perceived potential of their anatomy to perform masculine gender, a rather arbitrary thing. To say someone has a “male body” does not necessarily tell us anything in particular about the person in question apart from the above.
And yet, the fact that trans women were designated to have “male bodies” at birth is used as ammunition against trans women. It is argued that, because they have “male bodies,” trans women have some sort of structural power over other women. This is, to put it bluntly, a laughable claim in light of all the evidence to the contrary. But this argument has a great deal of sway in our society, in large part because of the widespread notion that sex is innate and immutable.
To argue that trans women are in reality perceived as men and are thus beneficiaries of patriarchy is patently ridiculous. Even a cursory analysis of the facts demonstrates that this line of reasoning is vacuous. Trans women suffer homelessness and unemployment at double the average rates, and a frightening number (around half) have attempted suicide. They are lumpenized (i.e. locked out of the economy) at a high rate and as a result are often pushed into avenues where patriarchy rears its head most viciously. More crucially, transmisogynists are unable to cite any material way in which a trans woman’s assigned sex at birth could lead them to be treated in practice as “men” during and after transition. Many trans women are intersex, and may visibly have both “male” and “female” sex characteristics. Trans women who undergo hormone therapy (a majority of trans women in the west) will develop “female” secondary sex characteristics. Trans women who undergo puberty blocking at young age will never develop “male” secondary sex characteristics. But even in cases where none of these things apply, can we really say that trans women benefit from patriarchy? Trans women who “pass” are perceived as women, with all that that implies. Trans women who do not “pass” are clearly not treated as even remotely equal with men. In fact, they are treated almost as a separate gender class, and one which is effectively locked out of the economy at rates far higher than any other.
There is also the argument that, before their transition, trans women receive “male socialization,” and that this contributes to trans women’s structural power over other women. Once again, there is no evidence that this structural power exists, and in fact all evidence points to the contrary. But on a purely conceptual level, this notion also has problems. Transmisogynists tend to be vague about what they mean by “male socialization” or how it functions when it comes to trans women. It is of course undeniable that, upon the assignment of male at birth, the attempt is made by society to socialize the child in accordance with their expected social role as “boy.” Moreover, boys and men are socialized in a way that reinforces patriarchy. But to conceive of “male socialization” automatically begetting “man-ness” and in turn male privilege is deterministic. People must internalize the socialization society attempts to bestow on them, must act on the world as boys and men, and must be perceived as boys and men in order to receive the benefits of patriarchy. To say that society was successful in its attempt to socialize trans women as boys and men is thus problematic. At the end of the day, supposed “male socialization” obviously does not stop trans women from transitioning. And once they do transition, it is quite obvious that trans women are not in any position where they have structural power over other women, as already mentioned. So there is reason to be highly skeptical of the “male socialization” argument as well.
Ultimately, the belief that trans women have access to the benefits of patriarchy is based on a metaphysical view of gender, which takes the presence or lack of certain genitalia as a basis for a “real” gender, existing outside of actually observable social relations and material reality, yet still somehow affecting the contours of gender oppression. This theory is thoroughly anti-materialist and frankly bogus, yet it is allowed to carry more weight than it is due because sex is considered to be innate and immutable. Revealing sex as a socially constructed concept inexorably interwoven with gender would be a major step forward toward combating the ideological justifications for the oppression of trans women.
Of course, the sex/gender dichotomy is part of an ideology that is a product of and a justification for patriarchy, a structural relationship which is oppressive to all women. To argue this in detail however will require a historical materialist analysis.
Toward a Marxist understanding of sex
Readers may note that thus far, there has not been anything particularly Marxist about our analysis. What we have done however is illustrate that current conceptions of sex and gender are inadequate, and that there is a gap to be filled by a Marxist theory. It was necessary to lay this groundwork. Now we can turn to the following questions: how do we understand sex categorization from the perspective of historical materialism? How does sex as a construct play into patriarchal relations and, crucially, the relations of production? These questions deserve their own article, so they will be tackled in part two.
- Morton Esters
1. P.K. Donahoe, D.M. Powell, et al. “Clinical management of intersex abnormalities,” Current Problems in Surgery, 28, no. 8 (1991): 513-570,
2. Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 58.
3. Ibid, 59.