biological sex as a social contruct

i know, i know. i already wrote about this, but the post was a bit incoherent and i didn’t really know what i was trying to say. this time ’round, i know what i’m trying to say, but fuck knows if i’ll be able to explain it coherently.


i think enforced biological sex is a tool of the kyriarchy. it serves those who would oppress us. supposedly, biological sex is about:

  • reproduction
  • medicine
  • science! facts!

but i declare shenanigans. why, you ask? k. i’ll start with reproduction.

if you think biological sex is about reproduction and “what goes where,” forget it. we (society) don’t declassify as female (dyadic**) cis women who get hysterectomies. we don’t declassify as male (dyadic) cis men who get their phalluses blown up by landmines. we don’t declassify as male or female (dyadic) binary cis people who choose not to have children (or can’t).

as for the whole medicine/science thing, i’m just gonna quote myself (with some revision for the sake of clarity):

of course, people have biological needs and functions that shouldn’t be ignored. i certainly don’t advocate pretending that our bodies are all the same– because they aren’t. people with breasts need regular mammograms in the same way that people with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin.

something to bear in mind, though, is that doctors don’t typically treat all women the same way and all men the same way– they treat them as individuals (eta: or they should, anyway). doctors ask me about my period, for example, not assuming that i even have one and not assuming what it’s like. doctors don’t drop people into a “sex” category and walk away; there’s too much variation for that to be valid medical practice.

furthermore, trans people don’t need to have their bodies referred to as belonging to someone else. if, say, a trans* man has a period, he doesn’t need some doctor telling him that his “womanly” body needs more iron (eta: unless he feels that his body is womanly. in which case, yay.). the trans* man just needs his doctor to tell him to take more iron because he has a period. referring to trans* people as “born female/male” or “female/male-bodied” reinforces the idea that they aren’t “really” women/men/others and that they don’t own their bodies. it also forcibly attaches gender to bodies.

when speaking of humans, sex isn’t simply about biology; we don’t think of it as simple medical classification. if we did, words like “male” and “female” wouldn’t come equipped with gendered connotations. if we thought of sex as being purely medical, it wouldn’t come up very often in casual confabulation. parents wouldn’t talk about their newborn being a boy or a girl– because they can’t know their baby’s gender right away and other people don’t need to know what the baby’s genitals look like.

also, i think it’s really telling that we (as a society) don’t really acknowledge the existence of intersex people. sure, sometimes cats try to be inclusive, but society certainly doesn’t want to mess with the holy sex binary (all hail). if sex were really about biological facts, we wouldn’t have any trouble respecting the existence of intersex people. ya know? like, the amount of pressure we put on intersex people to quietly squeeze into “m” or “f” is fucked up. (“pressure” includes genital surgeries on infants incapable of consent, bullying, shaming, societal insistence on the holiness of the sex binary.) i argue that such pressure wouldn’t exist if biological sex were about fucking facts; we’d accept the fact that bodies don’t come in a tidy binary.

as a society, we’re pretty fucking vague about what we mean by “biological sex.” i’m not talking doctors, mind you. i’m not a fucking doctor and i don’t hang out with any doctors, but the people i meet (on the internet/in meatspace) don’t seem to know or give a fuck about having set parameters for biological sex.

it’s magical, actually, the way we (as a society) shift the goalposts in order sneakily control other people’s bodies through naming them. you’re a trans* person whose body makes lots of estrogen and you haven’t gone on t? “naturally, your sex is female cuz holy shit estrogen is the girl stuff.” you’re a trans* person who still has the pussy you were born with? “clearly, your sex is ‘female’ cuz pussies are female.” you’re a trans* person who was born with a pussy but has since had bottom surgery and is on hrt? “still female! cuz chromosomes!” which is fucked, cuz if we’re going by chromosomes, why don’t doctors test babies’ chromosomes at birth? if biological sex is such a fucking solid fact, why the fuck do we need to move the goalposts at all?

so when we talk about biological sex as an immutable fact, what we’re really saying isn’t that reproductive potential or anatomical configuration count. what we’re saying is that sex designation at birth counts for everything, even in cases where it’s clearly meaningless. we’re imposing the will of the kyriarchy on each other for the sake of keeping each other in neat boxes, regardless of whether we actually fit those boxes.

when people tell me that sex is “biological” and immutable, that sex has nothing to do with how this society constructs gender, i’m not fucking impressed. imo, the real problem isn’t that sex and gender are being conflated and we need to tease them apart. i think the real problem is when people look at someone else’s body (or assume things about someone else’s body), forcibly gender them, and perpetuate oppression. cuz that’s the fucked up shit at the root.

i don’t think the solution is to insist that gender and sex are separate for ever and ever, cross our hearts and hope to die. i think the solution is to stop fucking naming other people’s bodies, stop assigning genders to babies, and keep working on oppressive bullshit.

*   *   *

thoughts? ideas? is this post coherent? did i miss something? (probably.) share your brains, lovelies! also, any suggestions for further reading would be rad. i know i read some recent articles about this, but i can’t fucking find them. (which means that the ideas presented here aren’t entirely my own. seriously, take note of that.)

tl;dr you get to name your own body. you don’t get to name other people’s bodies. let’s be friends.

**”dyadic” means “non-intersex.”

*   *   *

related reading:

3 responses to “biological sex as a social contruct

  1. well, you asked for further reading, and i never miss an opportunity to tell people to check out a book called “sexing the body”, which is pretty much a one-stop visit to these very same ideas you’re presenting here. so either (a) you have, like me, already read it and thus the wonderful ideas you’ve presented here or (b) you haven’t, and it will therefore make your heart sing like no other single volume because of how it will solidify, put science & philosophy behind, and elaborate on, what you already know! if you check out the last few posts on my blog, it’s a series of quotes i’ve extracted from the book, b/c i’m convinced the world NEEDS the information in this book. i had the AMAZING fortune of taking a graduate class which was a special topic course in philosophy of science, using this book as the text & breaking down every bit, every claim, to understand it at an extraordinarily detailed level. so, while i am perhaps not able to bring this wonderful fortune to the rest of you all, i can at least do my part by being a bit of a guide. so that’s kind of what i’ve had in mind with my blog & quoting really important & eloquent passages. that and also trying to capture some audience members who haven’t the inclination to purchase & crack open such a challenging book. anyhow, i am getting a bit rambly now, so let me leave it at that for now. my blog is on tumblr, not wordpress, so it’s and in addition to the “sexing the body”-related stuff i’ve more recently added, i also try to put into words in various ways the (somewhat unpopular, even more often unfamiliar) concept that truly what we need is not to separate sex and gender, but to understand how both are binary categories which are presumed to be rooted in some biologically ordained binary (one that doesn’t even exist in the first place, so whose titles can’t be wholesale copied as gender labels, b/c they’re false ideas to begin with). anyhow, obviously we’re on the same page, you & i, and obviously ;) that’s why i adore your blog!

    ok, guess that’s it. ttfn!

  2. awesome! thanks, cat. <3 i added your url to the post cuz i checked it out and it looked relevant. yay!

    i haven't read "sexing the body," but it looks interesting, so i'll probably read it. so, yay cuz i love to read!

  3. AgenderLifeSciences

    I second the recommendation of “Sexing the body”! It’s the best book on the subject apart from the original articles (which you can read if you want — there are about 100 pages of annotations and citations of relevant literature in the book).
    BTW: If there is so much variation in sex (due to chromosomal aberrations, SRY gene dose effects, hormone/receptor variation/mutations/defects, etc.) and considering the highly shapable nature of our brain by both physiological processes and our environment — why isn’t it more widely recognised that variations in gender identity (i.e. non-binary or trans* identities) are not unnatural? In a way, a non-cis-gender identity is the “intersex brain”.

    I guess it’s just wayyyyy off most people’s radar. Most never question their gender or sex. Most don’t know about the biology behind. And most certainly would not want to give up cis privilege if they could decide.

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