Gender vs. Sex: More Complicated Than Your Typical Trans* 101

“Sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears.”

If you have ever sat in on a trans* 101 course, you inevitably will have heard this phrase said at least once. For those of you who have never heard this before, it is meant to, in an extremely simplified manner, explain the difference between anatomical sex and gender.  Sex is ones biology whereas gender is a social construction that is created by the culture and the people within it.  When referring to sex, you would say, “male, female and intersex” while referring to gender, on the other hand, you would use words like, “man, woman, androgynous,” and so on.

Breaking the Sex Dichotomy

Usually when we hear “sex” we think exclusively “male” or “female.”  Or perhaps when you hear the word your dirty, dirty mind immediately jumps to the act of sex, rather than anatomical sex.  Don’t worry.  I’ll still be your friend.  I don’t judge ;).  Any ways, the reality is that many are born with genitalia that are between male and female, and there are even some born with both.  This would be more apparent if modern medical institutions did not try to “fix” those who are not born with exclusive hegemonic male or female bodies.

When we first think of anatomical sex, we usually focus on what is between the legs.  Our culture often sees it as the “trump card” of sex, and that regardless of how any other part of the body is sexed, the genitalia determine what someone’s sex is.  I see this as both superficial and  ignorant of how the body works as a whole.  Sex is also in our endocrinology, which in turn influences our secondary sex characteristics.  Regardless of what is between someone’s legs, if one has low levels of testosterone and high levels of estrogen, then they typically experience breast development, softer skin, greater olfactory sense, less upper body strength, but more lower body strength, etc.  Someone with high levels of testosterone and low levels of estrogen, on the other hand, will usually experience rougher skin, more body hair growth, more upper body strength and less lower body strength, etc.

Sex is also in ones chromosomes  Unlike what you are told in your high school biology courses, chromosomes are not limited to just XX and XY.  Just to name a couple more, you can be XXY or X with another partial X.  You can predict pretty well which chromosomes someone has usually by their body, but this is definitely not universal.  You can never know for sure what chromosomes you have unless you get genetic testing.   You can be XX even though you were born with hegemonic male organs, or XY  even though you were born with hegemonic female organs.  This does not make you any more or less of a man or woman.  This is why the term “genetic girl/woman” or “genetic boy/man” when referring to cisgender people is misleading because we do not even know for sure what most peoples’ chromosomes are to begin with.

Is Sex Between the Ears Too?

But what about the brain?  Talking about sexed structures in the brain always brings up controversy.  The assumption is that if there are sex differences in the brain, then it validate stereotypes that women and men natrually think and behave differently, and in turn validates sexism.  I used to make this assumption too.  Before I came to accept myself, I used to argue that there are absolutely no differences between males and females outside of reproductive organs and physical secondary sexual characteristics.  I used it as a way out of having to accept myself.  If males and females are exactly the same in every way, then I could somehow overcome this internal sense of being female.  As you can see, that did not work out very well and I had to accept myself for who I am.

Differently sexed brain structures do not necessarily mean that males and females are by nature vastly different opposites. For example, some studies show that females have slightly smaller brains, but this does not mean that females are somehow less intelligent.  What this could mean is that females are generally smaller bodied, because they have not been exposed to male levels of testosterone, and as a result their brains are proportional to their bodies.

Another problem is that people tend to generalize studies that show trends to every individual in an entire population.  Studies show that females, in general, have a larger corpus callosum, which is the connective structure that facilitates communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.  This does not however mean that ALL females have a larger corpus callosum.  In fact, it does not even necessarily mean that MOST females have a larger corpus callosum.  It just means that if you are female, you are more likely to have a larger one.  To assume that someone you are talking to has a larger corpus callosum just because they are female is just ridiculous.  Also, the assumption that brain structures are static and stable from birth is completely inaccurate. If people labeled female are socialized in a way that makes them use their corpus callosum more than males, then that part of the brain could actually mold and become larger or more complex from the use, even if they were the same size as males at birth.

English: Location of the corpus callosum, the ...

In my opinion, the only universal trait between all females is the part of the brain that makes them self identify as female, and the same goes for males.  Not the rest of their bodies, their endocrinology or their chromosomes.  After all, that part of our brain cannot be changed by human hands, and if it makes us identify as female, male, or something else all together, then it does not matter how our body, or even the rest of our brain is structured.

In the end, sex differences in the brain are relatively minute, and by no means are they even remotely universal.  There are vastly more similarities between male and female brains than differences.  The problem is that our culture hones in on these tiny differences and completely exaggerates them to a ridiculous level.  For the most part our culture just makes stuff up.  Female individuals are not somehow inherently more likely to love pink and playing with dolls, and male individuals do not inherently hate pink and love cars and sports.  These are all socially constructed ideas of what it means to be a girl versus a boy and a man versus a woman.  It has nothing to do with sex.

Sex As a Social Construct

Now here is something that you probably will never hear about in your typical trans* 101 course:  The idea of sex also being a social construct.

“But how can sex be a social construct, when it is rooted in biology?” you ask.

Well that is a good question.  Because biology itself IS a social construct that we, as human beings, use to understand the world around us.  It is an extremely useful tool to categorize and classify the living creatures, and how they survive and function.  We can use this information to improve on our quality of life.  By getting a better understanding of how human bodies function and survive, you can create better medical techniques that extend and improve upon the quality of human life.  By understanding the delicate intricacies of an ecosystem, we can better protect it.  But in the end, none of these categories and classifications have any meaning beyond what we give them: including sex.  Just because something is socially constructed, though, does not mean that its impact or effects are somehow any less real.

Biology, just like any other science, is meant to gather information about the world to either support or provide evidence against a given hypothesis.  Often when new information is discovered that challenges existing ideas, we will modify our understanding of biology to better fit this information.  For example, a mammal is typically defined as a placental animal with mammary glands that gives live birth.  With the discovery of egg laying mammals, like the platypus and echidna, we created a new category of mammals called monotremes.

Echidna short beaked

An Excuse to Post a Picture of a CUTE Echidna 🙂

The problem is when this process does not happen.  It is much easier to move around and reclassify our understanding of other species, but when it comes to reclassifying our understanding of human categories, i.e. sex, this process does not happen.  We are quite strongly attached to our cultural ideas of sex.  Rather than allow for the existence of intersex individuals, the Western world pathologizes anyone who falls outside of what the medical establishment considers “male” or “female.”  We ignore the fact that, while some want medical intervention, other people with intersex bodies do not want any medical intervention and do not see their bodies as being pathological.  In fact, many feel violated for the rest of their lives after having their bodies surgically altered at birth in order to “fix” them.

For example, I know two different intersex individuals.  They both had similar situations.  They both had some kind of surgery done to them downstairs when they were born because the area fell outside of the male/female binary we created.  No one in their family knows, or is willing to tell them what kind of surgery was done to them or the circumstances of their birth.  All medical records of what happened have been discarded over the years so they cannot even go back and investigate their own medical history.  They both have to live with medical problems as a result of whatever surgery was done to them, and they were both assigned male at birth.  The main difference is that, while one of them identifies as male, the other one identifies as female and has to live the rest of her life with what was done to her in order to construct what the surgeons considered ” more appropriate” organs.  We make the false assumption that by looking at ones genitalia and seeing what they more closely resemble, that we can somehow know for certain how they are going to identify.  The reality is that even if someone’s visible body completely falls into one of our constructed categories of male or female, we still cannot know for sure how they identify until they are old enough to figure out for themselves and tell us.