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Traditionalists and Activists are Both Wrong About Sex and Gender

Note: I had almost completed writing this essay when I became aware of President Donald Trump’s action to bar transgender individuals from serving in the United States military. This is blatant discrimination against the transgender community. As Sen. John McCain wrote following Trump’s announcement, “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving. There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity. We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so—and should be treated as the patriots they are.”

Wading into the turbulent rapids of the politics of sex, gender, and gender identity requires a life vest. Inevitably, one is bound to upset one or another political current, be it transgender rights or support for traditional gender roles. If I cannot hope to achieve a rapprochement between the two sides, I can at least try to anger both. But before I get into why many of today’s gender activists are misguided, I will first explain where traditionalists go wrong.

***

In support of transgender rights, and in opposition to reactionary ideologues intent on drawing battle lines across America’s public bathrooms, it is a fact that transgender identity cannot be dismissed as a whimsical choice made by some jaded, politically correct millennial.

Nor can it simply be reduced to a mental disorder that is in need of immediate medical treatment. History and anthropology present us with numerous examples of individuals not conforming to traditional gender roles, from Roman emperors to entire social classes of people.

And in the scientific realm of sex development, it is well established that sex-typical (normal) development is not activated by a single, binary switch, but relies on a complex process regulated by genes, hormones, and biochemical receptors.

When it comes to genes, individuals may possess sex-chromosome numbers that differ from the standard XX (for females) or XY (for males). Klinefelter syndrome, for example, occurs when an individual possesses two Xs and one Y (XXY). Such an individual may develop a combination of masculine and feminine traits—which are both physical as well as psychological and behavioral.

Sex-typical development may likewise be obstructed when sex hormones fail to activate appropriate developmental cascades (scientific jargon for a series of chemical reactions that take place in crucial developmental periods such as puberty). In sex-typical males, the SRY gene on the Y chromosome triggers the release of testosterone, which enables the masculinization of the brain and body during the fetal stage of development. However, this process is hindered in individuals with androgen insensitivity syndrome. This is a condition where male individuals develop feminine physical and psychological traits because their androgen receptors have shut down. Androgen insensitivity is likewise not an all-or-nothing phenomenon; individuals may be only partially insensitive to androgens and, as a result, may exhibit only subtle feminine characteristics, if any at all.

Klinefelter syndrome and androgen insensitivity syndrome are two of the most common forms of sex-atypical development, but there are others. Male development, for instance, is governed by separate brain and body masculinization processes that occur prior to birth.1 Upon the release of testosterone, the enzyme 5α-reductase transforms it into dihydrotestosterone, which masculinizes the fetal body. The enzyme aromatase, in contrast, converts testosterone into estrogen, which, despite its reputation as a typically female hormone, works to masculinize the fetal brain. Either of these pathways can break down without affecting the other pathway, leading to the development of individuals with masculine bodies but not brains or masculine brains but not bodies.

What these conditions suggest is that the experience of being trapped in a body that does not match one’s psychological gender, an experience that is commonly reported by transgender individuals, is in some cases undergirded by developmental biology. They likewise suggest that the religious-Right’s insistence that transgender individuals are deluded is not borne out by the science.

Where Activists Go Wrong

But the science of sexual development is apolitical, and transgender activists are not immune to anti-scientific sentiment. For one, humans are a sexually dimorphic species, which means that, despite the complexity of sexual development, most humans can be divided into male and female forms. Even in the previously discussed cases of atypical sexual development, it is atypical combinations and degrees of male and female characteristics that are responsible. The claim that there are more than two genders—not to mention the more than 50 gender options that Facebook users can select for themselves—is biologically untenable. But there is an even deeper ignorance among activists; an ignorance that plagues much of today’s left-wing politics: ignorance of the inextricable link between culture and biology.

Gender feminists and transgender activists—at least the more extremist ones—are generally suspicious of the biological underpinnings of gender. To varying extents, they are informed by academics in the field of gender studies who claim that there is a separation between sex and gender.

In the category of sex are placed genes, hormones, and genitalia, whereas in the category of gender are placed sex differences in aggression, nurturing behavior, and even sex differences in sexual behavior—all presumed to be the products of socialization by societal forces.2 But there is a paradox here. If sex and gender are indeed separate entities, on what do transgender activists base their contention when they claim that gender identity is not a choice? I doubt they believe that entrenched transgender identity is a product of early childhood socialization, or Judith Butler’s concept of “performativity,” but this seems to be the only alternative if the influence of biology is ignored.

The separation of sex and gender is the modern day version of Cartesian dualism—the illusory separation between the mind and the body. Both notions are flawed in that both rely on a separation that is not there. Cartesian dualism falls apart with the realization that “mind matter” relies on “physical matter” such as neurons, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses.

The dualism of sex and gender falls apart upon an encounter with the growing body of evidence on anatomical, physiological, and behavioral sex differences—differences that cannot be dismissed as products of social construction. Note, however, that just as it is sometimes useful to make a distinction between bodies and minds (notwithstanding the indelible connection between the two), there may be instances when it is useful to make a distinction between sex and gender. If one were discussing cultural products such as women’s high heeled shoes, or “men’s” and “women’s” bicycles, for example, framing the discussion in terms of gender differences would be the way to go.

But when it comes to differences between men’s and women’s brains and behavior, there is no hard-and-fast distinction between culture and biology.

The clearest evidence for this lack of a distinction is the fact that most individuals are cisgender (individuals whose gender identity aligns with their biological sex). The most liberal estimates suggest that transgender individuals make up only 0.5 to 0.6 percent of the US population.3 Although this in no way invalidates the struggle for transgender rights—which would still be a necessary struggle even if there were only one transgender person in the world—it does suggest that biological sex and gender identity correspond in the vast majority of individuals. If gender identity were completely separate from biological sex, we would expect a greater number of transgender individuals within the population—at least greater than half-a-percentage point.

Some might claim that gender-role socialization in restrictive societies explains the reduced number of transgender individuals. But this contention does not hold up well under scrutiny. Gender-egalitarian countries such as Sweden are similar to less gender-egalitarian countries when it comes to differences in toy preferences between boys and girls.4 That such differences run deeper than cultural rearing practices is also suggested by the finding that male rhesus monkeys, like their human counterparts, are more likely to play with trucks than female rhesus monkeys,5 and when juvenile female chimpanzees cannot get their hands on dolls, they cradle sticks instead.6

However, the most interesting indictment of the socialization-of-gender hypothesis that I have come across, was not really an indictment at all. Rather, it was an indictment of the direction of socialization effects commonly claimed by gender studies researchers. Specifically, girls who experienced the highest level of androgen exposure before birth were slightly more likely to exhibit masculine behaviors if they were encouraged to be feminine in childhood.7 This suggests that traditional gender-role socialization has no effect on—and may even exacerbate—gender-noncomformity among individuals with a hormonal profile that is atypical. If there are still doubts about the limits of gender socialization, however, the sad case of David Reimer should allay them.

A Biologically Informed Activism

As with the struggle for gay rights, the struggle for transgender rights should not pivot on whether science discovers all, or any, of the biological correlates underlying gender identity. Even if gender identity is a choice that is completely unrelated to sex hormones and reproductive physiology (a stance that, oddly enough, is shared by both the religious-Right and the proponents of sex and gender dualism), the legitimacy of the struggle for transgender rights would not falter.

But the need for both sides to get the science right carries practical consequences for the lives of millions. When religious conservatives posing as experts deny individuals their right to identify as they choose, they are dismissing the experiences of transgender individuals and the science of gender identity. On the other hand, when transgender activists bully legitimate researchers to suit their political agenda or enshrine laws that compel the adoption of recently-invented gender pronouns, scientific inquiry and free expression are ultimately sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.

 

Endnotes

[1] Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience. Oxford University Press: New York, NY, p. 233.

[2] For an evolutionary rebuttal to the contention that sex differences in aggression, nurturance, and sexual behavior result from socialization, see: Baron-Cohen, S. (2005). The empathizing system: A revision of the 1994 model of the mindreading system. In B. J. Ellis, & D. F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development (pp. 468-492). New York: Guilford; Clark, R. D., & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 2, 39-55; and Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1998). Homicide. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

[3]Crissman, H. P., Berger, M. B., Graham, L. F., & Dalton, V. K. (2017). Transgender demographics: A household probability sample of US adults, 2014. American Journal of Public Health, 107, 213-215.

[4] Nelson, A. (2005). Children’s toy collections in Sweden—a less gender-typed country? Sex Roles, 52, 93-102.

[5] Hassett, J. M., Siebert, E. R., & Wallen, K. (2008). Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Hormones and Behavior54, 359-364.

[6] Kahlenberg, S. M., & Wrangham, R. W. (2010). Sex differences in chimpanzees’ use of sticks as play objects resemble those of children. Current Biology20, R1067-R1068.

[7] Udry, J. R. (2000). Biological limits of gender construction. American Sociological Review, 65, 443-457.

17 Comments

  1. There are only two sexes, defined by DNA, male and female and beyond deformities which occur in utero, or are created through surgery and drugs, there remain two genders, male and female.

    While people should have the right to cut away or drug away whatever they want, this should not be allowed until at least the age of 21. And everyone should have the right to dress, move, talk, any way that they wish, but none of it will change the reality that they will be either male or female, as they were born.

    The problem is in the allocation of certain qualities and ways of acting and dressing with males and females, so, instead of encouraging children to deform themselves, let them dress as they wish.

    Studies show that ‘gender-re-assignment’ or gender deformity rarely brings optimal function and often results in suicide. Understandably.

    • Doctrinaire, much…?
      Presented here is a balanced piece with citations, and you feel the need to add a personal viewpoint like you are stating established facts.
      Suggestion: If you’re going to engage seriously with an article, then your comments would be far more useful if they included their own references. You could start by defining “optimal function” and describing why this is significant.
      Otherwise you’re just adding an uninformed opinion piece that would be better published on your own blog.

      • Yeah Nope says

        “You could start by defining “optimal function””

        How about this for non-optimal, the little discussed trans hairball. The hair of the inverted penis/scrotum turned pseudo-vagina, continues to grow. It can become packed into the base of the cavity, turning into a hive of bacterial and fungal growth.

        Or sterilization, or the increased risks of a slew of medical issues associated with hormone treatments, or the ~40% post-op suicide rate.

      • By all means show me the evidence that DNA defines more than two sexes. If there is a murder and DNA is studied it will establish male or female.

        This simple reality must be the foundation of any discussion on this topic. It is relevant to any discussion regarding the modern concept of gender.

        The simplest thing DNA can tell you is whether someone is male or female. Apart from some very rare cases, that doesn’t even involve looking at their DNA sequence – all you need to know is whether they have X and Y chromosomes (making them male) or a pair of Xs (which makes them female). A foetus will, by default, develop as female unless the SRY gene on the Y chromosome is turned on.

        • Kyle says

          Genetics is one mechanism of sex formation. As the article points out, there are others — neurological, biological, etc. — and they aren’t always synergistic.

          • No, there is only DNA when it comes to defining gender or sex. Male and female.

            Men, or males have an X and a Y chromosome and women have two X chromosomes. chromosome.

            The biological and neurological are simply variations of expression on the theme of being male or female. One remains either male or female in gender however much one may dress, act, talk etc., like stereotypical males or females do, and however much they deform their bodies with surgery and drugs.

            A male dressed, or surgically and medically changed to look like a female in this day and age, remains a male and vice-versa.

  2. Matt says

    Should the entire western civilization change in order to make less than 1% happy? And the change is going to disrupt a lot more than 1% of the regular population. Should society always have to change for smallest group even if it is disruptive?

  3. I’ve said elsewhere that transgenderism is a bigger challenge to feminism than to biology.

    There are developmental conditions that can, indeed, disrupt the masculinisation of the brain but accepting the fact that there is such a thing as a ‘masculine’ brain means discarding blank-state dogma.

    On the other hand accepting that XXY, XXXY, etc. represents part of a ‘sexual spectrum’ is rather problematic.

    If we are to do that why not embrace other types of aneuploudy like Down’s syndrome into the normal karyotype ‘spectrum’? What about Edwards syndrome?

    Other than the difference in length between the X and the Y chromosomes, what’s so special about them that duplications should be regarded as part of a normal distribution while duplications on all other chromosomes are treated as abnormalities? The severity is only a matter of degree, and degrees are precisely what a spectrum describes.

  4. Randy says

    Thank you. My only issue is “The claim that there are more than two genders … is biologically untenable”.

    That all depends, doesn’t it? I don’t even believe there is “gender”. There is only sex. But in any case, how many there “are” is entirely up to us in deciding how it makes sense to refer to people. There’s nothing we’re going to find in biology that is going to tell us whether “xir” is a suitable pronoun. Rather, we have to ask why we are categorizing people in certain ways… what is the purpose of knowing this about a random person? I think there is probably reasonable utility in either zero sexes (or one sex, same thing really) or three sexes. I mean we very rarely actually need to know this information about a person, particularly if we aren’t planning on getting into bed with them later. (The inuktitut language, for example, does not distinguish by sex and somehow they survived). But in English history we’ve traditionally settled on two sexes, and a third might be enough to address legitimate problems people have had with the two.

  5. Yeah Nope says

    “This is blatant discrimination against the transgender community.”

    False, it’s discrimination for medical reasons, which the military has done since its establishment. All transgenders have a psychological disorder, this alone disqualifies then from military service.

    “it is a fact that transgender identity cannot be dismissed as a whimsical choice made by some jaded, politically correct millennial.”

    True, but not the whole truth. Transgenders make up less than .5% of the population, yet college campuses are seemingly rife with them. This clearly indicates attention seeking behavior by the majority claiming to be transgender, rather than them actually suffering from body dysmorphia. The claims of transgenderism have become so common that the term Trans-trender has been coined to describe them.

    Bringing up Klinefelter Syndrome isn’t helping your case. Those with XXY suffer from a variety of physical and neurological issues. Comparing Klinefelter to transgenderism is ridiculous, Klinefelter is a chromosomal defect, not a different gender.

  6. C.J. says

    I wrote the following after studying the transgender phenomenon over the last couple of years. The biggest issue is that there are multiple causes of transgenderism, and a bunch of confusing terms, and it all gets conflated into a giant mess. Discussion is really difficult since the narcissistic trenders and AGP seek to shut down any and all discussion since reality conflicts with their political aims. I fully support true trans folk (truscum) as they have a genuine medical condition. At the moment, transition is what works best for them, and I support them in their need to live as normal a life as possible. I do not support transvestites or trans trenders who appropriate trans identities for the oppression points and special snowflake status. These morons are the loudest and the most violent, and they are giving the wider public at large the impression that trans people and other LGB (a lot of people assume that T = lesbian and gay) are a bunch of raving psychotic assholes.

    There are 4 types of people who are considered to be trans, or who consider themselves to be trans:

    1) HSTS (homosexual or androphilic) transexuals. These are the only true transexuals. MTF have been shown to have brains with feminized morphology in brain studies and this is what probably explains the GID. Examples: Blaire White (MTF) and Yorick (FTM). SRS and HRT help these people, as what they suffer from is brain/body mismatch. They would suffer from the mismatch even if they were alone on a desert island. They don’t need people to tell them they look pretty in a dress – what they need is for their bodies to change to match their minds.

    2) AGP (autogynephile) aka tranvestitic fetishist. These people are NOT transexual and have never been transexual. They got lumped in with true transexuals because in very rare cases some of them do seek SRS because they hate their male bodies. But they are not true transexuals. In brain studies they have been shown to have typical male brains. AGP are men who are sexually aroused by pretending to be women. It is an emasculation fetish and female submissiveness is what turns them on. These are the people like Riley Dennis and Danielle Muscato who try to guilt lesbians into sucking their ‘ladycocks’. They want access to female only facilities because it’s all part of the fantasy that they want to live. They are males with a fetish. They are not trans. They do not feel dysphoria.

    3) People with Dissociative Disorder. Examples: Walt Heyer and ThirdWayTrans (Google it). It is this third group that is at high risk for suicide. These are the people who will initially feel happy after SRS and HRT, but many years later become depressed again because the source of their GID is dissociative in nature, and not because the morphology of their brains is feminine trapped in a male body. I suspect that a lot of the trans trenders that we are seeing today are people who are unhappy with their current sex and, due to social dysphoria and self-hate, convince themselves that all of their problems will go away if they can live as the other sex. These are the people who should NOT be given HRT or have their genitals chopped off. I also suspect that otherkin falls under dissociaive disorder, as there have been some people such as Tiamat (google “tiamat pinknews”) who identify as trans and as a dragon.

    4) Trans Trenders: These are the tumblr users who think that dying their hair pink makes them trans. These are the people who think that ‘gender’ is a synonym for ‘personality’ and have managed to label literally every personality quirk a ‘gender’. Oh, you like nature, well you’re ‘flowergender’ or something like that. These are the people who are making a mockery of what it means to be trans. They also want social acceptance and to be cool. They are just goth/emo kids for the 2010s. I hope this trend dies. Example: Milo Stewart

    • Piotr says

      Can you give sources for the brain studies of AGP trans people, and something about the DID trans folk? Sounds interestign.

  7. C.J. says

    The science backs up the fact that there is only one true type of transexual for which the origin is biological in nature. Two modern MRI studies examined many different areas of the brain an the results backed up Blanchard’s typology. Rametti screened out autogynephiles and only tested HSTS and Savic and Arver did the opposite. The studies found that HSTS have brains morphologically similar to those of women in every tested area and autogynephiles have brains indistinguishable from other men. And in a recent study, Guillamon determined that transexuals have a unique brain:

    “”“Trans people have brains that are different from males and females, a unique kind of brain,” Guillamon says. “It is simplistic to say that a female-to-male transgender person is a female trapped in a male body. It’s not because they have a male brain but a transsexual brain.” Of course, behavior and experience shape brain anatomy, so it is impossible to say if these subtle differences are inborn.””

    “”Other investigators have looked at sex differences through brain functioning. In a study published in 2014, psychologist Sarah M. Burke of VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam and biologist Julie Bakker of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience used functional MRI to examine how 39 prepubertal and 41 adolescent boys and girls with gender dysphoria responded to androstadienone, an odorous steroid with pheromonelike properties that is known to cause a different response in the hypothalamus of men versus women. They found that the adolescent boys and girls with gender dysphoria responded much like peers of their experienced gender. The results were less clear with the prepubertal children.””

    “”Overall the weight of these studies and others points strongly toward a biological basis for gender dysphoria. But given the variety of transgender people and the variation in the brains of men and women generally, it will be a long time, if ever, before a doctor can do a brain scan on a child and say, “Yes, this child is trans.”””

    The cross-sex-shift hypothesis predicts that homosexual men and women will be similar in certain neurobehavioral traits to their opposite-sex counterparts. Accordingly, it predicts that homosexual men should perform in the direction of heterosexual women, and homosexual women in the direction of heterosexual men, on neurocognitive tests that show normative sex differences. We conducted a meta-analysis on the relationship between sexual orientation and cognitive performance, and tested the effects of potential moderating variables separately by sex. A total of 106 samples and 254,231 participants were included. The meta-analysis revealed that homosexual men performed like heterosexual women in both male-favouring (e.g., spatial cognition) and female-favouring (e.g., verbal fluency) cognitive tests, while homosexual women performed like heterosexual men only in male-favouring tests. The magnitude of the sexual orientation difference varied across cognitive domains (larger for spatial abilities). It was also larger in studies comparing exclusive heterosexuals with exclusive homosexuals compared to studies comparing exclusive heterosexuals with non-exclusive homosexuals for both sexes. The results may narrow down potential sites for sexual orientation-related neural differences.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763417302737

    • Gregory Gorelik says

      Thank you for your posts C.J. I admit to not being as up-to-date on the complex nature of the trans phenomenon and its taxonomy as I should be. Your comments are indeed substantive and have given me pause to think more deeply about the underlying issues. Thank you for that. If “trans trenders” are indeed as confused as you say they are, and if they are partly responsible for the backlash against “true trans folk,” then this is a problem. However, I don’t see how this absolves naive anti-trans crusaders from acknowledging the reality of sexually anomalous developmental pathways.

  8. Claire S. says

    Points in this article and comment section ring true for me. I’m a female, I’ve always identified as a female, I have no desire to be a male.

    That said, I frequently choose activities and clothing that are traditionally considered male/have been made for males, and always have. If you grew up in the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere, I don’t know), then you’ll be familiar with the label ‘tomboy’. As a child, that was the only disclosure needed, and everyone moved on.

    Years later, I was diagnosed with slightly elevated free testosterone. So, I take some pills to make sure I don’t end up with a better looking beard than my husband. (It’s really not nearly as severe as I just made it sound. Almost all females have some rogue chin hair. I just have a few more and I consider them a nuisance/want to make sure they don’t multiply.)

    I’ve heard some people try to make the argument that based on these preferences, and hormonal findings that maybe I don’t really identify as female in gender. Here’s the thing: I don’t feel confused about the body I’m in, I don’t want a penis, and nobody is forcing me (anymore) to wear dresses. So, no, I don’t need another label to describe myself or my desires. I’m a lady. I prefer pants. I liked toy trucks and the only dolls I asked for were G.I. Joe’s.

    I understand that some people truly don’t feel right in their bodies, but with the advent of 50+ gender labels, I wonder if it doesn’t counteract the actual argument.

    “What? You’re a straight female who likes trucks, construction activities, and short hair? Well, that’s impossible. You must be gay, or identify as a some other gender. Cis females can’t REALLY like those things…”

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