Gender Essay

CHAPTER TWO: Is Sex a Spectrum?  

The claim is made that there is no clear biological distinction between woman and man, that sex is a spectrum. As best I understand from everything I’ve read, this is scientific nonsense. While gender expression and gender identity may vary on a spectrum, humans and all other mammals divide into two sexes: females are those on a developmental pathway to produce larger gametes for the purposes of sexual reproduction; males are those on a developmental pathway to produce smaller gametes. Typically, this means xx chromosomes for the female and xy chromosomes for the male – or some variation, the key ingredient being a y chromosome with an active SRY gene for the male. 

There are exceptions to this rule, as there almost always are in biological classifications. They are generally referred to as Intersex or DSD (Differences of Sexual Development). The National Health Service in the UK gives the following definition: “…a group of rare conditions involving genes, hormones and reproductive organs, including genitals. It means a person’s sex development is different to most other people’s.”

There are around fifty different types of Intersex conditions, but their overall prevalence is quite small compared to the general population.  Anne Fausto-Sterling, in 1993, estimated Intersex birth rates to be about 1.7%, although she has since agreed this was probably too high. For a start, over 88% of her estimate was made up of people with a condition called late onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia (LOCAH), which produces a number of variations in health and appearance that mostly show up in later life, but still results in males who can produce viable sperm and females who can conceive and carry babies to term, although they are more likely to have miscarriages. In response to Fausto-Sterling, Leonard Sax estimated that the prevalence of actual Intersex conditions was about 0.018%, and a 2018 review reported that the number of births with ambiguous genitals is in the range of 0.02% to 0.05% – this would mean two to five babies out of every ten thousand. 

To use these figures as proof that sex is a spectrum requires a fair bit of misdirection. For example, here is a graphic representation from Scientific American, a popular science journal. It purports to show that sex is a spectrum. The chart moves from “typical biological female” on the left, and then across a continuum of Intersex conditions to “typical biological male” on the right. This chart is at best misleading. It’s chock full of information about Intersex conditions, which it uses opportunistically to hide the one essential fact that gives the lie to the theory that sex is a spectrum: the relative prevalence of male, female and Intersex conditions. 

Contrast this with a more accurate graphical depiction of the relative numbers . 

This graph is still a bit off. To be perfectly in proportion, the green and yellow should be even smaller. And it is a little more complicated than this. Included in the blue, for instance are things like XXXY, which still presents as male. The determining factor in the Y chromosome is the presence of an SRY gene. There can be cases where the Y chromosome is missing an SRY gene or where the X chromosome has an SRY gene, but these are extremely rare and included in the Intersex figures. 

Clearly this is not a spectrum. The overwhelming numbers of people are either male or female with a tiny sliver of Intersex, which does not represent a third sex but differences in male or female development. This tiny sliver is not insignificant. Although a small percentage of the overall population, it represents millions of people with a complex variety of issues who have frequently been the victims of medical malpractice designed to “normalise” their genitals. Attempts to co-opt their righteous struggle for self-determination as way of shoring up gender ideology’s claim that sex is a spectrum are misguided at best. Transgender people are overwhelmingly xx female or xy male at roughly the same rate as the rest of the population.

Sex related characteristics such as height or muscle mass are bimodal, which means that these characteristics do vary on a continuum (usually a bell curve) within each sex. A graph of comparable male and female differences would produce two overlapping bell shaped curves. 

This doesn’t mean that sex is a continuum: it means that there is variation within each of the two sexes – just as there is in the rest of the mammalian kingdom – and that these variations overlap.

Then there is the infamous chart that Mermaids was using as a training aid. (Mermaids is a British charity that advocates for gender variant and transgender youth. They also provide inclusion and diversity training.) The chart shows a spectrum, ranging from Barbie on the Left to GI Joe on the right. 

Mermaids claimed that they were not using this to reinforce sexual stereotypes, but it seems to me there are only two possible ways to use this chart in a progressive way. The first would be to show it to the kids, tell them it’s complete bullshit, and then rip it to pieces. 

The second would be to have two charts. The girl’s chart would look like this: 

The question would be: if you’re a girl, where might you fit in on this chart? The answer would be, ANYWHERE! ANYWHERE AT ALL! 

The boy’s chart would look like this: 

The question would be: if you’re a boy, where might you fit in on this chart? The answer would be, ANYWHERE! ANYWHERE AT ALL! 

You’re still a male, whether you have a big dick or a little dick. When it comes to determining biological sex, size doesn’t matter. When it comes to gender, it kind of does matter. How big are your tits? How wide are your hips? These are the kinds of things that determine where you belong in the hierarchy of gender stereotypes – AND THEY’RE ALL BULLSHIT!

The fact that biological sex is real doesn’t mean that male and female are platonic categories, that there is an “essence” of male and an “essence” of female to which all true men and women must conform. And it doesn’t mean your behaviour and thinking is determined by your biological sex. The brain is extremely plastic and is constantly changing in response to the outside world.

Gina Rippon, in The Gendered Brain, points out that just training as a juggler for a couple weeks produces measurable changes in brain structure. We live in an extremely gendered world, but when you control for that bias, she argues “there is currently no good evidence of there actually being any relevant differences, whether in the brains of these two groups [male and female] or in the behaviours these brains support.” This is a contested position. Simon Barron-Cohen has conducted experiments that he believes shows new-born females are more likely to look at faces and new-born males are more likely to look at moving objects, but he has been unable to show a clear correlation between this and any later life outcomes. Nor has any other experiment that controls for gendered bias from the outside world been able to show a relevant difference between male and female brains and the behaviours they support.

So we are living in the middle of a contradiction. The human brain is so plastic, so influenced by experience with the outside world, that there are no fundamental differences between how women and men think, EXCEPT for the differences our sexist world creates. But there’s the rub, because male supremacy has been built into the physical structure of our world; it permeates every aspect of our culture and institutions. It’s grown up on the intersection of our biology with class society over thousands of years. Women have been oppressed as a biological class and they have had to fight back as a biological class. If only we could “control” for the gendered world in real life, take it out of the equation, there would be no need for woman-only spaces. But we can’t – at least not simply by “opting out”. 

Biological sex is binary, but it’s not our biology, it’s not our human nature that divides us against each other. It’s an economic system based on cutthroat competition and class dominance, a system which exploits every division among the people just as naturally as water seeps into the cracks and fissures of any surface that contains it. To put an end to male supremacy, to destroy patriarchy, we have to destroy capitalism. Until then, whatever reforms we win, whatever vicious attacks we beat down, they will keep bouncing back, maybe in new and different forms, but still fundamentally the same old shit. 

This is very much NOT to say that we should wait until after the revolution to fight against sexism, racism or all the other oppressive ideas, laws and institutions that capitalism generates . And it is very much NOT to say that after the revolution all this shit will be sorted out pronto-quick. Rather, we should be fighting against all these things now: one, because it’s righteous and necessary; two, because how we fight now will define the kind of world we are trying to build; and three, because after the revolution, there will still be sexism, racism, class divisions… Socialism is not some magic wand that can wave all this shit away. It just means we would have a fighting chance. 

We can use the power we have gained through revolution to change the entire structure of our society, to change how we produce and share the riches of our planet, to write new laws, to dismantle old institutions and create new ones, to fight against all the oppressive ideologies that have grown up out of and continue to prop up class society. We can begin to build a world that isn’t divided by sex, by race, by nation, by class. There will always be conflict – life is conflict – but we can take things to a higher level. We can become our own better angels.  

In the meantime, here we are in this shithole. Women are still oppressed because of their biology. We can’t simply define it away. 

<– Chapter One ***** Chapter Three –>

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