What is gender, and how is it related to sex?
In my previous post, we saw that the definition of biological sex is widely agreed upon, the same is not true of gender. The term gender can be used with bewildering variety and stunning inconsistency. However, there are at least two different aspects of gender that are typically emphasized when people talk about gender: “gender role” and “gender identity.”
According to Robert Stoller, the scholar who coined the term “gender identity:”
The term gender identity…refers to the mix of masculinity and femininity in an individual, implying that both masculinity and femininity are found in everyone, but in different forms and different degrees.[i]
Today, gender identity is typically glossed as one’s internal sense of self, which we’ll cover in the next two posts. For this post, I want to consider the relationship between biological sex and gender role.
The idea of gender role was developed by sexologist and gender guru, John Money, who said that “gender role…is defined as everything that one says and does to indicate that one is either male or female, or androgyne,” which is similar to how people describe it today.[ii] Basically, “gender identity is the private experience of gender role, and gender role is the public manifestation of gender identity.” Gender identity is the inside stuff; gender role is the social manifestation of what’s going on inside.
So, to sum up our definitions thus far:
- Biological sex is one’s state of being male or female based on their reproductive structures
- Gender roles are how males and females are expected to behave in any given society; i.e. masculinity and femininity
- Gender identity is one’s internal sense of who they are as male, female, both, or neither
For this post I want to wrestle with the relationship between biological sex and gender role. In the next couple posts, we’ll consider biological sex and gender identity.
Gender Roles and the Nature Versus Nurture Debate
Several questions surround the sex and gender role relationship. Probably the most common is: Are gender roles (i.e. masculinity and femininity) based on biology? That is, are men masculine and women feminine because they are biologically hardwired to be masculine and feminine? Or is masculinity and femininity—gender roles—social constructs thrust back upon biology? Or are gender roles formed by some combination of both nature and nurture? And just so we don’t get too far down the rabbit hole, our main question is: could someone be a gender—in this case, occupy a gender role—that’s different from their biological sex? Or more pointedly: if a female is not feminine, is she still a woman?
Most would agree that gender roles are, on some level, based on stereotypes. Masculine men are those who love sports, are more aggressive, and, some would argue, are better at STEM fields than women are. Boys prefer blue over pink, jeans instead of dresses, and rough and tumble play more than sitting at the edges of the playground talking about all the rough and tumble boys. Women are more nurturing, compassionate, agreeable, and less aggressive as men. Women prefer pink over blue, talking over sports, and working in fields that involve people more than blueprints.
Stereotypes exist. But why do they exist?
Some will say that these stereotypes are purely social constructs. They are artificial expectations foisted upon males and females (scholars who hold this view are called “constructionists”). Others say that these stereotypes are based on biology. Boys love rough and tumble play because they have much more testosterone than girls and are therefore biologically hardwired for rough and tumble play (scholars who hold this view are called “essentialists”).
Take aggression, for instance. If you were to ask anyone on the streets, “are boys more aggressive than girls?” most people would say yes. (The smarter ones will ask you to define “aggression,” but we’ll leave that alone for now.) And there are plenty of studies to back this up.[iii] In utero, most males receive a wash of testosterone during the third trimester that is believed to masculinize the brain. Although the implications of this wash are widely disputed,[iv] many believe that a brain marinated in T is what predisposes males to engaged in masculine behaviors like rough and tumble play. So, when boys are given different options of toys to play with, even at a very young age—say, 2-4 years old—they will more often than not, chose airplanes and action figures over Barbie dolls or magic markers. Females typically don’t receive the same wash of testosterone in utero and as it turns out they also tend to prefer Barbie dolls and magic markers over airplanes and action figures.[v]
Interestingly, one of the ways in which parents and counselors are told to determine if a child is transgender is if they prefer boy toys or girl toys. Regardless of biology, if they act like a boy, play like a boy, prefer blue over pink, jeans over dresses, rough and tumble play with the boys instead of drinking pretend tea with all the chatty little girls, then this means they might really be a boy. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, a child might be trans, for instance, if they “dislike or refuse to take part in activities and games that are typically associated with their sex, and want to take part in activities and games typically associated with the opposite sex” or “prefer to play with children of the opposite biological sex.”[vi] Right or wrong, this way of determining whether a child really is a boy or girl is partially based on gender stereotypes.
But are the essentialists right? Are males biologically hardwired to be masculine?
“Correlation doesn’t equal causation!” protest the constructionists. Just because males act more masculine doesn’t mean that nature (or God) caused them to act this way. It’s just as possible that society has nurtured them into this role. Perhaps boys act more masculine because our society expects them to be more masculine. We reward girls who “act like girls” and reward boys who do the same. We punish girls who act “masculine” and especially boys who act “feminine” (tomboyish girls are typically more socially accepted than girly boys). You may not think you do this, and you may not do it consciously, but from the time a baby is born, we nurture them into the gender roles we think they should fit into.
Pink and blue are classic examples of this. Did you know that 100 years ago, pink was considered a boy color while blue was considered girly? According to the Ladies Home Journal in a 1918 article: “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”[vii] (Prior to the 20th century, all babies were stuffed into white frilly dresses.) And yet today—in the west, at least—boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink. Why? Because we’ve nurtured girls to like pink and boys to like blue. There’s nothing in our genes that hardwires boys to like blue and girls pink. Pink and blue are cultural constructs.
What about aggression? Most people assume that boys are more aggressive because they’ve been juiced up on T in utero. And this might be at least part of the reason why boys are, on average, more aggressive than girls. But some studies show that boys are more aggressive at least partly because they are rewarded when they are aggressive, while girls are not.[viii] In fact, some cross-cultural studies show that levels of male and female aggression are based on how society rewards or discourages aggression.[ix] Male and female aggression levels vary from culture to culture based on how strongly aggression is rewarded or punished. For a behavior to be rigidly hardwired in our sex-differences, it should ring true across all cultures. But this doesn’t appear to be the case with at least some behavioral differences among males and females. And, of course, we must define aggression. Because even in the west where boys turn out to be more physically aggressive than girls, girls are more relationally aggressive than boys, as we’re seeing with the recent epidemic of cyberbullying, which is more common among females than males.[x]
But the social constructionists were dealt a heavy blow in the infamous case of David Reimer. At 8 months old, David was the victim of a botched circumcision that cut off his penis. Since it’s easier to make a hole than a pole, and since—according to John Money, who advised the parents—gender is a social construct, it’d be easier to surgically transition David to a female and raise him as girl, which is what the parents did. David became Brenda, and she lived happily ever after.
Actually, she didn’t. Despite the parents’ best efforts, Brenda couldn’t be socialized into a girl, despite believing she was one. While the media reported that Brenda was getting along just fine as a girl, he later revealed that he has always felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body (sorry, the pronouns are particularly tough with this story, so I’ll keep flip-flopping around). In fact, this is exactly the case. “She ripped off frilly dresses, rejected dolls in favor of guns, preferred to play with boys, and even insisted on urinating standing up.”[xi] Finally, at 14, Brenda couldn’t take it any longer and said she wanted to transition to a boy. It’s then that his parents told him that she really was a boy. Brenda then become David once again.[xii]
That’s just one example, you may think. Not quite. One study looked at a very similar case where a male had his penis severed at an even younger age and was surgically changed to a girl and raised as such, and the results were very similar to Reimer’s.[xiii] Another study looked at 25 males who were born without a penis and were surgically changed into, and raised as, females. All 25 echoed the behavioral patterns of David Reimer: they engaged in male-typical behaviors; some even declared themselves to be boys from a very early age, despite looking like and being raised as females.[xiv]
Nature or nurture? Are gender roles social constructed or biologically hardwired?
While the above cases might cause one to question the scientific validity of gender-neutral parenting, my primary concern is not to solve the nature/nurture debate. For what it’s worth, I do find attractive certain biosocial (or “interactionist”) models, where nature and nurture both interact with each other to form our conceptions of masculinity and femininity. The weight of evidence seems to suggest that the testosterone most males receive in utero has at least some influence on behavior in general, even if some popular assumptions about testosterone might be overplayed.[xv] We can affirm some level of essentialism while also affirming that society plays a role in nurturing such behavior. For instance, what if higher levels of testosterone made males generally more aggressive? And what if they are also generally nurtured and shaped by a society that expects males to be more aggressive? If you had a gun to my head, I’d probably say that both nature and nurture shapes males to generally act more aggressively.
Plus, general differences in the way that males and females smell, hear, and see are much more likely to be biologically rooted than environmentally caused. Females, for instance, have a much more sensitive sense of smell.[xvi] Is this because they’ve been nurtured to have a more sensitive sense of smell? Call me a cynic, but that’s a much harder pill to swallow. Are males really nurtured to have a less sensitive nose?
For the rest of my posts, I’m going to assume that both nature and nurture play some role in forming our concepts of masculinity and femininity and the general patterns of behavior that form and reinforce those expectations. My main concern isn’t to untangle the forever tangled web of nature and nurture. That’s far above my pay-grade and far beyond my focus here. My main concern has to do with the bolded words above: the words “general” or “generally.”
Both essentialists and constructionists agree: Whatever the cause(s), gender roles (masculinity and femininity) are based on generalities not absolutes.
Even hardcore essentialists agree with this. When we say things like males are more aggressive than females, statistically we mean most males are more aggressive than most females. The differences are based on averages, not absolutes. And there’s usually a wide variation among males (and females) within virtually every behavioral trait.
To illustrate this, let’s look at something as indisputable as height. Males are taller than females. The average height of American males is 5 feet 9 inches tall, while the average height of females is 5 feet 4 inches tall. But this doesn’t mean every male is taller than every female. Some women are 6 feet tall and yet no one would say that they are not female because they fall outside the general pattern. There’s a clear difference in average, and yet much variation among each sex.
Same with masculinity and femininity. Most males are more aggressive than most females, giving rise to the stereotype that aggression is associated with masculinity. But—some females are more aggressive than some males. This doesn’t mean aggressive females aren’t females. These behaviors are generalities. We don’t run horses behind carts and we also determine one’s status as male or female based on whether they fit neatly within the general pattern of size or behavior of that class. If you are an aggressive female or a passive male, this certainly doesn’t determine whether you are a male or a female any more than being 5 foot 2 rules you out from being a male.
If you are a male who likes pink and hates blue, this doesn’t mean you are female. (It would actually mean you are incredibly masculine 100 years ago.)
If you are a female who likes sports more than shopping, this doesn’t affect your status as a female.
If you are a 5 foot 2 male who hates sports and loves shopping, you are just as male as Dwayne Johnson, even though only one of you fits the masculine stereotype. (Sorry, I don’t care who you are—Dwayne wins on this one.)
Biological Sex, Gender Roles, and Men’s Retreats
Gender roles are stereotypes based on how males and females generally behave—behaviors that are both biologically influenced and culturally shaped. But biological sex for non-intersex humans is not based on generalities but absolutes. Sure, males and females have many things in common based on their shared humanity, but the very things (chromosomes and reproductive systems) that make non-intersex humans sexually dimorphic are not based on generalities or stereotypes but on black and white absolutes. It would make no sense to flip the whole thing on its head and use the stereotypes to determine one’s status as a man or a woman. Such a move would be both scientifically naïve and socially oppressive.
And yet that’s what people often do. We begin with preconceived categories of how males and females should behave, and when some don’t fit our stereotypes, we make them feel like they aren’t really a man or really a woman.
The church can be particularly guilty of this. I know, because I’ve been to men’s retreats. Men’s retreats don’t tend to be very inclusive of all males (biological sex) but geared much more toward masculinity (gender roles). We don’t say it, but men’s retreats (and I’m going to assume, women’s retreats as well) prioritize gender roles over biological sex. They typically appeal to males and females who fit the stereotype, who conform to the majority. As a result, they tend to (often unintentionally) exclude the minority—those whose biological sex qualifies them to attend, but who’s interests and behaviors fall outside the gender club.
Our original two questions were: Is it possible for someone to be a gender that’s different from their biological sex? And, if it is possible then which one (sex or gender) should determine one’s identity and status as man or woman.
If by gender we mean “gender role,” then yes of course it’s possible—I just don’t think it’s particularly helpful. A female might not act in stereotypically feminine ways. Her biological sex might not be easily stuffed into the gender role implicitly assigned to her. But I would argue, and passionately so, that whether or not she can be neatly stuffed into a particular gender role, this shouldn’t determine her status as a woman.
If someone were to prioritize gender role over biological sex, they would have to depend upon old stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and give fodder to the oppressive notion that the majority should define (and often exclude) the minority.
You may wonder, well WHO’s actually prioritizing gender role over biological sex?
Yes, they are.
According to the World Health Organization (the WHO):
gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. To put it another way: “Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.[xvii]
Notice, the WHO (the org not the band) does not say gender role but gender as a whole. They say that gender refers to all the ways that society forms our understanding and expectations for how men and women should act, and they even us “masculine” and “feminine” to describe “gender categories.”
Call me a party pooper, but this seems to give life to masculine and feminine stereotypes, which could be unhelpful when we’re considering people who experience gender incongruence. For instance, the WHO follows the IDC’s (International Classification of Diseases) definition of gender incongruence as:
Characterized by a marked and persistent incongruence between an individual’s experienced gender and the assigned sex.
If you add the WHO’s definition of gender to the IDC’s definition of gender incongruence, what do you get? Males who aren’t stereotypically masculine and females aren’t stereotypically feminine.
Now, the WHO has updated their statement on sex and gender, but their definition of gender reflects their previous emphasis on societal expectations for males and females: “Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men—such as the norms, roles and relationships that exist between them.”[xviii]
You can see why a good number of feminists are bewildered when otherwise liberal western societies prioritize gender over sex, especially when gender is described along the lines of gender role. Women have been fighting for decades to be liberated from outdated, narrow, and even oppressive constructs of femininity that have been largely maintained by men. “‘Gender’, in traditional patriarchal thinking, ascribes skirts, high heels and a love of unpaid domestic labour to those with female biology, and comfortable clothing, enterprise and initiative to those with male biology,” writes feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys.[xix]
Is this critique valid? When gender overrules sex, does this resurrect old, male-dominated stereotypes that have been oppressive toward women? It depends, in part, on how we define gender, which is why it’s so important to be very clear about what we mean and don’t mean when we talk about gender and sex.
I don’t think gender role should determine who really is a man and who really is a woman.
But what about gender identity—one’s internal sense of self as male or female or both or neither? Could one’s gender identity be at odds with one’s biological sex? And if so, should gender identity overrule biological sex in determining whether one is a man/boy or woman/girl for non-intersex persons?
It’s already 5:30pm where I’m at, and probably near the same where you are. Let’s call it a day and tackle this one in the next post.
[i] Robert Stoller, Presentations of Gender, 10,cited in Christina Beardsley and Michelle O’Brien (eds.), This is My Body, 12.
[ii] Gender role is the “adoptions of cultural expectations for maleness or femaleness” (Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, 17). “Gender roles govern the way we’re expected to act, depending on our gender” (Hartke, Transforming, 23). “Gender roles in society means how we’re expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct ourselves based upon our assigned sex” (Planned Parenthood).
[iii] See especially M. Hines and F. R. Kaufman, “Androgen and the Development of Human Sex-Typical Behavior: Rough-and-Tumble Play and Sex of Preferred Playmates in Children with Congenital Adrenal-Hyperplasia (CAH),” Child Development 65 (1994): 1042-53. See also Tracy Collins-Stanley, et al. “Choice of Romantic, Violent, and Scary Fairy-Tale Books by Preschool Girls and Boys,” Child Study Journal 26 (1996): 279-302; Kai von Klitzing, et al. “Gender-Specific Characteristics of 5-Year-Olds’ Play Narratives and Associations with Behavior Ratings,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 39 (2000): 1017-1023; Melissa Hines, “Sex-Related Variation in Human Behavior and the Brain,” Trends in Cognitive Science 10 (2010): 448-456. For an informed yet accessible summary and discussion, see Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters (2nd ed.; New York: Harmony, 2017), 47-68.
[iv] See Fine, Delusions of Gender, 97-106 for good discussion of different views.
[v] I say “typically,” because some females with an intersex condition known as Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) overproduce the androgen hormone called androstenedione, which seems to have some kind of masculinizing effect on the brain. Females with this condition typically “grow into tomboys, with more rough-and-tumble play, a greater interest in trucks than dolls, better spatial abilities, and, when they get older, more sexual fantasies and attraction involving other girls” (Pinker, The Blank Slate, 238). The number of studies on girls affected with CAH is enormous and the results are somewhat mixed. Some have found very little behavioral differences between girls with CAH and unaffected girls (see Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body, 74-75), and other studies document many behavior differences. In spite of the mixed results, virtually all studies agree that as children, girls with CAH prefer rough and tumble play and male-typical toys much more than unaffected girls (for a review and discussion, see Jordan-Young, Brainstorm, 69-74, cf. 255-268).
[vi] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gender-dysphoria/symptoms/ See also the DSM-5, which says that a child might have gender dysphoria is they show “a strong preference for the toys, games, or activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender” (p. 452, cited in McHugh and Mayer, “Sexuality and Gender,” 96).
[viii] B.I. Fagot and R. Hagan, “Aggression in Toddlers: Responses to the Assertive Acts of Boys and Girls, Sex Roles 12 (1985): 341-351.
[ix] J. H. Block, “Conceptions of Sex Roles: Some Cross-Cultural and Longitudinal Perspectives,” American Psychologist 28 (1973): 512-526; M. Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York: Morrow, 1935); cf. Lips, Sex and Gender, 157.
[xi] Pinker, Blank Slate,349.
[xii] The case was documented in the bestselling book by John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (Harper Collins, 2000) and is talked about in virtually every book on sex and gender.
[xiii] S. J. Bradley, G. D. Oliver, et al. “Experiment of nurture: Ablatio penis at 2 months, sex reassignment at 7 months and a psychosexual follow-up in young adulthood,” Pediatrics 102 (1998) ??.
[xiv] W.G. Reiner, “Cloacal exstrophy: Paper presented at the Lawson Wilkins pediatric Endocrine Society, Boston (2000).
[xv] See Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body, 146-232; or more recently, Cordeila Fine, Testosterone Rex.
[xvi] Pamela Dalton, Nadine Doolittle, and Paul Breslin, “Gender-Specific Induction of Enhanced Sensitivity to Odors,” Nature Neuroscience 5 (2005): 199-200; Nassima Boulkroune, et al. “Repetitive Olfactory Exposure to the Biologically Significant Steroid Androstadienone Causes a Hedonic Shift and Gender Dimorphic Changes in Olfactory-Evoked Potentials,” Neuropsychopharmacology 32 (2007): 1822-1829.
[xviii] https://www.who.int/gender-equity-rights/understanding/gender-definition/en/ For a discussion of the potential problems with their new statement, see: https://www.transgendertrend.com/world-health-organisation-sex-and-gender-page-disappears/
[xix] Gender Hurts, 1-2.