The binary nature of sex: a column by Deborah Soh

I’ve maintained in several posts that biological sex is not an arbitrary social construct, but an objective phenomenon into which the vast majority of humans (and most animal species) fall into the clearly delineated categories of “male” and “female”. The frequency of exceptions for sex is about 1%, or less if you omit transgender individuals who are “male” and “female” defined by chromosome constitution, genitalia, and form of gametes. Sex is largely bimodal, with most individuals falling into the two sharp “male” and “female” peaks and a deep valley of exceptional individuals between the peaks. For most purposes, we can regard sex in humans as a biological binary.

Gender, on the hand, doesn’t divide so nearly if you see it as an individual’s self-identification. Much of gender is, of course, biologically based, as when someone in a purely female body has a strong psychological (and hence biological) predilection to feel as if they’re male. But some individuals feel as if they’re members of two or even more sexes (some of these use the personal pronoun “they” for themselves), while some feel as if they’re members of no sex at all. Which sex you feel you’re a member of is surely bimodal, but there are more exceptions than there are for sex (or so I feel; I may be wrong). That’s why I say gender is less binary than is biological sex.

Debra Soh, who has a Ph.D. in the psychology of sexuality and is now working as a journalist, has written an article in Real Clear Politics (click on screenshot) which agrees with me that sex is binary (I’d say “effectively binary”.

Citing the same New York Times column by Anne Fausto-Sterling that I discussed in an earlier post— a column implying that because sex isn’t 100% binary it isn’t bimodal—Soh makes points similar to mine. First, a few rare exceptions doesn’t mean that the concept of biological sex is arbitrary or forms a continuum in which the sexes blur together. As Soh writes,

Fausto-Sterling’s piece points to the existence of intersex people as evidence that this isn’t the case. Certainly, research has shown that as many as 1 percent of the population is intersex, a medical condition denoting that an individual possesses anatomy characteristic of both sexes, such as a combination of vulvar and testicular tissue. Statistically speaking, however, this means that the vast majority of us fall into one category of sex or the other.

It therefore becomes a question of whether a statistically rare occurrence in the general population should be considered typical. An analogy that is commonly used to illustrate this is the fact that most of us have 10 fingers. There exist individuals who possess fewer or more than 10 digits on their hands, but this hasn’t called for a re-conceptualization of how many fingers a human being has.

Soh also agrees with me that despite the effective binary of biological sex, we should respect people’s self-definition of gender.

For the intersex community, there has been a long history of physicians failing to respect their bodily autonomy, or incorrectly assuming that they were not the sex they grew up to identify as in adulthood. In these cases, individuals should be allowed to change the sex marked on their birth certificate if, later in life, an intersex condition becomes known.

We can, and should, advocate for the rights of intersex people and those who do not fit typical gender norms, while at the same time acknowledging these scientific truths.

Where Soh and I part company is on two points.

First, she also claims that like sex, gender is also a binary.

Indeed, gender—whether we subjectively feel male or female—is biological, not a social construct. An extremely large and consistent body of scientific research has shown that gender is the result of prenatal hormone exposure, even in the case of intersex individuals, as opposed to adults and society imposing gendered norms on unsuspecting children from the moment they leave the womb.

After describing “the process of gender socialization,” the piece goes on to say that “[f]etal hormones also affect brain development.” How would it be possible for hormones to affect the developing brain in utero, but not the expression of this brain development, which manifests as sex-typed differences in interests, personality, and behavior when the child is born?

. . . But in reality, the term “transgender” means that a person identifies more as the opposite sex than their birth sex—which still operates within a framework of sex being binary.

This, however, leaves out the fact that some people don’t identify as “male” or “female” genders, nor do some cultures recognize just two genders.

And if some people see themselves as both male and female, or of no sex at all, then gender isn’t a binary, or at least not as much a binary as biological sex. I hasten to add that I’m assuming that individuals who don’t identify as “male” or “female”, regardless of their biological sex, are higher in frequency than 1% or so. If they aren’t, then gender could also be regarded as an “effective binary”; even though it is, like sex, strongly bimodal. I’d guess that more than 95% of people consider themselves “male” or “female”, so gender is also bimodal  But gender and sex are not interchangeable terms.

Soh also seems to agree with the Health and Human Services’s proposal to recognize only two sexes as sound:

[Anne Fausto-Sterling’s] piece joined a long succession of media coverage criticizing the Department of Health and Human Services’ recently leaked memo, which proposed legally defining sex as either male or female.

From a scientific perspective, there was nothing wrong with HHS’s definition. Biological sex refers to whether we are female or male, based on our anatomy and reproductive functions. The concept of sex is, by definition, binary.

But as far as I know, the HHS redefinition is of gender, not sex, or so says the New York Times:

The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.

. . . The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.

Unless we consider biological sex and gender to be identical, Soh is wrong to assume they’re effectively the same thing, Although both have a biological basis, someone who’s a transgender individual is usually born as a member of one sex but consider themselves (and feel like) members of another.

It is these people that the Trump administration is aiming at, refusing to recognize someone like Caitln Jenner as being of the female gender. People like her would then be forced to use men’s restrooms and so on, something that I think is coercive and oppressive. The HHS policy is just a way to force those who don’t fit the gender binary into a sex binary—a generally conservative policy. It is, as far as I can see, a way to oppress or stigmatize transsexual or transgender individuals (I have trouble understanding if there’s any difference between these categories, as they’re often defined identically).

There may be some circumstances that justify recognizing a sex binary for official purposes, as in sports. But even there, what with hormone therapy and gender-transition surgery, things get very messy, and I have no solution about what to do with transsexual athletes.

What I’ve been arguing against in my three or four posts on this issue is that while gender may be quite fluid, with individuals falling into ambiguous psychological rather clear biological categories, sex itself is pretty much a binary. There’s certainly no reason, I think, to see sex as some kind of continuum, as a social construct, or as,something that’s not biologically and (nearly always) objectively real.

When a male lion wants to mate, he looks for a female, for nearly every lion is a member of one of the two sexes. And since animals have no “social constructs”, their innate recognition of whom they should reproduce with is a sign of the objectivity of male versus female lions. (Yes, someone’s gonna mention bonobos, but they use sexual gestures as a form of bonding, not as a means of reproduction, and even that is extremely rare among species.)

In other words, as of now I’m willing to accept someone’s self-identification as to biological gender, but not self-identification as to biological sex. I accept individuals like Caitlin Jenner as members of the female gender, but not of the female biological sex.

55 Comments

  1. Posted November 4, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    One thing that puzzles me about this debate. I would agree that:

    … gender may be quite fluid, with individuals falling into ambiguous psychological rather clear biological categories, …

    So gender is not neatly binary; some people are on a continuum, somewhere in between. Agreed.

    But then:

    … I accept individuals like Caitlin Jenner as members of the female gender, …

    Why do we then try to place them into one of two neat categories? Doesn’t that contradict the spirit of the above?

    Why are we then asked whether “transwomen are women”, as though we can only give a yes/no answer to that, as though they are either completely and totally women, or not women?

    Why can’t we answer: well, they’re transwomen, some people don’t fit either category perfectly, because gender isn’t neatly binary. ?

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 4, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I guess that the reason is that Ms Jenner does not want to be recognised as ‘inbetween’ or transwoman, but as a woman. (well, I’m not 100% sure about Ms Jenner, but it often is the case).
      I’ll stick my neck out and say that transwomen are not really women, especially if not being anatomically ‘modified’. Gender is bimodal, but less so than biological sex. Biological sex is already not always obvious (Cf. eg. Caster Semenya). However, gender still is kinda bimodal. I can agree with both Ms Soh and our host, the question will always remain moot.

      • Posted November 4, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        I guess that the reason is that Ms Jenner does not want to be recognised as ‘inbetween’ or transwoman, but as a woman.

        But if they’re so keen to be classed clearly as one of two categories, fully “woman” or fully “man”, why do they then also insist on the continuum, non-binary nature of sex/gender?

        There’s a fundamental inconsistency here.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted November 4, 2018 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          I believe you’ve engaged here in the fallacy of composition.

        • Posted November 6, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          I see what you’re getting at. But think about it in terms of the quote from the article. That is, it’s not Caitlyn Jenner (or the overwhelming majority of binary people, transgender or not) who’s insisting on the continuum. In fact, Soh wrote an article that essentially addresses the topic: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-soh-trans-feminism-anti-science-20170210-story.html

          I just don’t know enough about non-binary people to comment on the science behind it. I’ve met one in my lifetime.

          But it’s ironic that transgender people are being accused of claiming that gender is a social construct.

    • phil brown
      Posted November 4, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Whether or not transwomen are women (or transmen are men), in the same sense and to the same extent that ciswomen (cismen) are, is not a matter for science to determine, but a matter of how we want to categorise people.

      A lot of folk seem to get riled by the term ‘cis’ in the gender debate, which I think is because they object to the idea of transwomen being categorised as women simpliciter, (thus necessitating the ‘cis’ prefix). They want ciswomen only to be women simpliciter. But I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to categorise here, though there may be better or worse ways to do it, from a practical or humane perspective.

    • Gordon Davisson
      Posted November 4, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I’m inclined to think about this in terms of population statistics. This’ll take a bit to set up, but let me take a stab at it.

      Suppose we made a made a huge many-dimensional histogram plotting people on axes corresponding to all the various sex- and gender-linked attributes. We’d obviously get two big bumps in the distribution, corresponding to “males” and “females”. Most people fall pretty clearly into one or the other of the bumps. But as bumps in histograms tend to, they don’t have very clearly defined edges; they trail gradually off into the surrounding territory (and to some extent into each other). See http://documentation.statsoft.com/STATISTICAHelp.aspx?path=glossary/GlossaryTwo/B/BimodalDistribution for a (one-dimensional) example of what I’m talking about. My point here is that there’s no clear distinction between data points that’re *in* the bumps vs. those that’re just *near* one of them vs. those those that’re far from either; the distinctions are fuzzy.

      My impression is that Jerry’s right about gender being less binary than sex; that means that these two bumps will be more spread out (and have a less clear valley between them) on the mental and social (“gender”-related) axes of the graph than on the biological (“sex”-related) axes.

      But that’s not really what we’re talking about; we’re talking about transgender people. In this hypothetical histogram, transmen and transwomen show up as two (much smaller) bumps in the distribution. Transmen mostly align with men on the gender-related axes of the graph, and mostly with women on the sex-related axes; transwomen align the other way around. The graph looks a bit like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multimodal_distribution#/media/File:Bimodal-bivariate-small.png (only with much smaller bumps on two opposite corners, and less overlap on one of the axes).

      So, in this view, how can we categorize someone like Caitlyn Jenner? My first point implies there aren’t any clear boundaries anywhere on this graph, but that doesn’t mean we can’t categorize regions of it. The color spectrum is continuous (and multidimensional, if you include saturation and lightness as well as hue), but we don’t have any trouble breaking it up into regions and labelling them “green”, “purple”, “pink”, etc. In the same way, I don’t see any problem categorizing someone who falls at-least-mostly in the female-bump area of the gender-related axes and at-least-mostly in the male-bump ares of the sex-related axes as a transwoman. Sure, the boundaries of this sort of category are going to be fuzzy around the edges, but that doesn’t make them meaningless; it just means you shouldn’t take the categories too seriously.

      But should we categorize Caitlyn as a *woman*? IMO, there are really two relevant factors here. First, which axes on the graph are most important? For social purposes, the gender-related axes are pretty clearly more important, so the obvious choice is to give those priority and categorize her as a woman. For medical purposes, the sex-related axes are more important, so categorizing her as a man makes sense… or would if she hadn’t transitioned, but since she has, it’s more complicated than that. But neither of us is her doctor, so that’s pretty irrelevant to us, and isn’t even any of our business (except to the extent she chooses to make it public). For sexual and reproductive purposes, the situation is similar: the sex-related axes are more important, but not relevant to either of us nor our business.

      The other relevant factor is *what leads to the best outcome*. Recognizing trans people’s gender identity as valid seems to help their mental health. A lot. So unless there’s some good reason not to, we should do that. You can argue that their identity isn’t “true”, but it’s not really false either. I’d argue that it, like the sex binary, is an *approximation*, and as long as it’s close enough for the current purpose (and not being mistaken for some sort of absolute truth), that’s just fine.

      BTW, if you haven’t read it I’ll again recommend Scott Alexander’s essay about this: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/21/the-categories-were-made-for-man-not-man-for-the-categories/

      • Posted November 4, 2018 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        What exactly does it mean for a person to “trail gradually off into the surrounding territory” beyond male or female?

        • Gordon Davisson
          Posted November 4, 2018 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

          Facetiously: check out the Russian women’s gymnastics team.

          More seriously: I’m talking about everything from masculine-appearing women and effeminate men, to genetic males with various degrees of androgen insensitivity syndrome.

          According to the wikipedia article on AIS, “Clinical phenotypes in these individuals range from a normal male habitus with mild spermatogenic defect or reduced secondary terminal hair, to a full female habitus, despite the presence of a Y-chromosome.” AIS is generally divided into mild, partial, and complete categories, but AIUI there aren’t any very specific dividing lines (and the Quigley scale divides it into seven classes). People at the “mild” end of the range are pretty clearly male, but AIUI people at the “complete” end often don’t realize they aren’t typical females until puberty, when they *don’t* start menstruating (if they even realize it then).

          Those are just examples. There are lots of ways someone might deviate from the “standard” male- and female-type; depending on which ones you consider important, and how you measure the degree of divergence from “typical”, will determine where you’ll consider different people to be male, female, or intersex.

          • Posted November 5, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

            There are lots of ways someone might deviate from the “standard” male- and female-type; depending on which ones you consider important, and how you measure the degree of divergence from “typical”, will determine where you’ll consider different people to be male, female, or intersex.

            Intersex conditions are clearly defined conditions with clearly understood & identifiable etiologies.

            I can only guess at what physiological characteristics you have in mind as ‘standard’ or ‘typical’ for each sex. But variations from the mean in these characteristics cannot and should not be described as ‘intersex’.

      • Diego L. Alonso
        Posted November 5, 2018 at 7:46 am | Permalink

        We need to use clearly defined concepts in order to disscuse them rigorously. I think that ‘gender’ is used here as ‘sexual identity’ or ‘sexual role’. Gender is the way an individual self-identify disregarding her/his genitalia. The correspondence between the genitalia (biological sex)and the gender role or gender identity is very high but not absolute, there is always a small proportion of people with ‘gender dysforia’. The biological sex is clearly determined by the SRY gene who inititated a cascade of chain effects when present (male fetus). If not present (female fetus) the chained effects are very different. The system is tightly determined giving male or female newborns.
        Gender identity is very influenced by the biological sex but it is not completely determined by biological events, leaving place to the social influence. So, sex and gender are closely related and usually there is a correspondence between both, only a small proportion of people experienced the feeling of being of a different sex that they have.

      • Adam M.
        Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        If you define sex by fuzzy traits like masculinity which to me seems more related to gender, then yes you get the blurriness around the edges, but if you define sex by traits such as testes vs. ovaries (or the genes to make testes), which seems to me fundamentally what sex is about and thus more accurate, you don’t get that blurriness.

        • Gordon Davisson
          Posted November 5, 2018 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

          Actually, you still do get some blurriness. From http://www.isna.org/faq/conditions/ovo-testes:

          “Ovotestes are gonads (sex glands) containing both ovarian and testicular tissue. These are sometimes present in place of one or both ovaries or testes. In other words, a person might be born with two ovotestes, or a person might be born with one ovary and one ovotestes, or a person might be born with some other combination.

          The fact that a person has ovotestes won’t tell you what his or her genitals looked like when he or she was born. Some people with ovotestes look fairly typically female, some fairly typically male, and some look fairly in-between in terms of genital development.”

          • Adam M.
            Posted November 6, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

            Seems to affect about 0.005% of people, so the blurring would be very slight. 🙂

  2. Posted November 4, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I public restrooms were constructed with private stalls we could go to unisex rest rooms and do away eith the rest room argument. Many public restaurants and other business have unisex rest rooms now. No separate male or female facilities.
    I realize that is only one issue but it seems the one I hear the most about in arguments: Don’t force people to use rest rooms of the sex they don’t feel comfortable eith.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 4, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      The whole toilet saga is a bit overblown (IMMO). Apart from the male urinals all toilets I’ve seen (from Scotland to the Philippines) have private cubicles. (I saw some common defecating places in Medieval monasteries, but they were supposed to be unisex anyway). I have difficulty to understand what all the fuss is about.

      • Posted November 4, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        So do I considering we are talking about such a very small number of people affected. The Jenner lady is the only one I know about. Maybe a few others but not that many.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 4, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        “… toilets I’ve seen (from Scotland …)”

        Now you’ve made me think of “the worst toilet in Scotland” scene from Trainspotting. Blech! 🙂

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          Damn! I’ve seen Trainspotting, but I can’t remember the lues. “This video contains content from Channel 4, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.”

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          Damn! I saw Trainspotting (a great film btw) but I can’t remember the Lues.
          “This video contains content from Channel 4, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.”

          • Nicolaas Stempels
            Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

            Sorry for the double post. How did that happen?

  3. dd
    Posted November 4, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    From Dr. Soh’s Facebook page today:

    “Dr. Debra Soh
    1 hr ·

    I’m being told a group of people are trying to delete my page on Wikipedia, saying I’m “not a journalist” because they don’t like my work.

    These people want to play the identity politics game…”

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Whether we agree with Ms Soh or not, that is unconscionable.

  4. ladyatheist
    Posted November 4, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree. Where the administration is most wrong is in thinking that one definition can be used for all agencies. If a disease is more common among people with XX vs. XY, then NIH should be talking about the biological sex when seeking study subjects or making medical recommendations. If it’s about hormones in the brain before birth, that’s pretty much immutable but not likely to be medically significant unless they’re studying that specific thing or ramifications of it. That would be akin to studying people with other specific irregular conditions, not a rejection of the 99% who are binary. Sickle Cell victims aren’t differently sanguinated. They have a disorder. It doesn’t make them less human.

    I miss the 1960s, when we all thought that labels were bull****.

  5. Posted November 4, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  6. Posted November 4, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    There are no genders.

    • Posted November 4, 2018 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I agree.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      I disagree, in French there are two genders (masculin and feminin) and in Deutsch there are three, they added the neuter gender. Some languages have even more.
      It’s all words… 🙂

      • Posted November 5, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Those are language terms. No sane German believes all girls are neuters and all churches females.

        In our present context, ‘gender’ is being used to describe a putative brain function: an active assessment of one’s sex identity. I assert there is no such function of the brain.

        • Posted November 6, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          Introspectively, I have no awareness of myself as male, masculine, etc. independent of the awareness of my genitals.

          However, it seems fairly clear that *some* people are aware of this sort of thing. I have long realized that musicians were privvy to “things” I was not. More recently when I reflected on sex and gender again in light of current debates, I realized the same may apply here.

          It also applies in reverse – I have been told that most people have no sense of where their feet are in general, whereas I do, again in general.

          • Posted November 6, 2018 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

            Hmmm. I’m not so sure that musical talent or being ‘in’ one’s body (hand-eye or foot-eye coordination) are analogous.

            Among the entire animal kingdom, the only individuals actively aware of ‘gender identity’ are a tiny fraction of humans who are uncertain or confused about it. Occam’s Razor alone would lead us to conclude this is due to a dysphoria, not some universal sex identification mechanism that is both active and variable.

            • Gordon Davisson
              Posted November 7, 2018 at 12:09 am | Permalink

              Among the entire animal kingdom, there is only one species that’s capable of saying whether they are aware of a ‘gender identity’ — there’s no basis to assume the others don’t have it. Furthermore, I don’t see any basis for claiming the humans that *are* aware of it are ‘uncertain or confused about it’. You *think* transgender people confused, but the brain scan data supports a different conclusion: that they know something about themselves that you don’t.

              Furthermore, you seem to think that trans people are the only ones that experience a gender identity. The video game Rust recently started randomly (and unchangeably) assigning gender (actually sex) to player characters, and some players — both cis and trans — got very upset at being assigned the “wrong” gender.

              For trans players, this makes perfect sense — society keeps trying to force the wrong gender on them, and now a video game’s doing it too. But for the cisgender players who got upset about it, this suggests that they *also* experience a specific gender identity, but hadn’t asserted it separately because it hadn’t been challenged before.

              Take my personal experience: I’m biologically male, and also identify as male. Do I have a separate gender identity? Growing up, I was told I was a boy, and I agreed. Does that mean I have an innate male identity, or that I’m just easily swayed (or maybe gullible)? I don’t really know, because I’ve never had my identity significantly challenged.

              How about you? Suppose we developed some new, more scientifically accurate (however defined) test of sex, and it showed you were actually female. (Note: I’m assuming from your name that you’re male; if not, reverse that.) Based on that, would you accept your new identity, or rebel against it and insist the test was wrong?

              • Gordon Davisson
                Posted November 7, 2018 at 12:45 am | Permalink

                Hmm, just in case my response above is too oblique: the claim that only transgender people experience a ‘gender identity’ is unsupported by the evidence. The evidence is equally consistent with:

                1) Cisgender humans (mostly) have gender identities, but don’t particularly notice because it matches the identity they’re assigned based on their sex.

                2) Nonhumans (some anyway) have gender identities, but don’t have any clear way to express them.

              • Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

                We seem to have gotten tangled in a thicket of semantics here. What is the definition of “identify”? Like you, I am a male. I recognize that I’m male, I can identify my sex as male, but I don’t need to actively identify as male.

                ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ may be defined by karyotype or by phenotype. 99%+ of the time, they correlate precisely. Your hypothetical test might reveal an intersex condition in me, but my phenotypic sex would remain unchanged.

                Again, this fixation on intersex is misleading and counterproductive. Nearly all transgenders have typical karyotypic and phenotypic sexes. They suffer from a dysphoria which, by definition, mean they are indeed “confused”.

                You posit a ‘brain sex’, but the studies on that are far less conclusive than you may think. The science is simply not robust enough to base sweeping social policy on.

                pace your clarification, I see no evidence that ‘gender identity’ exists, either in humans or animals. All observed phenomena can be explained by innate dimorphic sex behavior and dysphoria.

              • Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

                To even accept the possible existence of ‘gender identity’ as a cognitive function, one would need to be presented with a plausible model, to include: when it first evolved, what fitness advantage it provides, and why brainless sexually-reproducing creatures are able to function without it. No such model has been put forth.

              • Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

                I have run informal tests of the idea in paragraph two, and seen others do the same.

                I have heard asserted from various people of all sorts that they have some sense of “I’m (male, female, something else)”. I have also heard from some that they have no such sense.

                The “challenge” hypothesis is interesting and I considered it – but given that one person I know who has no such sense is almost certainly one of the people who would have at least already thought about the question (being sexual orientation bisexual) I suspect we’ll find it more complicated than that.

                BTW also (in light of the rest of the thread): analogously to delusions, gender dysphoria is not “a sense of mismatch”, it is a *distress* at same and a desire to do *something* (e.g., pronoun use) to alleviate it.

  7. Posted November 4, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry, but I don’t think “continuous” should be contrasted with “bimodal”. You can have a bimodal distribution of a continuous variable. Biological sex is a case in point (if you want to boil down various variables into a single one – which is very useful, until it’s not).

    • Posted November 5, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      There is no continuous variable for sex. There is male, there is female, and there are limited types of discrete errors in the sex determination system.

  8. Gordon Davisson
    Posted November 4, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I have to disagree with you (again) here. Binary sex is an *approximation*, and like most approximations it’s close enough for some purposes, not close enough for others, and *not* actually true. Just to be annoying, I’ll claim that the idea of binary sex has a non-binary truth value — it’s neither entirely true nor entirely false.

    In science, this is normal. Scientists work with approximations all the time. In fact, I’d argue that pretty much everything in science is really just an approximation — if you look close enough, everything seems to turn out that it’s more complicated than you thought. As John Von Neumann put it, “Truth is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.”

    As a result, scientists (good ones, anyway) are used to working with approximations — being aware they’re just approximations and where their limits are, being wary of trusting them beyond those limits, etc. Applied this way, binary sex is great.

    But we’re not talking to scientists here, we’re talking to religious ideologues. We’re talking to people who think in terms of absolute truth. They’re thinking of binary sex as an absolute truth, and in that sense it’s clearly and unambiguously FALSE.

    The HHS memo is also talking about applying the idea of binary sex not as a population-level statistical model, but as something that should be applied to *everybody* at the individual level. This’ll work fine for the vast majority of people, but for a small percentage it’s wrong. From a scientific point of view, again, this is normal. If the data doesn’t fit your statistical model, that indicates the model isn’t exactly right, and pretty much all models aren’t exactly right. But if someone doesn’t fit the HHS policy, that’s going to be treated as a problem with the person, not with the policy.

    Anne Fausto-Sterling’s column is holding binary sex up to the standard of absolute truth, and as something that’d have to apply to *everybody* (not just most people), and pointing out that it doesn’t meet the standard. She’s right. You and Debra Soh are disagreeing with her, not because any of you disagree about the facts, but because you’re applying different standards of truth.

    Is sort-of-true good enough? IMO in the context of the HHS memo it’s *not* good enough, so I have to agree with Anne Fausto-Sterling’s view.

    • Ty Gardner
      Posted November 4, 2018 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Yep, right on target.

  9. Ty Gardner
    Posted November 4, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see why it’s hard to say it the way it appears to be. Sex is nonbinary but is also not a continuum. If it is bimodal, with a variety of rare cases in-between rather than a smooth curve of variation, that should be enough. I think the label of effectively binary is dismissive those falling outside the peaks, and perhaps dismissive of the variation within the peaks that are important biologically and socially. However, recognition that sex is strongly bimodal suggests that the recognition of two sexes is not only roughly correct but also generally useful, so we should continue to do so while recognizing the variation as legitimate and part of our combined human experience.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      There, you nailed it, what was so difficult?

  10. Posted November 4, 2018 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    What earthshaking reason does HHS have for defining humans as only either male or female? That predominantly is the case, but not
    totally, as has been stated. But HHS isn’t monitoring the military, sports or bathrooms. Right? What business is it of HHS? This kind of categorization may make it easier for political bean counters to separate out the sheep from the goats for tracking purposes. But, so what? What impact might we expect this to have on transgender people? They will be even more stigmatized than they are at present.

    Since transgender people will not be adding to the gene pool, unless there’s something environmental or changes in genetics causing this tendency, what is the likelihood that transgenderism will increase substantially in numbers? There will be no progeny of their own. Will HHS next consider it essential to count homosexuals and lesbians?

  11. TD2000
    Posted November 4, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Thinking out loud: What use is the concept of “gender” really?

    I agree with Dr. Coyne: sex is (almost 100%) binary and biologically determined. It determines anatomy, physiology, and many behaviors. (If behaviors are seen across cultures, throughout history, in children, and in other primates, then I would argue that they are biologically based. Examples: male risk taking, male aggression.)

    So “gender” is just how people feel? Which can change throughout their life? And relies on fluctuating definitions across time and society?

    Fine, whatever. If an adult thinks he’s suddenly one of the 50+ genders that have been named by millennial SJWs, I don’t really care.

    But that seems like a fuzzy, unscientific, and, ultimately, trivial concept.

    Please, enlighten me, gentle readers (and/or Dr. Coyne): Why is it the concept of “gender” important?

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 5, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      It maybe petty, but often on forms where I have to state my ‘gender’, I cross out ‘gender’ and write in ‘sex’, I know it is futile, but it gives me some minor satisfaction.

  12. Thanny
    Posted November 4, 2018 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Gender is a linguistics term that became co-opted by academia in the 1970’s, then pushed into common speech in the 1980’s.

    It was presented as nothing more or less than a substitute for the word “sex”. It had some utility, given that “sexual intercourse” was almost universally no longer used, in favor of the shortening of the phrase to just “sex”. So having “gender” to indicate “sex” and not “sexual intercourse” was useful, both to reduce confusion, and alleviate embarrassment among more prudish people who had come to regard “sex” as naughty, on account of “sexual intercourse” taking possession of the word in general discourse.

    You could see this happening at the time, when filling out forms, applications, questionnaires, etc. Where they used to say “Sex?”, or the like, they started to say “Gender?” instead. The answers were still “Male” and “Female”, or “M” and “F”.

    Nobody was confused on the issue – “gender” meant “sex”, and nothing else (except to linguists, or people studying a foreign language which actually had gender, unlike English).

    The idea of “gender” as something akin to “sex”, but somehow detached from it, is very recent in common parlance. It was there from the beginning in academia, but that is not the sense of the word that became exported to the general public. It’s only within the past ten years that it’s become at all common to find people using the sense of “gender” that you’re claiming here.

    Well, I reject it. In fact, I no longer use the term, but instead use “sex” when I mean “sex”. Because the vast majority of people see “gender” as just “sex”, but there are a number of loud people using it as something else (and trying to push public policy based on that meaning), the word has exhausted its utility. It serves now only to sow confusion.

    All you have to do is look at the neologism “transgender”. What does it mean? To the overwhelming majority of people, it’s the exact same thing as “transsexual”. But to the illiberal leftist activists, it’s something else entirely. A typical person understands a transsexual to be someone who undergoes surgery to become the best approximation of the opposite sex as possible. Many (if not most) of the people currently calling themselves “transgender” are nothing of the sort. They undergo no surgery and take no hormones. They just declare themselves to be whatever “gender” they like, and think it’s acceptable to force the public at large to accept their personal choice when it comes to things like communal changing areas and showers.

    This is very much an English phenomenon, too. If “gender” as something distinct from “sex” were a clear concept, then it would exist in other languages. In German, for example, you have your sex – Geschlecht – and that’s it (though far-left activists in Germany are trying to introduce “Gender” – say it with a hard ‘G’ – without much success).

    The number of people who claim to be “non-binary”, incidentally, is vanishingly small. We’re talking about less than one percent of the population altogether for transsexual and “transgender” people. So even if you want to use “gender” as something separate, it’s still a binary in the practical sense. Most making that claim are apparently just confused, anyway. All people have a mix of traits that are found more in one sex than the other (masculine or feminine traits – hardly any are restricted to one sex or the other). A male is more effeminate than is typical is still a male, but in this climate becomes tempted to lay claim to the title “non-binary”.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 5, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      See my comment just above, petty, but satisfying in a small way.

    • Ty Gardner
      Posted November 5, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      While you are capable of using language, it is clear that you don’t know what you are talking about. How many transgender people have you met and spoken with in detail? It sounds as if that number is close to zero. Your characterization of their experience and motivation is inaccurate. I suggest you broaden your education and exposure on the subject.

      • Posted November 6, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        IMO, Thanny gave an accurate summary of most folks’ impression of transgenderism as well as the agenda of a small but vocal group of radical trans activists.

        Perhaps you could be more precise as to what in your opinion Thanny got wrong, and which sources of ‘education’ would improve their understanding.

        • Ty Gardner
          Posted November 6, 2018 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

          “Many (if not most) of the people currently calling themselves “transgender” are nothing of the sort. They undergo no surgery and take no hormones. They just declare themselves to be whatever “gender” they like, and think it’s acceptable to force the public at large to accept their personal choice when it comes to things like communal changing areas and showers.”
          The entirely of this description is inaccurate and seems to suggest a bigoted view of transgender people (particularly the dismissal of their gender dysphoria and the concern about communal areas).
          My specific suggestion would be to meet with group of transgender and nonbinary people and or to consult with groups (e.g. PFLAG) of people that closely associate with transgender people.
          Thanny’s description may be an accurate impression of most folks ideas about trans people but they are entirely off base.

          • Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            Part of the confusion stems from the conflation of ‘gender expression’ with ‘gender identity’, and the trend to define any variation from hackneyed sex role stereotypes as ‘trans’ (or “Gender Expansive” to borrow PFLAG’s neologism.) It is fashionable now for many young people to declare themselves trans, despite not meeting the clinical criteria.

            One caveat with meeting with trans activists is they tend to be more radicalized than, and are not representative of, the majority of trans people. Zinnia Jones comes to mind as a particularly odious and abrasive trans activist.

            The use by trans of sex-segretated facilities that do not conform to their sex, but rather their gender identity, is a highly contentious issue, and a bridge too far for many otherwise accepting people.

            • Cindy
              Posted November 7, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

              If gender is defined by feelings, then surely one can identify as any species, or even age, that they wish, based on feelings alone, no?

  13. Paul Britton
    Posted November 5, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Have you seen this TEDx talk by Antonia Forster…..sex in the natural world is by no means simply binary…

    • Posted November 6, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      That talk is one steady stream of falsehoods, misrepresentations and outright ignorance, larded with occasional deepities. The purpose seems to be a rationalization of the presenter’s personal sex habits. Early on, she rejects the Naturalistic Fallacy (what she calls the “Gaia Fallacy”), yet the entire rest of the talk is an exercise in just that.

      Her assertion that homosexuality is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom (thus, ‘natural’ by definition) is not germane to our discussion. But it but does speak to her credibility, so merits a passing refutation. Take a close look at all those thousands of instances she alludes to, and you will find not same-sex mating, but rather sex behavior utilized for other purposes; i.e., dominance displays, social bonding. It’s notable that her two examples of ‘gay’ mating pairs (penguins and giraffes) come from decidedly unnatural zoo environments. (I doubt she is aware that for maintenance ease, zookeepers prefer all male giraffe herds.) One would be equally justified to describe pervasive homosexual behavior in prisons as ‘natural’ and indicative of the general population.

      To explain the difference between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’, she relies on the atrocious, anti-science piece of agitprop, the “Genderbread Diagram”. She considers a women wearing jeans an example of her gender ambiguity, falsely claims that biological sex is “all shades of gray”, that sexual orientation is highly variable & fluid over time, that “plenty of people … identify with aspects of both genders or neither”.

      She then asserts that gender is a social construct, existing only in humans but not animals. No evidence is provided to support this notion, much less explain why humans are not animals in this one critical aspect.

      In shanghaiing intersex people to stretch biological sex into a spectrum, she alludes to a few intersex conditions before ignorantly adding “… or even some people who are intersex: who have both sets of genitals.”

      For some reason, she thinks that the existence of different allosomes in birds, haplodiploidy among eusocial insects, hyena clitorises, parthenogenic lizards, and hermaphroditism in clownfish & banana slugs, “force us to question our most fundamental assumptions about sex and about reproduction” in homo sapiens.

      Finally, while I try to avoid the Genetic Fallacy, this person is no expert. She self-describes as a “published biologist”, though she has but a master’s in animal behavior and has produced no peer-reviewed science papers. Indeed, her primary job description is “presenter, comedian, and rapper.” And while one isn’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, I’m batting a thousand when it comes to green hair.

  14. Alex
    Posted November 7, 2018 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    As a nonbinary individual studying a BSc, I appreciate your use of evidence to give a more accurate picture. I am not entirely sure if I agree yet as to whether sex should be considered largely binary, but I really like that you’ve stressed the importance of intersex and transgender rights regardless of whether it’s a bimodal or continuous distribution (or somewhere inbetween).


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