Sex and gender

By Lorenzo

This is based on a comment I made here.

If you think the bodies are sexed (clearly true) and psyches are sexed (a bit murkier, but broadly true) then it is easy to get more than two genders.

Male (male in body and psyche)

Female (female in body and psyche)

Third (body and psyche don’t match).

Plenty of human societies have worked on that basis.

You can even work on a simple matrix and get four genders (male-male, female-female, male-female, female-male). But third gender classification (really “other”) is more common.

And some societies, without going all the way to third gender, have operated on sub-genders (e.g. males held to belong to a separate category because, hey, not sexually interested in girls). Western notions of sexuality are a way of modifying gender identity.

Sexuality or gender?

Back in the C19th, with the intersection between growing anthropological awareness of other societies’ takes on gender with a critical mass of urbanisation, secularisation and communication making gender/sexual minorities more able to begin to organise, there was an argument in Western circles about whether queer folk should be treated as third gender. The notion of “homosexual” (and its derivatives, heterosexual and bisexual) won out, as it seemed more scientific and less of a shift of basic presumptions.

What we are seeing is a revisiting of that debate. Unfortunately, it is turning up on the wrong side of postmodernism, so rather than being grounded in ethnography and empiricism, it is all about feelz and discourses. Hence the ludicrous explosion of “genders”.


What has not helped is that feminism has tended to talk so much about the penis & vagina, which actually do not mark the differences between males and females nearly as much as people think, as they both perform the same functions (bring gametes together, provide sexual pleasure). One’s an innie (so receives) and the other’s an outie (so penetrates), but they otherwise perform the same functions. If you take that as the key distinguishing feature between male and female, then, if one surgically turns one into the other, you have changed sex.

Except, of course, you haven’t. People have just been surgically adjusted to better support a change of gender identity. Which, if we had a three gender system, would be fine–it would then get rid of those tedious and fruitless debates about who is a “real woman”.

What really distinguishes male from female are testes, ovaries and mammaries. And no trans surgery actually provides those, just the external form of them. Hence trans surgery does not actually change one’s sex, just physical form to support a change of gender identity. Something that there is a long history of via castration, such as eunuch priests and hijras.

All about the mammaries

Rather than the penis and vagina, the key for understanding the statistical patterns of cognitive differences between men and women is, in fact, the mammaries. (Mammaries are on the sex that gives birth, so that they are right there when the baby emerges.)

We are the cultural species, that is the secret of our success. To be the cultural species, we need big brains. So big, that they have to keep developing outside the womb.

Which requires extended childhoods, which leads to the oddness of the human mammaries–they are unusually large and prominent, they don’t change shape all that much when lactating, and they can keep operating for years at a time to support those long childhoods. Hence female homo sapiens are the childminding sex. But we are the cultural species, which means we are the public space species. If one sex is the [what is compatible with] childminding sex, then the other will be the “everything you can’t do while minding kids” sex, which makes it (the males) disproportionately the public space [i.e. outside household and immediate surrounds] sex.

In subsistence societies, producing the next generation requires a lot of available resources and attention. So, until the dramatic changes in production and reproduction technology over the last two centuries, the allocations of roles by sex in human societies has radiated out from [what was compatible with] childminding.

We have been the cultural species for many, many generations. Thousands of generations. Easily enough time to select for variated cognitive patterns. And even more than our long pregnancies, our long childhoods has driven that (hence mammaries being the most biologically important driver of cognitive differences).

So, irony of ironies, the biology required to be a species which can socially construct so much means that cognitive differences between men and women cannot be entirely socially constructed. Even more ironically, in societies of mass prosperity, the statistical cognitive patterns of men and women are becoming more divergent (pdf), not less, just as the notion of presumptive sex roles is being abandoned.

But these are very complex mechanisms, with a lot of overlap, and nature is always “throwing” the “genetic dice”. Moreover, genes are not molds, they are recipes. So the “epigenetic dice” is also being “thrown”. And all before we get into social and environmental influences. Hence psyches not lining up with biological sex in neatly differentiated ways. Nor, for that matter, does physical sex always line up in neatly differentiated ways.

Hence needing some language to talk of the people who do not fit. Having a third gender category does solve a lot of problems, which is why so many societies developed it. But that does not excuse the multiplying genders nonsense.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. Posted October 27, 2017 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Ok. Fact. Human, and most mammal males cannot hold eggs within their bodies- and cannot ‘give birth’ as we know it.
    So, pondering the philosophical point about ‘equality’ is interesting. Perhaps until every living thing becomes HERMAPHRODITE … ?

  2. Posted October 27, 2017 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    David @1 Only if you think equality requires no differentiation.

  3. Posted November 22, 2017 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Ah ; differentiation – the random aspect of chromosomes.
    (and yep, the sea; mare, holds many analogies for human contemplation. One of them is the ‘leafy sea dragon’).

  4. Posted November 22, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Um, Lorenzo … self was born with penis and testicles. However, that does not mean that i became ‘homosexual’. Yes, during the ‘freedom’ days of Don Dunstan – experimented with ‘male/male’ sexuality . however, over time, preferred ‘skin on skin’ with females.

    Was never “indoctrinated’ into any other belief, apart from the random thought that AM who i am ..MEH.

  5. Posted November 22, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    However, the physical fact remains. Human male mammals cannot experience the same as females – no matter how much sperm is pushed into the anus.

  6. Posted November 22, 2017 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    o, if you mean the Australian legal definition of ‘marriage’.
    Ah, there are many ‘households’ on different parts of this planet that ‘allow’ multiple wives – as well as concubines. Should “Australian law” allow this – in the interests of ‘religious freedom’? Should ‘child brides’ and ‘genital mutilation’ be ‘allowed’ in the interests of “religions freedom”?

  7. Posted November 22, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    (um Citizenship credentials. my paternal Grandfather migrated to South Australia from antecedents from Lincolnshire.

    My mother? um; apparently her great great grandfather was – even at that time – an “illegal migrant’. A cabin boy who “jumped ship” somewhere in South Australia – changed his name, married … and sprogged quite a few descendants.

  8. Posted November 22, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, the battle between the concept of what is “legal” from British Colonial times …

    and ‘here and now’ will always be a problem

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *