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The Arbitrariness Of Sex As A Biological Concept – Cat Harsis – Medium

CW: Cissexism, Binarism, Biological Essentialism, Colonialism, Ra*e, Murder, Slavery

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash (I just needed some hi-res picture for the preview)

Here are some articles of mine that explain or give context to some of the concepts and ideas that are referenced in this piece, though it shouldn’t matter in which order you read them, if you’re not familiar with the concepts already.

Foregone Conclusions

The oppression of trans people why it is called “trans”, coming from latin and meaning “on the other side”, but also a big part of the oppression of cis women, is based on the concept of “biological sex”. It’s first and foremost the idea that there is some biological truth to our bodies that translate into a social truth about who we are, who we can be and how others should relate to us. It’s much older than science and modern medical insights into our actual biology. Yet, science and medicine are nowadays used to bind us to this arbitrary construct and our collective devotion to holding the opinions of scientists as absolute and indubitable truth — at least as long as they serve the points we’re trying to make — makes it really hard to argue against any opinion that is backed up by the popular interpretation of science. But this scientism is only the background of what I want to talk about here.

The relevant part of science critique for this topic is the difference between data and interpretation. The first is, for the most part, factual, the latter is not. Usually the argument goes that a critique of science or scientists or even just the popular understanding of what that or they mean was arguing against “hard data” and “facts. But that ignores the humanity in all of it, the bias, the limited perspective, the necessity to make sense of the world, even at the cost of fidelity. This becomes abundantly clear when you realize that a lot of the discussion surrounding the topic of “biological sex” is a long string of motte and bailey arguments, where the conclusion is foregone and the sole purpose of the discussion is to find something that supports and “proves” this conclusion. And in this case the foregone conclusion is that there is a biological basis for our binary concepts of male and female, masculine and feminine, the whole thing.

Biological Claims

The motte, in this case, is that it’s obvious that there are just two genders, sexes, whatever you might call it, and that it’s ridiculous to assume otherwise and that people claiming otherwise ought to be ridiculed and dismissed as not of sound mind, as rejecting reality. As awareness spreads and the dogmatic influence, that forces us into binary roles and expressions, weakens, this becomes less and less tenable. And since, to be recognized and “accepted” by society, but also because they were robbed of the language to talk about their experiences and identities outside of the very language of the system that denies their existence, trans people had to find justifications for their existence and validity within a system that was unwilling to make space for them, the supposed split between “sex” and “gender” came to be. The latter being our “social sex”, how we understand ourselves and how others treat us, and the former being our physical, biological “reality”. It was a necessary step, because toppling the whole perspective of the system was impossible from the marginalized and disempowered position that trans people found themselves in. The system had to be appeased to gain concessions. And the appeasement was to confirm the system’s authority on who we “are”, to gain the concession of conditional acceptance of who we “believe to be”. The system retains authority on anything “biological” and we gain a little freedom on things “social”.

Because this is what most trans acceptance boils down to. To humoring us and our identities as confused, abnormal, in denial, but acceptable as long as we’re considered harmless. Not something you’d really want close contact with, but rather something that you pat yourself on the shoulder for tolerating in your never-ending progressive grace. And that was also internalized by generations of trans people, who built their understanding of their existence around a deal that’s distorting reality. And this is basically where we’re stuck at. At the idea of a “biological sex” and a “social gender”. And as science slowly gains more insight and the awareness that our biology isn’t that simple spreads among scientists and medical professionals alike, the next step in the retreat is taken. “Biological sex” exists, they claim now, not as a monolithic thing, but as many little things: Hormonal sex, genetic sex, etc.

Note that this includes narratives such as “gender is in your brain, sex is in your pants, sexual orientation is in your heart” and other washed out attempts to hide it behind contemporary feel-good nonsense.

Biological Reality

“Sex” is very much a social construct, no matter if monolithic or split up. Yes, mammals have different reproductive roles and that’s a biological fact. But those roles can be filled by quite the variety of biological expressions. Even the broad definition of “male” and “female” as just meaning “can make pregnant” and “can get pregnant” would lump a great variety of expressions into the same categories, while excluding varieties that are more similar just because they’re infertile. The biological reality is quite complex and diverse: Chromosomes, both “sex-determinant” ones (of which there are, now recognized by science, no less than 7 combinations leading to entirely “normal” looking people) and others, hormones, etc. They interact in many ways at different times and it’s a small wonder that it produces individuals that survive and are reproductively viable as often as it does.

And it’s social constructs that divide all those variations into categories, namely those of “normal” and “abnormal” (or other synonymous/related categories). And the conflict surrounding this is because there’s no actual logical “right” way to divide these variations. Each division and categorization follows an intent or a necessity. Which means that the thing itself does not have these categories as part of its nature, they are superimposed, projected onto it from a specific perspective. The criticism from the trans community hence is not about biological facts (like hormones, chromosomes, etc), but about the categorization of those facts, because it is, as just outlined, always arbitrary and never natural.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Why never natural? Well, … because nature isn’t discrete at all. If you chart out all the ways in which we can vary along chromosomes, hormones, etc, according to their frequency, then you end up with what is called a “bimodal distribution” (see attached image). It’s a continuous graph, meaning that there’s no natural boundaries between values (just like you can find infinitely many rational numbers (the one’s with the decimal point) between 1 and 2, e.g.), so no matter where you make the cut, it’s an arbitrary decision. So it’s also arbitrary to say how far the peaks extend left and right and depending on what points you choose the peaks can be a minority or majority of all variances. But either way you look at it, the actual upper extremes of the peaks are always less than the total of the rest. Meaning that, while the people at the upper extremes of the peak are more numerous than each other point on the graph *individually*, but ultimately there are many more people that diverge in varying degrees from that extreme. So the majority actually does not fall into either category, but is adjacent.

Specifically noteworthy is that there is no “100% male” or “100% female” at the extreme ends of the spectrum either.

Source unknown

The distribution is the facts of the matter, but how you look at it, where you make the cut, how you categorize this, that’s all arbitrary and does not naturally derive from the data. And that’s where normativity and othering (see resources at the top) becomes relevant. Science tends to use common words to mean vastly different things than the same words mean in their more common usage. And if you ask me, that’s just asking for trouble. And this is one of those cases were this causes a lot of damage. Not just because the term “sex” is tainted beyond recovery at this point and I find it pretty petty of scientists to cling to it so vehemently, trying to rebrand it with the full force of their authority. More so even with the whole language of “normal” vs “abnormal” (or synonymous/related terms). Those terms are *loaded*. And it’s nigh impossible to have a socially relevant conversation about this and keep the different meanings of the same words entirely separate.

Intersex

And this brings us also to the concept of intersex. The category in which everything is dumped that doesn’t fit the other arbitrary categories. It’s not a useless category, but still one that covers so much variety that you couldn’t even point to an “average” intersex configuration. And the stigma on intersex and its widespread erasure from even being mentioned, much less considered, is directly related to the arbitrary categorization and terminology I just mentioned. Intersex is also what many people default to when they hear about non-binary genders, they’re looking for a “biological” explanation for anything that falls outside the binary.

Binarism

Not to be confused with what is dubbed “exorsexism”, which is the concept of sex and gender being entirely binary, binarism is the colonial practice of erasing the genders and gender traditions of the indigenous peoples and nations that had their land stolen and were displaced, murdered, ra*ed and enslaved by european colonizers. Together with their traditions, believes, familiar bonds and all other parts of their identity, their traditions and concepts of gender were also erased. Science and scientists (not just the “race scientists”) were quite elemental in facilitating colonial genocide, both in giving the colonizers an excuse and the means to do so. The concept of “biological sex” and its inherent binary makeup is all tied up in it and used to discredit and dismiss any categorization of our bodies that does not comply with the eurocentric, binary and oppressive ideals.

Trans

The concept of “being trans” hence, is one that only exists because of the arbitrary idea that your body determines who you are and sends you done one of two paths against which to revolt was akin to denying reality itself. Only because conforming to an arbitrary concept tied to an incoherent categorization of bodies is considered “normal” is there even a need to specially name those that don’t. If there was no narrow category, no socially predefined path and identity, there would be no trans or cis, just people with the gender they determine themselves and a biological perspective that interprets the data in the service of people, instead of using it against them. 
That’s also why indigenous polynary (= non-binary) genders are not technically trans if their traditions don’t coercively assign genders at birth.

Conclusion

There’s no actual thing that could be dubbed “biological sex”, as it entirely depends on arbitrary categorization. And that’s why no degree in science can help you here. You can make up a definition, but that doesn’t make it a thing.
The actual reality of our biology is really messy and the restrictive idea planted about it in our heads gives you just a little faux security about your place in the world at the cost of your ability to fully explore and determine it yourselves.


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