Antonia D'orsay

What is Sex?

Filed By Antonia D'orsay | December 15, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender identity, gender variance, male, sex

I apologize to everyone; this is not an article about sexual intercourse.

While I am certain there are some out there who read Bilerico that may not know what sex is, I'm going to look here at what it is that make up males and females.

Not men and women. Men and women I will cover in my next one, on Gender.

A short while ago I wrote an article on What is Trans*.

As some noted back then, it was a kind of Trans 101 post. Some in the trans community said that I was using Trans as just a different way of saying Transgender. I assert that's incorrect. Others have suggested that I reduced transsexuals to people who transition on the basis of social roles. That is also incorrect. The category, trans, is about social elements. The rest gets more complicated, and I will explore that in future articles to make that more clear.

In that article, I described sex as naked bodies on a table. This is the "Sex is between the legs" part, which is an oversimplification of the truth for ease of communicating an idea. I'm looking at the idea in a wider scope.

So what is sex?

Sex is a physiological concept -- it is biology. Physical and tangible. You can touch sex, and thanks to nerve bundles that have remarkably high induction rates and a brain that is incredibly cool, doing so often feels good once you get rid of all the social stuff.

In our culture, we tend to group people into two broad categories. Male and Female. We are taught, from the youngest age, that they are different, and then we go to school, and we learn that yes, indeed, they are different. And I don't mean the social stuff, again -- I mean the biology -- the stuff that is two people lying on a table.

We classify many creatures on different rules. Some we classify according to chromosomes, others according to gametes (who has the ovaries or the testes). Since a lot of species out there have all kinds of variations in that, it can get pretty complicated -- but almost all of them are only known to be that way because of work done in the last 25 years or so.

The most common way people are classified is by what's called the Primary Sex Characteristics. We usually call them genitals. This is what doctors use when we are born, and its truly amazing they get it right as often as they do. If you've ever looked at a newborn infant boy and girl's genitals, they can sometimes be very hard to tell apart.

That's been the custom in our culture and its predecessors for thousands of years. In the overwhelming majority of situations, it's correct, easy, simple, and obvious.

There is also the reproductive system. Testes and ovaries, for example, as noted above. There is the absence or presence of the Y chromosome or the X chromosome. There is the SRy gene (that carries pretty much all the "male" stuff in it). There are Secondary sex characteristics: breasts, hips, mounds, facial hair. There is skeletal structure. There is brain structure. And there are hormones.

However, genitals are only part of what we actually know goes into defining someone's sex. Indeed, as Eric Vilain pointed out nearly a decade ago, there are a great many ways of determining sex. All of them vary and all of them serve a particular purpose or goal.
The five most important ones, for the purpose of this column, will be these:

  • genitals
  • secondary sex characteristics
  • gonads
  • hormones
  • chromosomes

It should be noted that sex determination is an old field, and that most of what we do know about it comes from studying people who are not typical -- who differ in some way from the usual, commonplace person for whom sex really can be determined by checking genitals.

This is normally, and historically, intersex people; but in the last 20 years LGBT folks have been looked at as well, as they give additional insight into wider questions, and as people used us to verify or cross check or prove and disprove certain ideas.

There are two IS conditions in particular that are important: Klinefelter's and Turner's. People with these conditions are XXY and generally look male, or X, and look female. So one has more chromosomes than usual, and one has fewer.

It was the study of the mechanisms that caused them that led to the discovery of a gene, in 1992, called SRy. SRy is, ultimately, what determines if someone will be male in terms of physiological development. And, although to my knowledge no one has been shown without it thus far, SRy can be carried on either the X or the Y chromosome. So it is possible for someone to be XX and male, and YY and female (although a YY person would, generally speaking, have an extremely short lifespan, due to additional factors found in the X chromosome that are essential to everyone.).

At least, as far as we know so far. Every year we learn more that changes how we see things.

And there's the rub. So long as we seek out a singular way of identifying between the two sexes, we will always tend to have some variation and some failure to include everyone.

As a result, many folks in the general fields surrounding Sex Determination have started to use a methodology that relies on the five factors I described above. It's not super widespread yet, but slowly gaining a wider acceptance. The short version is that it takes a majority of those five things to establish a person as physiologically male or female, and the particulars of that majority are what counts.

So if a person has the genitals of a male, the secondary sex characteristics of a female, the gonads of a male, the hormones of a female, and the chromosomes of a male, they would be male physiologically.

If they were to be missing, say, the gonads, then they would be female, since the system tends to learn towards the female, which is a problem it has, as it reinforces the idea entrenched still, which is sex dimorphism (the development of two sexes).

When it comes to trans people, this can be a little problematic. Fortunately by adding two other factors into it, we get a clearer picture that accounts for greater variance:
Sex Identity and Gender Identity.

One of the things people generally are not aware of yet, is that Gender Identity and Sex Identity are both present in every person, and that they are both inherently physiological. We know, for example, that the source is an area of the brain located central bottom. Indeed, it very close to the area that has been shown to have a high correlation of sexual orientation, as well.

They aren't the same areas, mind you, but they are very close to each other -- close enough that one can affect the other.

Most of the readers here will have heard of Gender Identity. They may even have a good idea about what it is, but the surprising thing is that they don't know about Sex Identity or what is.

Gender Identity I will talk about more in the next article, on Gender. Sex Identity, however, is important. Sex identity is how we see ourselves in terms of male or female. It is our personal understanding of that concept, void of any external influence. It is not something taught to us -- people have had accidents that strip their bodies of any way to sex them, and they still know. It is not founded in the flesh we can see. Sex Identity will be found, like Gender Identity, in later columns.

Now, a lot of people right now are saying "But that's gender identity". And, in truth, that's what most people think it is, except in the rarified world of academics and scientific study.

Nor is Sex identity anything new -- it's been around for about 50 years, and was developed at the same time as Gender Identity, but it's only been the shift in the last 20 years as people turned to look at what gender really is that we've come to see the value of using it and only a few locations (the University of Minnesota, for example) using it.

In a more direct form, linked to a recent column here, Sex Identity is what transsexuals experience as "where's my penis?" or "where's my vagina". In my case, it's rather disconcerting to know I'm a female, find out females have vaginas, and then wonder "hey - where the hell's mine?"

Gender and Sex are not the same. Gender is about others. Always. Sex is not.

So if you add Gender Identity and Sex Identity into the mix, you begin to see a greater clarity, and you account for the bias problem of it leaning towards female.

Now you have 7 factors, the majority of which determine one's sex, all of them tied to one's biology. Many of them are not going to be fully visible until the individual is into puberty, but we can make a pretty good guess otherwise.

Let's take a female to male transsexual as an example. You have a person with female genitals (assuming no surgery), the hormones of a male (thanks to testosterone), the secondary sex characteristics of a male (assuming top surgery), the gonads of a female, the chromosomes of a female, the gender identity of a male, and the sex identity of a male.

The balance is very much a male, in terms of biology.

For most people, the question seems rather absurd -- why does it matter. But for trans folk and intersex folk, it makes a huge difference, because we get caught in the middle ground and suffer from oppression, maltreatment, and other terrible things as a result.

Now, if you note carefully, there was no mention of man or woman in this discussion on sex. Nor masculine and feminine. This is because man and woman, feminine and masculine are parts of gender, not sex. Men do not have penises all the time, women do not always have a vagina.

This particular concept of sex determination, like my earlier taxonomy of Trans, creates a system whereby there are a much wider variety of possibilities, all still fitting into how we define tings - even if we are still stuck, at present, with the limitations of only two words to describe them all.

By carrying this idea with you when dealing in the LGBT and its associated communities, you begin to see how, just as with my last article, all of us are different, and yet all of us are the same.

Even when sex is between the legs.


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Great post, Dyss! I have to admit I'd never really considered (or really heard of) Sex ID defined that way before, always thought Gender ID covered it and then bio male/female/intersex took over from there.

I look forward to your upcoming posts on this.

We classify many creatures on different rules. ... Since a lot of species out there have all kinds of variations in that, it can get pretty complicated -- but almost all of them are only known to be that way because of work done in the last 25 years or so.

I'm glad you covered this point, Antonia.

Scientifically speaking, a "sex" is the collection of all individuals in the species that have a specific chromosomal arrangement that can intermix genetic material with other collections of individuals within the species when reproduction takes place. Under this definition, it might be interesting to some readers to learn that in recent years bacterial species have been discovered that have up to 25,000+ different sexes within the species!

As for humans, I do think we are approaching the point that even lay persons (I mean non-scientists) are beginning to form the concept that humans come in three "sexes": classically male, classically female, and then everyone else, whatever you want to call that third group. Although this is not very rigorous scientifically, it is a major improvement over the previous popular insistence that humans are either male or female, and no other possibilities exist.

Interesting post. I'd suggest to those interested an excellent book by Joan Roughgarden - Evolution's Rainbow. Roughgarden is an evolutionary biologist at Stanford. Her book helped me to accept myself as a reflection of the beautiful rainbow of diversity in the human species.

Great post. But you knew that.

So if a person has the genitals of a male, the secondary sex characteristics of a female, the gonads of a male, the hormones of a female, and the chromosomes of a male, they would be male physiologically.

Funny you should say that...

It's important for readers to realise that this is not a hypothetical situation, an academic exercise or thought-experiment. There are real people in this kind of situation. I'm one of them.

And some Intersex conditions can cause physiological changes, so the majority vote can change.

It *is* important tht people realize this isn't impersonal, but *very* personal.

There are more intersex people in the US than there are transsexuals. They are just of a lot greater variety.

This stuff affects literally millions of people -- and so while its pretty dry to a lot of people, and somewhat academic, it's important to keep awareness of it in terms of personal understanding.

I am intimately familiar with some people, for example, who have PMDS -- persistent Mullerian DUct Syndrome.

To the rest of the world, they look like guys. They father kids, they live a life, and then one day someone points out to them they've got a uterus.

And its killing them.

Such joys make this sort of thing not merely impersonal, but can cause them to question a great deal of their life.

And I know this one gal, well, she sorta changed all by herself, because of stuff like this. One of these PMDS people noted one day that a group of transsexuals doubted her -- saying terrible things to her.

And that person now no longer talks about their PMDS.

And I know this one gal, well, she sorta changed all by herself, because of stuff like this. One of these PMDS people noted one day that a group of transsexuals doubted her -- saying terrible things to her.
Another one of us? Another mechanism?

That would make 7 etiologies observed in the wild, of the dozen or so theoretical possibilities that could cause something like this.

Dyss, technically I'm a protandrous dichogamous pseudohermaphrodite. Meaning born looking male, changing naturally to look female later in life.

It's ridiculously rare compared to the protogynous varieties. The ones born looking female, then masculinising. Maybe 1% of them, and dichogamy of any kind in humans is so rare that most people, even specialists, aren't aware that it exists.

When my female puberty happened, I went to various trans sites, desperately looking for information none of my medical team knew anything about. I figured that it must have happened to dozens, maybe hundreds of other women. I knew nothing about GLB issues, or T issues, or IS issues.

My reception was... less than enthusiastically welcoming. At a time in my life when I was desperately hanging on to the shreds of my sanity, as close to the edge as it's possible to be, I was subject to some pretty nasty treatment.

Maybe that's why I had some sympathy for Ron Gold. I know what it's like to be the victim of a pack attack.

I still get it, by the way. Despite the photos, the records, the write-ups of my case in science magazines, some of the personal attacks by sceptics on TS sites greatly exceed in venom and sheer malice anything I've experienced elsewhere - apart from a few frothing-at-the-mouth lesbian exclusionist sites, as addicted to hatred as the Westboro Baptists.

People who have been abused and terribly hurt can sometimes lash out, especially if they think someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes, playing some sick game for their own perverse amusement.

I got through the horrible attacks when I was at my most vulnerable, during the awful PMT in the morning, menopause at mid-day, PMT again in the evening hormonal chaos that whipsawed my body and my mind and caused me to lose pounds per day.

When the carefully constructed life I'd made, despite all odds, trying for so many, many years to be the best Man any Woman could be, was crashing about my ears, and I was desperate for some assistance, understanding and reassurance. Literally at my wit's end.

I got through it.

I've been accused of being unusually patient. Even sane. (if only they knew...)

I think it is that I just acquired a sense of perspective.

You know how to contact me. If your friend needs some help, I'm here. There are so darned few of us, we try to help one another.

Oh yes - I have a scar from bikini line to breastbone where stuff was taken out that didn't belong in a male body, at age 20. PMDS? Maybe. Could be something else. Whatever it was, something even weirder happened as well.

Here's an interesting recent discovery.

SRY is responsible for triggering gonads to develop as testes rather than ovaries. But the presence of regulator FOXL2 is required to prevent changing of ovaries into testes. Deletion of Foxl2 in female adults leads to immediate upregulation of testis-specific genes. Reprogramming of cells begins immediately, along with testosterone production at male levels.

Cell, Volume 139, Issue 6, 11 December 2009, Pages 1130-1142

Yes, and the SOX9 gene appears to be the mirror-image. Deactivate that, and testes feminise.

This is all so fascinating.... sorry, male or female, I'm irretrievably geeky.

I guess the positive outcome of this is some good posts that are informative and not overly 101 stuff. All we need now is a cis person to do some convincing that you (we generally) aren't just wasting your (our) time.

Oddly enough, I consider this 101 type stuff.

201 course work starts at Privilege and intersection, lol.

300 and 400 level coursework gets *really* hairy after that, and that's where I hope to go after this initial series is done.

Dang it, hit submit too soon.

As for the cisfolk, they'll be a coming. The next one's on the hot button anyway, lol.

More seriously, I'm getting some feedback. And the one thing i say response (at least, to the positive stuff) is "ok, now you know. Go out and teach it to others."

But, just as we have no requirement to do the teaching, they have no requirement to do it either.

It's just a lot more effective when we all do it.

All we need now is a cis person to do some convincing that you (we generally) aren't just wasting your (our) time.

I think there are many such cis-persons here at Bilerico. If you have read her posts about sex categorizing and athletics, then you know that Patricia Nell Warren is one of them --- I don't speak for her, but her obvious interest shows that she does not think this issue is "a waste of time".

I would like to aspire to be such a cis-person as well, and the scientific foundational facts are a optimal place for formal and semi-formal students to begin. For me, the social ramifications seem more subjective and up to discussion, but the scientific, biological aspects are hard facts and not nearly so much up to debate, once the scientific consensus emerges from the various directions of research.

I don't think this is a waste of time at all. I was unaware of a lot of the science behind the experiences that people have regarding sex and gender. Really liking these posts.

I feel honored. This is the second subject you have tackled that I did as well. On June 6, 2008, I had an article here called, "Can we really define Man and Woman."

http://www.bilerico.com/2008/06/can_we_really_define_man_and_woman.php

Dyss, I can't even begin to tell you how outstanding it is to have you writing on the regular here. I feel like I'm getting a free education here. Like B.A. in Human Sexuality. It feels like I'm stealing! Please don't start charging, though!

Sex Identity is what transsexuals experience as "where's my penis?" or "where's my vagina". In my case, it's rather disconcerting to know I'm a female, find out females have vaginas, and then wonder "hey - where the hell's mine?"

Gender and Sex are not the same. Gender is about others. Always. Sex is not.

YES. I've been on a personal crusade in real life to get people to use sex identity when talking about folks' sense of their body (sex). Gender identity should be used to talk about people's sense of their self as a man, woman, or other gender. Sex identity should be used to talk about people's sense of their self as male, female, or other sex.

Thank you for this post, and especially for the parts about sex identity.

Ever since I heard of 'gender identity' I've been baffled about the way it mixes social gender and physical sex, even though elsewhere a clear separation is made between gender and sex. My guess is that this is some sort of a leftover from the old days, when eligibility for treatment was reserved for those trans women who looked female enough and behaved feminine enough.

Looking back, I'm not certain whether I've ever had a fixed gender identity, and these days I'd like to describe myself as intergendered. On the other hand, my sex identity has been clear about as long as I can remember. Based on what others have told -- and also on the number of trans women with traditionally male interests and careers -- it seems that I'm not nearly the only one whose identities are not in line with each other. At one point it made it much easier to stay in denial.

Also, it would seem that confusing the two identities makes it easier to dismiss transsexuality altogether. After all, if gender is simply a social construct, then gender identity is also a psychosocial issue that should very emphatically not be addressed by surgery. However, once one realises that the ultimate issue is with sex identity it becomes equally evident that no amount of social change or socialisation will make the problem go away.

All *dead on* Ana W.-L.

Thanks for commenting