New Worlds: Sex and Gender – What Is Sex?

Important disclaimer first: all of these Patreon essays are, necessarily, a relatively brief and therefore shallow look at the topic at hand. They’re each a little over a thousand words long; there’s only so much detail you can get into at that length. But for this next month’s essays, I want to particularly highlight the incomplete nature of the discussion, because we’re going to get into some very complex stuff.

Which is to say, we’re going to start talking about sex and gender.

Although we often use the words this way, “gender” is theoretically not supposed to be just a polite alternative to the word “sex” (which we also use to talk about intercourse). I remember that roughly twenty years ago, the way the distinction got explained to me was that sex is biological, and gender is cultural. In other words, sex is about the body you live in, and culture is about how society chooses to organize people.

That’s . . . close, but not quite accurate.

Yes, sex is a biological concept. And a medically important one: everything from what ailments you’re liable to suffer to how you respond to medications may vary based on your sex. But to imply that it’s only biological — that there’s no cultural component at all — misses some important points. Because it turns out that even our physical bodies are, in a sense, culturally constructed.

What do I mean by that? Let’s first consider some of the identifying sexual characteristics of bodies: on the one hand things like penises and testicles, and on the other hand things like vaginas and breasts. Those obviously aren’t necessary criteria for one’s sex, though, because a man who loses his testicles is still male; a woman who has a mastectomy is still female. Even people who undergo reassignment surgery need to remain alert to things like the cancer risks associated with where they started.

Right, you say. Because chromosomes. Whatever you look like, your chromosomes are what determine your true sex.

. . . or do they? In school you probably learned that women have XX chromosomes, and men have XY. Ergo, it should be possible to classify sex on that basis, even if something happens to the visible characteristics of the body, right? It’s nice and tidy and it works great — right up to the point where you discover that some people’s chromosomal makeup is X. Or XXY. Or XYY. Or XXX. Is their sex male, female, or something else?

This isn’t science fiction. How common intersex conditions are, nobody’s quite sure; some of them are visible, while others can be detected only through medical testing, and also there are different opinions about what types of biological variation should be grouped under that label. But quite a few people are born with bodies or even chromosomes that don’t fall neatly into the supposedly straightforward categories of male and female. And the point at which you start making decisions about which box to put the variations into is the point at which culture has begun to thoroughly intervene.

Consider the term “hermaphrodite.” These days that word mostly only gets used in an animal context, where some species can have two sets of functioning reproductive organs and the ability to reproduce either way. From early times, though, we’ve known that individuals sometimes we have genitalia that display some combination of male and female features. In European history it was important to decide which one seemed more prominent, because that affected the legal rights of the person in question: the law only recognized male and female sexes, so everybody had to be one or the other. And after anaesthetics and antibiotics meant we got better at surgery, for a while it became standard procedure for hospitals to do “corrective” operations on infants born with ambiguous sexual organs. The doctors tended to pick whichever was medically easiest to arrange, on the assumption that if the child grew up with a “normal”-seeming body, they’d naturally identify with that body’s category.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. And fortunately, the medical establishment is moving away from having parents make those decisions for their children so soon after birth. Surgery can still be necessary when the organs don’t function properly — some intersex conditions are medically problematic — but doing it just for the sake of aesthetics and “normality” is on its way out.

The fact that it was ever in shows that our cultural frameworks shape what we consider to be male and female, not just in the gendered sense, but in the physical one, too. And of course we often tether gender to our bodies, in ways we’ll discuss in future essays . . . but for now, let’s stick with the more biological side.

Representation of intersex bodies in fiction is still quite limited. As I mentioned before, not all such conditions are visible to begin with, and some of the ones that are would require the characters to be in rather intimate situations for the reader to learn about them. Not every book is going to go there. On the other hand, consider those historical Europeans, examining people’s junk in an attempt to determine what legal rights they ought to have. Even if the junk in question doesn’t get a cameo on the page, the tricky societal positioning of a character like that might come up — and might tell us something about their society to boot. Maybe such people are even grouped as a third sex, separate from male and female.

On the topic of a third sex . . . science fiction and fantasy authors frequently write about alien species or fantasy races, groups that are biologically distinct from Homo sapiens. It’s entirely possible (and it’s been done) to have species whose sex system doesn’t look quite like that of humans. Maybe they’re sequential hermaphrodites, their sexual organs and reproductive capacity changing based on circumstances. Or they might be like honeybees: single-chromosome drones, dual-chromosome workers, and dual-chromosome queens, whose bodies and reproductive capacity differ significantly from those of their worker sisters. While biologists organize bee sex on the basis of chromosome count (drones are male; workers and queens are female) and use the term “caste” for the more complex structure, it isn’t a stretch to call the latter a three-sex system.

But there’s a hazard here. Aliens have a long and inglorious history of being used to stand in for human diversity, offloading anything the mainstream considers “weird” into firmly Other territory. There’s nothing a priori wrong with basing your alien species on honey bee biology, or in giving them sequential hermaphroditism, or any other interesting quirk found in the animal kingdom. But if your invented species are all humanoid hermaphrodites in the stereotypical sense — which rarely resembles the actual bodies of intersex people — and there are no sexual variations found among your human characters, then it may feel uncomfortably like you’ve taken this “exotic” notion and reified it as literally alien, while erasing the real people underlying the concept. So, y’know, don’t do that.

All these complications, though, are really only the tip of the iceberg. It’s when we get to gender that things become truly messy. For that, we’ll need another essay . . .

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Sex and Gender – What Is Sex? — 8 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Sex and Gender - What Is Sex? - Swan Tower

  2. Marie, thanks for a bracingly clear and objective look at sexual identity! I just saw a news clip about the first person recognized in the “new” intersex category by U.S. government (it might have been on a passport, but can’t recall the document at the moment). Looking forward to your discussion of gender.

    • I hadn’t even heard of intersex being a thing until I was in college or maybe graduate school — and this despite the fact that I’ve since learned one of an older generation of my relatives was probably intersex (and surgically “corrected” in infancy).

  3. I don’t know of any real species where more than two animals have to come together to produce offspring, and from when I read more about evolutionary genetics, I dimly recall arguments that it was unlikely — too much added complexity for too little again. The fact that DNA is double-stranded might play into that too. So “three sex” species where all the sexes have to mate are unlikely… not that that needs to stop someone who just wants to think about what it would be like.

    Slime molds have up to 18 “mating types”, but AFAIK any two non-identical types can mate.

    I can imagine a species that had males, females, and biological hermaphrodites (and I would guess the herms would be in the process of evolving out) but that’s still “any two can mate”, not “all three needed”.

    Niven claimed three for the puppeteers, but I also recall that as two mating and the third hosting… possibly not even the same species, just something being parasitized. But we wouldn’t call caterpillars the third sex of parasitic wasps.

    • Right, there’s biological complexity involved in who is required for mating. But from the societal standpoint, sentient bees might very well think of there being three sexes, the ones who bear young, the ones who sire young, and the ones who don’t mate at all. Then surprise! scientific! discovery! when bee scientists learn that the non-maters are chromosomally grouped with the queens . . .

    • Don’t overfocus on “DNA being two-stranded”; if there is a critical factor, it’s the pairing of chromosomes. I’m a bit out of date, but David Kirk and a number of others were doing work on this in the early 1980s, specifically regarding development factors between “egg” and “hatching” (whether from a true “egg” or live birth). The short version is that “inherited genes” are nowhere near the entire picture, and that was known to most pre-meds forty years ago.

      Newts are every developmental biologist’s friend, and let’s not get started on blastomere transplantations. Even in the early 1980s, that was an advanced-undergraduate-level experiment.

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