Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sex and gender

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 at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Well for the latest detailed personal pronoun guide, see here:

    Thank goodness we have some academic guidance for this. Three sets of gender pronouns doesn't appear to be enough at *all*, they are asserting that there are nine (times five tenses / declensions, whatever the right term is...and we have 45).

    I think your sense that three is good enough is right on, and really it hasn't seemed to be a huge problem to get by with two in 99.9% of cases.

    It's a little difficult to believe that proliferating to nine different sets of gender pronouns isn't really about bullying everyone into obeying an ever more complex set of rules that are nearly impossible to accurately comply with. So maybe people can be run out of their jobs or even imprisoned if they don't start carrying around a printed gender pocket guide....for displaying insufficient enthusiasm for the new order. It's like not crying loudly enough at Kim Jong-Il's funeral.

    1. I agree with the overall sentiment, but let's not be glib. Your claim that "it hasn't seemed to be a huge problem to get by with two in 99.9% of cases" is plainly untrue. If you don't wish to be accused of callous indifference typical of the clueless heterosexual cisgender male, then by all means, don't sound like one. As it is, it's not that you're "not crying loudly enough"; it's that you're not crying at all . Far from it, you're actually cracking jokes .

    2. Anonymous: actually, in a country over over 330m people, that is not a high rate of hate crime, even given the reporting problems. And neither hate crimes or homelessness has anything much to do with gender pronouns.

    3. Not a high rate, sure. But to throw around 99.9% is just gratuitous. It's like saying it hasn't seemed to be a huge problem to get by with traditional marriage in 99.9% of cases. It's always not a high rate, unless you're trans/gender non-conforming. It's always not a huge problem, unless you're gay/queer. Just because folks are statistically insignificant does not mean their lives are insignificant. Intrinsic worth means just that: intrinsic. One is high enough.

    4. That comment was about gender pronouns, which is not germane to the figures you quoted. In fact, none of your piety display has anything to do with gender pronouns.

    5. I said "I agree with the overall sentiment" (i.e. the countless pronouns are superfluous). I only asked, "let's not be glib." People who use them do so for their own reasons, which you would know if you had only bothered to ask these people about whom you pontificate oh-so-knowingly. My boyfriend, for instance, doesn't like to be called "gay." He prefers "queer" instead. I, on the other hand, love the word "gay" and have nothing but contempt for the word "queer." My gay uncle, meanwhile, prefer neither. Now, each of us has our own reasons for our linguistic preferences, despite the fact that we're all equally homosexual. It wouldn't kill you to recognize people the way they wish to be recognized. That is why you can't call me a nigger, even though I am, in fact, black.

    6. Anonymous, you can deny that it's your intention all you want, but you are deliberately conflating insufficient knowledge of the latest trendy gender pronouns with beating up homosexuals and using racial slurs. How pleasant.

      A table with nine different new gender pronouns warrants nothing but glib sarcasm, period. If you were out to deliberately mock transgendered people you couldn't do much worse than to put up a table like that. I said two *gender pronouns* has been good enough for 99.9% of people.... that includes the unknown-but-surely-much-more-than 0.1% of people who have alternate *sexual orientations*. No homosexual man or woman I've known in my life has ever suggested that I refer to them with some kind of alternate gender *pronoun*. So I don't quite grasp the connection with your boyfriend's preferences concerning gay or queer...neither of which are gender pronouns obviously.

      Again, you're basically calling me a racist homophobe for glib sarcasm about a ridiculous list of new pronouns that has ALREADY been proposed as the basis for a California statute allowing prosecution of health care workers who fail to use them. A proposal is not the same thing as an enacted statute, of course, but still.

      So, in "typical clueless heterosexual cisgendered" fashion - good thing you don't throw around stereotypes like we do, eh? - I'm tired of being accused of every kind of evil for not subscribing to the latest idiotic victim trend. YOU are the one who jumped in to this thread making nasty accusations. YOU are the one radiating hate and fear towards people who are different than you. As a result, whatever victim status you think you have is invalid as far as I'm concerned. You are not MY victim in any way shape or form, you're just trying to make me feel that way to win an argument.

      You and so many others are just utterly oblivious to how you are trying to make enemies out of so many people who never meant you any harm on account of your race, orientation, or any other such feature. From the looks of things these days, you are having some success at it. Go ahead, tell me I'm "blaming the victim" again. You're no victim here, and the hostility in this discussion IS your damn fault, so I'm placing the blame squarely where it belongs.

    7. Aww, poor straight white man is "tired" and pissed. How adorably Bannonite. It must be hard having only the whole world as your safe space, huh? You take care now, darling.

    8. Gee, thanks for your thoughtful reply. It's nice to have some help making my point...and you're much more concise, I've got to hand it to you.

      Next time you suspect someone is being mean to you because of your race or sexual orientation, pause for a moment and consider the possibility that it's actually because you're an asshole.

    9. I spent all morning in class, all afternoon at the library, and all evening volunteering at a homeless youth shelter. And now it's already past midnight and my boyfriend is calling me to bed, wondering why I'm shaking my head, giggling and sighing at 1.30 in the morning. You see, some of us actually have work to do -- hard, urgent, humbling work, like being there for a fifteen-year-old trans boy who was raped because the very fact that he could be raped proves, according to his rapist, that he is not really "he" but "she"; you know, the stuff of what you so courageously call "the latest idiotic victim trend" as if marginalized people's search for identity -- and sense of self -- is the product of fashion as opposed to exclusion, trauma, injury, and horror. You see, unlike you, some of us know better than to sit around berating minorities for destroying the good old days when everything was black and white and everyone was male or female, straight or deviant, white or undeserving. All the same, darling. You do you. Good night, and goodbye.

    10. Yes, we got that you are obviously morally superior to anyone who ever disagrees with you. As I wrote, piety display. But still not about gender pronouns.

  2. Of course I didn't "berate a minority for destroying the good old days...", but you know that of course. You have shown yourself to be a liar and not a very good one, if you're going to attempt to lie to me about what I said myself. On that basis, I highly doubt the rest of your story; it isn't likely that you do any sort of "hard, urgent, humbling work" or anything remotely as compassionate as caring for traumatized teenagers. People who live that way don't behave or think the way you do, as you would know if you'd ever had any exposure to them. Goodbye to you and your pathetic fantasies. Good luck fooling the next person who has the misfortune of attempting to engage you in a conversation...didn't work on me I'm afraid.

    1. Translation: Anonymous is fake news!

      How telling.

      For what it's worth, Anonymous, I believe you. I've worked in social services before, so I understand that boiling rage at the staggering and the willful ignorance of the more privileged who simply refuse to believe that things could ever be so bad for anyone in our otherwise well-off society. You are right, then, to ignore the haters. If my experience is any indication, your life and your work will be better off for it. Godspeed, man!

    2. Try reading through the thread. It's all there in print. I've said nothing that remotely supports the accusations being hurled around; and your buddy up there flat out lies about what was said in this *very same conversation*.

      I'm racist and privileged and and a hater and a Bannonite and homophobic...all based on zero evidence of any kind. People like anonymous have simply given themselves the right to declare anyone such things for having the temerity to disagree with them about anything at all - all the while patting himself on the back for being such a nice guy. Yeah, a guy on the internet who politely disagrees with you is roughly comparable to a violent rapist who assaults teenagers....perfectly reasonable.

      If you're determined to find enemies everywhere, you'll find them everywhere.

      Oh, yes, and my experience with social services suggests that most people who are actually engaged in it don't go around bragging about it in every conversation, and trying to use it to settle arguments. Just my experience. Which, I suspect, is a lot more extensive than that of mr. anonymous.