Is Sex And Gender Binary?
The terms sex and gender are commonly used to describe the human body and brain respectively. Gender being the brain and sex being the body. In sexual species like humans, there are two reproductive sexes: male and female. However, humans like other species are also complex systems that are composed of many traits in a variety of mixtures.
Some of these traits are referred to as male/masculine or female/feminine. I'll refer to these traits as gender traits (brain) and sex traits (body). How I define what is a male or a female trait is by what traits appear more often in the male and female population, even across cultures. Below are examples of sex traits:
- Facial hair
- Deep voice
- XX chromosome
- XY chromosome
Below are examples of gender traits or lack thereof:
- Sexual attraction to men
- Sexual attraction to women
- No sexual attraction
- Feel masculine
- Feel feminine
- Feel neither masculine or feminine
- Romantic attraction to men
- Romantic attraction to women
- No romantic attraction
All of these traits are rooted biologically in the brain (gender) or the body (sex). While we can label these traits with two labels, male/masculine or female/feminine, there is more than two sets. There are multiple sets of traits. There will be a 100% male/masculine set, a 100% female/feminine set, and many other sets in-between.
Sets composed of multiple binary traits does not result in binary sets. There are many sets, but there at least 4 major set categories for sex and gender each.
- Mostly masculine traits.
- Mostly feminine traits.
- Close to equal masculine and feminine traits (androgynous)
- Low masculine and feminine traits (asexual)
The brain is also a complex and dynamic system, so one would also have to consider ideas of gender fluidity, such as gaining or losing a sexual attraction for the same sex later in life. In some species, even sex is fluid.
It is clear to most people that intersex (e.g. ambiguous genitalia) humans exist. It is easily observed with ones own eyes. People that have a mixture of male and female sex traits can posses both male and female genitalia. The controversy seems to reside with people who believe in at least one of two things:
- There can be a mixture of sex traits (body), but not a mixture of gender traits (brain).
- Sex traits always match up to gender traits (body and brain must always match each other).
Focusing on the second one, even if they accept that there are male-differentiated brains and female-differentiated brains, they often try to maintain that it's impossible for a gender/sex mismatch. That is to say, they believe that it must be true that all male bodies posses a male-differentiated brain and that all female bodies possess a female-differentiated brain. Even though not all bodies are 100% male or female (i.e. intersex), they still maintain this belief.
If you consider what a gender and sex trait is, this belief breaks down even without delving into brain research (scans and dissections). Being attracted to a male or a female is a neurological trait, it is a gender trait. The very existence of a homosexual defies the reasoning that gender traits must always match sex traits. And the very existence of bisexuals contradicts the belief that there cannot be a mixture of gender traits.
Man vs Woman
Multiple sets arise from binary traits, especially since we have to consider ambiguity and absence of traits. To better fathom this, lets consider a simple test. This test isn't comprehensive by any means. It focuses on the very basics. It is a 12 question test, with 6 sex questions and 6 gender questions. Each question allows for 3 possible answers.
|Genitals (glans)||penis, clitoris, ambiguous|
|Gonads||testicles, ovaries, none or streak gonads|
|Vagina||yes, no, underdeveloped|
|Uterus||yes, no, underdeveloped|
|Breasts||yes, no, rudimentary breasts|
|Chromosome||XX, XY, other|
|Sexual attraction to men||yes, no, somewhat|
|Sexual attraction to women||yes, no, somewhat|
|Romantic attraction to men||yes, no, somewhat|
|Romantic attraction to women||yes, no, somewhat|
|Feel masculine||yes, no, somewhat|
|Feel feminine||yes, no, somewhat|
This test evaluates binary sex and gender traits, which can be present, absent, and ambiguous. This test results in many sets of answers. Just 6 questions leads to 36 = 729 answer sets. If you combine both tests you get 312 = 531,441 answers sets. Adding a few more questions would put it into the millions. If you're surprised by this, don't worry, virtually everyone is overwhelmed by how many sets come from combinations, permutations, etc.. If you just took the gender half of test and allowed people to answer them on a scale from 1-10, you would end up with 106 = 1 million
While the test has 500k+ possible ways of answering it, that doesn't means that all such answer sets exist in nature. You may wonder if a person can answer the test with having a penis and a vagina. Well you're luck, they can! At the bottom of this article you will find links to examples and conditions that will help you better understand all the different combinations there are.
When dealing with these traits that have two labels (male vs female), anything less than 4 categories of sets would be a very poor way of representing the combinations of these two labels. For instance, the idea of boy and girl doesn't account for other sets like shemales (i.e. male genitalia and female secondary sex characteristics).
Keep in mind, these four major categories would arise from any set of binary traits. Call them trait A and trait B, and you'll have sets with only A, only B, half-half mixture of A and B, and the empty set (no A or B). Not to mention everything else in-between.
If you had, say 20 A traits and 20 B traits, that could be present or absent, you would not end up with only two sets. Instead, you would end up with more than 1 trillion sets. This number is the power set of 1-40, calculated by 240
Technically, you could create just two categories: Cat-A and Cat-B to label all of these sets. Even if a set is composed of 20 A and 19 B, you could just call it Cat-A, since you are free to define Cat-A in anyway you want, and if it's 50% you can just default to Cat-A as well. This would be a very poor way of communicating what a set is composed of though. Because a set with 20 A and 0 B would be categorized the same as 20 A and 19 B... Having four categories would be far more clear. If you had 8 categories it would be even more clear, and so on.
The most clear you could be, is just knowing the exact presence/absence of 40 traits. By using broad categories and labels, a lot of information is not communicated. The less categories, the less information. The more categories, the more information. However, the more categories you add, the more complex and long the conversation becomes. If someone wanted to communicate what set they were, they probably don't want to go through a list of 40 traits. This makes broader categories useful in real-time conversation and storing information.
Now going back to male and female trait sets, the same problem arises. While it may work differently, such as there not being a set of 0 A and 0 B, there are enough sets to make having only two categories very useless in communicating any set that is not highly masculine or feminine.
When we ask someone a question in regards to their sex and gender, or store it in a database, or put on a questionnaire, it makes sense to have at least 4 categories.
This brings us to a more abstract point, words (or signifiers) do not have intrinsic meaning. We can define sex and gender however we like. But some definitions are better at communicating information than others. Some definitions are more descriptive than others. And no matter how you define man and woman, the fact remains that there are multiple sets of sex and gender traits that combine into a much larger set.
Science and Examples
This section contains various conditions and information.
- 5α-Reductase deficiency
- Androgen insensitivity syndrome
- Klinefelter syndrome
- Turner syndrome
- Müllerian agenesis
- Vaginal atresia
- XX male syndrome
- Ovotesticular disorder of sex development (true hermaphroditism)
- XY gonadal dysgenesi (Swyer syndrome)
- Gynecomastia (male breast enlargement)
- Uterine Hypoplasia
- Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome
- Wikipedia: Disorders of sex development
- Planned Parenthood: Sex Gender Identity
- Planned Parenthood: Transgender Identities