Fair Questions: Are sex and gender binary?

In a previous post, I explored the question of whether or not it’s possible for a man to become a woman. In that post, I alluded to the fact that I didn’t have time to address the concepts of sex and gender properly, which is why I used traditional definitions of “man” and “woman” from the dictionary as a starting point.

Unsurprisingly, some folks took issue with the presentation of sex and/or gender as binary, pointing out that lots of research suggests strongly that it is not, or at the very least that there are very difficult to explain boundary cases if sex and gender are actually binary.  Typically, those making the critique see sex and gender as non-binary because of the evidence gathered in the fields of biology, medicine, neurology, psychology, et al.

Specifically, they objected to the use of chromosomes as a requirement for defining a person’s sex as male or female because there are people with XXY chromosomes.  I actually agree with them that even chromosomes don’t support a purely binary view of gender (or sex, for that matter). I tend to think of both as existing along a set of intersecting spectrums. It’s a lot more complicated than the popular view that men are men and women are women.  That said, the non-binary nature of sex and gender from a physiological standpoint does not demonstrate that the categories of “man” and “woman” are meaningless and should be abandoned.  At best, it suggests that the two categories are not exhaustive.  Perhaps the terms “man” and “woman” are meaningless, but it would take much more than an account of the scientific facts to reach that conclusion; additional reasoning would be needed to dismantle the categories entirely, and a useful solution might be to simply add more categories, which has already been attempted with some limited success by LGBTQIA folks.

I just don’t think that it’s at all clear from the facts that the normative claim that we should treat gender dysphoria (or GID if we’re using the DSM) by sex reassignment is correct. That’s a difficult moral question to answer in light of the consequences. If we get it wrong, then either we’ve mutilated a person for life unnecessarily or denied them the opportunity to live their life as a person of their true gender. Which is why I can’t understand why people sometimes ask, “Who cares what they do with their body?” Of course I care whether or not my friend or co-worker who experiences gender dysphoria gets the right treatment. How could I not while having basic human empathy?

Which brings us back to the previous question, though stated slightly differently. Can a person with the XY chromosome be changed into a person with the XX chromosome? And if so, would that make them a woman?

The folks who were correctly insisting that I take into account the medical facts (which I already was), conceded that the answer to the first question is simply, “No.”  At least given our current technology, we don’t have have the ability to precisely edit the DNA of every single cell in a person’s body.

But for the sake of answering the second question, let’s suppose for a moment that the technology were to be developed and we could accomplish such a feat.  In that case, the result would probably be similar to the effects of hormone therapy used in reassignment procedures.  The person with the XY chromosome altered to have an XX chromosome would have a noticeable change in their voice quality and musculature along with many other things.

This would of course do nothing to erase many parts of the person’s physiology.  They would not suddenly drop 4-5 inches in height, and their sex organs would remain, at least until the reassignment surgery was performed.

Under the traditional physiological view of what it means to be a man or woman, even changing the person’s chromosomes doesn’t seem to allow us to claim that a man is now a woman.  And because the person would have experienced their development as a member of the other sex, it seems unlikely that we could even claim psychological parity for someone born and raised as an XY who was later changed to an XX.

So even if we manage to change the chromosomes and perform the surgery to get the person closer to having something like the sex organs of a woman, it seems that we have just managed to make them more like a woman.  At what point do we legally call a person a woman?  Is 80% of a typical woman’s physiology enough?  70 percent?  60 percent?  Do they just need to fall within a broad range of physiological traits that we will typically accept as being the traits of a woman?  If so, then what are those traits?

And of course, even if we get a proper definition of what it means to be a man or a woman that manages to be exhaustive in the sense of including all persons within its bounds, that won’t resolve the issue.  The disagreement on the question of whether a man can become a woman is rooted more so in intuition than in reason; those who claim that it is possible typically suggest that it is possible because they think that allowing people to do what they want is more important than trying to hold them to an objective standard.

Those who claim that it is not possible typically think that holding people to an objective standard is more important than allowing them to do what they want.  These are competing claims that rest on our values rather than on evidence and logic, which is why the question of whether or not sex and gender are binary is largely irrelevant to the discussion.  Both sides will simply employ confirmation bias to reach the conclusion they favor based on their values.

As someone who is still not sure what the best answer will turn out to be, all I want to do is assist by providing both groups with a framework for understanding the issue and reasoning their way to a coherent position on the issue which takes into account the rational consequences of their chosen policy.

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4 Responses to Fair Questions: Are sex and gender binary?

  1. Pingback: Fair Questions: Do we always know our true nature? | Isorropia

  2. Pingback: The Mathematics of Equality | Isorropia

  3. Pingback: What’s the distinction between gender dysphoria and normal insecurities? | Isorropia

  4. Pingback: Fair Questions: Can a man become a woman? | Isorropia

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