Philosophy of Sex?: An Excursion into the 5 Sexes

The conception or definition of sex would at first glance seem to be a strictly biological task. It is not obvious how the term `sex' may have deeper non-scientific origins--or that the nature of its meaning might be highly significant, especially when coupled with the imprimatur of science. One virtue of a feminist approach to science is that it raises such questions, often with provocative, if not also highly interesting, results. Is there a philosophy of sex?

We may be tempted to regard the definition of sex, for example, as straightforward. Yet sex can be defined or characterized at many levels: chromosomal ("XX" v. "XY"); cellular (egg v. sperm); morphological (gonads, genitalia and functional anatomy); physiological (hormonal levels); and behavioral (sexuality). Which is "the" definition?

We rarely confront the question of which definition may be fundamental, of course, because the dichotomies are generally aligned from one level to another. But it may be typical of nature that it confounds our efforts to fit it into neat categories.

The most obvious problematic cases for sexual classification are hermaphrodites. The single organism can be classified neither as strictly male nor as strictly female. Nor can we retreat to the chromosomal definition, because the bisexual organism has only one genome. The dichotomy of sex blurs.

Flowering plants, of course, sort their sex in numerous ways: different sexual organs in the same flower; different sexed flowers on the same plant; and different sexed plants. Sterility alleles can also effectively block certain matings, adding another facet to who-can-mate-with-who, hinting at an alternative way to conceptualize sex. The sex of blossoms can also be regulated. Nutrition, photoperiod and thermoperiod (cool v. warm nights) have all been shown to influence whether male or female organs, or both, develop. Perhaps we cannot talk at all about sex in a plant until a flower forms from undifferentiated tissue, and the plant shifts from a purely vegetative to a reproductive existence.

To confuse matters even more, some organisms change sex. Fish, in particular, have been well studied. When a school of some reef fish loses its single male, the largest female can begin to change into a male within hours, producing sperm inside a few weeks. Such sex changes are fairly widespread taxonomically. Individuals from species in at least 14 families of fish can convert from female to male, and conversion from male to female occurs in eight. Some switch back and forth during a single mating episode. Sex can be temporal.

If such organisms seem odd, it may be because (as philosopher David Hull stresses) we tend to measure all life in mammalian terms. We are far from being representative of living things, though--even of just animals. Thus our lives may not be the best models for understanding the complex nature of sex.

Even among humans, though, sex-distinctions are not unequivocal. Recently, Anne Fausto-Sterling has suggested that there are (at least) five sexes in humans. In addition to traditional males and females, one can identify three general types of intersexual bodies: those with one ovary and one testis, each functional; those with ovaries, but also distinct adult-sized penises (and sometimes beards and deep voices); and those with testes, but also a vagina (and sometimes breasts). In the last two cases, the external genitalia and secondary sex characteristics do not match the chromosomes (what more dramatic way to show that chromosomes do not exclusively determine the organism's form?!).

The variations may not surprise someone familiar with embryology. Every mammalian fetus, after all, has structures that can develop into a uterus and fallopian tubes, as well as those that can mature into the sperm-transport system. But what is more surprising is the frequency of such intersex individuals at birth. One physician estimates that as many as 4% of the population is born sexually ambiguous. (--Students may note that this is an average of 1 in a class of 25; 40 in a school of 1,000; or about 10 million nationally.)

In our culture, however, most intersexual individuals are treated surgically or given hormonal therapy. They are transformed from their "natural" state in order to fit one of the two traditional sexes. Here, we can see the striking consequences of our sex categories: we are manipulating nature to make it conform to our assessment of "natural" types. That is, we must change nature because it is not "nature" according to our science.

We respond to intersexuality, then--both socially and scientifically--as an anomaly and therefore try to dismiss it, peripheralize it, even mask or eliminate it. Here, someone borrowing a feminist perspective is prompted to ask, "why?" Why do we regard human hermaphroditism as a disorder, rather than merely as a set of relatively infrequent cases; why as exceptions, rather than as expected variants in a diverse and complex system? Why is intersexuality "something to be feared or ridiculed," as Fausto-Sterling phrases it, rather than "something to be celebrated for its subtleties"?

The suppression of intersexuality--and of plants and animals that do not fit our standard models of sex--illustrates a process of normalization. That is, we sometimes identify the most common, widespread or familiar occurence--or a measured average--as "normal," or "natural." While it is undoubtedly valuable in science to characterize patterns, the flip side of normalization is that uncommon, infrequent or unfamiliar cases can be recast as abnormal, pathological or freakish. We reason inappropriately, however, if we use the features of some individuals--even if they are a majority--as a standard to characterize all individuals. The 96% of the human cases that divide neatly into two sexes are not more fundamental than, or logically prior to, intersexuals. All are equally products of nature.

The authority we attribute to the majority, of course, reflects our democratic ideals. The behavior of the social whole is determined by the voice of the majority. Normalization in science or medicine implicitly assumes that the whole of nature can also be characterized by the majority--how "most" organisms function. The model of democracy applied to nature implies that each individual instance has had an equal role in the characterization and that therefore the descriptive label "normal" is justified. But recent studies on the widespread variation in stable body temperature help remind us that "normal" can be relative or an imposed category. We may need to clearly identify the political model as an implicit, but inappropriate guide for natural science. Exceptions matter.

The deeper problem philosophically is when normality carries with it a "normative" force--that is, when we assume that what is normal, ought to be normal. We use the term `normal' to convey both facts and values, and thus we can easily shift without realizing it from a descriptive claim to a prescriptive claim. We can unwittingly commit the fallacy of moving from an "is" to an "ought." Descriptive categories of sex can therefore subtlely become unjustified value judgements. --And one can see the possible consequences when those categories carry the authority of science.

Feminists remind us that for well over a century, to be male was to be "natural" or "normal"--through categories (and diagrams) expressed in biology, anthropology and medicine. Not to understate the case, the pervasive consequences for being female (i.e., "abnormal") were predictable--but we would not say justifiable.

An examination of the philosophy of sex, then, is more than an excursion into some biological esoterica about five sexes. It is an exploration of the boundaries of scientific knowledge and of the misuse of scientific authority. The significance of discussing sex in philosophical terms can perhaps best be summarized by noting the importance of the topic in our lives. The first question we typically hear when someone announces a new birth is rarely, "Is the baby healthy?" or "How is the mother?" Rather, we seek a dichotomous category that is scientifically questionable: "Is it a boy or a girl?"

Further Reading:

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