Debates are everywhere: Are sex and gender innate? Is sex natural and gender social? Is gender the result of sex? But, scientifically, both sex and gender are mosaics, so why are we so obsessed? asks Daphna Joel
Are sex and gender natural? To my mind, a much more interesting question is: why do we care? But first, let me say a few words about the original question.
Sex is a biological system comprised of genes and hormones, and in this sense, it is ‘natural’. By saying that sex is ‘natural’ people tend to imply that it's immutable, yet natural phenomena, including those related to sex, are often subject to change. For example, the levels of sex-related hormones constantly fluctuate, in response to internal and external events. Some of the factors affecting the levels of these hormones are highly dependent on a person's gender. For example, competing and parenting – which in many cultures are not equally encouraged in women and men – affect testosterone levels. Do these facts mean that a person's sex is not natural? Not at all. But they do mean that we should not equate ‘natural’ with ‘immutable.’
Nor should we equate the sex system with the sex categories, to which we are assigned at birth, typically on the basis of the form of our genitals. The vast majority of humans are born with one of two sets of genital organs – either only female-typical or only male-typical. In contrast, such components of the sex system as estrogen, testosterone and other sex-related hormones are found in all humans, regardless of which set of genital organs they possess. Moreover, the average levels of most of these hormones are similar in females and males, and, as I have just discussed, the levels of these hormones are highly dynamic and reactive. So, unlike genitals, sex-related hormones do not come in two distinct sets – male and female.
Complex interactions result in brains composed of unique mosaics of features, and these brain mosaics cannot be meaningfully sorted into male and female.
The same is true of our brains – they are neither immutable nor binary. Their structure and function are constantly affected by complex interactions between a multitude of factors, including sex-related genes and hormones. These complex interactions result in brains composed of unique mosaics of features, some more common in females and others more common in males, and these brain mosaics cannot be meaningfully sorted into male and female.
Our gender – the set of psychological characteristics and behaviors that are considered appropriate for humans with male or female genitals – is not binary either. This is because most humans possess unique mosaics of feminine (i.e., more common in women compared to men) and masculine characteristics. As groups, women and men may differ in certain traits, but, on the level of the individual, each one of us is a gender mosaic. So human beings don't neatly fit into a binary division – neither in terms of their biological sex system, nor in terms of their gender characteristics. What is binary is the gendered social system which attributes different meanings, roles, power and status to humans with male or female genitals.
For centuries, people have turned to sex to prove that dividing humans into two groups, women and men, is 'natural', often focusing on the effects of sex on people’s brains. Which brings me to the question – why do we care whether gender is natural? I would like to argue that it is because we equate ‘natural’ with ‘inevitable’. In this way the idea that gender is a natural consequence of sex can be used to justify the binary set-up of our society.
For the sake of the argument, let’s assume for a moment that gender characteristics are indeed a ‘natural’ result of sex. For example, that boys and men are more aggressive by ‘nature’, and girls and women more nurturant. Would this justify the binary societal division?