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?
In most domains other than sex and gender, finding the biological cause is not a reason to accept the condition. Cancer is natural, and so is Salmonella. But discovering their biological mechanisms is not a signal to start celebrating these conditions as a gift of nature, but rather a basis for trying to find a cure. Similarly, if we were to identify a biological variation responsible for a behavioral handicap, such as difficulty in acquiring reading skills or a tendency toward violence, we would enlist the biological findings in searching for a remedy. We certainly wouldn't use the biological information to stop teaching children with this variant how to read or to give them a license to kill. Instead we would do exactly the opposite and increase our efforts to teaching them to read or to control their aggression.
Why, then, treat gender differences differently?
I suggest shifting our focus (which has become an obsession) from the ‘natural’ differences between women and men to the social significance of these traits. Let's try to restrain the traits that are harmful and enhance the ones that are beneficial in all individuals, regardless of the form of their genitals. If empathic, nurturing, and assertive abilities are important, let’s nourish them in all humans, giving special attention to those who, because of natural or environmental causes, are less able in these domains. That's exactly how we would act if we discovered, say, that a child’s difficulty in expressing empathy was caused by poor parenting. Why should we behave differently if we believed that this same difficulty was caused by the levels of testosterone to which this child had been exposed in the womb? The difference in the way that we approach these two scenarios supports my claim that people care whether gender is natural because they want to justify the binary gender system.
Let's try to restrain the traits that are harmful and enhance the ones that are beneficial in all individuals, regardless of the form of their genitals
My vision is that of a gender-free world. A world in which humans are not treated on the basis of the form of their genitals but instead are encouraged to develop the full range of their abilities. I have no idea whether in such a world there would still be differences between humans with female or male genitals, but I am sure that we simply would not care.
And why should we care? When you want to join a chess club or take a gourmet-cooking course, do you check beforehand whether this activity is more common in humans with brown or blue eyes? So why worry whether it’s more common in humans with male or female genitals? We do not care about having the ‘appropriate’ eye color not because there are no group-level differences between humans with different eye colors, but because the color of our eyes carries no social meaning.
A gender-free world is one in which the form of one’s genitals – male, female or intersex – carries no social meaning. A world in which if something is appropriate for humans, it is appropriate for you.
Daphna Joel is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, and the author (with Luba Vikhanski) of Gender Mosaic: Beyond the Myth of the Male and Female Brain (London: Octopus, Endeavour, 2019).
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