Male/Female: Broken Language?

22Sep09

This post was originally published August 21, 2009 here.

In case you didn’t know (and you probably do) I am a MtF transsexual (by official definitions). By less official (my own) definitions I am a badass awesome genderfuckery factory who was born with a certain body and figured out that oh shit, that body fucking hurts me and that’s not normal to feel that way (I assumed everyone did at first XD) and then proceeded to change it to a body that didn’t hurt. And I default myself sociologically to this category called “girl” because it’s just easier with breasts, curves, reduced body hair and (soon to be) a vagina to go by that title.

But enough about my atypical nature among the trans realm. Let’s talk about that MtF section.

Male To (2, t, ->) Female. What does that mean? Well presumably, it means that I started out male (or still am male) and I transformed to (or I’m currently transforming to, or I’d like to transform to) female. But wait, what does that mean?

Here’s where the water gets muddy.

According to science (specifically biology) female and male are terminology used to represent two sections of the variance present in a sexually dimorphic species. This, at the very most, is really just an expression that there is a certain type of human that generates sperm and a certain type of human that generates ovum and somehow the sperm and the ovum get together, either in one of the types or outside them both (like in many fish). According to the most basic application of this scientific language, the only parts of us that are male or female are the testis and penis and ovaries, uterus and vagina complex. And this language only treats one as relevantly male or female if these organs are all present and fully functional. So at its most basic application the description of sexually dimorphic characteristics loses all relevance to anyone without all of the relevant organs for one side or the other (hacked out uterus? No longer relevantly female, etc etc)

The reason why this isn’t (scientifically) applicable past that point is that there isn’t all that much evidence for sexual dimorphism beyond… well pretty much just those traits. The sheer level of variation between individuals actually outweighs any variation between the sexes. Not only this, but the closest you can get with “secondary sexual traits” (which is why science calls developed breasts on females, flat chests on males, body hair levels, body shape, facial hair etc) is a statistically slightly higher incidence of these traits in one sex or another. What is this dependent on? Estrogen and Testosterone (and a lower amount of effects from peripheral sex hormones like Progesterone). Why are these hormones (who are so intimately tied in our minds with female and male) resulting in different body types, shapes and looks? Well because they aren’t guaranteed to be in the same levels in every “female” and “male” person. The variation is actually pretty high. There are averages but they aren’t an epic majority and since responses to hormones (insensitivity vs. oversensitivity in receptors, please smack me if I get too biology science terminology heavy. XD) also differ between people, irregardless of sex. Sooooo, even averaged hormone levels won’t react exactly the same between female people and male people.

Case in point: A young woman named Caster Semenya is currently getting put through “gender testing” (basically a scientific joke of arbitrary bullshit). Now there’s a lot of awful crap at play here, like the delegitimization of common structure and looks among POC (people of color) in the face of the looks and structure of European women. I’m not going to go too deeply into that, because I, as a very white person with all the privilege my exceedingly pale skin and European features affords, am woefully inadequate in the perspective necessary to speak on issues POC face. A bit more on the more POC orientated perspective on this can be spotted at Womanist Musings where Monica (a trans woman of color, if I remember right) from TransGriot guest posted on the topic. The fact is, this gender testing is only being pulled out of the asses of the folks in the sports realm because she doesn’t fit certain averages and not only that but averages of a given culture! They are using cultural averages (European) as a basis for sex in general! It doesn’t get more arbitrary and stupid than that. The whole sports thing really shows just how troublesome these lines drawn in the sand are, because of how much of an effect training can have on both men and women in aligning their abilities. Sure they still sex segregate the athletes but more and more we see how unnecessary that is with all of the badass women athletes out there.

And then you have the Intersexed folk (here’s where I give my IS cousins free reign to smack me around for my Not IS privilege if I am invoking it here) who have mixtures of many of these traits, less of some traits or may have a set of traits (xx chromosomes vs. fully average “male” structure) that just take the male/female terminology and beat it over the head with a half brick. They’re also surprisingly common. Even more interesting here is how difficult it was for the ISNA to come to those numbers because and I am quoting this here: “To answer this question in an uncontroversial way, you’d have to first get everyone to agree on what counts as intersex —and also to agree on what should count as strictly male or strictly female. That’s hard to do.” (source is the previous hyperlink to those numbers)

And that’s because it is hard. All of those traits above are so wonky that it’s hard to say whether one should factor them into sex or not and whether they end up just being entirely arbitrary (“penis must be this long to qualify, any shorter and its a clitoris” OH FUCK THEY DIDN’T SPECIFY WHAT YOU DO IF ITS ON THE DOT!). No I’m serious, quite a few doctors make the call on whether someone is intersex and then make the call on whether that IS person ought to be hack and slashed into a girl by how long hir penis or penis esque organ is.

Seems a bit… problematic, doesn’t it? Well as it turns out, it is, especially for people who are on the edges of this somewhat troublesome and broken binary.

I can’t speak for the IS community (to my knowledge I am not intersexed in any way, I was born more or less fitting the average view of what a male should be, beyond maybe a very small, slim, bigger hipped skeletal structure than expected, much to my luck, dysphoria-wise XD.) but it seems that there’s a lot of rage at this nonconsensual arbitrary “homg you’re a girl/boy now!” bullshit from the medical field. Can’t really blame them, honestly, especially considering that used to result in nonconsensual surgery. You think circumcision is bad? It’s a small fry in an ocean of big fish fuck ups with people’s bodies when they’re too young to stop it when it comes to the IS folk.

So what does this mean about sex? More specifically, what does this mean about sexual dimorphism in a species wherein the word dimorphic largely fails painfully to actually describe the morphic nature of that species’ members? I can’t really say. Mostly, it raises a lot of really unpleasant questions about whether or not male and female as a terminology dichotomy is even functional in the scientific field for humans, much less in the social realm for humans.

And as we use technology to bypass biological breeding constraints, things typically considered to break one out of the flow of evolution for the species are suddenly unimportant (being gay/lesbian, being a transitioning transsexual, having nonfunctional downstairs materials, getting your uterus removed, etcetera etcetera). Considering that the sexual dimorphism thing is based, at its lowest, most simple application, on a species’ capacity to share DNA in generating offspring (instead of just cloning through binary fission) through a set of traits that allow that mixture (in this case, having different variants of mating tools and gametes or mating cells to do that combination) you really have to wonder how well that describes a species that is now mixing DNA using test-tubes, freezers, best friends/paid surrogates and even sperm generated from bone marrow (an oh shit moment if I ever saw one) and by the way, XY chromosomes don’t play a role in the actual generation of sperm cells, just in determining whether they’ll be a Y in those cells instead of just a bunch of X’s. That means that XX chromosome containing marrow can make sperm (if only X type sperm).

Suddenly the sexually dimorphic model doesn’t seem all that useful scientifically anymore. But hey it gets worse. You see, science didn’t just stick to a “sperm maker”, “ovum maker” model. It set guidelines for labeling one as male or female based on the secondary traits we talked about above. This is a problem. With all the evidence suggesting that these traits can’t adequately be described using a binary box set instead of a multiple body containing spectrum of variation, why did science take on the female/male binary as a labeling system using the base sexual dimorphism from old school times as a basis?

Well as it turns out, scientists are people and even the wonders of peer review can’t really overcome privilege and -ism’s (racism, cissexism, sexism, etc) when a huge chunk of those peers are white guys of reasonable affluence (science school is expensive, it’s why I’m possibly in over 100,000 USD of debt x_x). So peer review couldn’t really catch the deeply ingrained social views about a binary sex system based on bodily traits. And it still fails to catch it with the IS folk and the medical community (who still like to fuck up in their basic regard for the self determination of IS folk on a regular basis).

So what does this all mean on top of the lack of evidence for secondary sexual traits being adequate line traits? Does it mean that the male/female sexual dimorphic system is broken language? Influenced by ciscentric and sexist thinking? Based on a false binary between traits that exist more on a spectrum and are tempered by the higher amount of variation between individuals then between sexes?

Yes. Yes it does.

All of this combined shows that male/female and sex terminology for the human species in general is subject to some serious, probably fatal problems in its applicability and functionality. Especially in the social realm but really even scientifically.

Some might be a little confused with this assessment after my post on “Identity vs. Objective Reality.” There’s a reason why I put the two updates at the top. That post was just about the unfortunate trend in the TG and GLB community to use terminology as though it was self referential (stripping it of any real meaning). To be honest, self referential definitions (provided we had the power to change these terms, right now) are a bad solution to this, as I said in that entry, despite the broken nature of these terms. These words will lose their meaning or worse yet, will be completely at the mercy of cultural shift (because of the lack of a concrete definition) and we will always be fucked by cultural shift. So really, this entry and that entry do not contradict. I just wasn’t terribly clear in the earlier one that this wasn’t a defense of the terms in a conceptual sense (hence the updates and the arguments in the comments XD) and I figure this entry will clear that up beautifully.

So, we’ve established that male/female is broken terminology, based on flawed arbitrary rules and a concept that isn’t terribly applicable to a species that changes its breeding methods using technology. The question then becomes… what the hell do we do about it?

That I don’t have an answer to.

We could refine male/female into malefemale (i.e. turn a binary into a spectrum) and basically treat male and female as the bodily extremes and anything outside of those extremes as spectrum positions. This one is tough though. We’d be fighting against cultural connotation, the sort of ephemeral meaning attached to a word despite its definition in science or academia, and a lot of people in the mid zones of the spectrum would be mistreated as a result. Not to mention the truly hypocritical cisgendered freak outs at not being considered female or male anymore. OH NOES, YOU MIGHT BE DENIED YOUR GENDER MARKER, IT ISN’T LIKE YOU DO THAT TO TRANS PEOPLE EVERY FUCKING DAY, RIGHT? RIGHT? …crap. And the roughest part of this is the arbitrary nature of even a spectrum, which settles into “what is the middle?” Where is the exactly middle section? What is considered an equal number of male and female traits? In the end that would be just as arbitrary as the dividing line between male and female now.

We could get rid of the terms male and female completely and stop basing anything on sex at all, but instead just take into account body type. Breast possessing. Non breast possessing. Curvy. Not curvy. Penis holding. Not penis holding. So on and so forth. This one hits problems in that some of the body stuff is arbitrary too. We can get past that by shifting some of the definitions or creating bodily spectrums, or even dropping some of the bodily descriptions and adding qualifiers (large breasts, small breasts, flat breasts, flat entirely undeveloped breasts). Another issue would be the supreme level of social resistance to this. Largely born from cissexism but to a certain extent there’s a good chunk of trans based identity wrapped up in the words female and male. Getting rid of them entirely takes away a self identifier word and that will not go down well with the community. The only ones that would seem to be fully supportive of eliminating the bodily descriptor terms would be the nonbinary folks and the gender deconstructionalists. So we would have our work cut out for us.

We could also make two boxes into two hundred. No I’m serious, that is an option, however unpalatable it might be. It runs into the same identity issues the previous does but it is the easiest to implement because male and female stick around, you just add a bunch more boxes for all the variation. It really is already being done by the nonbinary TG/TS community (words like neutrois/agendered and androgyne are showing up this way). So this one is the easiest to achieve but still arbitrary as fuck and prone to many of the same problems as the original terminology.

And finally,

We could take the terms male and female and downshift them in functionality to just describing the only truly dimorphic traits we have, sperm making and ovum making. This one is rough for the cis and trans identity reasons and it’s largely a temporary solution because that making sperm from marrow practice may become common, and then, the whole system is screwed because sperm can now be made from anyone. (I wouldn’t be surprised if similar things can be done for ovum too eventually).

None of the solutions are awesome. Some of them work really well but would be more than our community alone could implement and would require decades of cultural detox to make the new system functional. Others are easy to achieve but have serious epic flaws or won’t last long as a solution.

I don’t have the answers. But I can tell you this: There is a problem. We are now aware of it. And that is a big part of finding a solution. You’re all welcome to comment on the problem itself (whether you think I’m exaggerating or mistaken and why) and on the solutions or even suggest other solutions I didn’t think of.

Go here to read the comments on the original post.



14 Responses to “Male/Female: Broken Language?”

  1. 1 nome

    This post is so beautiful! I haven’t read anything of yours yet but it’s awesome how you do to body/sex what I do to gender. Woot!

  2. We could also make two boxes into two hundred. No I’m serious, that is an option, however unpalatable it might be. It runs into the same identity issues the previous does but it is the easiest to implement because male and female stick around, you just add a bunch more boxes for all the variation.

    Of course, no matter how many new boxes you add, there’ll always be people who don’t fit neatly into one of those boxes. Not to mention debates over the definition of a particular category, or even whether a certain category is actually distinct from another one or if they’re synonyms.

  3. BTW, there was a formatting error when you imported from Dreamwidth. You have We could refine male/female into malefemale (i.e. turn a binary into a spectrum) , your double-headed arrow from the original got eaten.

  4. Yeah definitely, it has its own clusterfuck of issues, so it really isn’t the best of the options.

  5. Huh… shoot. I’ll have to go in and figure out how to fix that

  6. 6 LadyLately

    New government forms: ‘1 is male and 10 is female. Please select the number closest to your gender. If you have any comments or concerns, please write them in the space provided below.’ Or something, I guess.

  7. @Lady: That doesn’t work. Cuz there are people who aren’t close to either.

  8. 8 JE

    Until I read this article I had never before considered the two-dimensional assumption of a spectrum’s structure to be limiting. I felt that it was sufficient to justify a mathematical notion of infinity, but now I see the glaringly obvious flaw (that line segments have midpoints) and what that indicates conceptually in the discussion on gender variance. Boy do I feel dumb.

    So I discarded that model and cast about for something in a higher dimension. We could think of gender as a homogeneous cloud where every coordinate is a different gender expression, akin to a hash table. Like a hash table, however, the physical distribution of points says nothing meaningful about their relation to one another which is possibly unhelpful. Also, cisgendered persons might get miffed that their gender does not appear to be especially important.

    I personally am gravitating to the idea of a gender space – a nebula, specifically a double nebula – with the two cisgenders acting as the gravity wells to which most gender expressions hew closely. thus, for our midpoint we have an infinite plane rather than a single point of contention.

    http://www.astropix.com/HTML/SHOW_DIG/IC1805_LBN667_Nebulae.HTM
    Diversity is rather beautiful.

  9. @JE:

    That is rather beautiful. Your description and the picture too.

  10. 10 Anon

    I’ve personally decided to treat male and female the same way I treat black, white, etc. There isn’t a scientific basis really to give racial labels, because (as you have mentioned with “males” and “females”) there is more variation between individuals than there are between groups. Though there are traits (as you mentioned, again, with “males” and “females”) associated with “races,” like nose shape, eyes, eye/hair color, height, etc. Biology class seems so far away… but yeah I remember that. DNA wise there is basically nothing to go on, it’s completely a social structure. Yet I (and most people I think) do not reject “black” “white” and similar terms, because at least right now, it is an important part of identity. I think most people get this more easily than they do its gender/sex/Idontknow counterpart, because of racial mixing and the lack of a difference in organs. They know that many African Americans are 50% or more “white,” yet identify them as African American. Anyway if Obama for example identified himself as white, that would probably be a bit easier for people to accept (though definitely there would be people calling him out for “rejecting his race” or something). There is no genetic basis for whiteness, so if he identifies as white, he is white. If he identifies as black, he is black. If he identifies as both or half or neither, that is who he is and that is fine.

    Now personally I would love to live in a world with no darns given to sex and no thought even given to gender. It is similar to how I can imagine a world with no darns given to race and no thought even given to racial identity. But that world is not this world, “black” and “white” and “male” and “female” identities have formed, and identities should be accepted, so… yeah. :P Just as perhaps one day the races may be so mixed nobody cares, maybe with all the technological advancements, one day nobody will care about gender either.

  11. @Anon: From what I understand of race it’s based more on heritage, culture and oppression faced than really anything biological. That’s where race terms should arise from, those elements as they pertain to identity and oppression.

  12. 12 Anon

    Okay, I think I get this a lot more now. Looking back I was being pretty close-minded (all personal things I think aren’t really worth getting into here), and though I understood what you were saying, I didn’t get it get it, which is why I did not respond for quite a while. But now I am feeling pretty enlightened on the matter, thanks. Also for the rest of this wordpress, and your tumblr that I recently discovered. If I had not found these then my awareness of trans issues would have been virtually non-existent, and I know I would have said one of the really dumb things listed here. I mean I probably still will at some point, but now I will know to look at what I’ve said and try to make up for it / apologize. Sorry if that last part wasn’t supposed to go here, as it’s pretty off-topic, or I managed to say something dumb already!

    (PS: Don’t know if I am using the email I did before, as I have a lot, but this is the most recent Anon.)


  1. 1 Sex is a Social Construct « TAL9000
  2. 2 Transgender 101, Part One | Gender RENegade

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