Writing the Body: Stories of sex and gender

Content warning: Cissexism and bioessentialism


Former Reading:

Once again, there are plenty of people who’ve written about this before me, from their own lived experience or from another position of greater knowledge. Please check their work out and don’t just take my word for things!

The Biggest Gamete as Troll-Bait

Bilaterally Gyandromorphic Chickens, and Why I’m Not “Scientifically” Male

13 Myths and Misconceptions about Trans Women: Part One

13 Myths and Misconceptions about Trans Women: Part Two

Un-gendering Sex: A feminist project?

Biological Essentialism: Can We Not?

Biology is not destiny. When I was first becoming interested in feminism, this was one of the truths that seemed to be self-evident. No-one – man, woman, or any other gender – should be socially limited, or classified, by what their body could or couldn’t do, by how their physical form was constructed.

I still hold to this. I thought all feminists did. But, over and over again, I’ve been surprised and disappointed.

There’s a group of self-identified feminists with a blinkered focus on the body, and particularly on the binarism of the body. Human forms are studied, scrutinised, and sorted into one of two categories – male or female.

This has nothing to do with gender, these (invariably cis, white, abled) feminists say. It’s biological sex! It’s objective scientific fact! It says so right here in this middle-school textbook! Trans* people and their allies – anyone, in fact, who suggests that things might be a bit more complicated than that – are just muddying the waters, denying reality. And being really mean and unfair to boot. After all, they say, we aren’t suggesting that trans women aren’t women. We’re just saying they’re not female. That’s the truth! Science says so! It’s not bigoted to tell the truth!

Except the truth is not so simple. For many, many reasons, this view is simplistic, and misleading, and pretty unhelpful when we consider the roles played by sex and gender in society.

I’m not going to name names or point fingers in this blog post, just address the fallacies and the problems inherent in this reductive position. This is partly because the old chestnut of bioessentialism is one that I and other feminists have addressed time and time again. In fact, it’s giving the whiny dudebro cry of “Loose Women exists so we actually live in a matriarchy!” a run for its money (seriously, you would not believe the number of times I’ve heard that one). It’s also because a staggering number of the cis, white, abled, and generally middle-class and widely published people who support this view respond to any direct criticism or dissent with accusations of bullying and silencing. (Quite how intersectional feminists are managing to silence people with guaranteed media platforms, I have yet to understand). I want this post to focus on issues, not egos, so I’m keeping it impersonal. (I can’t promise I’ll keep it non-sarcastic. I get sarcastic when I get angry, and I get angry when I see people acting like another person’s existence is up for debate).

So, issues. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. According to the bioessentialists, there is sex, which is biology, which is real; and there is gender, which is a social construct, which is not real. Immediately, the problem with this ideology is apparent. Just because something is constructed, doesn’t mean it’s not real. Language is a construct, arguably the most artificial thing on the face of the planet – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Money is a construct, but try living in the modern world without it. Next week I’ll be moving into the new building that’s been constructed on my uni campus. I certainly hope that’s real, with the weather the way it is at the moment. (Sorry, got a bit facetious with that last one). Constructs such as class, race and gender may not exist in nature – but they do exist in society. And, whatever Thatcher might have said, there is such a thing as society. It’s where we live.

All right, says my hypothetical bioessentialist reader, maybe social constructs are a truth. But they’re not the truth. Not an objective truth, like science.

Well, the are several problems with the ‘but science!’ argument when it relates to the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ in humans. I have to add a disclaimer here. I’m not a biologist. (“We can tell!” cry the bioessentialists. There, I’ve said it, so you don’t have to. Although I would remind you that most of you aren’t, either). What I am is an author and a critical reader, and the reason why that is important will soon become apparent.

Firstly, though: biology isn’t binary. Dividing the world into XY-bepenised-males and XX-vaginaed-females excludes a whole bunch of people whose chromosomes or genitals don’t match those two options. (When I say that, bioessentialists generally snort and protest that intersexed people are too small a group to consider in the grand scheme of things. Which is a pretty nasty attitude to have, if you think about it).

Human biological sex isn’t as easy as Option A or B. If it was, no-one would bother studying it beyond school. This article goes into more detail, but for the summarised version; there is absolutely no criteria that can be used to say “Trans women are not female” that doesn’t also exclude some cis women. Same goes for trans and cis men. So, what, are we going to have certain degrees of femaleness? If so, I’d be interested to know where I fit on the scale. I have a vagina, uterus, ovaries, but thanks to PCOS, I’ve also got more testosterone pumping around my blood than the average cis woman. Because of the higher testosterone, I have a rather dapper dark fuzz on my upper lip, which would be far more luxuriant if I hadn’t had several courses of electrolysis (like lots of cis women…and lots of trans women). I have no idea what my chromosomes are (I’ve never had them tested), or whether I could get pregnant (presence of uterus and semi-regular periods says “probably”, half a lifetime of endometriosis and adenomyosis says “not necessarily”, and I intend to never find out). Am I 80% female? 85%? If I finally argue the NHS into submission and get my uterus yanked out, will that knock me down to 50%?

I don’t know. And neither do the bioessentialists.

Science is complex, even in its purest state. But that leads me to the second problem. A science textbook is not a literal interpretation of the universe, the mechanics of existence transmuted to paper without alteration or partiality. Instead, it is interpretations of observations made by those most biased and fallible of creatures, human beings.

I have a horrible feeling that some people are going to read that and call me ‘anti-science’. This is not the case. Some of my best friends are scientists. (Sorry, facetiousness again. I’ll try and stop). I might be a literature student, but I love science. I read New Scientist voraciously, I bug the physicists and biologists I know with questions (usually relating to “How can we make comic-book superpowers work in real life?”), I have an endless list of popular science books on my reading list. These books, these articles, are fascinating and inspiring and make me sit up and take notice of the world around me.

And they are all, every one of them, authored texts.

Texts have authors. Authors are human. Humans have biases. I’m not arguing that every single scientist who has worked on human biology has geared their work to stomp all over trans* and non-binary people. (Although, while we’re on that subject, there have been many cases where science has been manipulated to serve bigoted agendas. There’s a whole history of people using science to “prove” that black people are less intelligent, that women are irrational, that disabled people would actually be better off sterilised. Scientific discourse, like any other discourse, is a tool, and tools can be used for bad as well as good, even unintentionally. As Cordelia Fine notes in her excellent book Delusions of Gender, it’s funny how often scientific studies on ‘the differences between males and females’ reinforce tired old sexist stereotypes, usually about how women are naturally nurturing and men are naturally aggressive).

I’m not saying that scientists have a secret evil agenda. I’m saying that, like all humans, they are influenced by the societies that raised them. I’m saying that some norms, some stereotypes, are so ingrained that they have an impact even the most objective-seeming interpretations of experience.

And that’s what authored texts are. All narratives, even scientific narratives, are a representation of reality, not reality itself. They are not the sunset – they are a photograph of the sunset. They are not a walk in the rain – they are a description of the walk in the rain. An image of a thing is not the thing itself. Two people can observe the same thing and draw very different conclusions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while studying, it’s that there’s almost as much arguing in science as there is in the humanities.

And now, finally, let’s look back at ‘male’ and ‘female’, and at ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and how sex and gender are actually linked – but not in the way you might expect. Look at human history. (Especially, look wider than just recent European history, because that’s just one tiny facet of our existence). We were storytellers before we were scientists. We built social constructs before we built microscopes. We came up with ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (and plenty of other genders) before we looked down at a cellular level and established the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’. And there can be absolutely no doubt that the former had a huge influence on the latter. A person can be born with XX chromosomes, but it’s the category ‘woman’ that has shaped our perception of her as ‘female’ (if, indeed, the person in question is a woman). Sex doesn’t shape gender, but our ideas about gender certainly shaped our ideas about sex.

A focus on biological sex is sometimes important. If you want to get a pair of rabbits or guinea pigs, it’s best to make sure that they’re either both male or both female, unless you have a lot of space in your house. But prioritising ‘male’ and ‘female’ over ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a social context is, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, the tactic of bigots. Because don’t make the mistake of thinking that the bioessentialists are only concerned with the objective beauty of pure scientific thought. Establishing trans women as “women but male” and trans men as “men but female” and genderqueer/non-binary people as “however you identify, but really male or female” is the beginning of a process of exclusion.

The next steps? “These toilets are for females. You might be a woman, but you’re not female.” “But your driving licence says male. No, sir, tell me your real name.” “You’re not a woman! You’ve got a penis! Hah, this freak thinks he’s a woman!” For the ultimate conclusion of this ideology, check the website for Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Some people have XY chromosomes. Some people have XX chromosomes. Some people have XO, XXY, XYY, or any one of dozens of other combinations. Some people have penises. Some people have vaginas. Some people’s genitals developed in a different way. I have never seen a trans* person or their allies dispute any of that. What we do dispute is the categorisation of people based on these features, and the apparent free rein it gives others to discount their experiences and imply that they don’t truly know themselves.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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4 Responses to Writing the Body: Stories of sex and gender

  1. I love what you have written. There truly is hope. 🙂

  2. Pano says:

    >There’s a whole history of people using science to “prove” that black people are less intelligent
    I’m sorry, but if we cannot tolerate “evil” studies of race and intelligence then how can we on sex? Such studies may serve such oppressive agendas but as you said, science is complex and so is the human body. It contradicts the article when any field of science study is made socially taboo out of fear, is this not bioessentialism itself?

    • You can be critical of a work (i.e. pay attention to all of the things that go into it) without discounting it. When we see something that has a slant towards known cultural issues (regardless of what direction the slant takes), it makes sense to examine the science more carefully. When a scientist is working in a field that touches on such issues, it makes sense for them to be extra careful about avoiding bias in their process, and to document fully the steps they take to do so.

      These studies should not be socially taboo—but they should be done with great care, because we know that people hold a great many implicit assumptions about them, and we know that those assumptions are not cultural universals.

      The final ethical dilemma of a researcher working in this sort of field is the knowledge that no matter what effort they make to keep their methods pure, and no matter how careful they are to phrase their results, there is a high likelihood that populist science press will take the results and run with them to places that the research doesn’t actually say anything useful about.

      These historical studies that Nuttall has mentioned? They’re well known to be flawed, in their methods, in their assumptions, in their conclusions, and in the way they were used by broader society when the results were published.

      So, yes: We should do better than that.

  3. aliw40 says:

    Reblogged this on incarnationalrelational and commented:
    Really, very good stuff..

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