A Lesson On Sex & Gender for People Over 40 (Like Me)

I recently answered some questions on the Gender Neutral Parenting Facebook page that were asking about non-binary genders. I found with this person’s questions, like many others, I have to first correct misconceptions about sex and gender before we can even begin talking about the intricacies of gender.

If you find this stuff confusing don’t feel bad! I was born in the seventies and went to school in the eighties. I can say for sure if you are my age or older (and many people younger) there is no conceivable reason you would understand sex and gender (unless you work in the fields of human sexuality). Why? We were taught it incorrectly!

People sometimes get so defensive in being corrected about these topics and it really isn’t anything to be upset about and I’ll tell you why.

You know how in 1975, when I was born, no one had a home computer? I think it was 1988 before we got a computer and I, being middle class, got it before lots of people. In school we played Oregon Trail on a DOS computer, right? My point is – look at us now! I’m writing this on my iPad as I lie in bed. This tiny device isn’t hooked to anything. It is magically pulling information out of the air for me and holds more power than NASA used to put a man on the moon.

If computer technology went so far, so fast in the last forty years then why wouldn’t the study of psychology? Child development? Sexuality?

Would you insist on using FORTRAN when you can use a newer (and less eye stabby) computer language? No way! Times have changed and you’ve happily left your middle school science class in the dust because YOU KNOW BETTER NOW.

For some reason we feel that psychology, the study of the human mind, was complete when Freud laid it down in 1885. What? The human mind is so much more complex than this ipad and yet we accept that what we learned in seventh grade must be true 25 years later?

It is just silly! So, let me give it to you straight: THERE IS NO REASON IN THE WORLD YOU SHOULD KNOW WHAT I’M ABOUT TO TELL YOU ABOUT SEX AND GENDER. Please don’t feel bad. Your seventh grade teacher told you what they knew to be true at the time. Times change and you’ve been busy living your life which probably didn’t involve chromosomes or dipliod cells. It’s ok not to know this stuff. 

For those of us of a certain age EVERYTHING we know about sex and gender is WRONG. Not your fault. Not an idictment of you as a person or meant to call you stupid. You aren’t stupid and you aren’t a bad person. You just haven’t learned what we now know about sex and gender.

So, please, it is without any shame or judgement that I share this information with you. Because I didn’t know it either and I’m glad someone told me.

Here is my answer to the person asking about gender but saying “male and female” because I think it will help lots of us!

First: male and female are names of SEXES not of genders. Sex is comprised of both chromosomal arrangement (called genotypic sex) and physical presentation (called phenotypic sex). Neither of these are binary. There are dozens of chromosomal arrangements in humans. For example xy, xx, xo, xxx, xxy, and so on. There are millions of arrangements of physical sex characteristics from one you’d never know about like an xy individual having androgen insensitivity and developing characteristically female body parts despite being genotypically male to a wide array of genital presentations that are neither male nor female. 

I imagine you aren’t asking us about sex but about gender. Gender is asocial construct. That means it isn’t a concrete or scientifically observable phenomonon (unless you’re an anthropologist!) it is merely an idea social groups of humans use to make sense of their world. Social constructs can be bad. E.g. Race. There is not a “biological” concept of race, rather it is something humans make up to divide us. Social constructs can be good. E.g north, east, south, and west. These things don’t exist in any quantifiable way. They are simply ideas we’ve all collectively decided to use to help us navigate our space. 

Gender, as a social construct in most western countries has developed thus: we see (erroneously) two sexes and we are going to set rules for how each sex should behave and then call this gender. Because of this incorrect definition of gender we have the social concept of two genders: man and woman or boy and girl. In non-western cultures these man-made rules are completely different and many societies haven’t incorrectly assumed that there are only two sexes and thus their idea of gender is also not binary

Simply because gender is a social construct doesn’t make it any less real.Money is a social construct too and people kill and die for it all the time. Should I say “money doesn’t exist” because it is a man-made idea? No. Same with gender. Gender may be man-made and culture-specific but within those cultures it is very important. 

Here’s the good thing about social constructs though: than can change when we learn more. As a society we can no longer ignore the millions (yes, millions) of people born everyday that do not fit into the male/female sex binary nor that millions are born that do not fit into the man/woman gender binary. Our social concept needs to catch up with reality.


2 thoughts on “A Lesson On Sex & Gender for People Over 40 (Like Me)

  1. First you say there’s a sex binary, and then you say there isn’t a sex binary. No, there is a sex binary. And that’s TOTALLY OKAY. The only purpose for physical sex characteristics is to make babies. It also happens to feel good, which is nice, but what it’s for is making babies. We make babies with two germ cells. Two. Binary. So you need binary sexes to make that happen.

    The fact that there are genetic males born in female bodies or males and females born sterile because they have extra sex chromosomes (or not enough, as with X,0 people) or whatever, does not disprove that rule. These are just people who weren’t born physically typical. You objecting to the idea of binary sexes because these people exist would be like you objecting to me saying eyes are for seeing because some people are born blind or go blind later. And you wouldn’t do that, would you?

    Intersexed people only exist because no one bothers checking chromosomes at birth even though we test newborns for all sorts of genetic disorders. A child’s physical sex could be very quickly sorted at birth if we did–got a Y chromosome? They’re male… no Y? They’re female. But we don’t do that; we try to sex a child by way of external genitalia. And that doesn’t work out very well if the child’s body is atypical. (A term I like a lot better than “abnormal”, and one used heavily in the medical community.)

    Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary and probably does.


    • Hi Dana, Thanks for your comment. For something to be binary there can only be two options. Like 1 and 0 in a computer system. A variable that has more than two options is not a binary. Sex includes dozens of variations. If you want you could take all known karotypes and group them into two boxes: male and female. But why would you do that? When we look at the dozens of variations in eye color we don’t force every variation to be either Blue or Brown. Why force a clearly mosaic of human sex gene presentations into two boxes? I “object” to binary sex because humans don’t exhibit binary sex. Period.

      I know the answer. Because we’ve been socially conditioned to see sex as a binary because it support our further imagination called gender with which we force people into very narrow bands of acceptable behavior.

      Your analogy of blindness is a telling one. You are assuming that sex is either “Functioning” or “Dis-functioning” like an eye would have sight or be blind. Sex is an order of magnitude more complex than that. A person born outside of the male/female paradigm is not dis-functioning by default (some variations are sterile which would give them a reproductive dysfunction but yet the other functions of sex would continue – sexual pleasure for example. Your idea that sex characteristics exist only for reproduction is false. Many humans have full lives using their sex without ever reproducing.) This view of intersex as dysfunction is one of the things contributing to their marginalization. You use atypical (which I also prefer) but your explanation is actually viewing intersex conditions as abnormal – dis-functioning.

      What if instead of the view that all humans are male or female and any variation is dis-function or dis-ease we saw the variations as a natural diversity of the human species. Then we might have a chance to stop the genital mutilation and gender stereotyping that currently and historically typifies the experience of being born intersex. What if instead of clinging to erroneous ideas of sex binaries we actually observed and embraced our natural variations as they exist.


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