Oct 29 2013

Gender – It’s Complicated

A new study by gender researcher, Laurel Westbrook, explores attitudes toward gender determination in various contexts. The issue of gender is interesting partly because it is one of those topics that at first seems fairly straightforward when in fact it is quite complex, not only biologically, but ethically.

By now many people are familiar with the distinction between sex and gender, sex referring to biological characteristic relative to male and female, and gender being a social construct relative to masculine and feminine. In both cases the first thing we must realize is to avoid the false dichotomy as sex and gender occur along a spectrum, and are not binary.


Biological sex in humans is determined by several factors. Developmentally there are two main factors, genetics and hormonal environment. The system is binary in that there appears to be a female developmental pathway and a male developmental pathway, and most individuals do end up unambiguously toward one end or the other of this axis.

However, this developmental scheme can be altered in every conceivable way. The XX (female) and XY (male) chromosomal makeups are not the only possibilities. There are individuals with XXX, X, XXY and other permutations.

Even with typical XX and XY chromosomes, sexual development is highly dependent on the relative concentrations of masculinizing (such as testosterone) and feminizing (estrogen) hormones in the womb and in the body as development occurs. There are not only genetic, but epigenetic, and maternal factors that can affect this. There are also specific conditions, such as adrenal hyperplasia, that can result in an increase in masculinizing hormones, resulting in ambiguous genitalia.

Biologically there are three aspects of sex – primary sexual characteristics (genitalia and reproductive organs) secondary sexual characteristics (distribution of hair and body fat), and sexual orientation. While these properties tend to segregate together, they also occur in every possible permutation.

Sexual orientation is a bit socially controversial, but there is not much scientific debate about the fact that biological factors on the brain have a strong influence on sexual orientation. People, in other words, do not just choose to be heterosexual, homosexual, or somewhere in between, they appear to be born with their orientation. This is not to say that culture and society do not affect behavior, but the evidence suggests that basic sexual desires are hardwired into our brains, and can even be considered a secondary sexual characteristic.

The notion that biological sex is complicated should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with biology, and would not be controversial were it not for the social implications of these facts.

One last point on sex – given that diversity is ubiquitous in nature, it does seem reasonable to consider the various spectrums of sexual characteristics in terms of typical with variations rather than the loaded concepts of normal and abnormal.


As complicated as the biology of sex can be, gender is even more complex, in my opinion, because we are dealing with more abstract constructs rather than measurable biological properties.  Gender refers to the purely social construct of feminine and masculine. How to dress, behave, adorn oneself, and one’s role in the family and in society are all socially determined, with tremendous variations across different societies and over historical time.

Essentially most people self-identify as either a man or a woman, and tend to follow the social norms for that gender. As with sex, however, this is a false dichotomy in that there are transgender individuals who do not adhere to this simple scheme.

One thing I find interesting is that different societies tend to tolerate different degrees of bending gender roles. In Western society, at least in the last generation or so, we tend to be more progressive in our attitudes toward gender and gender roles. Men can be “metrosexual” and women can wear business suits and take on traditional male roles in society.

However, if you bend these traditional roles too far, then people start to become uncomfortable.

Societal attitudes toward transgender individuals is the subject of Westbrook’s study. She finds that attitude depend greatly on context. I think this reflects genuine ethical dilemmas.

In progressive societies, we tend to value individual freedom. In this context there is increasing comfort with the notion that everyone should be free to self identify where along the gender spectrum they feel comfortable. Everyone can decide for themselves what their own gender is, and that should be respected. If you value progressive ideals, it’s hard to argue with that.

However, there are certain spaces in our society in which the sexes are segregated – public bathrooms and competitive sports, for example. When you ask people about gender freedom in these contexts, suddenly their progressive ideals become challenged and they become more parochial.

Westbrook explains:

“In our analysis, we find that these moments, which we term ‘gender panics,’ are the result of a clash between two competing cultural ideas about gender identity: a belief that gender is determined by biology versus a belief that a person’s self-identity in terms of gender should be validated. These gender panics frequently result in a reshaping of the language of such policies so that they require extensive bodily changes before transgender individuals have access to particular rights.”

In general people are OK with gender self-identity, but when we talk about public bathrooms and sports, suddenly they want biological determinism. They want women to have woman parts, and men to have man parts.

I don’t think there is any objective resolution to this ethical dilemma. Some would argue for an absolute validation of gender self-identity, and I understand the reasoning here, but it is dismissive of other concerns.

For example, should a person who is, by every biological measure, male but who self-identifies as gender female be allowed to compete in athletic competitions as a woman? I think this is a sticking point for a lot of people. We don’t want to challenge someone’s gender self-identity, but sports segregation is more about sex than gender, and so it doesn’t seem fair.

Westbrook points out that gender panics occur more in the context of men invading female spaces than the other way around. With regard to sports, this makes sense. One might argue that the point of women’s sports is to provide a space where women can compete against each other without the unfair advantages that testosterone provides to men. If a woman can compete in a male sport, then good for her. But if a man competes against women and a woman’s sport, that seems unfair.

Ethical dilemmas are created when a situation puts us at cross-purposes. We cannot simultaneously fulfill all of our ethical goals, and so we have to prioritize and choose. Different people will have different priorities and will therefore make different choices. Somewhere in the middle is a reasonable compromise (identified by a choice that makes everyone equally unhappy).

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