Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sex Is Not Binary, OR The World (God's Creation) Is More Complicated Than Anyone Thinks

I used to be firmly convinced that sex (male or female) was biological and fixed and that gender (masculine or feminine) was social and (at least somewhat) plastic.  I thought the very definition of gender was socially determined (and varying from one culture to another), and had to do with things like the kinds of clothes one wears, the kinds of activities in which one engages (e.g. hunting and sports vs. cooking and sewing).  I thought sex was universal and clearly binary: every one (at least in our species) is either male or female.

I don't think this way anymore.  I have become convinced over the last five years or so that the world is more complicated than any of us think.

I was first presented with the idea, as a first-year graduate student in Philosophy (thanks Madeline!), with the idea that sex isn't binary.  I remember being quite skeptical (and I wasn't the only one in the class who said so).  It all boils down to chromosomes, right?  XY or XX.  Even if statistical abnormalities occur in biological development. 

While it was a journey and not a sudden paradigm shift, I think the moment I threw up my hands, with finality, and gave up on my categories of people (in terms of male and female in particular) as having that much to do with reality, was when I was in Honolulu, in a Sunday School class, hearing a presentation on gender diversity and biological development, given by a retired teacher of anatomy and physiology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, who was herself a student of Mickey Diamond, who has done significant research on intersexuality and related subjects.

Here is some information I found quite interesting, some of which was part of that talk.  I am taking it now, however, from this source:  Part of the information I include here is about sexual orientation, as well as sexual/gender identity; the Sunday School presentation I referenced was primarily about gender identity and intersexuality.



* Diamond observes that sexual orientation (one's erotic attraction to men or women or both) tends to be fixed.  "Although there may be flexibility in some [erotic/sexual] desieres, only for a minority is there flexibility in sexual orientation. For most individuals it is fundamental prerequisite in choosing a partner."

* Diamond posits that sexual orientation is the result of an interaction of nature and nurture.  "Each of us has a biological predisposition to orient in a certain way--heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual [perhaps we should say instead, androphilic, gynephilic, or bisexual]--and this bias, organized prior to birth, is then subsequently influenced by social and cultural forces."

* Diamond notes that the "sexual profile" of an individual is multi-faceted, and he theorizes that such a profile includes: Gender Patterns (how one acts, viz. as a boy or a girl), Reproduction (the configuration of one's reproductive organs and their function), Sexual Identity (one's inner conviction of one's being a boy or a girl), Sexual Mechanisms (one's physiological traits that have to do with arousal, copulation, and childbearing), and Sexual Orientation (one's patterns of erotic-love-affective preference, i.e. does one like boys or like girls or like both). 

* He believes that: "Reproductive capacity and mechanisms are fixed, identity and orientation somewhat less so, and gender patterns [are] most flexible. Thus, individuals can be heterosexual, ambisexual, or homosexual and yet be quite different in how their orientation is manifest to the outside world. [I.e., some gay men are flamboyant and others are not (but no less gay), some gay women are tom-boyish, others not (but no less lesbian), etc.]  Superimposed on all of this is one's personality, which often makes it seem impossible to unravel the mysteries of orientation and identity.  I hold that those characters, orientation and identity, are central features of one's existence and thus structure manifestations of gender patterns more than vice versa; they determine how the individual will interact with the environment."

** Note: on this view, my two pairs of categories: male/female and masculine/feminine are inadequate to describe the way the world is.  (As a pragmatist, if my experience tends to show that my theoretical conceptions are thus inadequate, I must revise or altogether abandon them; it has been, and I have. I find Diamond's view much more plausible, in part simply because of its greater complexity).

According to Diamond:
* 1950s twin studies showed that the identical twin of a gay man is statistically much more likely to be gay than is the fraternal twin of a gay man (the likelihood that the latter is gay is not significantly different from the likelihood that any member of the male population is gay)
* Many other studies in the 1970s reported identical twins of different orientations, seeming to refute the conclusion of the 1950s studies.
* 1980s studies found that in a familiy with one gay man, there is an 18-25% chance that his brother is gay also, whereas the brothers of a straight man in the control group had only a 4% chance of being gay.
* 1990s studies found that 12-20% of gay women had gay siblings; only 2-5% of straight women had gay siblings
* Other 1990s studies reported that:
  * 52% of identical twin brothers of gay men were gay; only 22% of fraternal twin brothers of gay men were gay; 11% of adoptive brothers of gay men were gay
  * 65% of identical twin brothers of gay men were gay; 30% of fraternal twin brothers of gay men were gay
  * 48% of identical twin sisters of gay women were gay; 16% of fraternal twin sisters of gay women were gay; 14% of non-twin sisters of gay women were gay; 6% of adopted sisters of gay women were gay
* One 1986 study of six pairs of identical twins reared apart since infancy, in which one twin of each pair was gay, reported one male pair in which both were gay (close, high ratings on the Kinsey scale), one male pair in which one twin had a high rating on the Kinsey scale and the other had a close, but not as high rating, and four female pairs in each of which one was gay and the other was not.
* A 1993 study of two pairs of male identical twins reared apart since birth reported one pair of twins were both gay, and the other pair consisted of a gay man and a straight man.

If you want more data, with other kinds of studies than twin studies, read the article (it's not that long; I link to it above).
The conclusion here would seem to be that genetics matters, but not only genetics matters, in determining orientation.

** Note: It should be noted that to say that genetics makes a contribution to one's orientation is not to say that there is a "gay gene".  Anymore than to say that genetics makes a contribtuion to one's race is not to say that there is a "black gene", a "white gene", or an "Asian gene" (There is no such thing as a "race gene").


Some anthropological anecdotes (I think this is the right label) Diamond cites that may be taken to support the argument that orientation is not determined by social influence:

* "Schiefanhövel (1990) reports on a similar New Guinea culture. the Kaluli, who use anal intercourse to transmit the masculinity-inducing semen between older men and younger boys. He too stresses that heterosexual, not homosexual or bisexual, behavior is the preferred and exclusive outlet for these males when they mature. And this obtains despite a severe shortage of adult women due to female infanticide. Although adult-child same-sex activities are fostered in some societies, and this seems to have been part of the condition in ancient Greece (Cuillenain 1992), there is no known culture where adult-adult homosexual behavior is encouraged, is a preferred mode of behavior, or is a practice of other than a minority (Diamond 1993b; Ford & Beach 1951; Karlen 1971)."

* "There are societies in which homosexuality is not only illegal but subject to the death penalty (e.g., Iran) and societies in which the practice is tolerated or considered of little concern to the populace at large. And I have mentioned groups among which homosexual activities are encouraged as part of growing up. It is instructive to consider population figures to ascertain lithe prevalence of homosexual activity is correlated with sonic environmental factor we might call social tolerance or intolerance. Intuitively it seems reasonable to assume that if homosexuality was a practice readily molded by culture, such behavior would be more prevalent in societies that tolerate it most or punish it least. This hypothesis is not supported by the data (Diamond 1993b), available from Britain, Denmark, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Palau, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. In the relatively non-homophobic societies of Denmark, Palau, the Philippines, and Thailand, we find reported among the lowest rates of same-sex activity.25"

And here is an anthropological ancedote Diamond cites about sexual identity (This I think is the story that I heard in that Sunday School talk that really made me throw up my hands and admit how complex the world really is!)

"J. Imperato-McGinley (1983) and her colleagues (Imperato-McGinley et al. 1974, 1979; Imperato-McGinley & Peterson 1976) studied a group of indigenous persons in the Dominican Republic. These people were XY individuals who, due to a genetic quirk, were born without penises or a scrotum. During pregnancy these individuals had absent or reduced levels of 5a-reductase, which is needed to convert testosterone to dihydrotestosterone to differentiate the male genitals. Most subjects had separate urethral and vaginal openings within an uro-genital sinus. Their parents thought these offspring to be girls and raised them accordingly. At puberty, however, the penis and scrotum developed.24 Despite having been raised as females from birth, almost every one of these teenagers then switched to life as heterosexual males. Upbringing as girls destined to marry males had little influence on their adult orientation or sexual identity. Instead of being fixed in the sex of rearing from birth to puberty, these males readily adopted their sex-appropriate gender, orientation, and identity. Such cases, since they portray so little influence of upbringing, add grist to the argument that heterosexual orientation and masculine identity are more likely matters of genetic predisposition than social forces alone. Also reducing the factor of society is that similar findings were reported for indigenous populations in New Guinea, Turkey and among some Arabs in Israel. Here too, individuals reared as girls, on their own switched to living as males once past puberty.

"Some argue (e.g., Gooren, Fliers & Courtney 1990) that the parents of these children knew in advance they would be switching their children’s gender so these subjects do not constitute a true test of the nature-nurture issue. This is certainly true for the later cases studied, but it does not hold for the early cases, before the natives’ association with modern medicine. Prior to contact, the children were reared as typical native girls until puberty and genital development, after which they switched to living as adolescent boys and married accordingly (Imperato-McGinley 1983). It also does not figure that if the parents knew the children would be boys after puberty, they would not raise them as boys from the start."


This sort of thing makes me suspicious of arguments from tradition in support of straightforward, binary theoretical concepts of sexual identity and sexual orientation. 

Am I committing a fallacy of chronological snobbery (as C. S. Lewis put it) when I say in response to such arguments: Why should I take traditional ideas about sexual norms seriously?  Is our tradition really based on anything like reality?

(I hope to dig up some data about "reparative therapy" for another post sometime soon.)


  1. Found your blog Scott, and really enjoying it! Thanks!!!