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Sex and gender

Has anyone else read Judith Butler? I read some of Gender Trouble a while back. It’s one of those pillars of feminist and queer philosophy that lays out passionate arguments against bigotry but uses such ridiculous postmodern mumbo jumbo that the only ones who can understand it are other postmodern and post-structuralist philosophers. Intellectual elitism bothers me, but one point she makes really stuck in my craw.

The basic issue here is that rhetorical philosophers often weigh in on the nature of the universe without really consulting the mathemeticians, physicists, chemists, and biologists. I say rhetorical because all these fields are philosophical, it’s just that scientists have data. The philosophers have something more akin to a narrative tradition. So Butler reads the cannon, does a thought experiment, and comes up with a profound idea. Here’s how Wikipedia sums it up (from the above link):

[Butler] begins her critique of identity and gender by challenging her readers’ assumptions about the distinction often made between sex and gender. (In this distinction, sex is biological and prediscursive, while gender is culturally constructed.) In the first place, Butler argues, this distinction introduces a split into the supposedly unified subject of feminism, and in the second place, the distinction proves false. Sexed bodies cannot signify without gender, and the apparent existence of sex prior to discourse and cultural imposition is merely an effect of the functioning of gender. That is, both sex and gender are constructed.

The whole paragraph drives me crazy, but did you catch that last sentence? Your genitals are a construct of the capitalist patriarchy! That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it’s not a dishonest one, so let’s look at it in more detail anyways. Are there any real grounds for rejecting a biological cause of delineation among the sexes? Never mind the most obvious human sexual dimorphisms like beards and breasts. These differences can be compelling, but your chest hairiness certainly doesn’t (or shouldn’t) determine how you identify yourself or what social or biological roles are available to you. The excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy addresses the issue in more detail, and uses less obstructive language as well:

First, take the object-construction of sexed bodies. Secondary sex characteristics, or the physiological and biological features commonly associated with males and females, are affected by social practices. In some societies, females’ lower social status has meant that they have been fed less and so, the lack of nutrition has had the effect of making them smaller in size (Jaggar 1983, 37). Uniformity in muscular shape, size and strength within sex categories is not caused entirely by biological factors, but depends heavily on exercise opportunities: if males and females were allowed the same exercise opportunities and equal encouragement to exercise, it is thought that bodily dimorphism would diminish (Fausto-Sterling 1993a, 218). A number of medical phenomena involving bones (like osteoporosis) have social causes directly related to expectations about gender, women’s diet and their exercise opportunities (Fausto-Sterling 2005). These examples suggest that physiological features thought to be sex-specific traits not affected by social and cultural factors are, after all, to some extent products of social conditioning. Social conditioning, then, shapes our biology.

This is an interesting point, but if sexes are truly social constructed, then how did they arise in the first place? Unless this theory is predicated on us just dropping out of the sky social prejudice and all, then there must be precursors in the natural world. All we can prove via this line of thinking is that society exaggerates sexual delineations. This is a profound concept in its own right, but the opening sentence admits it is limited to secondary sex characters. If social forces lead to starvation in females, they might produce smaller gametes than well-fed counterparts, but they won’t start producing sperm. Which brings me to my point. You just can’t put forward an honest explanation of human sex differences without including oogamy.

Oogamy is a familiar concept, even if the name is not. Males of our own and many other species produce large quantities of small motile sperm. Females produce fewer, larger, and more energy-rich sessile eggs. Even though the female produces fewer gametes than the male, her cost is higher and her investment in any resulting progeny is greater. This is the fundamental difference that gives rise to all those more incidental dimorphisms pored over by philosophers. Humans have different secondary sex characters because oogamy dictates that each sex must assume a different reproductive strategy in order to be successful. The Stanford Encyclopedia goes on to acknowledge then undermine this:

Second, take the idea-construction of sex concepts. Our concept of sex is said to be a product of social forces in the sense that what counts as sex is shaped by social meanings. Standardly, those with XX-chromosomes, ovaries that produce large egg cells, female genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘female’ hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics (relatively small body size, less body hair) count as biologically female. Those with XY-chromosomes, testes that produce small sperm cells, male genitalia, a relatively high proportion of ‘male’ hormones and other secondary sex traits (relatively large body size, significant amounts of body hair) count as male. This understanding is fairly recent. The prevalent scientific view from Ancient Greeks until the late 18th century, did not consider female and male sexes to be distinct categories with specific traits; instead, a ‘one-sex model’ held that males and females were members of the same sex category. Females’ genitals were thought to be the same as males’ but simply directed inside the body; ovaries and testes (for instance) were referred to by the same term and whether the term referred to the former or the latter was made clear by the context (Laqueur 1990, 4). It was not until the late 1700s that scientists began to think of female and male anatomies as radically different moving away from the ‘one-sex model’ of a single sex spectrum to the (nowadays prevalent) ‘two-sex model’ of sexual dimorphism.

Now we’re back where we started. Are oogamy, sex chromosomes, or hormones really idea-constructs? Society may influence biology, but if the truths it uncovers are really true, then they aren’t a product of social forces. They are models of underlying realities, to be refined and improved over time, and even abandoned when new evidence reveals their shortcomings. The modern science of sex determination, expression, and evolution may even come to be considered latter-day craniometry by future generations (I doubt it), but the fact that social prejudices predate the discovery of sex hormones does not carry any implication for causality. Oogamy would exist, shaping our bodies and desires, whether or not we studied it. Biology will never be egalitarian, and no philosopher’s critique of society can change that.

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