The Philosophy of Sex and Gender

Between Natural and Conventional Joints

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It is customary to divide human beings among male and female, men and women; yet, this dimorphism proves to be also ill-taken, for instance when it comes to intersex (e.g., hermaphrodite) or transgendered individuals. It becomes hence legitimate to wonder whether sexual categories are real or rather conventional kinds, how gender categories get established and what their metaphysical status is.

The Five Sexes

In a 1993 article titled “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” professor Anne Fausto-Sterling argued that the twofold distinction between male and female rested on wrong foundations. As data collected over the past few decades show, anywhere between 1.5% and 2.5% of humans are intersex, that is they present sexual traits that are typically associated with both male and female. That number is equal to or greater than some of the groups that are recognized as minorities. This means that, if society allows for only male and female sexual categories, what arguably is an important minority of citizens will not be represented in the distinction.

To overcome this difficulty, Fausto-Sterling fancied having five categories: male, female, hermaphrodite, mermaphrodite (a person who has mostly traits typically associated with males, and some traits related to female), and fermaphrodite (a person who has traits usually associated with females, and some traits associated with males.) The suggestion was intended as somewhat provocative, an encouragement for civic leaders and citizens to think about different ways to classify individuals according to their sex.

Sexual Traits

Different traits are factored in to determine a person’s sex. Chromosomal sex is revealed through a specific DNA test; the primary sexual traits are the gonads, that is (in humans) the ovaries and testes; the secondary sexual traits include all those that are directly related to chromosomal sex and gonads, such as Adam’s apple, menstruation, mammary glands, specific hormones that are produced. It is important to point out that most of those sexual traits are not revealed at birth; thus, it is only once a person has grown adult that sexual classification can be more reliably made. This is in clear conflict with extant practices, where individuals are assigned a sex at birth, typically by a doctor.

Although in some sub-cultures it is common to designate the sex of an individual based on the sexual orientation, the two seem to be quite distinct. People who clearly fit into the male category or the female category may be attracted to people of the same sex; in no way this fact, by itself, affects their sexual categorization; of course, if the person involved decides to undertake special medical treatments to change its sexual traits, then the two aspects – sexual categorization and sexual orientation – come to be entrenched. Michel Foucault has explored some of those issues in his History of Sexuality, a three-volume work first published in 1976.

Sex and Gender 

What is the relationship between sex and gender? This is one of the most difficult and debated questions on the subject. For several authors, there is no substantive distinction: both sexual and gender categories are construed by society, often confused within each other. On the other hand, because gender differences tend not to pertain to biological traits some believe that sex and gender establish two different ways of classifying human beings.

Gender traits include things such as hairstyle, dress codes, body postures, voice, and – more generally – anything that within a community tends to be recognized as typical of men or women. For instance, in the 1850s in Western societies women did not use to wear pants so that wearing pants was a gender-specific characteristic of men; at the same time, men did not use to wear ear-rings, whose trait was gender-specific of women.

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