Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Sex Identity"

Hey, ya'll. There's something I've been thinking about a bunch, and want to discuss.

It's become increasingly common over the last several decades to have discussions about aspects of sex-&-gender-related identites in queer spaces. Slowlyslolwlyslowly, even members of various mainstream societies are beginning to think about this stuff. These forms of identity - whether gender ID, gender presentation, gender performance, sexual orientation - are starting to be recognized as perhaps non-binary, as complex, as non-static, as fluid. As LIBERATING to be able to be yourself, without denying parts of yourself to fit one of two molds when they're (sometimes) not authentic.

Biological sex, though, is one of those things that has not been thought of in terms of IDENTIFYING in a certain way. When we're talking about intersex, I think this is completely appropriate to do so.

People may be more used to thinking about complexity and fludity in gender and sexual orientation because these identities have (nearly?) always been perceived as concepts, and not as physical realities. No one can hold hands with their gender, or squint hard enough and see what someone's sexual orientation looks like. They're inherently perceived as abstract to some degree from the get-go since they don't have physical form. And since they're already abstract concepts, perhaps it's easier to switch mental tracks and think of these concepts in more complex and fluid ways. (On the other hand, it's worth noting that just because you can't SEE a gender identity doesn't mean that people don't regard them as real, and many accounts show that people will do drastic and horrible things to enforce these "real" norms. So it's not really as simple as all this.)

In the same light, it probably seems very silly indeed to think of sex as an identity. After all, bodies are PHYSICAL things. You *can* hold hands with someone else. You *can* see what they look like walking down the street. What do you need to have a "sex identity" for? You can SEE the person's body. What's to identify about?

Well, when we're talking about intersex bodies, it's not always clear what sex to assign a kid at birth. With other individuals whose gender IDs, performances, presentations, and sexual orientations may be different from what is "expected" of them based on their sex & gender assignments at birth, there was no question as to their sex assignments at birth. "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" were heralded confidently by clinicians and doulas and passers-by who accidentally got roped into to helping someone give birth when that kid started coming out RIGHT. THEN. When intersex children were born, these proclamations of "It's a ---!" are sometimes replaced with a "Hmmm...what is it?" Unlike the aforementioned individuals who may have complex and non-static gender & orientation identities, intersex individuals' sex must be CHOSEN, and not simply ANNOUNCED.

Intersex kids are born with a mix of traits traditionally considered to be "male" and "female," unlike individuals assigned M or F at birth without discussion and decision-making, who are born with all "male" sex characteristics or all "female" sex characteristics. Such sex characteristics, at this point before puberty are restricted to include external genitals, internal sex organs, hormone types, hormone levels, and chromosomes; later on, things like chest development, nipple development, bone and muscle structure, hip:waist ratio, body hair density and distribution, and others can be included during/post-puberty. Sex assignment for intersex kids (and therefore gender, as well - because they have to "match up," right?!...nooo) is largely (mostly?) based on how big or small certain body parts are. For example, the penis and the clitoris are derived from the same developmental tissue. There are a bunch of different standards that physicians may use that say if the phalloclitors (as it's called) is bigger than this, the child is a boy, and if it's smaller, then the child is a girl. But deciding on what the cutoff points are vary wildly and are arbitrary...not a very objective approach. Ultimately, intersex kids are assigned a sex (and also a gender) at birth. (Hopefully, sex assignment is done without the use of harmful medical practices, such as genital mutilation surgery. After all, it only changes that child's outer appearance...we still have no idea who that child actually IS until they grow up more and can tell us who they are, making non-consensual surgery when these kids are young tragic and unnecessary.)

But what remains is a bias that because biological sex is about physical bodies, "sex identity" is nonsensical as a concept. For intersex individuals, however, our composites of body characteristics do not fall under typical definitions of what "male" or "female" bodies are like. I think, then, that it's completely appropriate to be able to identify as a biological sex, in the same way that one might identify one's gender(s), performance(s), presentation(s), and sexual orientation(s).

What we know is that intersex people already identify their biological sex in a variety of ways. They may identify as male, female, as an intersex male or intersex female, as a male that happens to be intersex, as a female that happens to be intersex, as intersex, as their particular form of intersex. Some intersex people maybe identify as having no biological sex, or as something else I have not mentioned. Intersex people may not only identify their sex as one thing throughout their whole may not be static and change over large or very short periods of time, and may change never, rarely, or frequently.

We are ALREADY identifying our biological sex in various ways, although I have never heard others describing what they were doing as such. I think we need to discuss whether this concept is so ridiculous after all, and try to better understand the range of identities that intersex individuals have/had with regards to biological sex.

What do you think about this? How do you feel about identifying your biological sex?


  1. I like the point made in "Evolution's Rainbow", that biological sex, the real thing, the ultimate binary, relates ONLY to gamete size. Small = male, big = female, period. If you have both, that's hermaphroditism and it's probably the biological most common strategy. And if you don't have gametes at all you're neither. So the stuff at a higher level than that, even when it's built into the meat, is gender, not sex. Penis? Gender. Vagina? Gender. Nothing you can see without an electron microscope is sex.

    This plus the fact that people interpret the same body structure with different meanings that strongly how they understand its sex. Even binary-bodied people can decide that for example, what they have isn't a "penis" it's a "strapless", because they're trans and the meaning of the meat is different for them.

  2. Hmmm. Interesting. I am not sure that I think this perspective is necessarily intuitive, because ultimately, you're still making arbitrary judgements about what biological sex is (here, it's only about eggs and sperm and whether you have one, both, or neither). I think one could just as easily say it's only about external genitalia (like we still do every time a baby's born before shouting, "It's a ----!", internal sex organs, chromosomes, hormone types & levels, and a slew of other traits that will develop during puberty. We could just choose one of them in turn and say, we should assign this person's sex based only on THIS ONE feature! I think that is too simplistic, and ultimately, it's still an arbitrary decision to focus on a single aspect of our bodies. If there are so many traits that fit into our understanding of male-female differences, what traits should we focus on? What traits can we really ignore? If we decide what traits to focus on, are some traits more important than others? How MUCH do we need to account for each trait's importance? I think there's a lot more complexity to talk about here, and that's why we need to recognize that biological sex is not straightforward, and like many things in nature, is both complex and beautiful in its variation. <3

    I'd also like to remind that hermaphroditism doesn't refer to humans! It may refer to other animals like some fish, amphibians, and mollusks, but humans can't be hermaphrodites. Hermaphrodites are those animals that have fully functional sets of both "male" and "female" sexual systems - either at the same time, or at different points during its life cycle. Humans don't qualify - we're intersex.

    I do agree, though, that the individuals may define their bodies/body parts differently depending on their identities. Everyone should have the agency to do this! Yes!