- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
“A challenging and engaging page-turner, this book could change the way Americans perceive gender, orientation, and the practices that privilege heteronormativity. With precision and lucidity, Garbacik manages an impressive feat: she presents readers with an accessible history of the evolvement of our society’s basic tenets surrounding gender and sexuality. What’s more, she turns many widely held assumptions directly on their head, leaving us the disquieting sense that, when it comes to understanding the differences between men and women, we may have been misled.“ —Dr. Belisa Vranich, Clinical Psychologist, Author & Media Personality
THE BIOLOGY OF SEX AND GENDER
When do we first become aware of gender? Is it when certain clothing or toys are given to us to match a culturally specific model of how a child should look and play? Is it when we see genitals other than our own and are forced to compare and contrast? Or maybe the first time we truly process the idea of gender occurs when checking off a box to identify ourselves, almost invariably as either "male" or "female."
Neurobiologists often suggest that the formation of gender identity starts much earlier than any of these events. Some say that gender is simply embedded in our genes. Others believe that the introduction of particular hormones in the womb shape how we will emerge. It is commonly held that the number of X vs. Y chromosomes an individual has in their cells provides the basic determination of an individual's sex. And yet, few contest that chromosomes fall quite shy of explaining the roles and patterns of behavior that are associated in our society with being a man or a woman. What's more, there are plenty of individuals who don't fall neatly into either of these categories, either biologically speaking or with regards to their personality and sense of identity. And, of course, being a man or a woman (as well as combinations thereof and other identity classifications entirely) has meant different things to different cultures throughout the course of history. These categories continue to evolve as economics, politics, popular culture, art, science, and other factors shift society's perception of itself, and alter the roles which comprise our collective and individual sense of identity.
When examining gender as a category, one of the first distinctions we explore is dividing people on the basis of their genitals, hormones, or chromosomes. Although, is this not as arbitrary as dividing the world up on the basis of left-and right-handedness or by eye color? Such logic may be valid in theory, but dividing people on the basis of handedness or eye color would ignore the historical and cultural meaning, weight, and power assigned to a man or a woman. On the other hand, separating people according to genitals, hormones, and chromosomes ignores the experience of transgender, intersex, androgynous, and genderqueer people (to name a few categories).
For this discussion, the categories of male and female will be overrepresented due to the amount of pertinent study that has strictly attended to those two identities. It should nevertheless be noted that on almost every continent throughout history, a variety of cultures have acknowledged more than two genders. Western society's currently rigid description of people as deterministically "one or the other" leaves little room for variation in one's experience of a mixed or changing gender identity, gender expression, or variance within what the words "men" and "women" signify. Even progressive terms like "transgender" are sometimes employed in ways that imply that there are "normally" two sexes (male and female) and two genders (man and woman). This leaves out equally legitimate identities such as "nádleehí," a designation in Navajo culture for an individual who considers themself both a boy and a girl. The Navajo are far from the only culture with a malleable concept of gender identity, but Western traditions have marginalized all but a binary notion of gender, and by extension, the sexuality of those genders.
In the Oxford English Dictionary, a male is "of or denoting the sex that produces small, typically motile gametes, especially spermatozoa, with which a female may be fertilized or inseminated to produce offspring." This definition is strictly biological, and refers only to a male's ability to impregnate a female. To some biologists, this is the only characteristic which differentiates the male sex in an inarguable fashion. A female, by contrast, is "of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) that can be fertilized by male gametes." By this account, an animal, plant, or human is a female if "she" can produce eggs and therefore bear children or offspring.
Doctors assign humans' sex at birth on the basis of genitalia, not the ability to reproduce. Likewise, doctors seldom check individuals to verify whether or not they have XX or XY chromosomes, but generally assume the presence of a penis or a vagina is indicative of these chromosome pairings.
This is not always the case, as with intersex people who may have both male and female genitalia, atypical genital and/or reproductive anatomy, or ambiguous sex characteristics. Being intersex is relatively common, occurring in 1.7 percent of the population. Intersex people sometimes have gonosomes (sex chromosomes) that are different from the most typical XX-female or XY-male presentations. According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex genitals "may signal an underlying metabolic concern, but they themselves are not diseased; they just look different. Metabolic concerns should be treated medically, but [intersex] genitals are not in need of medical treatment."
Despite the fact that intersex genitals do not require treatment, there is a history of medical practitioners stepping in and performing surgeries that carry significant risk to intersex infants which has had a pathologizing effect on intersex people and their families. As biologist, historian, and feminist Anne Fausto-Sterling explains, "If a child is born with two X chromosomes, oviducts, ovaries, and a uterus on the inside, but a penis and scrotum on the outside...is the child a boy or a girl? Most doctors declare the child a girl, despite the penis, because of her potential to give birth, and intervene using surgery and hormones to carry out the decisions. [But] choosing which criteria to use in determining sex, and choosing to make the determination at all, are social decisions for which scientists can offer no absolute guidelines." Because these "normalizing" surgeries are generally irreversible, if they are performed at birth or in infancy without the individual's consent, they also run a serious risk of assigning a sex that may not fit the child's identification when they grow up.
Aside from chromosomes and genitals, there are other physical characteristics that are commonly used to distinguish between males and females, but they are far from foolproof and do not indicate one's gender identity. Secondary sex characteristics are physical features that occur more frequently in either male or female members of a species, which do not relate to reproduction or sex organs. In humans, most secondary sex characteristics are fairly similar in male and female children until puberty, when hormone levels increase and result in both similar and different changes to the body.
In males, once puberty hits, facial and body hair growth occurs (abdominal, chest, underarm, and pubic), as well as a possible loss of scalp hair, enlargement of the larynx, and a deepened voice. Their shoulders and chest will broaden as they gain more muscle mass, a heavier skull and bone structure, and larger stature in general (males, on average, are taller than females). A male's face will also become more square, and their waist will narrow (though it typically remains wider than in females).
Females, by contrast, experience breast growth and nipple erection during puberty, as well as widening of their hips, and a rounder face. Females generally develop smaller hands and feet than males. They grow some body hair during puberty as well, but it is mostly limited to the underarm and pubic areas. Their upper arms are generally a bit longer than men's, proportionately, and their weight distribution will change, distributing more fat into the thighs, hips, and buttocks. There are also a variety of other changes occurring in puberty to male and female sex organs, but these are not considered secondary sex characteristics.
Sometimes individual or several secondary male sex characteristics may be present in a female-identified person, or the reverse, complicating a "common sense" definition of what makes a "man" or "woman." For example, some males retain erect nipples or develop tissue in their pectoral muscles, resulting in a chest similar in appearance to female breasts. Many females grow some facial hair on their chin or upper lip, or have square jaw lines. People of both sexes often have larger or smaller feet, hands, thighs, or buttocks than is typical of their assigned sex. Plenty of males are short or have high voices; lots of females are tall or have low voices. Suffice to say, while secondary sex characteristics describe the "average" male and female traits, very few real people fit neatly into that "average" box.
It is possible to use gonads (gametes that make ova or sperm; i.e., ovaries and testicles) and chromosomes as the basis for differentiating females from males, but this leaves a lot of gray area regarding many people's more ambiguous primary or secondary sex characteristics. While the vast majority of babies' genitalia may be clearly regarded as biologically male or female, their chromosomes may not reflect that assigned sex. They may develop secondary sex characteristics later that complicate that definition. Furthermore, once one's sex is assigned, the way in which an infant is treated by its parents, caretakers, and everyone they meet will be profoundly shaped by assumptions about the child's sex. Being raised as a boy, girl, a combination of the two, or identifying as neither is in many respects an entirely separate concern from one's sex.
Gender differs from one's assigned sex in that it can be self-defined. Doctors may look at a baby's genitals and say that it is a male, but the baby itself, in tandem with their parents' rearing and social experiences, will ultimately define what gender it is identified as. The distinction between a biological sex and a gender "role" was first introduced by the work of sexologist John Money in 1955. Before that, "gender" was strictly a grammatical term that referred to words with masculine or feminine connotations within a given culture. For example, in most languages derived from Latin ("romance languages," which are part of the Indo-European language family, and include French, Catalan, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and others), many nouns are assigned a gender and corresponding pronoun. In Spanish, chairs, cities, and radios are a few random nouns which are considered feminine, while plates, hearts, and days of the week are deemed masculine.
One's "sex," on the other hand, was formerly used all-inclusively to describe someone's body and identity without any consideration of a possible distinction. Money's definition of the word "gender" spread to popular culture and usage in the 1970s when feminists began to debate the rigid categories of social roles for men and women. Today, cultural models of male and female roles greatly influence the opportunities, behaviors, and personality profiles that are assumed to correspond to one's gender. The impact gender has on a person's experience necessitates analyzing whether (or to what degree) gender is biological as opposed to culturally imposed, or shaped by one's environment and raising.
From a neurological standpoint, scientists have been debating for some time about the differences between men and women's brains, and by extension, their abilities, personalities, and tendencies. It was once believed that male and female brains developed differently in utero in nonhuman animals, and that mating and bearing children was, for them, a hardwired instinct. Scientists thought that sex differences in humans, by contrast, came purely from how children were raised. Today, some studies show neurological differences between typical male and female brains prior to birth, but again, many scientists question the methods by which these differences are ascertained. If it turns out to be true that male and female infants have measurable brain differences, the way in which a child is socialized and treated by its parents and peers would still have tremendous impact, perhaps equal to or even surpassing any biological hardwiring. What's more, the alleged brain distinctions in no way appear to be predictive of behavior, gender-specific interests, or cognitive strengths and weaknesses.
According to Louann Brizendine, a prominent neuropsychiatrist, all brains begin as female, until eight weeks after conception, when testosterone present in males shrinks the communication center of their brains, reduces the hearing cortex, and makes the part of the brain that processes thoughts about sexual activity twice as large. She believes that male and female infants do not enter the world with the same brain structure, that the communication and emotional memory center is larger in the female brain, and that male brains have more cells which correspond to aggression.
Contrary to arguments for the importance of socialization, Brizendine contends that hormones triggered at different stages in women's lives relate to their capacity to cope with stress, the desire to pursue one's own interests, concern for others' emotions, and even to the desire to be attractive. Brizendine thinks these hormones stimulate an interest in procreating, childbirth, and nursing at different stages of a woman's life, and affect their behavior and emotions. She essentially says that if you give a female child a toy truck, she will invariably cuddle it. Moods are certainly affected by hormones, and over time they can help to shape our sense of how we see the world. Just as ingesting chocolate (which contains theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine) or wine (which acts as a depressant, slowing down one's heart rate and breathing) can shift one's attitude by altering the chemicals in our brains, Brizendine believes that hormones cause male and female brains to form entirely different structures that stimulate, explain, and categorize our impulses and desires. For example, the pituitary gland produces fertility hormones, affects milk production, and, in Brizendine's opinion, turns on the "nurturing behavior" switch in women. The anterior cingulate cortex (or ACC), on the other hand, helps people to weigh options, make decisions, and is the "worrying center" of the brain; according to Brizendine's interpretation of the studies she cites, the ACC is larger in women.
Her conclusions have struck a common sense chord in many readers, as they reinforce archetypal behavior for men and women in our society, but Brizendine's sex-specific structures do not have a reputable basis in scientific research. She pointedly mentions her dismay at learning that many neurological studies are based on males alone, yet several of the studies Brizendine cites to demonstrate sex-based differences used only male or female participants. Brizendine nevertheless calls on these studies to make sexed contrasts that are necessarily speculative. In fact, numerous reviews of her book, The Female Brain (2006), found that "despite the author's extensive academic credentials ... [t]he text is rife with 'facts' that do not exist in the supporting references."
Even when researchers are meticulous, there are a number of drawbacks to considering the size and function of brain regions as direct proof that gender is rooted in brain structure. Likewise, there are concerns when assuming that "gender-specific" behavior and strengths can be understood by examining male and female brains. For starters, human brains definitely cannot be as easily "sexed" as Brizendine describes (that is, consistently sorted into "male" and "female"), and in many researchers' opinions, they can't be sexed at all. In Brain Storm (2010), socio-medical scientist Rebecca M. Jordan-Young asserts, "In spite of much trumpeting that there exist 'female brains' and 'male brains,' the extent and nature of physical differences in the brains of human females and males is highly controversial, with some scientists claiming there are no clear-cut differences, others claiming that there are some subtle average differences, and still others claiming that the differences are dramatic." Jordan-Young rebukes the notion that there are sex-related centers in the brain at all, much less that men's are much larger. She explains that while there is a small cell group in the hypothalamus that is generally larger in men (the INAH3), and it may be related to some aspect of sexual function (or something "as nonpsychological as menstruation"), no one knows yet what it does. There's no evidence at all that it's related to "processing thoughts about sex," as Brizendine claims. Jordan-Young goes on to say that literally no reported sex differences in other areas of the brain have "held up to independent replication." In other words, when researchers attempt to retry one another's experiments on brain structure differences to check the conclusions, not a single one has been able to yield the same results.
Excerpted from GENDER & SEXUALITY FOR BEGINNERS by JAIMEE GARBACIK, JEFFREY LEWIS. Copyright © 2013 Jaimee Garbacik. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.