Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate

The Gender vs. Sex question...referring to the meaning of those two terms in relation to each standard material for discussion in Anthropology and related fields, but is often left unattended to in day to day discourse. Both terms have internal complexity, with Gender meaning something about people’s identity as well as being a linguistic term, different but overlapping, and of course, Sex is a verby noun sometimes. But when we say “Gender vs. Sex” we are clearly talking about biological things such as chromosomes and genitalia, behavioral things such as attraction and orientation, self image, and so on, as well as the interaction among these things for a given person and for a given person’s interaction in the social matrix. Broadly speaking, “sex” is thought of as biological, “gender” as behavioral, however the last few decades of research and sociocultural maturation of our view of sex, gender and people have complexified this considerably, and the simple versions of these terms are inadequate and earlier, even “postmodern” feminist constructs tend to break easily. For instance, what sex is a person with a female-looking body, a vagina, breasts, all that stuff? Female, right? But what if the person has complete androgen insensitivity? This individual has testes. Wouldn’t that make them male? Such a situation, which is not particularly uncommon, does not mean that we can’t conceptualize complexity, it just means that the term “biological sex” is a bit limited.

The other problem with the sex vs. gender distinction is the implication that sex, as a biological thing, emerges more or less through the expression of genes during development and is mostly pre-determined, while gender is more a result of interaction with the extant world. Imagine a very small scale society where any one individual might ever know well no more than dozens of other individuals. There are such societies, and in fact, we evolved in such a setting. Imagine further than an individual grows up in this society with a “gender” that would, in a large scale society such as the US, be best characterized as gender-queer with a sexual interest in other similarly gender-queer people. But, since this “gender” is somewhat rare and the society is very small, almost every individual that ever grows up in this type of society will never meet anyone like that. If a gender emerges in social isolation, does it exist? That is more than just a thought experiment, it is a real life thing. Probably.

In truth, among mammals and other vertebrates in general (as a behavioral biologist I like to step back sometimes) the “sex” of an individual is often determined by purely behavioral things. The sex of certain fish is determined by social context, where an individual will change from male to female, or female to male, depending on the social structure in which they live. In some rodents, “genetic males” only become behavioral males if their mother, soon after birth, carries out certain activities that initiate hormonal cascades that cause the sexually dimorphic nuclei of the individuals’ brain, and other parts, to become “androgenized.” If a human in a laboratory simulates these activities with female pups, the female’s gender as an adult may be altered, and if the same human causes the activities to not happen to males, the males grow up as more or less gendered females even though they are “biologically” males. And, of course, this maternal behavior is pretty much built in to the mother rodent. So, where is “sex” and where is “gender” for the Norwegian rat? The line is blurred.

These examples relate to how “sex” (including gender, really) is “determined” biologically. Turtles determine sex by affecting the incubation temperature of eggs, some fish by social context, some mammals by anogenetical stimulation soon after birth, and humans by .... well, here is where we have a problem.

Humans, like other apes and generally primates, have integrated the things that are generally seen among mammals as sexual (stimulation, intromission, etc. etc.) into their already complex social politics. For most social primates, social politics determine who gets to have sex with whom, as well as other things. In some primates, sexual activities (or really, the term “erotic activities” may be better here) determine things about social politics (which in turn determine things about sexual activities). Humans have a couple of amazing, unique derived traits in relation to the other apes that make this wonderful wacky world of relationships even more complicated. Humans practice relative monogamy in the context of multi-male multi-female groups, which is simply unheard of in primates. Most primate species exhibit multiple sexually selected secondary characteristics in males but only one or even zero in females. In humans, the vast majority of secondary sexual characteristics are in females, not males. That is almost unheard of among mammals, though some birds also do it. Humans, across the societies that have been studied, have sex mostly in private, more often at night than during the day. In social primates generally, there is a certain amount of hidden sex and a certain amount of overt sex, depending on the species, but most of it is overt, and various erotic interactions that are incorporated into social politics are overt. In humans, there are all kinds of sex-related interactions that occur overtly, but they are almost all symbolic and deniable.

The point of this is that a bit of anogentical licking here and there, or incubation temperature, or some gene producing some protein or another isn’t sufficient to “cause” gender in humans, while “sex” is probably mostly non-cultural or non-social for most, but not all people. This makes sex and gender in humans complicated, with gender being 10X more complicated than sex (where the number “10” is unspecified as to base! Ha!). This in combination with extreme human sociality and population density has resulted in a new human sexuality that has probably emerged over the last 10,000 years in which people who would be unique in a small scale society may well be numerous, or at least, exist at sufficient numbers to have a social identity.

My friend Lux, at Teen Skepchick, has written a very informative and well reasoned post about the Sex-Gender thing, [HERE]( In it, Lux expands and deconstructs the key definitions, presents the metrosexual “genderbread” graphic as a complex model, and then produces some important criticisms of that model. Significantly, Lux points out that adding lots of spectra across which people may be located helps to understand the relationships between gender, identity, sex, and orientation, but at the same time creates a new form of pigeonholing that has its own difficulty. (But see the comments on that post for reference to an improved Genderbread person.) Very importantly, Lux rephrases the sex-gender definitional problem in relation to cis and trans. Finally, Lux broadens the critical analysis to also address terms such as “men/man women/woman” vs. “male and female.” I will be adding that blog post to my list of blog posts to keep handy when discussing these issues.


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Can I get a reference for the Norwegian rat article?

Pkkkumyy: Here's a sampling of the literature on this phenomenon. Not just Norwegian rats, but a few rodents.

Birke, Lynda L. and Dawn Sadler. 2004. Differences in maternal behavior of rats and the sociosexual development of the offspring. Developmental Psychobiology 20(1):85-99.

Clark, Mertice M. and Bennet G. Galef, Jr. 1998. Prenatal Influences on the Reproductive Behavior of Adult Rodents, in “Maternal Effects as Adaptations” Timothy Mousseau, et al Eds. Oxford.

Clark, M. M., S. Bone and B. G. Galef, 1990. Evidence of sex-biased postnatal maternal investment by Mongolian gerbils. Animal Behavior 39: 735-744.

Maestripieri, Dario and Jill Mateo eds. Maternal Effects in Mammals 2009. (various references to the effect therein). University of Chicago Press

Moore, Celia and Gilda Morelli. 1979. Mother rats interact differently wiht male and female offspring. Journal of Comparative Psychological Psychology. 93(4): 677-684.

The way that people radically oversimplify sex (we don't even need to mention gender; "10x" indeed) to satisfy politcal/ideological purposes, or just from cultural convention, has long amazed and dismayed me.

On the one hand, as a feminist I'm in a minority in being critical of the claim that there is absolutely no biological sexual cognitive differentiation in humans. I'm always very clear that what they might be, how statistically relevant they are, and all related is entirely another question and that I'm generally very critical of the popular claims of strong differences.

I point out that developmental sex differentiation occurs across a great many levels of human anatomy, in many different ways, via different mechanisms, and at different times of onset and rates.

Which is related to the other thing I often argue — that while the sexual dichotomy is not an unreasonable cultural and psychological comprehension of the state of things, the reality is that this dichotomy just represents a statistical clustering where there is actually a huge amount of diversity. Specifically that the idea of intersex is far more valid than people believe because all this developmental sexual differentiation doesn't occur the same, or to the same degree, or to the same degree across all levels of anatomy, in all people. So, really, the notion of biological sex is actually very ambiguous — people want to pin it down absolutely to just one particular level of description, as if that were determinative, when it's clearly not. Chromosomes don't determine it absolutely (though many people want to insist that it does), neither of course does primary sexual anatomy.

One recent discussion I was in where this all came up was about recent discussion of testing of female athletes.

To me, this is illustrative of a general problem, both in human psychology and culturally. I don't think it's unreasonable for us to form the kinds of gestalt judgments we do about things like "general intelligence" or sex or race or whatever. I'm not inclined to the position that these familiar concepts are actually meaningless — they're useful exactly insofar as they're actually useful. That said, the problems come when people insist that these generalizations are in some sense absolute and, well, platonic. And then they try to misuse science to validate their need to oversimplify complex reality, and after doing so, they use that to support their questionable social policies.

By Keith M Ellis (not verified) on 18 Nov 2012 #permalink