Sex, Science, and Politics

October 23rd, 2018

Thanks to a conversation with an individual on Twitter, I now understand that there is a segment of the US population that is in denial about the reality of developmental biology, specifically that people can be born as something other than strictly male or female. I doubt that those in denial about gender identity in the modern age will come to read this post. But, for others who might not understand what the hubbub is about, please, read on.

Gender is not sexual preference. Gender is not the same thing as sex.

Gender is usually something personal. You put on your make-up, or shave your face in the privacy of your home without anyone else’s input. Sex is also personal. It’s not often that the clitoris and penis are discussed openly.

Yet, sex and gender are also a huge aspect of social life, and thus politics. Once upon a time in America, the owning of land was allowed (or dis-allowed) on the basis of one’s sex. If you were born with genitalia that looked male, lucky you. You could be a landowner. This, too, led to determinations of who was allowed to vote. Men could. Women could not. Nevermind that sex and gender don’t always align perfectly.

Our Western society has operated in this sort of binary gender construct for much of its history. But, thanks to science and social media, the last several decades have been filled with voices asking us all to consider the reality that gender is not just binary.

On the basis of chromosomes (XX for women and XY for men), it seems cut and dried. But, sometimes there are chromosomal duplications or abnormalities leading to XXY, X, or mosaic karyotypes. Additionally, hormones play a huge role in development of the genitalia, and excess androgen or estrogen can lead to changes in the appearance of the genitals compared to what is considered normal. Sometimes genetic or epigenetic factors can lead to hormone insensitivity, which means that even though the karyotype and hormone levels are normal, the body doesn’t develop in parallel. It’s even been suggested that environmental toxins are having an increased effect on the abnormal development of sexual characteristics in some parts of the world.

Taken together, this means that the genitals that a doctor looks at to determine a baby’s gender at birth aren’t always representative of the individual’s internal state. And, sometimes because of hormonal factors that difference doesn’t really appear until puberty. For the majority of people, it is fairly straightforward. But, for the millions of people born transgender or intersex, growing up can be extremely confusing and difficult.

Recently, and probably in a bid to drum up their conservative-base, the Trump administration reported that it is considering a change to Title IX that would legally pin-down the definition of sex. According to the NY Times:

“Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” the department proposed in the memo, which was drafted and has been circulating since last spring. “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

Clearly, considering hormonal influences on gender identity that go beyond what can be determined based on genetic screening, this definition is inadequate to say the least.

My conversation on Twitter let me know that there are many people who don’t care to understand that gender is more than what many of us learned about in sixth-grade sex education classes; who don’t care to understand what it feels like to be a minority; who don’t care to understand how our social policies leave some people out; who live in a state of denial.

And, I do hope that this media play does get people off their butts to vote. Let’s get our Democracy back.


Not Taking Responsibility

October 22nd, 2008

When is it ok to not take responsibility for your actions? When is it ok to be passive in your approach to life? Is it ok to maintain anonymity when your actions may have forever changed someone’s life?

I ask these questions because of a report out this week in the PLoS online journal regarding an anonymous approach to telling people that you might have given them a sexually transmitted disease. The method uses postcards, and seems to be quite successful.

On the one hand, I understand why it works. I can see the appeal, and why it would be successful. STD’s are looked down upon in our society. They are socially embarrassing to the people who have contracted them. Hence, there is a problem with the reporting of STDs to sexual partners. If you could tell past sexual partners that they might be at risk without actually having to tell them it was you, wouldn’t it make you more likely to be honest?

Any method that can increase the rate of reporting is a good method because it will lead to more people being tested and treated, and to a decrease in transmission. So, I would never say that this isn’t a useful program.

However, I think it points to a problem in our society with the acceptance of sex as a natural process. And, moreso, acceptance that sex with more than one partner over one’s lifespan is a fact of life for many people. It’s hard to face up to something that is viewed as dirty by society. The way that we teach children to view sex is the starting point for many of the problems that we’re now trying to solve with things like anonymous postcards.

Second, the postcard approach makes me feel like we as a society are saying that it is ok for people to disregard personal responsibility. Where’s that going to leave us?

That Which Divides

July 30th, 2008

This morning I am struck by an article in the New York Times about testing of athletes in the Olympics, and this time it’s not drug testing. It’ s testing for sex.

According to the article sex testing has been a part of the Olympics since the days of Soviet-era steroid doping. Steroids are a class of hormones, which function by affecting changes in the activity of target cells, and are responsible for modulating physiological processes ranging from sexual differentiation to kidney function to inflammation. The type of steroid with which most people are familiar in the sporting arena is the anabolic steroid, or ‘roid.

Anabolic steroids are synthetically produced compounds that mimic the “male” sex steroids, or androgens. They are commonly used to increase muscle mass, and have secondary effects often resulting in masculinization. Consequently, they have become popular among both male and female athletes in the quest to increase performance level in a variety of sports. In the 50’s-60’s, the Soviets used steroids institutionally as a part of the training regimes for state athletes. It became common to question the sex of the very masculine appearing female athletes, and testing was instated for verification.

Now, steroids are still used, but not in such an overt manner. Many female athletes appear quite masculine, but is it because they take drugs to get a competitive edge?

I’m forced to consider our classification of the human sexes as a binary system. Historically, we have averted our eyes to anything that does not fit the mold, but evidence suggests that human sexual characteristics reflect more of a continuum rather than a neat categorical division. According to the NYT article, the results of some sex tests have surprised even the athlete being tested. Can you imagine thinking that you are female, being raised as a female, only to have a test at an international sporting event tell you otherwise — that you have a Y chromosome?

From the article:

“It’s very difficult to define what is a man and what is a woman at this point,” said Christine McGinn, a plastic surgeon who specializes in transgender medicine.

There are men with no Y chromosomes or too many, women with Y chromosomes, men and women with the appropriate chromosomes who don’t feel like they are the right sex. A study came out recently that underlines the complexity of sexuality and our limited understanding of what makes a person’s sex, which loosely links a particular gene variant to transsexual behavior. It is becoming more and more obvious that chromosomal sex, while an important part, is not the only factor involved in sex determination. We also need to consider hormonal environment within the womb, genes apart from the X and Y chromosomes, and epi-genetic factors.

The situation is obviously not very cut-and-dried, and the testing seems an extreme invasion of privacy. Maybe, instead of testing athletes to see whether they fit neatly into a competitive category, our system should be changed to reflect the variety of forms that make us human.