Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kris Notaro - Will gender exist 100 years from now, or does it already not exist?

This is an intriguing question - but there are clear biological differences in males and females that make us biologically and psychologically different (sex roles) and there are also social and cultural pressures that shape how we behave and how we manifest those biological differences (gender roles).

It seems to me that there is not a binary model of gender roles (masculine vs. feminine), and there is not even a binary sex distinction - Anne Fausto-Sterling has identified 5 biological sexes, and suggests that even sex roles are a continuum, not distinct points.

For some time medical investigators have recognized the concept of the intersexual body. But the standard medical literature uses the term intersex as a catch-all for three major subgroups with some mixture of male and female characteristics: the so-called true hermaphrodites, whom I call herms, who possess one testis and one ovary (the sperm- and egg-producing vessels, or gonads); the male pseudohermaphrodites (the "merms"), who have testes and some aspects of the female genitalia but no ovaries; and the female pseudohermaphrodites (the "ferms"), who have ovaries and some aspects of the male genitalia but lack testes. Each of those categories is in itself complex; the percentage of male and female characteristics, for instance, can vary enormously among members of the same subgroup. Moreover, the inner lives of the people in each subgroup-- their special needs and their problems, attractions and repulsions-- have gone unexplored by science. But on the basis of what is known about them I suggest that the three intersexes, herm, merm and ferm, deserve to be considered additional sexes each in its own right. Indeed, I would argue further that sex is a vast, infinitely malleable continuum that defies the constraints of even five categories.

This issue has come to international attention with this case of the South African athlete who is intersex - Caster Semenya. While identifying as a female, Semenva appears very masculine and seems to have more strength and speed than many women - and some accused her of being a man. Genetic tests were conducted but have not been released to the public. A little more background from the New York Times:

To be fair, the biology of sex is a lot more complicated than the average fan believes. Many think you can simply look at a person’s “sex chromosomes.” If the person has XY chromosomes, you declare him a man. If XX, she’s a woman. Right?

Wrong. A little biology: On the Y chromosome, a gene called SRY usually makes a fetus grow as a male. It turns out, though, that SRY can show up on an X, turning an XX fetus essentially male. And if the SRY gene does not work on the Y, the fetus develops essentially female.

Even an XY fetus with a functioning SRY can essentially develop female. In the case of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, the ability of cells to “hear” the masculinizing hormones known as androgens is lacking. That means the genitals and the rest of the external body look female-typical, except that these women lack body hair (which depends on androgen-sensitivity).

Women with complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome are less “masculinized” in their muscles and brains than the average woman, because the average woman makes and “hears” some androgens. Want to tell women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome they have to compete as men, just because they have a Y chromosome? That makes no sense.

So, some say, just look at genitals. Forget the genes — pull down the jeans! The I.A.A.F. asks drug testers to do this. But because male and female genitals start from the same stuff, a person can have something between a penis and a clitoris, and still legitimately be thought of as a man or a woman.

All of this is relevant to some of what Notaro is doing in this article - he makes some important points. If sex and gender are not binary, then it becomes much harder to discriminate against people who are "other." More people need this information.

Will gender exist 100 years from now, or does it already not exist?

Kris Notaro
Kris Notaro
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jun 21, 2010

It has been claimed by biologists that the brains of females and males are different in obscure ways. However, physical differences in adults may be due to psychological and sociological pressures on the brains of each gender, because cultures and societies may exaggerate roles and stereotypes, having an impact on brain plasticity.

On top of society’s role in forming gender identity, we can see in current biological data of brains and their relation to gender identity due to “molecular and hormonal mechanisms.” (Rosario, 276-278) It has been shown that the structure of brains in Homo sapiens can take on either a male or female form from a variety of factors during critical postnatal periods.

The biology of sexual identity is revealing important data that points to diversity in sexual orientation, leading us to accept that looking at gender in a binary fashion is unacceptable; gender identity in Homo sapiens is probably much more ambiguous and diverse then we once thought. (Rosario, 276-279) From this we can conclude that the gender identity listing in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders should be eliminated. Genetic engineering of the brain will only increase the ambiguity if we choose. A post-binary-gender society is possible, not only in the future, but it may already be here naturally.

As it turns out neuroscience and genetics is showing how the brains of LGBT people are really ambiguous. There are more than 20 or 30 ways the brain could be “feminized” or “masculinized” or somewhere in between, in that the brains between men and women are a little different dimorphicly on a macro scale. (Rosario, 276-278) There are of course non-controversial differences between genders. In fact, I just implied one of them: that “gender” exists and is a word that describes something, but what does it describe?

Biologists have identified differences between members of the same species that can increase the likelihood of sexual reproduction, the difference in each species is known as gender or sex, which usually comes in the form of “male” and “female.” Sexual dimorphism is used to describe the phenotypical difference between males and females of the same species. An example of sexual dimorphism in gorillas is the fact that males tend to be twice the size of females. Homo sapiens however have less distinctive sexual dimorphic characteristics than many other animals. (Campell, 277)

Today in the United States we have access to vast amounts of research that has been done on sexual dimorphism, gender identity, and LGBT issues. Unfortunately many people do not know this, and still discriminate against LGBT people. Just this year California voted in favor of Prop. 8 marriage, and in the same year the American Psychiatric Association appointed Dr. Kenneth Zucker to the Sexual and Gender Identity Disorder committee of the DSM-V. This prompted protests immediately after it was released because Dr. Zucker supports the listing and has been known to do research which helps psychiatrists to identify gender disorders in children and help parents to condition their children who are diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder to go along with their phenotype.

Geneticists are finding genes outside of the X and Y chromosomes that may play a role in gender identity. They are also finding the results of mutated nucleotide order within the X and Y chromosomes related to gender identity. There are so many possibilities for a mutation to occur from the moment of conception that many more years of science will be needed to fully understand gender identity. While the brains of males and females within humans differ slightly, these subtle differences might make all the difference when it comes to gender identity, whether the person is born with normal XX or XY, or abnormal gender chromosomes and genes.

Traditional values of looking at gender in binary fashion grow less and less important as scientists show that gender identity is diverse in nature and is caused by many biological and social conditions. If one were to look at the pure science of gender identity, it not only appears that a postgender society is possible but it seems we are already living in one.


Campbell, Neil, Jane Reece, Lwarence Mitchell and Martha Taylor. Biology: Concepts & Connections. San Francisco: Pearson Education, Inc., 2003.

Knickmeyer, Rebecca C., and Baron-Cohen. “Fetal Testosterone and Sex Differences in Typical Social Development and in Autism .” Journal of Child Neurology 25 (2005): 825-845.

Kohl, James V. ‘The Mind’s Eyes” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality,18:4, (2007): 313 — 369.

Rosario, Vernon A. “Quantum Sex: Intersex and the Molecular Deconstruction of sex. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies Vol 15 (2009): 267-284.

Spitzer, Robert L “Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders.” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality 17:3. (2006): 111 – 116.

This is an excerpt from a larger piece.

Kris Notaro, a 2010-11 IEET intern, works with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing DVDs to be used in the classroom. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


Anonymous said...

"Wrong. A little biology: On the Y chromosome, a gene called SRY usually makes a fetus grow as a male. It turns out, though, that SRY can show up on an X, turning an XX fetus essentially male. And if the SRY gene does not work on the Y, the fetus develops essentially female."

Where's your proof on this. I want to see some hard core scientific data.

WH said...

That is quoted from an article in the New York Times, which is linked to above the quote - the author is ALICE DREGER - you'll have to get the proof from her.

Thanks for raising the issue, though.