Is biological sex a social construction?
I recently saw an article on a feminist site making that argument, using it to justify the notion that whatever transpeople called their own sex was proper.
The science of biology is a social construction, of course. All the bits and bobs of living creatures didn’t come labelled with names and functions by nature; humans had to create that taxonomy and the models behind it.
We often got it wrong, too, proffering explanations that didn’t really jibe with the way that living things worked, but instead reflected our beliefs, biases and expectations about the way that they should work.
Biology, though, the underlying working of living things, well, that’s not a social construction. Humans had nothing to do with that creation.
While it may be true that the nomenclature and notions we hold around biological sex were constructed by human scientists, each of whom carried their own biases, truth exists under all that pontificating, a truth which is hard even for the most politicized to deny.
Like all mammals, humans are dimorphic for purposes of reproduction. It has always taken an egg carrier with a development space and a sperm carrier to make new humans.
While you can quibble that language, the underlying truth would be obvious to every human who ever lived, whatever their language, understanding of the forces of the universe or cultural biases.
Now, knowing that simple truth can create wrongheaded biases — if humans are dimorphic for purposes of reproduction, aren’t they dimorphic for all other purposes too? — but just because that basic truth can lead us astray, that doesn’t mean it is not real and not valid, is just socially constructed claptrap that we can sweep away when it serves our political goals.
When we posit alternative facts — biology is just a social construction, say — people who have solid grounding in the enduring facts, like people who have bred and understand how humans reproduce tend to find us less than credible.
Personally, I knew that any understanding around trans I came to couldn’t just whisk away the known & accepted facts about sexual dimorphism in humans or they would have no ground in what people know about sexual differences. That’s why I separate male & female, terms for reproductive biology and man & woman, terms for culturally based gender roles.
Teasing out the difference between sex based behaviours and the cultural structures we have built upon them seems to me to be at the heart of gender studies.
There are so many examples of when sex differences were used to justify cultural differences that we now know have nothing to do with biology and everything to do with maintaining social control that it is easy to see every discussion of difference as bogus, but that assertion just doesn’t stop humans from being dimorphic for reproductive purposes just like every other mammal.
The vast majority of humans happily separate themselves into mommies and daddies, following rather traditional sex roles, with very little complaint. Sure, they don’t want to be too constrained by cultural separations that have more to do with social control than real difference, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like some nice animal sex and some sweet animal breeding.
The system of gender does its job protecting them and especially in protecting their offspring, demanding roles that keep children safe and growing, learning how to take their place in a wider human community.
Until we can understand the benefits of gender we will never understand why most people continue to gender themselves so willingly and how any changes we demand to gender continue to respect and enforce its most vital role around reproduction and child rearing.
After all, doesn’t it make sense that the most important part of a system based in reproductive dimorphism are around the costs and benefits of reproduction to a human society?
Dismissing biological sex as a construction, using the truth that nothing in nature is as simple as a bits made by a human constructed machine, feels like a way to alienate ourselves from people who know basic truths.
There is always more to be learned about natural systems, though, and the imposition of nice binary taxonomies on it can remove the complicated, nuanced and beautiful truths that exist in every living thing. Unless and until we expand our understanding, we will always be trapped by our own limited prejudices.
Should we question the assumptions implicit in the way we structure our collective knowledge about the natural world?
Of course we should, but that questioning is built into the framework of scientific thought. If the theories no longer fit the facts, then something has to change, and whatever blowhards might profess, it’s not going to be the facts. The theories of even twenty years ago seem outdated today as we try to keep updating our shared understanding to purge assumptions and bias, to be more accurate and reflective of current knowledge.
This process of evolving understanding, though, is something which is usually rejected by those who stand on belief rather than on the edge of scientific enquiry. Their anti-intellectual stance holds their beliefs to be truths, unchanging and unchallengeable.
Trying to float concepts that deny simply observable facts, like the fact that humans are sexually dimorphic for reproductive purposes, creates more resistance than effectiveness.
Noting, however, that there are places where the simple facts don’t effectively describe the situation can open up new ways of thinking. For example, just because you know the birth genital configuration of someone doesn’t mean you know anything else about them; who they are, who they love or even how tall they are. (This is part of the powerful discussion in Todd English’s “The End Of Average.”)
We need new language, based on new concepts and new views, but just because old language isn’t comprehensive doesn’t mean it is wrong. It was a valiant attempt to convey meaning, even if it is incomplete, misleading or blinkered.
To start a new conversation, we have to start with common ground. While that is incredibly frustrating with people who have closed their minds and hearts to new shared ways of seeing, instead holding fast to comforting and limiting beliefs, I don’t know any other way to move towards new social understandings that create room to value diversity past old expectations & assumptions.
All language is a social construction, but it is also always an attempt to convey a view of the truth, a bit of meaning that we hold. The symbols are not the data, and the data is not the symbols, but without both of them, we cannot work together and share what we value.
Throwing the meaning out because the symbols are flawed doesn’t open communication. We wouldn’t want our meaning to be dismissed because our symbols are imprecise or limited, so why should we do that to other people?
The search for truth is good and valuable, but the only way to share what we found is with inherently flawed social constructions.
For me, valuing that sharing of truth is more than important enough to sift through irrational chaff to find deep and shimmering meaning, even about sex.