Oct 23, 2014

What is sex?

  
The word sex has many meanings. From the OED: 
1
a. Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group; the males or females of a particular species, esp. the human race, considered collectively.
b. In extended use, esp. as the third sex . A (notional) third division of humanity regarded as analogous to, or as falling between, the male and female sexes; spec. that consisting of:  (a) eunuchs or transsexuals;  †(b) humorously clergymen (obs.);  (c) homosexual people collectively.
2 Quality in respect of being male or female, or an instance of this; the state or fact of belonging to a particular sex; possession or membership of a sex.
a. With regard to persons or animals.
b. With regard to plants
3
a. With the. The female sex. Now arch. or literary.
4
a. The distinction between male and female, esp. in humans; this distinction as a social or cultural phenomenon, and its manifestations or consequences; (in later use esp.) relations and interactions between the sexes; sexual motives, instincts, desires, etc.
b. Physical contact between individuals involving sexual stimulation; sexual activity or behaviour, spec. sexual intercourse, copulation. to have sex (with) : to engage in sexual intercourse (with).
For the purposes of this post, we are going to ignore the OED’s definitions 1b and 3a+b, as it these are pertinent mostly to literary as opposed to everyday usage. Having done so, we are left with four main definitions:
1. A division into two groups by reproductive function
2. Membership of one of these two groups
3. The social and cultural distinctions stemming from such membership
4. Actually bumping uglies
OK, let’s go ahead and ignore number 4 above too. Not that the definition of what constitutes sex is uncontentious, but it’s not the subject here. It is the subject here, and I think you should go ahead and read that cause it’s good. But I digress (already!).

So we’re left with three things to unpack: what it means to declare a division into two groups; what it means to be a member of one of those groups; and what it means to create or be subject to social and cultural distinctions based on these two groups.

I’m going to start from the last one, because it’s the easiest to deal with: by and large, social and cultural distinctions stemming from having two groups of people divided by reproductive function are unbalanced with regard to power, and as such kind of bad things. It’s a very narrow and opportunistic definition of ‘culture’, but let’s say for the sake of this argument that culture is, at least in part, the assignation of value and meaning to the material world. Human beings use culture to interpret and represent the natural world to themselves in ways that are coherent and universally legible (within the group or groups that subscribes to that culture). Any such act of representation entails an assignation of value; even the act of representation itself is a value judgement, because in what we include and what we exclude from cultural representation there is inherent a really important sifting of what we consider important and significant versus what we do not.

To give an example relevant to the topic of this post, we do not have any representations of blood groups. Blood groups are a biological fact of how our bodies work, but we don’t see them as important, and so we don’t really have any meaningful cultural ideas about people with specific blood types, and we tend to not even know what our own blood type is unless it’s as a result of medical issue. We certainly don’t display our blood types on our bodies or signal them to other. They’re a culturally irrelevant biological reality.

This is not true for sex; sex is probably the most visible of all biological realities. And the sad truth is that almost all of the cultural ideas and representations to do with sex assign a higher value to one group and a lower value to the other. Combatting this value assignation is what feminism does. Different strands of feminism take very different approaches to this task. One strand, liberal feminism, says that all would be well if we were to assign exactly equal value to the two categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’. Another strand, radical feminism, says no, let’s get rid of any value assignations altogether and make sex as meaningless a biological reality as blood types. Both of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, and are more or less practical and realistic in different ways. Both are needed in order for us to make progress towards the eventual aim, which is  that membership of, or assignment to, one of these groups, will no longer carry automatic benefits or detriments in regard to a person’s human rights and access to social goods and human flourishing.

Then there is a third strand of feminism, I’m going to call it postmodern feminism but to be honest it’s not a particularly well defined school of thought. This strand of feminism contends that the problem is not that we assign different cultural value to members of the two biological groups of male and female, but that we artificially divide human beings into male and female to begin with. On this view, ‘male’ and ‘female’, the two categories with which definitions 1 and 2 from the OED above are concerned, are not material realities at all: they are words, social constructs that we impose on a neutral underlying biological reality, thus creating the problem we are purporting to describe and combat. The following tweets are not a bad summary of this position:




It can be hard to spot the mistake in this line of thinking straight away, because it uses two implicit facts that we are all well familiar with: that biology is morally neutral, and that language is a social construct.

Let’s deal with the neutrality of biology first: it is of course undeniably true that nothing in the natural world carries with it a moral, cultural or personal value. Description is not prescription, and to fall into the naturalistic fallacy is a pretty bad philosophical error. However, what that doesn’t mean is that objective biological realities don’t interact with each other in ways that are filtered through our understanding of them in certain ways. So, for example, it’s is true that a penis is not ‘inherently’ male (it in fact exherently male, in that it is an organ that is found almost exclusively on male individuals – but more on that anon). It is equally true that a human penis is not ‘inherently’ human. 

There is no such thing in biology as something that it is to be inherently of one species or another (no, it's not "hard wired into our genes". Go wash your mouth out with soap). But it is nevertheless the case that the speaker in these tweets above is referring to human penii and not those of fruit flies or sperm whales. Why? How, on her apparent view of what it means for a biological property to be real, does this cash out? There would clearly be a serious practical difficulty if we tried to treat the penii of sperm whales as biologically indistinguishable from the penii of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Just think of the chafing!

So, clearly we must assume that at least underlying biological realities exist in some form, even if the speaker above is advancing the notion that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are not among them. But is that true? What does it mean, to be either male or female, and what properties does it entail?

To understand that we must go back to the beginning and pick up where we left off with the three definitions of ‘sex’ from the OED. What does it mean to declare a division into two groups and call them ‘sexes’? And what it means to be a member of one of those groups? This is something that a lot of people, and I suspect quite a few people in the humanities, have only a very hazy grasp of.

The first thing to say about sexual reproduction is what it actually is: the combining of genetic material from two individuals in order to make more individuals of the same species. This is the only absolutely necessary condition for reproduction to be considered sexual. You gotta have two critters getting involved. The second thing I’d point out is that sexual reproduction is not universal. Bacteria and many other organisms do not make more of themselves via mixing and matching genetic material with others of their species. They just copy themselves in two, niftily avoiding the whole problem of the dating scene and making awkward small talk over cocktails. 

Now, one other thing that can be a bit awkward about sexual reproduction is that it’s stubbornly binary. Oh, I know there is probably some exotic species of snail in the Amazon that needs genetic input from three parents in order to reproduce, nature always has tricky exceptions like that, but in every single case I can actually think of, what we are talking about is specifically two individuals contributing genetic material towards the eventual offspring. 

And in actually really quite a lot of species, including snails as it happens, there’s not a lot of difference between the individuals themselves. They’re pretty similar, and frankly any two of them can get together and make little baby snails. But not all species work like that, and before I circle back to the whole ‘you can’t claim penis is male’ argument, let me just point out that not all of them even need a penis. If you’re a species that makes its living in the sea, for example, all that’s needed is that both partners release their genetic material – contained in special cells called gametes – into the watery medium. They touch each other, they fertilize each other, boom, little baby critters. 

In land based species, however, there’s the additional logistical problem that if you just squirt your genetic material willy-nilly, it’s unlikely to be light enough to just be carried by the air to the right place to mix itself up with the genetic material of somebody else. Plants have found lots of ingenuous solutions to this problem, via sycamore seeds and dandelion fluff and bees, and so they don’t need penii either; but the majority of animals have found that it is safer and more effective to actually get together face to face and deliver the gametes in, as it were, person. 

Up to and including this point, we have not really needed any kind of distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’. After all, there’s nothing inherent in the need to have two individual organisms for reproduction that means that those individuals have to fall into two groups. It could just be an undifferentiated free for all. We don’t really know why sex itself evolved, even though there are all kinds of theories about it (and actually as I said before the majority of the earth’s biomass doesn’t even use it), and we really really don’t know why sexual dimorphism – the thing that says critters fall into one of two distinct groups with a different approach to the mechanics of reproduction – evolved. 

We never really know why anything evolved, and most people who try to say different are selling something (patriarchy, quite often). But anyway. In observing the world around us, we see that many of the species that evolve by combining instead of duplicating genetic material (i.e. those who reproduce sexually) exhibit certain stable differences in morphology (shape) that fall into two groups.

You will notice that I have not yet said anything about insertion and penetration; when I was talking about combining genetic material in a land based environment, I coyly referred to ‘getting face to face’. But actually, missionaries and bonobos apart, most animals get face to back, and the way they actually accomplish the delivery of one individual’s genetic material to the gametes of the other individual is by insertion of a specially evolved body part into a different specially evolved body part and, not to put too fine a point on it, squirting. The special body part that evolved for the purpose of being inserted into the body of another is called a penis (sometimes it isn’t, zoologists like their fancy terminology, but if you called a spider’s dongle a penis instead of a pedipalp, they’d know what you were talking about. On a side note, spiders are fucking weird). This is, in fact, the only thing that is ‘male’ about a penis: not its shape, not the fact that it usually comes attached to all kinds of other sexually dimorphic traits like tusks or manes or big fancy tails, but that its function in reproduction is to squirt gametes. Specifically, to squirt sperm.

Now, I hear you say, why would you say that? There is nothing about a penis that means it has to squirt sperm! What if it’s an egg-identified penis? You’re limiting the self-expression of the penis in a really oppressive way! To which I would say, yeah, but it just so happens that the penii I happen to be familiar with do, in fact, squirt sperm. And you wold say, we how do you know it’s sperm? Maybe it identifies as eggs? And I would say, because it is, er, small.

That’s it. We have finally come to the basis of the biological distinction between male and female, and it’s all about size. Sorry chaps.

Here's what it looks like in humans:


And in mice:


And even sea urchins!



See? Tiny.

So biologists, and in fact farmers and pet owners and whatever, have long observed that in the species they study (I exclude snail farmers from this discussion for the moment, sorry snail farmers!), it is very often the case that there is one group that has larger gametes (sex cells) and another group that has little tiny ones. And whenever they see this difference, they call the group that has larger gametes female, and the group that has little dinky ones male. That is literally it. Any other traits that individuals in groups possess are incidental. In a lot of species, the male is larger than the female; but in a whole bunch of others, it’s the other way around. In a bunch of species the male is gaudy and colourful, but in many many species, it’s not. Some males are more aggressive than females, whereas some others are tiny and meek and actually let themselves get et by the females. But all of these little dudes have one thing in common: they have the smaller gametes, called sperm. And if they have a penis to deliver those sperm, then that penis is male. 

In human beings, we have one group of people that have large gametes, and we call them female because they have large gametes. Not because they are on average smaller (some aren’t) or because they menstruate (some don’t) or because they have two X chromosome (there are edge cases) or anything else. We call them female because they have large gametes and a specially evolved organ into which little gametes can safely and conveniently be squirted (I mean safely and conveniently from the point of view of evolution, not necessarily from the point of view of the individual female – see R for rape). Inasmuch as that organ had originally evolved for the purpose of having gametes squirted into it, it is a female organ: even if it is not and never has or never can actually receive said gametes. And the exact same (but in reverse) goes for males, penii, and sperm.

OK let’s take stock, because this has gotten super long now. 
1. All male mammals have smaller gametes than female mammals, because that is what ‘male’ means, from the point of view of biology
2. Any organ that has evolved specifically to serve as a delivery mechanism for male gametes is ipso facto a male organ
3. This does not entail or necessitate any cultural judgement whatsoever – not even the most basic one that says that, unlike blood group, organs whose purpose is to deliver gametes should be noticed in the first place
4. Sadly that is not how patriarchal societies see the issue

We can disagree either about the details of 3 and 4 above, or about the relative importance of them, or about what to do to change or ameliorate the social conditions that they cause. But there is literally no point in disagreeing about 1 and 2, because size is size and isn’t particularly amenable to language. If we called it Green and Wednesday instead, it would still be the case that some are always small and come (hurr hurr) by the million, and some are large and are almost always expressed individually. What we call things is socially constructed: their relative size is not.

The names we give to factors of biological sex are socially constructed, and most assuredly the different values we assign to it are very socially constructed, and in fact badly so, so let’s have a revolution and get rid of them. But it is incorrect in the kind of incorrect way that arguing with gravity would be to say that “biological sex isn’t ‘real’”. Because all of the following things are real:
1. You need two gametes in order to make a new human being
2. These gametes are – outside of the test tube – always of two varying sizes
3. Small gametes are always – outside of the test tube – delivered to the site of the large gamete
4. Small gametes are called ‘male’ and large gametes are called ‘female’

That’s it. That is all the contention behind the ‘penis is male’ argument. It is male because it is an organ evolved to deliver the smaller gametes in a sexually reproducing species, in the same way that ‘down’ is down because it is the direction the Earth’s gravity is pulling us in. There is no ‘down’ in space, but if you walk off the top of a skyscraper on that basis, well, it was nice knowing you.

It's not my intention to make fun of postmodern feminism here; I think language is really important, and it’s really crucial to examine and critique the ways in which see traits that really are there (large gametes) and make the logical leap that other traits must also be present (like a caring nature, nurturing instinct or passive, nonviolent personality). We need to change the second half of that equation: which traits we assume ought to be there that really aren’t. But it is neither correct nor, in the end, very productive to try and combat the latter by insisting that the former just aren’t real. 
  

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