The Social Construction of Sex: Intersex as Evidence
In our society we take for granted that sex has only two categories: male and female. We learn in school that sex is caused or created by chromosomes, XX for females and XY for males. We assume that the typical path is that those sex categories create bodies with male or female characteristics. We teach in sociology classes that we then socially construct or build gender on top of the sex assignment based on those body characteristics.
All of this is founded upon the premise that sex has just those two categories. We tend to ignore the facts about sex that suggest that sex itself is also a socially constructed category.
The case of Caster Semenya has hit the news. She is an amazing athlete in track and field whose abilities were evident as a child. As she continues to win races, the controversy grows about her sex – is she a she or really a he? The Los Angeles Times published an article questioning the fairness of her competing as a woman since she appears to be a man.
A subsequent article cast her as a real person who has been teased since childhood about her appearance and abilities. However, an Associated Press video accompanying the story sounds suspicious, especially when they play a recording of her voice and assume everyone will hear it as a male voice. Note that the video also shows many images of her body and focuses on the area where breasts or curves would be expected on a typical female body. Semenya's story reminds us that biological sex is not always clear-cut.
Other articles in the Times bring up the dominant perspective on the variants of sex categories. The article below, to its credit, brings in the concept of Intersex that acknowledges how people may have variants of chromosomes and bodies that do not align with the expected XX female and XY male.
When the chromosomes present in a developing embryo give the instructions for hormones to work on the tissues and create the sex-specific physical structures, the hormones may not flow as instructed, the tissues may respond differently, or, later upon puberty, wholly different things may happen.
For example, a condition called 5 alpha reductase deficiency causes male infants to appear female, yet upon puberty they develop into fully functioning males. In societies without the medical resources that we have, they raise these children as girls and then accept them as men upon puberty (in the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea the condition occurs with frequency). However, in our society, we might surgically alter the person as a child or upon puberty to keep the gender assignment consistent.
Our dominant perspectives of sex and gender frames Intersex as a medical anomaly. However, using sociology, we can understand this situation more clearly.
Scholars disagree about the incidence of babies born with some form of Intersex condition. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling suggested that Intersex occurs at a rate of 1 in 2,000 births, yet other recent estimates range from 1 in 500 to 1 in 1,000. Either way, this happens fairly often!
In sports, where the sex distinction dictates which races you run and with whom you compete, the issue has been paramount. Yet the controversies are not often publicly discussed. The Los Angeles Times reports that eight female athletes in the last Olympics had XY chromosomes but were reinstated when it was also determined that they were physiologically female. (And isn’t it interesting that only women are scrutinized for their biological sex?)
Did you know that Texas marriage laws define their “marriage protection” statute by chromosomes and that a female with XY chromosomes can legally marry her female partner with XX chromosomes even though the state does not allow same-sex marriage? This could be useful for couples whose members include either transsexuals or Intersexuals.
In any case, our society has trouble understanding that these variations in sex may be part of our diversity as a species. Just as sexual orientation (though we have trouble with that one too) or other human characteristics that vary biological sex apparently can too. We accept that hair and eye color varies and that those characteristics have no implicit meaning yet we can’t seem to do the same for biological sex.
Sociologically, seeing how the cultural norms favor one category over another for specific types of traits demonstrates not only who has power in this society but also how we attribute meaning.
If we don’t allow ourselves to consider that there may be more than two types of sex categories, what does that mean to us as a culture and to people as individuals?
Beyond the issue of power and powerful groups based on membership in the privileged categories, what does it mean and what does it feel like to be in a non-dominant category?
In the past few years, groups of intersexed individuals have formed. The Intersex Society of North America has actually closed their doors but their website is still a useful resource. One of the ISNA founders, Cheryl Chase, has a strong presence on the internet. Organisation Intersex International is an active group providing perspective and resources for those who are part of the intersexed community or those who want to learn more.
Sociologically speaking, is there a social movement in the making? Perhaps as the experiences of intersexed people continue to be made public others will speak out and challenge the either/or notion of sex, which excludes those that don’t neatly fit into one category or another.
Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:20090819_Caster_Semenya.jpg