August 31, 2009

The Social Construction of Sex: Intersex as Evidence

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

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.

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>>(And isn’t it interesting that only women are scrutinized for their biological sex?)

Not really in the context of sports where being male is an obvious advantage.

Can't a counter-argument be made that is far more prevalent than the existence of intersex persons: The Biological Construction of Sex: Sexual Reproduction as Evidence? Just because there are a few exceptions doesn't make the "rule" irrelevant.

Although I do understand that there are exceptions I do agree with the previous comment that the "rule" should not be irrelevant in this case. Intersex is obviously an issue that cannot be ignored, but it cannot be the sole piece of evidence used to disprove the existence of only 2 sexes. I do believe that there are more than 2, but I also know that if we are to spread the word and create a sense of understanding we will need to use our strongest arguement.

Sex is a widely discussed topic because in our soicety today, more than 2 sexes are becoming more populous and wanting the same treatment and rights that male or female sexes recieve on a daily basis. It is controversial because our society has made it a norm for there to be only 2 sexes, and anything else is either unnatural and extrememly abnormal. It's easy to see though why a transistion into same sex marriage is difficult because since the beginning of our nation, marriage between a male and female has always been the standard. Religious factors also apply but when do we draw a line between moral and human rights? I am very split on the issue because I grew up in a Christian home and believe that marriage is a sacred union between male and female. Although I feel that people can be do what they want and be with someone of the same sex, I do not care or judge them differently. But whether or not I think they should be allowed to wed I don't know, because isn't marriage in the dictionary a "the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc."

How interesting that in today's society sex and gender are becoming more public things, compared to our more conservative past were people in movies could not share a bed on screen. Now that our culture is more comfortable discussing issues like gender and sexuality, I wonder what new gender roles will be developed by our culture for people who find them selves both a little female and a little male.

I definitely agree with Lydua, Sex is a widely discussed topic in our soicety today. Adults want to explore more about it and kids are curious about it.


When it comes to marriage, I feel that it is the people's choice. The government should not be able to deem it illegal. What is their legal reasoning behind it? Is is that the bible specifically says between a man and a woman? Because if it is, they are going against the constitution. We set up this nation to have a freedom of religion. They can not use that as a reason to start a law. If those people, whether they are intersexuals, transsexuals, or simply the same sex, it is their choice. If they make that commitment to each other then they should reap the same benifits, and also deal with the same downsides.

I wonder how many men people would question the sexuality of? it seems like women really do suffer the brunt of sexual scrutiny!

I find this interesting because throughout history there have been many gender roles in american society and I've never though about the intersex people out there and how they would play into this situation.

I enjoyed visiting your blog site and reading your blog posts. Sex can be a touchy subject. This site touches well on a delicate issue masculinity & femininity.

thanks, Vincent James - VJ Global

I like how the article addresses the idea that maybe our society should consider that there may be more than two types of sex categories. This would clearly change our society drastically and how we view each other. It is an interesting topic to relate to the Olympics and the specific case of Caster Semenya.

The story of Olympian Caster Semenya is proof that our society has constructed an ideal of what they believe a woman should be. It is sad that society questioned her rights to perform in the Olympics simply because of her masculine appearance. This instance is proof of society’s absorption with the media’s constant portrayal of the “model woman”. Raskoff also mentions that “only women are scrutinized for their biological sex”, furthering the fact that society and the media more constantly portray the stereotypes of the “perfect” woman. Cases such as the Intersex condition and the 5 alpha reductase deficiency, prove that gender in our society is never clear-cut, yet society is constantly suggesting that it is through male and female ideals portrayed in the media.

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oh too bad for caster semenya, but her sexuality doesn't have to questioned because we all know shes a woman a very talented woman, an athlete. that's what matter.

We do take the 'fact' that there are only two genders, when really there are more. It annoys me when people don't realize there are bi-gender people out there that are pre-sex change. They always forget.

There are lots of different chromosome combinations... XXY, XXX (super female), and so on. These are not necessarily taboo in our culture and I believe that society as a whole is becoming more aware thus, more accepting of these types of genetics. Not too long ago, transgender people were pariahs and risked getting killed for their genetic mutations.

It is interesting how society views sex as either male or female. I feel like there should be a broader vision for sexuality than what's constructed by mainstream media. Kudos to you for enabling a conversation like this.

The only people who are truly questioning her sex are the women she smoked in the race. Of course she can't be THAT fast...she HAS to be a man. Lame.

This subject is slightly touchy to me. I feel like everyone should be treated equally but when it comes to competition, I think the men>women thing is a bit unfair. While others may say it isn't, I'm not so sure. It is interesting though, the differentiations society puts on xx and xy and not xxx, or xxy and the different genetic make ups.

Its fruterating how people base their whole lives off of what sex they are. Women are forced into certain jobs and stereotypes, and so are men. The story about the olymipian is sad because imagine this teasig upon you. Just because she doesnt LOOK a certain way the world is so critical. If she was born that way just leave her alone. It also bothers me when people think they can dictate who people marry. If they are happy they should jsut let them be, I mean who arte they bothering?

In regards to the Olympic athletes, why don't they just remove the archaic division of sexes?

The olympics should be a test of one's on natural abilities, not organized by if one has a pee pee or vajay jay.

Course,according to Wikipedia [], that would mean no person, outside of cisgendered [XY] males, would ever participate in the Olympics.

Is that a social construct?

This article is not sociology, and I am disappointed to see such bad "evidence" offered here. Intersex individuals are not evidence that sex is a construction, they are evidence that discreet categories are problematic. We need a shift in our understanding and see that there is more than male and female. Sex is a construction in the same respect that race is a construction. Society dictates what features play into race. We decide it is skin color, but also hair color and texture, eye color, facial features, etc. that contribute to race. Fact is that all of these things are rooted in our biology. (I found it poor science that this article oppers hair color and eye color as being characteristics that we don't construct off of. Apparently this writer never heard of the dumb, blue-eyed, blond haired archetype, or really any sociological perspectives around race.)
Sex is no different. There is a biological basis for sex. Society certainly dictates what that looks like (genitals vs. chromosomes vs. secondary sex characteristics vs. something else completely) but nonetheless those are all rooted in biology, not social constructions.

If we want to address the marginalization of trans-people and intersex people, we need to do it from a basis of good evidence. Not shoddy "sociology" and poor assumptions. We need to affirm that sex is not binary, it is not really a spectrum, it is a gamut of varied biological characteristics and how those interset with social identities.

Again, sex is biological. Sex is how our bodies develop. I affirm that many bodies do not fall into the social categories of "male" and "female" so we should expand them. Asserting that sex is a construction departs completely from or in some cases takes a far too simplistic look at the evidence we have. It is a social theory, but a problematic one. I think that is something we should keep in mind when we discuss it, and that there are much more logical ways of understanding sex. Ways which are more inclusive and affirm the experiences of intersex and trans people.

Scientifically there are only two genders male and female. those who feel emotionally and psychologically that they belong to the opposite sex is called gender dysphonia. The individual with this dysphonia attempts to convince society as a whole, to accept their discomfort with their birth sex.

This was very well written!…. so much truth to what you wrote! In my opinion, this is a very important topic. Thank you very much for revealing this topic in full.

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