IEET > Rights > Martine Rothblatt > PostGender
Billions of Sexes (Part 1)

There are two sexes, male and female, right? Wrong! In fact, there is a continuum of sex types, ranging from very male to very female, with countless variations in between.

This startling new notion is just now beginning to emerge from feminist thinking, scientific research, and a grass-roots movement called “transgenderism.” In the future, labeling people at birth as “male” or “female” will be considered just as unfair as South Africa’s now-abolished practice of stamping “black” or “white” on people’s ID cards.

The human face is really like one of those Oriental gods:

a whole group of faces juxtaposed on different planes; it is impossible to see them all simultaneously. 

- Marcel Proust

What is Male and Female

There is little that we take more for granted than the separation of people into two sex types, “male” and “female.” Yet when we try to define the difference, problems and inconsistencies arise immediately.

At birth a cursory examination is made of a baby’s genitals. If the doctor sees a small penis, the parents are told, “It’s a boy!” A small vagina, “It’s a girl.” From this initial declaration, most people are sent off on two different tracks in life. Those tracks are called “gender development.” Gender is the set of different behaviors that society expects of persons labeled either “male” or “female.” Is the significance of being born with either a penis or a vagina so great that a person’s future destiny should be dictated accordingly? Would we consider predetermining a person’s life path based on either accidents of biology, such as birth weight, eye color, skin tone, or hair texture?

Of course, there was a time when accidents of birth determined everything about a person’s life. And in many ways accidents of birth biology are still paramount. But the course of civilization is to provide all persons with equal opportunity regardless of their birthed biology.

Up through the eighteenth century, the doctrine of “primogeniture” held that the first son to be born automatically inherited all of a family’s land. This concept was banned around the time of the founding of the United States, a period when land ownership was equivalent to power. Founding patriots such as Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster argued successfully that primogeniture was undemocratic because it locked individuals into conditions of inequality based on the mere accident of birth order. In time, the once-paramount sociolegal classification of society into firstborn sons, and all others, became completely irrelevant.

Up through the nineteenth century “illegitimate” children could be disavowed of almost all legal rights. It took Supreme Court decisions to finally ban discrimination based on the marital status of a person’s parents. Since the marital status of one’s parents is wholly irrelevant to a person’s humanity, we would be shocked today if people’s life paths were sharply limited by when or whether their parents stood before a judge and exchanged vows. But at one time, even in America, that’s how it was.

Well into the twentieth century, being born with an enriched-melanin skin tone meant being channeled into a menial life. Today we recognize this as fundamentally unfair. Law, and gradually society, accepts the choice of apparent African Americans to work in any profession or to identify as nonracial citizens. Similarly, there are young Europeans who identify as dreadlocked Rastafarians, Asians who have adopted African culture and increasing numbers of persons of all geographic backgrounds who identify themselves simply as human.

Gradually, “immutable race” is becoming “choosable culture.” The analogy to sex is unmistakable. Manhood and womanhood can be life-style choices open to anyone, regardless of genitalia. It is law and custom, not biology, that makes birth order, birth parents, skin tone, or genitals relevant to one’s ability to choose a culture, perform a job, or adopt a life-style. Liberated from legal constraints and archaic stereotypes, our social identity can flow from our soul and our experiences, not from our anatomy and our birth status.

The course of progress in civilization has been to render as irrelevant as possible the birth status of a particular individual. As this is accomplished for categories of birth status—firstborns, children of single parents, children of one or another religious or ethnic group—those very categories begin to lose rigid social meaning. This is because the true meaning of any category of persons is but the meaning assigned to those persons by law and society. Ultimate equal opportunity means that from birth on, people are persons first, free from then on to choose such cultural and social affiliations as they like. Ultimate equal opportunity means to be born free from any label: child/bastard, black/white, or male/female.

The shape of one’s genitals would appear to be a most arbitrary basis for determining to which of two fundamental human classes a person should belong. How did we arrive at this situation? Searching back into prehistory, our ancestors recognized that genital shape was a systematically recognizable difference among humans. Categorizing people based on genital shape was a simple method for establishing a division of labor among early human communities. Childbearing and child-nurturing capabilities of women further led our ancestors to establish a genital-based division of society. As civilization advanced, extensive gender-based rituals and customs reinforced the ancient genital-based division of society into men and women.

Today progressive people accept as self-evident that genital morphology (shape) is irrelevant to one’s productive role in society. Childbearing and child nurturing are a matter of choice. Hence, whatever relevance genital shape had for a division of society into men and women in the past, those reasons and traditions are obsolete as we move into the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, the gender-based rituals that grew up around genital distinctions still weigh heavily on our heads. As noted scientist Richard Lewontin has observed, “The immense superstructure of attitude and social power that has been built historically on the base of biological [sex] differences has long ago become independent of the actuality of that biology.”

Despite the apparent irrelevance of genitals to a person’s capabilities, the legal system in the United States defines men as people with penises and women as people with vaginas. This has been made clear in several cases dealing with transsexuals—persons who claim to be women despite their birth with a penis, and persons with vaginas who claim to be men. In cases dealing with marital, business, and criminal rights, courts have regularly held that one’s sex is determined by one’s genitals. For example, a person with a penis who has lived for twenty years as a woman will not be allowed to marry a man. But a person who undergoes a surgical transformation of the penis into a vagina will be immediately allowed to marry a man.

So, while men and women are defined by their genitals, the significance of that genital difference no longer justifies the social and legal division of society into two classes of people. The division of labor in an advanced society is not based on sexual status. Hence, why bother to divide people form birth into two groups, men and women?

Are Genitals But the Tip of the Iceberg?

It might be argued that genitals are but the tip of the sexual-differentiation iceberg—don’t women have XX chromosomes and men XY? Doesn’t this chromosomal differentiation give rise to a wide variety of clear differences between the sexes—hormonal balance, reproductive capabilities, physical abilities, mental thought patterns? Surprisingly, the current scientific answer to these questions is increasingly no, or at least ambiguous.

First, it is not true that all legally defined women are XX and all legally defined men are XY. Hundreds of thousands of people are born with all manner of chromosomal variations, including XXY and X, among others. The Olympics has ceased using chromosomal tests for a second X as a means of disqualifying women, after certain athletes—namely, persons with a vagina, a lifelong “female” gender identity, and but one X chromosome—were cruelly disqualified right at the quadrennial event. Similarly, the famous transsexual Renee Richards was ordered by a judge to be accepted into women’s tennis competition despite her XY chromosome makeup. The judge found her no different from any other ovariectomized and hysterectomized woman. Chromosomes are an unreliable means of classifying society into two sexes. They argue better for a continuum of sex types.

Second, sex based chromosomal differentiation appears to be relevant only in triggering different amounts of estrogen and testosterone. Both men and women produce both estrogen and testosterone, although in differing amounts. This further shows the chromosomal similarity of all people. Portions of the X or Y chromosome appear ultimately to govern the relative amounts of estrogen and testosterone produced, creating a continuum of “male” and “female” possibilities. When certain hormonal thresholds are reached, “male” or “female” reproductive organs are created. The specific levels of hormonal production, and their timing of release, are different for each person and result in a continuum of “maleness” and “femaleness” that may affect thought patterns and body shape. For example, the leading explanation of transsexuality is that a person’s chromosomes triggered levels of testosterone and estrogen that resulted in the genitals of one sex and the thought patterns of the other sex. Hence, not only the variety of chromosomal combinations, but also the actual operation of the chromosomes themselves, argues for a continuum of sex types.

Finally, it is quite clear that in modern society sex chromosomes would be a specious basis for separating people into two classes, male and female. If we were to separate people because different kinds of chromosomes create different kinds of reproductive capabilities, how would we account for the legitimacy of biologically or intentionally infertile persons? In a February 1994 review of in vitro fertilization, Scientific American estimates that there are three million biologically infertile couples in the United States alone. Clearly ability to reproduce in one manner or another would not create a consistent category of male and female persons.

If we were to separate people because different kinds of chromosomes create different hormonal states, how would we account for the legitimacy of the millions of people who alter their hormonal balance through daily pharmaceutical hormones? In this regard it should also be noted that as people age, their hormonal levels continually decline, creating a convergence between “male” and “female” hormone states in mature adults. Absent estrogen replacement therapy (ERT), postmenopausal women often begin to sprout facial hair and acquire deeper voices. Older men and women begin to look more “transgendered,” more like each other, than in their youth. Such are the transient effects of chromosomes and resultant hormonal states.

It is true that there is a lot of biochemistry behind a set of genitals. Nevertheless, that biochemistry is as irrelevant as the genitals themselves as a basis for categorizing people into two classes. There is no hard and fast biochemical line that separates men from women—just a continuum of biochemical levels with most women toward one end, most men toward to the other, and much overlap and variance in between. Professor Anne Fausto-Sterling, a Brown University geneticist, recently observed that “sex is a vast continuum that defies the constraints of categories.” Behind her observation was new research showing that as many as 4 percent of all births are to some extent “intersexed,” meaning that the infants have portions of both male and female sex organs (often internal and hence generally undiscoverable). Even the presence of nipples on men is evidence of some amount of universal intersexuality.

Chromosomes provide no logically consistent basis for creating sociolegal categorizations of people into “male” and “female.” There are too many exceptional chromosomal combinations, and the net results of the chromosomes—hormonal levels—both vary continuously across all people and may be altered easily by pharmaceuticals. While there are systematic chromosomal differences among peoples from any gene pool—Semitic, Asian, African, Nordic—we would not use such differences as a basis for creating separate legal categories for each gene pool. It would appear equally absurd that such a mundane, variable, and alterable thing such as hormone levels could provide the basis for a fundamental division of humanity into two subspecies, male and female.

Thought Patterns

It might also be argued that different sex types are justified because men and women think differently. For example, as noted above, sex researchers believe that transsexuals have genetically induced “female” (or “male”) thought patterns but “male” (or “female) genitals. Also, authors such as Anne Moir (Brain Sex) have propounded the view that male and female brains are systematically different—leading to different behavior patterns in boys and girls and in men and women.

There are three flaws with using brain sex differences to justify society’s apartheid of sex. First, as Dr. Fausto-Sterling observed, genetics creates a broad variety of sexual diversification. If her statistic of up to 4 percent of the population being physically intersexed (having portions of both sexes’ reproductive tracts) is correct, it’s likely that at least that number of people are also “mentally intersexed” —possessing both male and female thought patterns. No legal categorization of people can be valid if it leaves out such a significant percentage of the population: people can’t be only male or female if 4 percent of the population is neither or both! Indeed, even “brain sex” proponent Anne Moir concedes that “it is possible to be female and have some male attributes, and this simply depends on the presence or absence of the male hormone during certain stages of pregnancy.” If sex is in the brain, and the brain can be a blend of both sexes, what absolute meaning do “male” and “female” have? None, other than the rigid either/or division imposed upon us form birth by society, law, and tradition.

Second, it is far from proven that any anatomical differences in men’s and women’s brains account for behavioral differences. The overwhelming amount of behavioral differences between men and women are learned through a socialization process that insists “act like a girl” or “think like a boy” or pretend to. Anne Moir cites several experiments in which infant girls are much more responsive to colors and sounds than are infant boys. But no one has shown that these knee-jerk reactions have an significance for the complex behaviors associated with job performance and other life pursuits.

Finally, even if there are statistically significant differences in the way most males and females react to stimuli, this does not mean that people should be categorized as males and females for social, economic, or legal reasons. There is no doubt that certain people are gifted from birth with various mental, musical, artistic, or physical abilities. But such relative abilities do not entitle these persons to be legally categorized into a special class of people. In an egalitarian society we recognize that what people actually do with their abilities is far more significant that what abilities they may have.

In essence, a society works much better if biological differences among its subpopulations are ignored or minimized than if those differences are magnified and classified. On average, individual initiative far outperforms biological inheritance. The differences in men’s and women’s thought patterns are at most only statistically significant, not absolute sex differentiators. And as for the persons who do have “male”-type or “female” –type thought patterns, society has learned that it is counterproductive to classify its citizens based on inherited characteristics. Finally, “male” and “female” thought patterns are probably an especially specious basis for sociolegal categorization. This is because such thought patterns are simplistic in nature and easily rendered meaningless in the complexities of everyday life.


“In essence, a society works much better if biological differences among its subpopulations are ignored or minimized than if those differences are magnified and classified. On average, individual initiative far outperforms biological inheritance.”
This is a very bold statement. I would like to see some proof for that. It is somehow implied that sexual identity is nothing but different genitalia, different shape of one chromosome, and a different cocktail of hormones. Things are a bit more complicated, I believe.

At first glance, no matter how skilled, and full of initiative, is a male human organism, pregnancy is not between its options. Not even with all the technological help in this world. Men cannot get pregnant, end of the story. We are not seahorses. The changes necessary to allow the structure of a male body to sustain the internal development of another organisms would be way too deep and invasive.

A female human organism, on the other hand, theoretically, could impregnate another organism of the same gender - with enough technological support. It would be much simpler - we just have to transform one of her stem cells into a spermatozoon

So, from these fact, we can somehow see that there is not any continuum variational space between the two human genders/sexes. Female sex is the predominant one, it is the biological standard - as it is clear to anyone who bothered to notice how entire phyla have no trace of male organisms, and the majority of living beings on this planet are female. Masculinity is a rather exceptional evolutionary strategy, with its own peculiar traits, which shape male organisms way beyond their external genitals. It is not a matter of choice, not differently from the quantity of melanin produced by your skin.

Overall I would like to understand more clearly which kind of policies the author advocates. Is she simply asking legislators to make gender/sex discrimination illegal? We already have laws for that (even too many). Would she want to make gender/sex identification illegal? How can we prevent people with reproductive/sexual interests to spot their potential partners? As I said elsewhere, when violence plays no role in defining human relationships, why do we want to step in, and change traditions only to make hermaphrodites feel better about themselves?

I have similar concerns to Andre. There is a conflation here of two questions: firstly to what extent biology has bequeathed us a clear male-female divide, and secondly what we should about it. Out of a population of 6.7 billion, “hundreds of thousands” is a very small number, so it is somewhat disingenuous to cite such a seemingly large figure to make biological gender seem more ambiguous than it actually is. The more interesting questions are whether this will continue in the future, n view of the imminent sequencing of the human genome, and what this means for the future of gender, with all its social ramifications.

Although I agree with the general thrust of your argument, allow me to diabolically advocate.

To focus on the fact that there is no absolute and unambiguous barrier between the sexes is technically true, but trivially so. This sort of corollary to the sorites paradox is a universal acid that can dissolve everything it is applied to, right down to objecthood itself until all that remains is one all-encompassing swirling homogeneous mass of strings or energy or whatever is at the “bottom” of the ontic hierarchy. Just because categories are porous creatures that can be fuzzy and ill-defined to perfect specificity does not imply they should be done away with altogether.

I submit the one universal defining characteristic of gender identity be used.  Who better to categorize you than yourself?  Gender identity is how we all internally perceive ourselves in a gendered way.  Chromosomes, hormones and genitals are all inconsistent to some degree or another, while gender identity is not.  Everyone should be free to self-identify and the government and other voices of authority should not be in the business of telling people who they are. In my online advocacy work I often say gender is a spectrum shaped like a double Bell curve.  Most people identify under one of the two peaks, but some do not.  Gender identity (the brain) is the key.

I differ from the author only on emphasis, and degree. However, these differences have important effects.

Let’s start with the idea that there are male and female brains. They differ anatomically, and these differences correspond to different stereotyped behaviours, regardless of upbringing. This is most obvious in girls who have CAH, masculinised brains, and a male preference in play patterns, even though they have a normal female upbringing.

Now that we’ve established that idea, that it’s objectively observable.. we have to tear it down. It’s just the first step in Wittgenstein’s ladder.

The brain is a complex structure, not a simple one. Any particular individual can have a more masculine anatomy in one area, a more feminine anatomy in others. The sexually dimorphic features have considerable overlap. Within any one area, few are unambiguously male or unambiguously female. The difference is statistical. Moreover, in the higher brain, hormonal balance plays a role in changing the brain’s physical anatomy. Treat a male with female hormones, some of his brain structures will feminise. The brain is plastic in many areas, experiences and social environment causes physical changes, and much of what we call “gendered behaviour” is as the result of arbitrary socially constructed factors.

OK, understood that? Now discard it, it’s the second step on the ladder.

The brain is not homogenous; different parts have different effects, and while some parts are plastic, others are not. While much “gendered behaviour” is a social construct, some is not, and is remarkably resistant to change. This is most obvious in Transsexual people, whose neuro-anatomy is female in some areas, male in others, and corresponds to neither in yet others. When the Lymbic nucleus is feminised, typically feminine emotional patterns are found, and these lead to a feminine gender identity. When the Superior Parietal Lobule (SPL) is feminised as well - as it often is -  the “body map” is for female primary and secondary sex characteristics - breasts, vagina etc - and any mismatch with reality causes immense distress.

This also explains such observed phenomena as “phantom limb syndrome”, and the widely variable emotional response to hysterectomy or mastectomy. Also too the variable response to any natural masculinisation of a female-at-birth body due to 5ARD or 17BHSD syndromes, which can cause a superficial “natural sex change”.

What this means is that a binary model of sex and gender is merely a rough approximation. A better one is a trinary one, with male, female, and bigendered (approximately 1/3 in each category). But that still doesn’t capture the multi-variance and fuzziness of the situation adequately.  A small percentage won’t fit either model, or indeed, any such gross over-simplification.

References (to substantiate my assertions):

Sexual differentiation of the human brain: relevance for gender identity, transsexualism and sexual orientation. Swaab Gynecol Endocrinol (2004) 19:301–312.

White matter microstructure in female to male transsexuals before cross-sex hormonal treatment. A diffusion tensor imaging study. - Rametti et al, J Psychiatr Res. 2010 Jun 8.

Prenatal hormones versus postnatal socialization by parents as determinants of male-typical toy play in girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia” Pasterski VL, Geffner ME, Brain C, Hindmarsh P, Brook C, Hines M Child Dev 76(1):264-78 2005

Changing your sex changes your brain: influences of testosterone and estrogen on adult human brain structure by Pol et al, Europ Jnl Endocrinology, Vol 155, suppl_1, S107-S114 2006

Biased-Interaction Theory of Psychosexual Development: “How Does One Know if One is Male or Female?” M.Diamond Sex Roles (2006) 55:589–600

Gender change in 46,XY persons with 5alpha-reductase-2 deficiency and 17beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-3 deficiency. Cohen-Kettenis PT. Arch Sex Behav. 2005 Aug;34(4):399-410.

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