A new horizon of sex and gender

Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.If you only listen to one radio programme this week, make it the latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis on the under-explored science of gender.

The usual line goes that ‘sex is biological while gender is social’ – meaning that while genetics determines our sex, how masculine or feminine we are is determined by specific cultural practices.

It turns out to be a little more complicated than this. It has long been known (although frequently forgotten) that typical sex markers like body shape and genitalia are actually quite diverse to the point of being ambiguous in some.

Similarly, while genetics is considered the ultimate arbiter of sex with XX indicating female and XY indicating male – XYY, XXY and XXX are surprisingly common.

On the other hand, there is evidence that some gender-related behaviours may be related to the biology of development and not solely to cultural factors.

But even with these caveats considered, what gender we ‘feel’ also turns out to be subject to a wide amount of variation with some people saying they have the gender of another sex, or that their gender is fluid, or that they have no gender at all.

The latest edition of Analysis explores this in detail, looking at how we can understand ‘disorders’ of gender in this context, what it means to you are transgender, or whether we should just dump the whole concept of a one-or-the-other gender completely.

A genuinely challenging, horizon pushing programme.

Link to programme page with streamed audio.
mp3 of programme.

5 thoughts on “A new horizon of sex and gender”

  1. Hi, I’m not particularly qualified in this field, but my understanding is that there’s a psychological equivalent to this, in that every person has an animus and an anima. This sits very well with me as I juggle an alpha female side to my character needed at work which could also be seen to be a robustly developed animus, with a more nurturing and sensitive anima side when off duty. As these two different elements of psychology seem to be perfectly complimentary and a combination of the two is apparently universal, I wonder whether the physiology of gender could be seen in a similar way, i.e. as a graphic equalizer of gender more than an either/or. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  2. “Similarly, while genetics is considered the ultimate arbiter of sex with XX indicating female and XY indicating male – XYY, XXY and XXX are surprisingly common.”

    Always thought that opponents of gay marriage should be forced to have a genetic test themselves. Or, to paraphrase the Defense of Marriage act in the US, that marriage shall be defined as being between one XX and one XY chromosome. XYY or XXX? Sorry, too bad.

  3. While I’m only a 1/4 of the way through it, Joan Roughgarden’s:
    Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, & Sexuality in Nature & People
    is really interesting and explores many of the same topics. (Based on your description of said topics, I haven’t listened to the BBC program yet).

  4. There really is quite a diverse set of variables that have their part to play in the development of sex and gender roles. I find it particularly interesting the thought of gender as a fluid state. Considering there are so many different factors such as temperament of a child, the actual physical(genetic) variations and even ranging up into adulthood and cultural and biological(menopause) that can have pretty drastic affects on how a person may feel about how “male” or “female” they actual are. To have the potential to be any range of sex seems to almost destroy its dualistic meaning.

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