Big Question: How does biological sex function in society?

We’ve studied and settled on the idea of gender as a cultural construct, within whose system society forces us to choose an identity of male or female. The role that biological sex plays in social roles is less clear. As it’s usually tied to gender, sex identity seems fairly straightforward–perhaps not as an identity at all, but a fact.

Even cases of intersex persons being forced to choose a sex seems to be tied to gender. The confusion of sex identity plays a role, but for the most part, sex as a category seems to be considered most as it pertains to gender–i.e., if the child doesn’t know their sex, how can they know what gender to perform?

The biology of sex comes up particularly, however, in “gender testing” in sports. (A side note: should it be called “sex testing” because it pertains to physical characteristics?). That testing testing is meant to measure physical advantage based primarily on testosterone levels; because of the potential of physical advantage, in sports, sex is an important category. Physical attributes dictate how the world of athletics work. In a hypothetical gender-neutral society, individuals with more testosterone would still excel at sports, regardless of gender identity. I’m interested in this because it suggests an area where cultural facts could be based almost entirely on physical, natural characteristics.

Do you agree? Are there other categories in society where having a normative sex identity–having more or less testosterone, for instance–plays a significant role, apart from its ties to gender? At least off the top of my head, I can’t think of other situations in which biological sex, not gender, manifests itself culturally. That is, in sports, the actual physical qualities of sex seem more relevant a category than elsewhere. What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Big Question: How does biological sex function in society?

  1. Bar Science

    I believe that biological sex does a play a smaller role than in previous era’s. The reason being is that throughout world history, at least in the developed world have men been exposed to so much estrogen (via aromatization). As a result, men, in general, are physically more similar to women than ever. I just finished reading Peter McCallister’s book Manthropology. It’s pretty eye-opening.

  2. xenoparadox

    But to what extent do gender divisions in sports themselves create the apparent need for these divisions? There’s no proof that greater testosterone levels in themselves are responsible or even correlated with better athletic performance, since the same level of a hormone could have a vastly different effect on one person’s body than another’s (within and across sex boundaries). Some sports like chess are sex segregated for no apparent reason, while others like horseracing and car racing are not. Moreover, if it was true for a given sport that most men tended to perform better than most women, this would still be a very approximate line of division – should women who perform better than the average man or than most men compete with the men because that would be more “fair”? Maybe divisions by body mass or strength or some other standard would serve better than a rather arbitrary criterion of gender/sex, chosen mostly because of the hetero/cisnormative patriarchal standards that view men and women, males and females, as (the only two available) fundamentally separate groups, with one nearly always thought to rank higher than the other. Gender/sex testing is never applied to those competing in men’s sports, and when it is applied to those in women’s sports it targets largely women with intersex conditions – a rather unfair form of discrimination in an already unfair system.
    One last point I’d like to touch on, you mentioned that “biological sex” was a fact rather than an identity. I identify as male. To my knowledge (I haven’t actually had my chromosomes tested), I’m XX and I haven’t started testosterone or had any surgery done. I view myself and my body as male (just a different kind of male body, if you will). My gender is actually more fluid, though on the masculine side. Moreover, implying that “identity” and “fact” are different things is very disrespectful to those who don’t identify as cisgender. A person’s “true gender” and “true sex” IS the gender and sex they identify as (note that these don’t necessarily have to match).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s