Is Sex a Social Construct?

intersex karyotype biological sex

Here I am not talking about gender, or the mode in which a person self identifies. I have talked about the biological underpinnings of gender in the past. What I am discussing in this post is whether sex – being male or female as determined by primary and/or secondary sex characteristics – is a social construct.

This post was inspired by the following video:

In the video, Abigail says that the concept of sex is what is known as a homeostatic property cluster. This is a group of properties that, if a couple of them are observed, then the other ones can be predicted. Abigail uses the analogy of mammals. We define mammals by properties such as giving live birth, lactation, warm-bloodedness, having hair follicles, etc. This is such that if I tell you I have an animal that gives live birth and lactates, then you could predict that it is also warm blooded. Conversely, if I told you that I have an animal that lays eggs, then you would (in most cases) be able to predict that it is not a mammal. But what about the platypus? It lays eggs but we also categorize it as a mammal. This indicates that “mammalness” is not an ontological status, but a construct imposed on animals.

The analogy can then be carried over to femaleness in humans. We define a female as someone who has two X chromosomes rather than an X and Y chromosome, produces ova instead of sperm, has the biological capacity to bare offspring, and will (without external intervention) develop female secondary sex characteristics (e.g. breasts, wider hips, lack facial hair, etc.). But then what about someone who is intersex and perhaps has an X and Y chromosome, but due to androgen insensitivity syndrome develops (without external intervention) all female secondary sex characteristics? This must indicate that biological “femaleness” is nothing more than a social construct, right?

What this fails to recognize is what model of the world a concept is grounded in.

Social construction asserts that the concept of femaleness is grounded in the socially/culturally constructed concept within the minds of people within a society and therefore the property of being female is externally imposed by how others interact with a person and what expectations are placed on a person. If such concepts were instantaneously all erased from the mind of every person in the world, along with any cultural indicators of sex (e.g. differences in hair length and type of clothing worn), then we would not recreate those concepts of sex in exactly the same way. Given our knowledge of intersex people, perhaps we would come up with three or four or more different biological sexes. Analogously, if we were amnesic about animal taxonomy, then given our knowledge of the platypus we would not classify mammals in exactly the same way.

What I will call biological realism, however, would argue that the concept of femaleness is grounded in the existence of something a priori to any contingent social conceptions about sex. Without going into the issue of whether someone, using external interventions, can physically (or, perhaps, metaphysically) change their sex (which I explore the science and philosophy of more in my novel series), the view of biological realism would argue that a person is, in fact, born with a physical (biological) ground that determines their sex, and further that this biological reality is what grounds our socially constructed ideas about sex. In other words, if such concepts were instantaneously all erased from the mind of every person in the world, along with any cultural indicators of sex (e.g. differences in hair length and type of clothing worn), then we would still reconstruct binary concepts of sex based on sexual dimorphism. How the culture would come to express the sexual dimorphism may not be exactly the same as how our society actually evolved to express those differences (for instance, maybe dresses would become masculine to our amnesiac selves), but the biological realist would argue that humans would still recreate cultural norms based on the same binary. The biological realist would claim that the case of intersex people would be recognized by our amnesiac selves as an aberration or exception to the rule, not as in a class of their own. Analogously, if we were amnesic about animal taxonomy, then given our knowledge of evolution and genetic relatedness, we would classify mammals in (at least almost) exactly the same way and would once again recognize the platypus as an aberration or exception to the rule.

But which of these two ontological commitments ought we choose? Social construction or biological realism? I would be inclined to choose the latter, but the question is why? The reason, I think, is more epistemological than metaphysical. Accepting biological realism – making the ontological commitment to binary sex – offers greater explanatory and predictive power. This is a pragmatist epistemology, a form of which I subscribe to and have written about in the past.

If a person goes to the doctor, for instance, then it is possible to give that person proper treatment if their biological sex within the binary is disclosed (e.g. there is no reason to give a biological male a pap test or to check the prostate of a biological female).

If a person wishes to produce a child carrying half of their genome, then it is useful for that person to know that only one additional person is sufficient for the task and that it is necessary for the additional person to satisfy a particular set of biological conditions (those biological conditions being that they are the opposite biological sex within the binary) relative to themselves.

If two people satisfying those biological conditions necessary and sufficient for producing offspring, but are unable to, then it is useful to disclose both individual’s sexes in order to ascertain what part of their biology is malfunctioning and preventing them from producing offspring. It would not be useful to try checking a biological male for endometriosis or a biological female’s sperm count.

If a child is born and possesses, say, female gonads, then one can predict with statistically significant accuracy what gender that child will identify as, what sexual orientation the child is likely to express, and what sorts of social and medical issues that child will encounter throughout its life.

My point here being that making the ontological commitment to biological realism affords more explanatory and predictive power than viewing sex as a social construct. Once again, just to emphasize, this is not talking about gender identity, or whether a person can truly change their biological sex using external interventions, or whether doing so would even be something one ought to do. What I am getting at is strictly that if an individual we have never seen or met tells us “I am female” and we take a social construction view, then we have less information than if we took the view of biological realism. On the social construct view, within a given culture we might be able to predict with some accuracy certain cultural based things, such as what kind of clothes the person might wear. But we could not, based on social construct theory, make any predictions about whether this individual has the muscle mass of someone who went through male or female puberty, what sorts of secondary sex characteristics they possess, or whether they are more likely or less likely to get breast cancer. We would require further information about the individual than just the statement “I am female.” Within that same culture, however, if we take the view of biological realism, given just the information “I am female” we could likely make even more accurate predictions about cultural things like clothing preferences while also being able to make much better predictions about the other things (female puberty, secondary sex characteristics, breast cancer, etc.)

When a concept gives better explanatory and predictive power, then it better corresponds with reality. Correspondence with reality justifies one’s belief in the truth of a concept. Thus, using this pragmatist epistemology, one is more justified in making the ontological commitment to biological realism than one is in committing oneself to sex as a social construct. The concept of binary sex does not have perfect predictive power, being wrong sometimes in its predictions on issues such as sexual orientation and gender identity (e.g. an individual being biologically female would, using the binary sex concept, lead one to predict that the individual in question will be attracted to males and identify as female which will be incorrect on some occasions i.e. if the individual is homosexual and/or transgender). This is why the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity have been engineered, because these additional concepts provide yet more information which increases explanatory and predictive power, which is what concepts are designed to do. But if we examine biological realism and social construct as the grounds of sex alone (excluding any additional concepts), then the former provides more explanatory and predictive power than the latter.

Edit (11/11/2022): the following video touches on some of the issues brought up in this post as well.

After watching the above video I was tempted to make another post on this topic, but I thought that it would be redundant with this post. As such, I decided to just append this post.

In the video, Hank Green says that as much as 2% of the world’s population (around 130,000,000 people) have “differences in sexual development” and we therefore ought to say that biological sex is a spectrum. Of course, about 1% of people have autism spectrum disorder, but we wouldn’t say that this means we ought to say everyone is on the autism spectrum disorder, but most people are just on one end of the spectrum. While there might be an argument that this is true in some sense, it is not very helpful. Similarly, because 2% of the population do not fit the sex binary does not mean the sex binary has no meaningful or practical utility (or that saying someone has a condition that precludes them from the sex binary has no meaningful or practical utility).

As I argued above, my primary reason for maintaining the sex binary concept is epistemological rather than ontological. That’s why I’m saying here that throwing out the sex binary has no meaningful or practical utility, even if we can find exceptions or wiggle room within those two categories. Pragmatically speaking, the sex binary is still a meaningful paradigm.

That’s not to say that the old way of performing sex-assignment surgery on infants and then not telling them about it, or attempting to alienate or force people into particular social roles, are good or worth preserving. Instead of saying that the biological concept of male and female do not exist, we should instead say that the social meaning of these concepts are open to revision or expansion. I mentioned this in the introduction to my post on the science of transgender identity:

Another instance of identity that has become important in our times is gender identity. There is strong evidence of a biological component to this as well. That binary sexes exist is a scientific fact. But even within this binary there is wiggle room. From occurrences of androgen insensitivity syndrome to XY gonadal dysgenesis to Klinefelter syndrome, and other forms of intersexuality, there are plenty of ways to genetically/chromosomally push the limits of the binary. But it’s also the case that genetically/chromosomally typical males and females can have a broad spectrum of masculinity and femininity, often, but certainly not always, connected to sexual orientation.

Going further, some males will identify as female and some females will identify as male in what is known as transgender identity. People with transgender identity experience what is known as gender dysphoria, or the distress a person experiences due to a mismatch between their gender identity—their personal sense of their own gender—and their sex assigned at birth (i.e., natal sex). Indeed, there is research showing that pre-hormone treatment transgender people have brain biochemistry and anatomy more similar to the gender they identify as than they do their natal sex, and that gender affirming treatments (e.g., hormone therapy) increases the quality of life for most people who identify as transgender.