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A Frustrating Conversation

February 2, 2010

“Sexual difference is a social, rather than a biological thing.”

“Not really. There are obviously two sexes naturally occurring in the world.”

“No, there aren’t obviously two sexes. There are lots of people born into our world who fall outside the two categories we typically use.”

“Well, most people fall into those two categories.”

I’ll leave it to your imagination which side of the conversation I was on.

It’s hard to break through the “a rose by any other name” stuff. I have lots of examples to show that that simply isn’t true. But people generally hear the counter-examples, say “yes, I see,” and then go right back to their essentialism.

Any suggestions?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Classical Liberal permalink
    February 3, 2010 12:06 am

    I’ve had that conversation a lot as well. So far, nothing has really worked for me. The best I’ve done is to direct the other person to someone who was born outside of the traditional sexual dichotomy (which actually served to open the person’s mind a bit, a rare success). But that option isn’t always available, especially in the small conservative university setting.

  2. February 3, 2010 2:10 am

    I’m with Classical Liberal here, but I usually use (sometimes with success!) the opening anecdote from Anne Fausto-Sterling’s 1993 paper “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”, available online at

    For extra effort, I change the 2nd paragraph to “But next year s/he gave birth”, as I find it funny to see people’s eyes begin to bulge. Technically it’s not true, but when the other person opens her mouth (usually slowly because of the punchline), I have time to put in one or two sentences of the problems of squeezing everyone into two categories only, be it about sex or something else.

  3. but an undergrad permalink
    February 3, 2010 8:12 am

    Time to stop lurking for a moment…Fausto-Sterling is great, though some people simply take this argument and file it in the “there are always exceptions to the rule”/abnormal/”isn’t that odd!” section of their brains. I think it is also important to denaturalize sexual difference without simply resorting to examples of people who are intersex. It is important, but in isolation it can leave some especially resistant people with the belief that “regular” males and females are still obviously the norm.
    I have found it helpful when talking about the social construction of a lot of different categories to show the many ways that humans can be sorted into categories based on one’s purposes. For instance, wet or dry earwax could easily be considered a racial marker. Race in particular easily lends itself to arguments that show the shifting definition of race according to historical and cultural context.
    When discussing sex with those who resort to the “but babies are the natural aim of sexual difference” line of reasoning, I often talk about how it would then be far more useful to differentiate humans simply on lines of reproductive capabilities. Where does a person who is infertile belong if the idea is simply to reproduce?

  4. Evan permalink
    February 3, 2010 9:15 am

    I’m picturing somewhere else in the blogosphere, the exact same conversation being posted by your opposite, and asking for suggestions on how to get through to you. ;)

    My advice… as someone who is not so allergic to what you might call “essentialism”… take the person at their word when they say something is “obvious”. It probably is obvious to them, in the same way that the social nature of difference is more obvious to you. Taking them more at their word doesn’t mean you need to change any of your examples or your position on the matter. But it will probably go a long way towards understanding the person with whom you’re conversing, and that will go a long way in trying to help them understand you.

    In some cases, folks are just being hard-headed and aren’t listening. But I think more often than not, the problem is one of operating under quite different background assumptions and thought processes… and this goes for you as well as for them. People, dumb as they are, tend to be rational enough in the sense that they don’t just mindlessly glue themselves to various positions. There are reasons why this person disagrees with you, and doing what you can to understand those reasons will put you in a better position to express your own.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 3, 2010 10:37 am

    Evan, the people I’ve been talking to really are very sharp and, at least I think, willing to revise their ideology under the right evidence—but they seem not to be able to incorporate the evidence I’m presenting. (It’s not that they’ve absorbed what I’ve suggested and rejected it for good reasons—they just seem not to be able to “get” the point.)

    Timo: yes, I’ve been talking about Fausto-Sterling. That’s actually what started the discussion!

    but an undergrad: I’ve given that sort of example too: why is one’s genitalia a relevant sorting category for general purposes? Why not use left and right-handedness instead?

    Classic: I think I’m going to do something like what you suggest next: what are the consequences of sex essentialism for those who don’t fit or for society in general? That’s the next question to press, I think.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    February 3, 2010 11:03 am

    Maybe the problem is that they have a black-and-white conception of what the options are – either they accept various facts (e.g. overwhelming majority of babies have either 2 testes or 2 ovaries and not both) or they accept your view. That is, they may be struggling to see ‘social construction’ as something not completely crazy.

    So perhaps the answer is to use a sort of ‘now, sure, *obviously* about half of people have breasts and about half don’t, but that’s not a sharp boundary – people emerging from starvation lactate, and fat men have breasts, but we don’t re-assign their gender. And sure, *obviously* people with penises are more likely to have a Y chromosome, but not all of them do, and we don’t usually know which ones. And sure, *obviously* etc. etc.’ Explain how the observations which are genuinely obvious are interpreted on the unfamiliar view.

  7. Vidya permalink
    February 3, 2010 6:25 pm

    To get people thinking about the nuanced continuum between the culturally defined ‘male’ and ‘female’ poles, I often use examples of the sort mentioned above by Mr. Warm-Fork. I also often mention that many, many cis-women have sufficient facial hair to grow mustaches/beards, while many cis-men do not; there’s a high probability that a person will be able to relate to that example. (I’ve also floated the idea that conditions like ‘PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome’, affecting about one in ten women, could be redefined as a form of intersexuality — given the ‘masculinizing’ effects of high testosterone levels — in hopes of reducing the tendency to medicalization/drug-pushing/surgery with respect to those of us with such conditions.)

  8. February 4, 2010 2:47 am

    I would like to add that while examples of intersexuality etc. are all fine and good, the real message I would like to get across concerns the consequences of forcing people into two distinct categories AND running away with some weird conclusions based on the division WHILE at the same time forgetting that the process of forcing people into two distinct categories was completely arbitrary in the first place. I gather this is something missivesfrommarx is going for in the future.

    I mean, if I wouldn’t see the ill effects of essentialism e.g. in my Church (like in discussions of women as priests) every week, I would not bother challenging it. For rhetorical effect, I have found that even hard-headed persons allow me to finish sentences that begin “You know what I’m worried about? I’m worried about…”

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 4, 2010 11:34 am

    “if I wouldn’t see the ill effects of essentialism … every week, I would not bother challenging it”


    Maybe I’ll have my students list all of the social and material consequences that follow from being labeled a male or female that are independent of bodily ability.

  10. New Reader permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:55 am

    I was just linked to this blog and love it! I’m reading back through your posts now, which is why I’m commenting so long after you posted.

    What I’ve found works really well for this question is using an analogy like eye color. It’s a biological trait that we often treat as a binary, i.e. blue and brown eyes. This binary encompasses most people, you see it on a lot of ID paperwork, and is even taught to kids in science classes as a classic example of dominant/recessive genes (which as far as I know isn’t true, I think it’s actually a lot more complicated). But, of course, there are people who have green or gray eyes, and within these color groups there is a lot of variation, so there are actually countless different eye colors that don’t even really fall onto a spectrum. Then there are people who wear tinted contacts, so they’re masking the color they were born with. I myself have eyes that often appear brown, but sometimes appear more greenish or hazel. If my genitalia were sort of borderline normal, I’d never hear the end of it from doctors and sexual partners and pretty much anyone who saw me naked. But as a society we haven’t pathologized eye color, and we’re so uninvested in the blue/brown eye binary that it doesn’t rankle people to see that it’s socially constructed and doesn’t tell the whole story. So the question becomes, why isn’t our view of genitalia more like this?

    My boyfriend is a chemist and has/had a lot of received notions about scientific truth, but this analogy totally convinced him. I think it works to get people thinking about questioning biological definitions without making them uncomfortable and defensive. Once you’ve got the idea of social construction of biological categories on the table, you’re past the stage where people dismiss anyone who doesn’t fit into male/female as disordered. Hopefully.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 21, 2010 12:08 pm

    Thanks for the comment, New Reader!

    I have used an example like that before, although I used hair color rather than eye color: imagine if the only options were brown and blonde …

    It works pretty well, although I have some students who fall back on something like this: “there are lots of different hair colors, but almost everyone is either a boy or a girl”—which ends up taking for granted the existing categories! But this sort of example still gets a lot of mileage.

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