My work has been a counterpoint to the view that the role division between men and women is largely predetermined by human evolutionary history. My approach to understanding gender often challenges established norms. For example, I assert that human sexual development is not always dichotomous and that gender differences fall on a continuum, not into two separate buckets.
One way to understand this is through the eyes of human beings born with anatomical characteristics of both sexes. Another is to understand how scientific understanding of the biology of sex and gender has itself been shaped by the culture which produced it. I detail both these claims in my book, Sexing the Body.
Girls are verbal, while boys are physical— or so the traditional thinking goes. Between ages 3 and 5, girls and boys consolidate the concepts that they are of a certain sex, that their sexes are not changeable and that some behaviors are associated with particular sexes.These are the “facts of the matter”; but how do they relate to one another? How do inter-linked systems that include everything from individual physiology to media representations of sex roles and behavior produce the emergence of sexually differentiated behavior?In developing a systems theoretical framework for studying gender differentiation, one goal of my work is to break away from the centuries old nature/nurture debate in order to offer a more productive approach to understanding human development.
One interesting illustration of gender and early childhood development can be found at The Pink and Blue Project by JeongMee Yoon (www.jeongmeeyoon.com). I refer to these photographs in my presentations as a vivid illustration of the integration of nature and nurture in developing gender differentiation.
I believe that both sex and gender are in part social constructs. But they take place in the body, and so are simultaneously biological. Dynamic systems theories link the social—which impinges on the developing body—to the body itself. Cultural experience has physiological effects.
There is a continuity between masculinity and femininity. In 1993 I published an article titled The Five Sexes that unleashed a firestorm of debate about sex and gender, with a particular focus on the intersex experience. I asserted that “the two-sex system embedded in our society is not adequate to encompass the full spectrum of human sexuality.” I had intended to be provocative, but nevertheless was surprised by the magnitude of the controversy unleashed. At the time I suggested, tongue in cheek, a five-sex system, which I later amended in The Five Sexes Revisited. Rather than identify a specific number of sexes, in the second paper I wrote “sex and gender are best conceptualized as points in a multidimensional space.”
Based on an assessment I conducted with Brown University undergraduates I also estimated intersexual birthrates to be about 1.7%, and have since been called on widely by journalists and other experts to examine these issues.
“I am deeply committed to the ideas of the modern movements of gay and women’s liberation, which argue that the way we traditionally conceptualize gender and sexual identity narrows life’s possibilities while perpetuating gender inequality. In order to shift the politics of the body, one must change the politics of science itself.”
I prefer to call estrogen and testosterone “growth hormones” instead of “sex hormones”. “The molecules we call sex hormones affect our liver, our muscles, our bones, virtually every tissue in the body. In addition to their roles in our reproductive system, they affect growth and development throughout life. So to think of them as growth hormones, which they are, is to stop worrying that men have a lot of testosterone and women, estrogen.”
I receive many requests to explain the biological nature of human sexuality. The questions usually address homosexuality, intersexuality, or transgender feelings.
In my work, I argue that the two-sex system embedded in our society is not adequate to encompass the full spectrum of human sexuality. Discrete buckets – like “nature” or “nurture”, “boy” or “girl” – are too simplistic for the inherent messiness found in nature. As I have argued in The Five Sexes and The Five Sexes Revisited, the boundaries separating masculine and feminine seem harder than ever to define. Some find the changes under way deeply disturbing. Others find them liberating. While the legal system may have an interest in maintaining only two sexes, our collective biologies do not.
My three short articles on the topic listed below are a good place to start, but I provide a list of books for further reading as well.