The curious case of ‘biological’ sex

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This was a translated and reorganized version of a piece previously written in Turkish in order to use in a discussion group in Berlin. 

In recent years, it has often been pointed out that a bodily definition of sex, based on reproductive functions, is wrong. This is justified by the developmental diversity of the human body and alternatively, it is argued that it is more appropriate to define sex according to an idea of ‘gender identity’ based on our characters or feelings. However diversity can and does exist in situations where there are more significant differences. Billions of bodies with their diversity and imperfections do not change the fact that humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Desiring a world in which social life or sexuality is not centered on reproduction should not create a situation for people to claim that ‘biological’ 1 sex does not exist as a meaningful category. I would like to dig a little bit more into this issue.

One could say that the frequently used term ‘biological sex’ emerged rather out of necessity and ‘biological’ was placed as an adjective in front of ‘sex’. This is because the sum of physical characteristics relating to anatomy and reproductive functions was already simply referred to as ‘sex’. Feminists, on the other hand, had established that sex as a concept goes beyond this and cannot be understood in isolation from a set of social rules. Thus, they showed that within the patriarchal order, this ‘biological’ distinction is in fact interwoven with social rules and norms, that many things we consider ‘natural’ are actually seen as a part of sex over time, and that our history, which cannot be separated from our socialization, also shaped the meanings we ascribe to our bodies.2

Feminists have also acknowledged that modern science and scientific categorisation has led to the pathologization of variations in the body. Science has been used as a tool for the naturalization of oppression, as if this oppression is not socially organized and an inevitable result of our ‘nature’. When we think beyond that, it is possible to see that we don’t even need science to understand what we are. Women do not exist because scientific categorisation defines us in a specific way. In the words of Gülnur Acar Savran, a feminist from Turkey: “A girl has an existence beyond what we call her, the girl is not made up of the social understanding of sex that we attribute to her.” The important thing to address is that each of us embody historical and personal experiences of the female sex. This was, and still is, deeply connected to our reproductive capacity. And as it is so central to women’s oppression, we resist attempts to declare it unimportant.

In order to explain the social and political frame sex exists in, feminists developed a conceptual distinction: ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Gender would mean these instrumental ideas about sex, so the oppression and exploitation of women for thousands of years could maybe be more clearly explained in the struggle against the rules of the patriarchal order. In other words, that was done to show this social framework in which people are positioned according to their sex. And as some argued, sex categories themselves may have also been interpreted with this framework in science but the aim of the distinction was to show the social impact anyway. A theoretical debate on whether this division of sex and gender should or should not be made seems to have lasted many years among various feminists.3 However, neither view should be announced as totally unacceptable contrary to what we have been experiencing in the recent years.

Despite the common perception, we can argue that people don’t have two kinds of sex, one biological and one social. People have a sex, and that is a physical characteristic. They do not have a gender. When some people talk about the ‘idea of their sex’ rather than sex itself, they don’t actually mean ‘gender’, they talk about what they think their identity is about around their thoughts about sex. So it is more close to the vague concept of ‘gender identity’. Sex, gender and gender identity are often used synonymously, but it is not too complicated to dissect what people mean when you have been busy with understanding all this mindfuck.

However we put it, we can observe that human beings reproduce sexually and have some bodily differences related to this. This is basically what ‘exists’ as sex. The reproductive functions of all human beings may not work in the same way; there are differences and variations in the development of their organs. But we are all ‘imperfect’ parts of a sexually reproducing humanity. Just as there is no perfect human body, there is no absolute male or female. On the other hand, proponents of the idea that sex lies on a spectrum often think that being male and female has its extreme endpoints.The basic contradiction in this thinking is that when the binary they critique is interpreted as a spectrum, they think the binary is eliminated. In fact it is even reinforced because the two ends of the spectrum function as some kind of an absolutist idea of femininity and masculinity.

In order to grasp our human imperfection and real diversity, we can look at other functions in our bodies. For instance, humans are creatures with the sense of sight, but some of us are born without it. Not everyone sees in the same way, we are farsighted or short-sighted to varying degrees; some of us are colour-blind, etc…. So if the condition of being a human being is not to have fully functioning eyes, the condition of being a female human being should not be having a fully functioning reproductive system. Things can go unexpectedly in the human body as they develop. It is also part of being human. To say that human beings have two sexes, one male and one female, does not presuppose that these two sexes exist in absolute forms. Humanity, with all its diversity, has evolved to have two distinct reproductive systems to produce large and small gametes. The ‘biological’ sex, or sex in the simplest sense of the word, may be just that, but the diversity within this dimorphism does not mean that there are dozens of different sexes.

I have been grappling with the feminist turmoil on the subject for quite some time, trying to understand the issue as best I can. For a long time I was worried about not saying the wrong thing, but despite all my eagerness, I have not been convinced for years that “biological sex” does not exist or is unimportant. I personally have little doubt that it is in the best interest of women to acknowledge the concrete reality of sex and conceptually separate gender as much as possible. The reason for this lies in not reading ‘biological’ sex as an absolute dichotomy with very strict boundaries, contrary to what many people who are outraged by this stance think. The rigidity of biological categories do not stem from our bodies’ own structure, but from gender that places it at the center of our lives.4 If a historical process hadn’t enslaved and exploited women on the basis of their reproductive potential, we would probably not be defining our sexuality, and therefore our sex, by placing reproduction at the center of our lives. This historical process which reduces the female body to either a reproductive activity (i.e. maternity), or an object of pleasure for the men (i.e. prostitution), also imposes on us the ideal forms of bodies that will fulfill these two functions. Although seeing every ‘imperfection’ in our physiology that does not conform to these ideals as an exception or even as different kinds of sexes may seem like a strategy that allows each of us to exist with our imperfections, I think this is a fallacy. Because each of them has the potential to create new ideal forms arising from the same duality. 

The struggle against the historical oppression based on our bodily traits, we need words and concepts to describe the ways in which we are oppressed on the basis of our sex, how our bodies are seen as resources and our labour is exploited. When we are deprived of being able to explain womanhood as a concrete reality, I think we are being robbed of one of the tools that will bring us together and express ourselves.

For many women participating in this debate, ‘biological sex’ fulfills the need to describe their tangible, observable physical characteristics. It is merely the expression of their concrete flesh and blood reality in reference to the concepts available to us. Therefore, women do not necessarily need to participate in a scientific, philosophical or theoretical debate on sex and gender in order to define themselves on this basis and make political claims according to it. Some of us have the interest and possibility to dig more into it but there are many women who have not researched the issue of sex and gender intensively or have not had the opportunity to do so. The complexity of terminology and concepts creates doubts even about one’s own sex and this functions as an obstacle for women-only organizing and raising political demands based on sex. It is not unexpected that patriarchy benefits from women’s self-doubt, their inability to name themselves, their inability to recognise their bodies.

The strange thing is that the more we focus on the absence of ‘biological sex’, the less we talk about the idea that gender is a complete fiction. We keep being told that the only thing we should take seriously about sex is an idea or a feeling in people’s minds. According to this, we are not human beings with female bodies, but an idea shaped through the filter of male domination, an idea that can be described as ‘femininity’ rather than womanhood. It is as if we are expected to affirm our own absence. However, we all know that women exist.

1. I put it in quotation marks because I prefer not to use ‘biological’ as an adjective of sex or women and I would like to explain my thought process about it. I am troubled by it for two main reasons: 1) sex-gender distinction is a conceptual one and it exists or should have existed to use sex as the bodily/biological traits, if it does not function like that we might not need the distinction at all 2) I don’t think women can be easily observed isolated from their human experience only as matter and I don’t want to dive into the realm of male domination in which body is something mechanistic that can be taken under full control.

2. Here I would like to make a note and ask you to give it a thought to the fact that I haven’t used the word gender. There are different reasons for it. a) Like in German, there’s no word for gender in Turkish, the original language I have written these before. Like the word ‘Geschlecht In German, there is in fact no distinction made. b) Gender as a concept did not exist in the beginning when feminists were talking about sex and it is perfectly possible to talk about only one concept -sex- and talk about our bodies and the social environment they exist in. They are in fact very much intertwined. Some feminists have written that the distinction between sex and gender resulted in a mindset that people think -again- that their minds are separate from their bodies, like it was before a common belief that soul is distinct from the body. It is of course possible to talk about the social norms, roles and hierarchy and call it gender. However it is also now used interchangeably with sex, not many seem to use it in the exact way that many of us would prefer to use in feminist terms to mean: a hierarchical social tool of patriarchy made up of ideas about sex. 

3. One ecofeminist view that argues against the concept of ‘gender’ and the distinction between sex and gender (in German): Von Frauenforschung und Frauenstudien zu Gender Studies Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen “The separation of the concept of sex into “sex” and “gender” and the accompanying tendency to make the natural sex forgotten and to perceive sex only as a social construct completes a process in which the bodily nature of the human being is displaced from consciousness that had begun with the increasing mechanization and industrialisation of work processes in the 17th/18th century.” Another ecofeminist view which emphasizes that the distinction between sex and gender is necessary: Do We Need a Sex/Gender Distinction? / Val Plumwood (I added these two because it is also good to show that it should be perfectly normal to have differences of opinion in even the same line of feminisms.)

4. In 1993, Christine Delphy argued that gender precedes sex and the end of gender could come only if we can imagine nongender. Delphy’s views are sometimes used to show that radical feminist critique of gender is wrong but despite the complexity of the essay, I think these interpretations are mistaken. She had also signed this statement in 2013: Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of “Gender”