CanaVox – Sex, Gender and Identity

CanaVox – Sex, Gender and Identity


Hi, everyone. This is a talk on sex, gender, and identity. It’s a talk for people with little time but a lot of interest in going deeper into the science and the ethical questions behind our gender debates. I’m Dr. Ana Samuel. I’m a research scholar at The Witherspoon Institute, and I’m the Academic Director of CanaVox, the marriage movement that forms reading groups around the world to discuss marriage and sexuality. In the first part of this talk, I define what sex and gender mean and I distinguish what’s given to us by nature from what’s socially constructed. In part two, I talk about deviations from the norm, including the case of intersex individuals, transgender individuals, and the very special case of children. And in part three, I talk about gender roles and stereotypes. I flag two positions that I consider to be the extremes on this spectrum, and I encourage us to take a middle of the road approach to these questions. By the end of this presentation, you should feel well-briefed, like you can have a calm, good-humored conversation with your family, your friends, your neighbors, friends at school, and colleagues at work. Ready? Here we go. So there’s a fair amount of confusion about what the terms sex and especially gender mean, so let me define the terms. The word sex regards whether we are biologically male or female. But we can be more precise and further distinguish between our genotype and our phenotype. The genotype is our genetic constitution. At fertilization, the 23rd pair of chromosomes establishes the sex of the baby. An XX combination means the baby is female and an XY combination means the baby is male. So the baby’s sex is determined before it is even considered a fetus. The phenotype regards the observable traits that develop. During the first weeks after fertilization, the male and the female embryo are anatomically indistinguishable. They look exactly the same. However, after a few weeks, the male embryo begins to develop testes and the female embryo develops ovaries. These produce the hormones that develop the genitalia. By the time the baby is born, it has a phenotype that looks fully male or fully female. This phenotype continues to develop as the child grows, especially during adolescence when their body is changing size and shape. Girls grow breast tissue, boys grow facial hair, they experience a change of their voice, and so on. So when we speak of sexual identity, we are speaking of the genotype and the phenotype together. Gender, on the other hand, has two senses. The first is psychological and the second is sociological. First, gender regards our self-understanding as male or female, our consciousness. Sometime around age two to three, the typical child begins to become aware that he or she is a boy or girl. This awareness happens by interacting with people around her, by seeing other girls, by seeing boys, and learning to distinguish the two and understand which group she belongs to. This self-consciousness of her biological sex matures over the years as her body changes and as she better understands it. By taking her cues from biology, that child is taking a realist approach. Realism is the philosophical idea that the world around us, or sensible reality, exists and that it’s an important source of truth. It’s related to another key idea in philosophy called The Correspondence Theory of Truth. According to this theory, truth has to do with the correspondence between our ideas and reality. When our mental understanding of things corresponds to reality, then we have a true understanding. We see the truth. Likewise, gender is closely related to a faithful acceptance of my own biological reality. The individual sees that he is male, he has the idea of being male in his mind, and he communicates that truth to others. In the words of the British philosopher, Roger Scruton, “Gender is not sex, but the consciousness of sex.” “Gender is how we represent ourselves to one another as sexual beings.” So, we can distinguish three stages of our sexual development. We begin with a genotype, we develop a phenotype, and in reaction to these things, we become conscious of our sex and we communicate our gender to ourselves and to others. This first sense of gender is psychological. But gender also has a sociological meaning and has a sociological function. When we come together as a society, we express that shared consciousness with each other and we develop all kinds of rituals, norms, and standards of behavior that reflect our shared understanding of our sexual differences. For example, we develop forms of dance that reflect sexual differences, the male part and the female part in the dance. We create male only and female only spaces, like bathrooms, changing rooms, and locker rooms. We design fashions that communicate our gender differences. And we develop forms of etiquette between the sexes, like men holding the door open for ladies, guys pulling out the chair at the dinner table, or picking up the tab on a date. Every society develops its own mores, manners, rituals, and standards of behavior to acknowledge our gender differences not only by words, but also by deeds. And to a large extent, that language is socially constructed. It varies from society to society. So Scottish men wear kilts. And in countries like Japan, it’s considered lady-like for a woman to cover her mouth when she laughs. It’s a sign of good breeding. So you see, there’s variation in our gender rituals, but the intention behind the rituals is usually the same, to communicate and acknowledge as a society that there are sex differences. From a very young age, children are usually taught how to learn the gender language of their own society so that we can participate in that conversation and identify with the group that we belong to. So, gender takes on a sociological meaning and a sociological function. I think this is why Dr. Ryan Anderson likes to remind us that “sex is the biological reality and gender is the social expression of that reality.” So, putting it all together, whereas we are biologically male or female and our sexual makeup is written on every cell of our bodies, gender is first a psychological concept that arises as a result of each person being conscious of their biological reality. And second, gender is a sociological concept that results from a community of shared ideas about our sex and gender. But let me add, that the directional arrow goes the other way, too. A society’s construction of what it means to be masculine or feminine will affect each individual’s psychological understanding of themselves. In other words, our social milieu can either enhance or minimize our self-understanding as male or female. Now I’d like unpack this sociological function a little bit more by focusing on how fashion and dress play an important role in communicating to others truths about ourselves. And I’d like to do so with the philosophical concept called the persona. Because we can understand gender as a kind of persona. For example, imagine that you are an actor and you are playing the part of James Bond. You put on the tuxedo, they do your hair and makeup, you adopt a different manner of speech. This is your temporary persona. You’re communicating by means of this artistry that you are Bond, James Bond. And because of the context, because you’re on the screen, the audience knows that you’re not really claiming to be Bond. It’s just a means of entertainment. Sometimes, we like to play around with our persona for a comical effect. If anyone out there is Latino like I am, you might recognize this famous Mexican TV show. It explored the life of little children in an inner city neighborhood in Mexico in a really funny way. Part of the reason it was so funny is because the actors, these grown actors, dressed and very accurately mimicked the funny ways in which children speak and behave. It was this hilarious juxtaposition of the grown actors taking on the persona of children. Another example is from my Alma Mater, where there is a theater troupe that always includes a kickline of male actors pretending to be females. It’s usually the most entertaining part of the show. In both of these examples, the actors take on a persona as a kind of acknowledged fantasy. It’s not done in seriousness. The audience knows that it’s simply for show, for the sake of entertainment. In your day to day life, you might adopt the persona of an athlete and communicate by your dress and comportment that you like to exercise and play sports or the persona of a business woman, or of a monk, or of a designer. The persona is a kind of language. It’s a nonverbal form of communication. It’s a symbol or a sign that communicates to the outside world truths about yourself. As you can see, fashion and the visual arts play an important role here in communicating deeper truths about who we are. But when it comes to your biological sex and the persona of your gender, you are communicating something far more important than whether you are athletic or a talented designer or a competent businesswoman. You are communicating something far more central to your being, your maleness or your femaleness, your reproductive capacity, the role you play in passing on human life. A culture that values human dignity and life will cherish that reproductive capacity and develop mores, manners, and rituals that honor that reality. And by contrast, a culture that has lost appreciation for life will silently turn away or rebel against those social norms. It will try to distance us from our shared reproductive experience. Today, social media, news media, and marketing are pressuring young people to experiment and identify with a fluid gender personae. Many apps today ask us to open an account by submitting our gender and there are usually many non-binary options to choose from, such as with this Facebook example. We have female to male, cis female, trans female, gender fluid, male to female. I receive a children’s clothing catalog and I paused when I saw this sweatshirt of a cat making a barking noise. Apparently, it’s trendy to imply that something can be something else, like a cat embracing dog behavior. More shockingly, Covergirl picked it’s first coverboy in 2016, This set off a wave of little boys taking before and after selfies of themselves for their social media friends to see. While some people say that it’s just a game like putting on a costume or dressing up for Halloween, I think this is naive. A young person might begin playfully just to see what it’s like to wear makeup, but doing it with such seriousness is risky business because the idea can become implanted in the mind. Just a few months ago, Elle.com ran a video story about a boy who loves to dress in drag and who calls himself Lactatia. The magazine arranged for a famous drag queen to come visit him to give him tips. This video has been watched already some 30 million times. The next horizon will employ virtual reality goggles to allegedly experience what it’s like to be of the opposite gender. The new project called “The Machine to be Another” allows individuals of the opposite sex to look down on their bodies and see the body parts and the genitals of somebody of the other sex. But notice what this does to the brain circuitry. The mind and the senses are given data to believe something different from what’s really there. As professor Chris Tollefsen likes to tell us, “gender is too significant a domain of human existence, too pervasive and foundational a form of human well being for reasonable persons and societies to want systematically to encourage ambiguous, misleading, corruptive, pernicious, or otherwise problematic gender self-portrayals.” Today, it’s inevitable that we’re gonna run into some distorted gender images, probably online. And when we see these things, I strongly recommend that we take a time out and look around us and ask ourselves who is watching this. Because if there are young people present, I hope you will take time to explain to them what was formerly obvious. That biologically we play one of two roles in reproduction, the male role or the female role. It’s not something that we can swap or change. It’s something for us to accept with tremendous wonder and awe as a great gift. And it’s a good idea to surround our young people with mentors who can help them fall in love with their biological identity. Good, so now that we’ve thought about what sex and gender mean, let’s switch gears now and reflect upon deviations from the norm. Because very often, young people will point to the exceptions to the rule as the objections to the rule. At any of the three stages, there can be a deviation or an anomalous situation. There can be a deviation in the genotype where the chromosomes are not the typical XX or the XY. Or there can be a deviation in the phenotype where the chromosomes are normal, but because of the environment in the womb, the child’s phenotype does not develop in accord with its DNA. Or there can be a deviation in the mind. An example of a genotype deviation or a genetic error would be Klinefelter’s Syndrome, where males have an extra X chromosome. They’re XXY. These males have above average height, low testosterone, enlarged breasts, and they’re often infertile. Another example of a genetic deviation is Turner’s Syndrome, where the female is completely or partially missing an X chromosome. These women develop to look like women, but they are infertile. By contrast, with a phenotype deviation, the genotype is normal, but the observable traits of the individual do not match their genotype. This can be because of the hormonal environment in the womb. For example, with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, or CAH, a female embryo is exposed to too much androgen, which is the male sex hormone. So this person has a female genotype, but her genitals appear male. In all of these above cases, the person does not fit into the typical classification of male or female. The sex is ambiguous. In former times, these persons were called hermaphrodites. But today, this term is not used because it’s considered impolite. Today, we call them intersex. The question of treatment is still very controversial. To my knowledge, there is no medical consensus about whether it’s better to intervene surgically or better to let them be as they are. The bottom line for all of us is this, we must treat these individuals with tremendous respect, kindness, and love just like we would treat anyone. Because those who embody the exceptions to the rule, often suffer a great deal. In some countries, these individuals are stigmatized, abandoned, or aborted. These are heartbreaking facts that should lead us to embrace them as dignified members of the human family and support research and projects that help them live normal, dignified lives. However, acknowledging these rare cases and embracing them as members of the human family does not mean that we have to say they’re the new normal, which they are not. The exceptions do not undermine the essentially binary character of human sexuality. Much of science is based upon identifying general trends, the regularities of nature, what is always and for the most part true. Identifying an exception does not overturn the general rules. In fact, we can say that intersex individuals are intersex because we take our cues from the male and female duality. However, some activists want to take the case of intersex individuals and advance something else, namely transgender identity. But the transgender identity is something altogether different from intersexuality, which leads us to the third kind of deviation from the norm. With transgender identity or gender dysphoria, there’s no deviation in the biology. The best research tells us that the genotype and phenotype of these individuals is normal. The problem rather lies in your mind. The issue is that they have an over-valued idea in their mind that leads them to reject their biological makeup. In fact, clinicians rule out an intersex diagnosis because their bodies have developed in a totally normal way as male or female. Frequently, they will dress in a gender neutral way or dress like the opposite sex. Often they’ll say things like I am a woman trapped in a man’s body. They may even seek hormonal treatment or plastic surgery to alter their appearance so they look more like the biological sex they wish to be. However, the person with gender dysphoria is suffering and they need care and attention. This is the voice of somebody who tragically has rejected their body for reasons that can include physical or sexual or emotional abuse or trauma. This is not something to celebrate. Dr. Paul McHugh is a Harvard College and Harvard Medical School trained psychiatrist. He’s the former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the 1970s, the hospital pioneered sex change surgery for gender dysphoric individuals. However, about a decade later, Dr. McHugh and his colleagues closed the program down after they discovered that there were no longterm benefits to their patients. Years later, many of these patients were still having heightened psychological turmoil, which the sex change surgeries were supposed to resolve. As a result, the hospital began to urge transgender patients to go for therapy, not for sex change surgery. As Dr. McHugh explains, offering sex change surgery to a transgender individual is a lot like offering liposuction to a woman with anorexia. The solution is not to give in or to accommodate their desires for a different body, but rather to treat their minds so that they can see reality correctly and accept their reality, accept their body. The situation is getting more grave now because children as young as five and six are being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. At a time in life when children don’t fully grasp what their sexual identity means or what the longterm ramifications of questioning it might be, some parents and medical professionals are offering new experimental treatments to these children. It’s a four stage treatment plan. The first stage of treatment begins with social transition where the child is encouraged to dress and behave like the opposite sex. They usually take on a new name and interact with others and ask others to interact with them as if they were of the opposite sex. The second stage happens around age 10, when they are given puberty blockers. As the name implies, these drugs prevent children from experiencing puberty. So young girls will not go through menstruation or see their bodies develop or experience the growth spurt that is typical of their age. Boys will not hear the changes in their voice or see their sexual organs develop and their body’s change in shape and size as is typical of those years. The third stage takes place around age 16 when biological females receive masculinizing hormones like testosterone and bio males receive feminizing hormones like estrogen. The biological females will hear their voice drop, they will grow facial hair, and have a more androgenous appearance. The biological males will develop breast tissue and take on a more female form. In both cases, the hormones make them infertile. It’s a slow-motion process of hormonal sterilization. Finally, the last stage is offered to patients around age 18 or after and this is sex reassignment surgery. At that point, surgeons remove whatever sexual parts associated with their genetic sex are still there and they use plastic surgery to try to construct body parts that look like the organs of the opposite sex. I say try because these surgeries still fall way short of imitating our natural sex organs not only in terms of appearance, but also in terms of functionality. Many people in our culture have big hearts and their hearts often bleed for those who suffer. We care about social justice issues and we want to make life easier for those who suffer or feel different or excluded. This kind of empathy is very noble. We should be proud to live in a society that cares about those in great pain. Loving our friends and children often means disagreeing with them and guiding them to a better way if we believe they are gravely mistaken. If a friend or a child rejects their body, then they need special psychological attention to get to the bottom of why they are doing so. Did this person experience sexual abuse? Physical abuse? Emotional abuse? Why are they afraid? What is happening to them that they are uncomfortable in their own biological sex? And we need to give them coping skills so that they come to peace with their biological reality and even perhaps come to love the skin they’re in. Very good. So now that we’ve finished part two, I’m gonna turn to the last part, which is one of my personal favorite topics, the question of gender roles and stereotypes. Gender roles are about the expectations that society has about how men and women are supposed to act. Some of these expectations have to do with our reproductive functions, the role we play in passing on human life, and some of these expectations do not. On the one hand, societies need to survive. And communities that respect and value life, who have expectations, about how men and women should come together and reproduce and raise the next generation. However, some gender roles and expectations have come to concern things that really do not have much to do with our reproductive roles, but about other roles that men and women have in society. There is a stereotypical view, which is narrow-minded and regressive, which I will call the machismo view of gender roles and stereotypes, or the macho view for short. The macho view is essentially that women belong in the home taking care of babies and housework and men belong in the professional world. That men are the leaders, and women are the assistants. Men are aggressive, women are passive. Men are mainly interested in sex and women are mainly interested in looking sexy and beautiful. Men don’t cry. Women are overly emotional. Men belong in the public square and women in the private sphere. Men should pursue male jobs like airplane pilots, engineers, and women should pursue female jobs like being teachers and airline stewardesses. Now, machismo is repellent because it hinges upon an exaggerated masculinity that’s condescending towards women. Macho men have a kind of allergy to female leadership. And macho men can also be violent towards women. So we have to continue to push back against this outlook and help educate more and more people about its dangers. However, what’s equally worrisome to me is the way in which the media often hypes up the macho view in order to convince us to rebel against it and embrace an opposite extreme view, a radical feminist ideology that erases all sexual differences. Let me explain. This is a philosophical map of three possible positions on sex and gender. Three positions one can have about the relationship between our sex and our gender. On the left, we have the sex nature position. This position holds that the primary thing that matters is our biological sex, our genetic makeup. If my body is male, then I am male and I will have a strong natural tendency to behave according to the rules of my sex. And the same vice versa for women. So there are strong materialist undertones to this position. This position is championed by many, including sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and evolutionary anthropologists. I’m thinking of scholars like Steven Pinker and Lionel Tiger. On the far right, we have the modern gender position. This view holds that gender is entirely man-made, a social construct. It’s not biology, but rather free choice that makes us male or female or anything in between. So this position has a strong rationalist bent. If I think I am female, then I am female. Gender becomes then a free-floating artifice, much like the different gender ids on Facebook. The body here is malleable. It’s plastic. My body can conform to the idea I have in my mind and not vice versa. These are the principles of the LGBT movement and third wave feminism. I’m thinking here of late 20th and early 21st century feminists, those who rejected second wave attempts to define femininity. So feminist scholars like Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, and Judith Butler. Now, we can see why this gender position is so attractive, especially when it looks like there are only two options. This position asserts a radical freedom to determine whatever I want in my life, a position with timeless appeal. By contrast, the position of the sociobiologists often sounds like we are totally determined by our genetics because of the way in which they emphasize our material makeup and ways we’re driven to act by our bodies. Now, for the record, I don’t know of any modern sociobiologist who denies human freedom. They usually state pretty explicitly that we are free to some degree or other to act against our biological inclinations. However, I think it’s also true that these sociobiologists are working so hard to defend biological sex differences that they underemphasize the role of human freedom. Because they aren’t focusing on free choice and autonomy as much as their adversaries are, it’s sort of easy to get the impression that there’s little room for freedom here. And that is not as appealing of a position. So let’s carve out a third option, a middle position that equally emphasizes both our freedom and our biology. This view fully accepts the important place of our biological reality and our biological identity. But it also emphasizes the place of free will. So, yes, the sociobiologists and the natural scientists are right, sex is binary, male or female. And yes, gender ought to recognize that biological reality and be in harmony with it as masculine or feminine. But here’s the catch. There are many diverse ways that a man can be masculine. And there are many richly diverse ways the women can be feminine. I can humanize my instincts and moderate my passions and define a unique role for my life. We enjoy a great freedom to both graciously accept what biology gives us, but also improve upon what biology gives us. I would say that so long as we do not do violence to our biological nature or intentionally suppress our bodily role in reproduction, there are a great many ways for a man to be masculine and for a woman to be feminine. As a society, we have to be careful not to overdo it on excessively restrictive gender roles, especially those that have nothing to do with our role in reproduction and child-rearing. The macho view is not a viable philosophical position. But if I had to place it on the map, I’d say it’s a kind of caricature of the position of the sociobiologists. There are traces of truth to the macho view, but they are distorted and made ugly, as if we were looking through a funhouse mirror. So what are those traces of truth before they get distorted? Well, sociobiologists point us to evolutionary theory in support of their findings. Evolutionary theory affirms that millions of years of evolution formed our species. And that men and women developed different inclinations and natural talents in order to maximize their chances for survival. It’s a very life-affirming theory because it’s centered upon the reproduction, the survival, and endurance of the human species. We evolved to have certain genetic predispositions which impulse us to act in certain ways according to a kind of genetic strategy. So for example, by nature, women are more nurturing and dedicated to the care of the young and the vulnerable because our bodies evolved for this function. We have powerful hormonal and neurological capacities for empathy and we understand the emotional needs of young children and infants to assist us in that role. As a result, women are more interested in relationships and we’re more keen on interacting with other people. Men, by contrast, are by nature more protective and territorial. They guard their women and children and have emotional and neurological dispositions to be competitive with others so that they can defend what they value from aggressors. Males are more naturally interested in objects, in the speed and in the motion of things, in dominating the natural world. The evolutionary thesis further claims that natural selection favored women who were faithful to one man, with nurturing traits that gave them an advantage when caring for the vulnerable. And that natural selection favored men who were dominant, protective, and capable of coming up against fierce competition. Now, you can see some traces here of pretty well-known stereotypes. The sociobiologists want to explain to us that a number of these generalizations and stereotypes are in fact grounded in scientific research and reality. If you’re interested in studying these differences further, I recommend the work of Steven Rhoads in “Taking Sex Differences Seriously” and Leonard Sax who applies the science of gender to the differences in education between boys and girls. Today, there is an enormous body of evidence from many disciplines that support the differences between the sexes. But again, all of our natural interests and instincts pass through a filter of free will. To assert that there are natural differences between the sexes as a descriptive claim, does not mean that we ought to stay or are materially determined to remain at this raw animal level. We can and should use our freedom to propel us and develop and push ourselves into the vocational roles that best suit our own skills, interests, talents, and personalities. So for example, this means that women, in addition to our natural genius for caring for children, can also develop into courageous, strong leaders who foster noble ambitions, learn to take risks, and compete when competition is called for. And men can, in addition to being strong providers and protectors, the bravest first responders in an emergency, also learn to show empathy towards those who are more vulnerable and to learn to be good listeners. The man who learns how to be nurturing and take care of the vulnerable is not less of a man, but a better man. We tend to admire the men and women who not only excel at the virtues typical of their sex, but also push themselves to acquire the virtues that are more typical of the opposite sex. We regard them as more complete, well-rounded, and inspiring individuals. So this middle position does not uphold strict gender roles, but great freedom in this area. Emphasizing this point will help offer us all an inspiring path. And it will help us avoid the extremes on the spectrum, not only the macho man extreme, but also the extreme of radical third wave feminism, which as a philosophical theory, rejects the science of sex differences and proposes an impoverished view of human nature that is divorced from biology. If you’d like to read more about the science of sex and gender, I recommend that you check out both of the The New Atlantis reports on sexuality and gender from 2016 and 2017, It was co-authored by top doctors in the fields of psychology, pediatrics, and epigenetics, Dr. Lawrence Mayer, Paul McHugh, and Paul Hruz. And if you’d like one book that covers it all, the science, the philosophy, the personal testimonies, and the cultural influences behind the transgender movement, I strongly recommend Dr. Ryan Anderson’s new book, “When Harry Became Sally,” which just came out this year, 2018, So, to conclude. I suggest that we stay focused on three central messages. First, that we learn to explain the difference between sex and gender. That sex is about our biology and gender is about our consciousness of that biology and the social expression of that biology. Both are binary, male or female, masculine or feminine. Two, that we get across that man and woman are not in competition with each other. We are different, but equal, complementary. Our bodies are beautifully different because they are designed to work together for the survival and the flourishing of the human specie. And three, we stress the tremendous role of human freedom and personal originality in developing our own unique persona, pursuing whatever role in life we believe we are best suited for, so long as it is noble, furthers the human good, and does not deny my biological reality as a male or female. There are countless ways to develop your own persona. And that variety constitutes part of the great beauty of the human experience. But reaching these truths requires that we accept and not seek to erase the marvelous differences between the sexes. It requires deepening in our own consciousness of that reality with great wonder and awe, tenacity, and courage. So, thank you for listening. I hope you will tell us what you think of this presentation. Post a comment or send us feedback at CanaVox dot com. And if you like the presentation, I hope you will pass it on. I’m especially hoping that it reaches persons who take care of other people, spiritual leaders, mothers and fathers, school principals, healthcare professionals. And I hope too that you will come check us out at CanaVox.com. We start reading groups around the world so that you can get together with your friends in your living room and provide brain food for thought and encouragement to the weary so that we can stay strong on the truth of marriage and sexuality. Thank you.

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