[Back to Sex & Sexuality]
One of the basic problems we face in talking about sex, is that we may be trying to talk about vastly different things. At the very least, we can distinguish between these three kinds.
- Physical mechanism: the process of reproduction.
- Social roles and relationships: how we relate to and communicate with others.
- Personal experience: identity, feelings and desire.
These three kinds of sex are quite different, but they affect one another in complicated ways. Sometimes people use 'sex' for the physical aspect, 'gender' for the social aspect, and 'sexuality' for the personal aspect, but there is no generally accepted terminology here.
There are two sexes in almost all multicellular animals, humans included. Each sex produces specialized cells called 'gametes', which each have half the usual amount of genetic information, then two gametes need to combine to produce a new individual. In all these species, the female produces the larger gamete, often called an 'egg', which is not mobile, and the male produces the smaller gamete, often called a 'sperm', which is mobile.
Human reproduction always involves combining an egg from a female with a sperm from a male. Modern technology now enables this to take place in a test tube, and the resulting fertilized egg can then be transferred into a female, where it can grow and develop into a new human being. In every case, producing a new human involves the genes from both a female and a male.
Most healthy humans have 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. Two of these are the sex chromosomes, which come in two types, called 'X' and 'Y'. Normal females are XX (they have two X chromosomes) and males are XY (they have one X and one Y chromosome), so females always pass on an X to their children, and males will either pass on an X (producing a daughter) or a Y (producing a son) - assuming that it all works as it should. But this is a complicated business, and things can go wrong at every stage.
Some humans do not have the usual 46 chromosomes. Three copies of chromosome 21 causes Down Syndrome; XXY males (males with an additional X chromosome) have Klinefelter syndrome; women with a completely or partially missing X chromosome can have Turner syndrome. Other genetic problems are caused by a problem with individual genes. There are a great many rare genetic problems, and most of them are fairly minor, so around one person in five is affected by some kind of genetic problem, and many of these people are unaware of it, but very few of these conditions affect the person's sex. And a very few people are, genetically, two people (the technical term is 'chimera') - their body is formed from the fusion of two embryos at a very early stage in their development.
So the vast majority of people have a clear genetic sexual identity, and possess the corresponding physical attributes. In babies and children, the obvious indicators are the genitals; as the child moves into puberty, other 'secondary' sexual characteristics appear. These characteristics can vary significantly from one person to another: for the majority of people, these changes increase the appearance of difference between the two sexes; a few people continue to look comparatively androgynous, but this does not affect their sexual function. When archeologists and others examine human skeletons, they can easily tell which sex the person was.
For a small minority of children (perhaps between in 2,000 and one in 4,500) the genitals do not clearly identify which sex, and these people are usually described as being 'intersex'. But there are many different conditions which can be described this way (the term 'intersex' has no clear definition), and some people who are intersex according to some definitions manage to live and die with no idea that they may be intersex - the condition is only discovered when they are autopsied.
With few exceptions (such as red blood cells), every cell in our bodies has a complete set of genetic material. This can be medically significant: women were excluded from clinical research in the USA until 1993, and even today women are under-represented in many drug trials (partly from fear that the female monthly cycle may affect the results, and partly from fear that the subject may be pregnant and the test may harm the developing embryo in some way) - and the trials therefore miss the ways in which female and male tissues respond differently to drugs.
The physical differences between the sexes have numerous consequences. To give two obvious examples: it is possible for a male to have hundreds of children, while a woman can have at most only around 20; and (until very recently) every new born child has needed a mother's care for the first year.
In summary, physical sex is almost entirely binary: there are two sexes, and they are clearly different.
Social Roles and Relationships
Possibly the majority of what we think of as sex is a social construction, often called 'gender', which includes all the behaviour shaped and influenced by sex, and all the objects we associate with sex and sexual identity.
We often struggle to distinguish between secondary sexual characteristics and gender, and this frequently generates heated arguments. The discussions are further complicated by the fact that most of these characteristics are variable, existing on a continuum, and the normal ranges for each sex overlap: the most obvious example is height - on average, in any given population, males are taller than females, but the average male will be shorter than many females, and the average female will be taller than many males.
These discussions are also complicated by the common cultural assumption that the male perspective is the correct or normal one, so if anyone says that men are taller than women, some people will deny it because they know a tall woman, and some people will criticize you for claiming than men are better than women.
Another complication is the way power is often held by men. Until very recently in Western societies, the men owned almost everything - husbands took ownership of everything their wife brought to the marriage, and even the wife herself was considered to be the husband's property. More recently, women needed their husband's (or father's) permission to open a bank account. And in other countries, things are much worse for women: as this is being written, universities in Afghanistan are being closed to women.
The height difference between the sexes is fairly straightforward to deal with, but many other characteristics are more difficult. Most engineers are male, but is this because of a lack of female role models, because engineering is portrayed in the media as a male activity, because it is a profession where physical strength is sometimes an advantage, because girls are encouraged to take up other jobs, or because of some other socially created reason? Or is it because of some genetically hardwired reasons? Or is it a combination of the two, both the social and the physical - and, if so, how significant is each aspect? We have not been able to obtain solid evidence (we are not allowed to conduct random controlled trials on people's lives) so we are free to believe whichever reasons we prefer; some people see it as a problem which needs to be fixed, and some people see it as a valid outcome in a society where people are free to choose their career.
Every society controls who can have sex; every society provides signals for each sex to indicate to another person that they are open to having sex. And in every society, sex is more than 'just' the means by which humans reproduce: it is used to form alliances, demonstrate power, and much more. And because every society controls who can have sex, there are always individuals who rebel against those constraints.
In Western societies, sex plays a complex and inconsistent role. On the one hand, we are expected to be gender-blind in almost all public situations, pretending that we do not know know or care about the sex of the people concerned; on the other hand, it is considered to be deeply offensive if we fail to relate to someone in a way which is consistent with their gender. On the one hand, sex is constantly present in broadcast stories and public advertising; on the other hand, we are very concerned that children should not become aware of any explicit reference to sex.
All pre-industrial societies have strongly differentiated roles for men and women. In hunter-gatherer societies, the men go out hunting and the women gather nuts and berries while they care for the children; every adult spends almost all their waking hours with members of the same sex. This is why boys in these societies invariably have a coming-of-age ceremony, marking the transition from spending their days as a child with the women to spending their days with the other men.
Until the Industrial Revolution, this segregation and distinction of roles was almost universal; afterwards, new jobs are created, providing limited opportunities for women to take on roles which could also be done by men. In Europe, women only entered many parts of the workforce in significant numbers during World War I, when the men were off fighting. Many were laid off when the men returned at the end of the war, but the shortage of men forced employers (often very unwillingly) to continue to employ women. And in the UK employers were allowed to pay women less then men, even if they did the same job, right up to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
In Western societies, there is one exception to this universal division of roles: Christianity at the very beginning was about breaking down all divisions between people, and this included opening up traditionally male roles to females: women could be disciples and apostles, and 'in Christ' there is neither male nor female. The institutional church soon moved back to a more traditional division, but reform groups through the centuries continued to allow women the freedom to perform roles normally restricted to men.
It is still the case that many occupations are strongly gendered: men still work with things, and women still work with people - essentially the same division of activity as we see in hunter-gatherer societies. This is despite considerable effort in recent years - employers struggle to recruit women to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs, and they struggle to recruit men for jobs in caring and teaching.
It's not just occupations which are gendered: many of our individual attributes are significantly gendered. Take a list of personal characteristics, such as rational, emotional, brave, caring, strong, compassionate, ambitious, beautiful, good with words and good with numbers. Ask many people to put them into one of two columns, headed 'Female' and 'Male'. You will find near-unanimous consistency for many items. The question is whether these associations are hard-wired into us, or are a result of individuals learning to conform to society's expectations - presumably, for most people, it will be a bit of both. It is incredibly difficult to tell how much is nature and how much is nurture, but it is hard to miss the way many of these characteristic match what would be useful in the traditional hunter-gatherer roles. It is also hard to miss the way that many people subvert these traditional expectations - women who enjoy engineering, and men who are caring and compassionate. But the exceptions do not undermine the common expectations.
It's not just humans: if you give human toys to young primates, the females will play more with the dolls, and the males will play more with the trains. This is despite them having never seen the toys before, or anything like them, so they are not following any examples or conforming to social conventions.
And is it still the case that people tend to socialize in single-sex groups. And a common topic of conversation, in both groups, is how incomprehensible and unreasonable the members of the other group are. The question raised in 'When Harry Met Sally'', - can men and women be friends? - seems to have an answer: yes, it is possible, but it is difficult. Most people report that they are much more relaxed when in the company of like-minded people, and this generally means people of the same sex.
Marriage, in one form or another, has been practiced in almost every society throughout time. Marriage is a social construct, formed partly through custom and habit, and partly through the law. Sex within marriage is universally accepted and expected, but societies vary greatly in their attitude towards sex outside marriage. Until very recently, marriage has been universally restricted to a different-sex couple, but same-sex marriages are legal in an increasing number of countries, and in almost every culture there have been occasional examples of same-sex households through the centuries. In every country, the law restricts who is allowed to have sex; in recent years in some countries there is a legal requirement that both parties must be willing participants (see Consent).
Societies do not only control who is allowed to have sex: they also control how and where sex is expressed - sometimes through explicit laws, and sometimes through social norms. In every society, there are somethings which are socially acceptable, and some things which are socially unacceptable. They are rarely spelled out, and you may only discover a boundary when you cross it. What is normal and what is acceptable changes slowly with time, so sex outside marriage and people living together without getting married is now common and generally accepted in Western societies, in a way that a generation or two ago would have been unthinkable. But the fact that one thing has changed does not mean that another will also change: every society needs to have norms and standards, unreasonable and irrational though they may appear sometimes, and these help it identify who belongs and who does not, who is willing to fit in and who refuses it fit in, and it rewards and punishes people accordingly. Sex and our expressions of sexuality are just one aspect of the many ways every society seeks to control its members.
In summary, social sex starts with the binary division of female and male, but these can be seen as the two poles of a sexual continuum: we recognize a few people and some occupations as being very male, and a few people and occupations as being very female, a very few people and a few more occupations are seen as sexless, but most people and most occupations are somewhere else on this continuum: they are non-binary, in that they have attributes which are characteristic of both sexes - even though their culture can often make it difficult to recognize or admit this.
There is an incredible amount of variety in the area of personal sex. People differ in their experiences, feelings, desires, expectations, activities, hopes, fears and preferences. For some people, sex is very important; for others, it is less important; and for a few, they have no discernible interest in sex. For most people, sex is an enjoyable activity; again, for some, it is the thing which gives them the greatest pleasure, for others it is mildly enjoyable, and for many it is somewhere in between.
Because physical sex and social sex are both so important, sex is often a central feature of our sense of identity. 'Identity' is a tricky concept, a statement of what I am, or what I believe and understand myself to be, and it feels like a solid and permanent aspect of who I am, but sometimes we feel that things are unchangeable when we can't imagine them changing - until they do. Introspection is a very unreliable way or finding out what we are made of.
So people can believe themselves to be entirely heterosexual, right up to the point when they find themselves attracted to someone of the same sex. And it can work the opposite way as well, with confirmed homosexuals being surprised by attraction to someone of the opposite sex. Of course, neither of these events happens very often - but the fact that they happen at all means that the certainty most of us feel about our sexual identity should be tempered with humility.
We are tribal creatures, so we understand ourselves, to a large extent, through the groups we belong to, and the ways in which our groups relate to other groups. On the other hand, we can only live in specifics, and the specifics don't always match what the groups say they should be. Many people have had the experience of being certain they knew what sort of person they were attracted to, only to find themselves falling in love with someone who, in some aspects at least, is very different from what they thought they were looking for.
Sex and love are both complex aspects of human life, and they interact in many complicated ways. We experience and express love in many different ways and love, or the lack of it, drives much of our personal lives. Physical sex as an activity occupies a very small part of our lives, but our sex, gender and sexuality affect almost all our relationships in ways we are mainly unaware of.
All kinds of sexual activity can be found on the Internet, and it is easy to find sites which will provide subscribers with material meeting a wide range of criteria. But almost every object or situation is found to be sexually stimulating by some people, and the Internet has also enabled those who share rare and obscure fetishes to find one another.
Some marriage preparation courses encourage people considering marriage to complete a long questionnaire detailing what sexual activities they enjoy, or dislike, or are willing to explore. Many people find it very difficult to participate in clear and honest conversations on the subject, but the details are important, and the commitment to participate in the course can help people overcome their reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex.
The implicit aim of such questionnaires is partly to aid communication - to help one partner articulate to the other that 'I really enjoy this', or 'I would very much like to try that'. It is also partly to help them consider expressions of sexuality which they had not previously thought about participating in, or had rejected because they didn't think they would enjoy it, but would be willing to try for their partner's sake. And the accounts of people who, as a result, try things they had previous rejected, tells us that sometimes their expectations are proved right, they don't enjoy it; but sometimes they are surprised, and what they were reluctant to try turns out to be far better than expected, maybe even something they wish to continue to engage in. As a result, their understanding of their own sexuality and sexual preferences has changed.
In summary, the personal experience of sex varies massively from one individual to another, in many different ways. We differ in who we want (or could want) to have sex with, the circumstances in which we want to have sex, the things we find sexually stimulating. We differ in our sexual fantasies, and in which of them we would be interested in turning into reality. We differ in what we believe to be moral, and in what we believe should be legal. If physical sex is essentially binary, and the various aspects of social sex can be placed on a sexual continuum, then the personal experience of sex is more like a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope of different colours and shapes, with no two people being exactly the same, and everybody's desires, preferences and practices constantly changing - generally in small ways, but occasionally in significant ways.
Whatever someone tells you that sex is like, they are right. Sex is fluid, and it is fixed. It can be anywhere on a continuum, female, male, sexless, or anywhere in between. Or it can be a thing of infinite variety, where no two people are the same, where it is hard to even draw a map of the possibilities, let alone say where you are on it. Sex - that it, a kind of sex - can be any of these things. But each kind of sex - physical, social or personal - can only be itself. Much of the confusion and conflict around sex seems to arise from a confusion between these distinct kinds of sex.
Reading and References
Different:What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender, by Frans de Waal.