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When we talk with someone else about sex, one of the basic problems we face is that we may be trying to talk about vastly different things. At the very least, we can distinguish between three kinds of sex: they are quite different, but they affect one another in complicated ways.
- Physical mechanism: the process of reproduction.
- Social roles and relationships: how we relate to and communicate with others.
- Personal experience: identity, feelings and desire.
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, and people can argue for a long time about the 'correct' definition of these terms. If it is successful, this article will help us move away from arguments about the meaning of words, and towards a more productive discussion.
(It is probably fair to see in this three-fold division an echo of the basic Framework we are using on this site, dividing all of reality into three parts; we use "particles, people and purpose" as a description, identifying one recognizable example from each part.)
The intention of this article is to provide a framework within which the difficult conversations around sex, gender and sexuality can take place and be productive. I am deliberately not going into the difficult issues here, partly because it would be much better if they came from someone with a lived experience of the various struggles, and partly because I want to check that this framework is considered to be valid and helpful by the (potentially) affected parties before attempting to use it to address the struggles we face. If we don't get the foundation right, what we build is unlikely to be robust.
Of course, like all articles on this site, this is only a suggestion - a possible starting point. If you can suggest any improvements, or would like to offer an alternative framework for consideration, please do!
There are two sexes in almost all multicellular animals, humans included. In order to reproduce, individuals produce 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. 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.
Every human who has ever lived had a mother and a father: 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. Even in the laboratory, producing a new human involves the genes from both a female and a male.
Whether your body produces eggs or sperm is determined by your genes, which are contained in chromosomes. Most healthy humans have 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. Two of these - one from each parent - are the sex chromosomes, which come in two types, called 'X' and 'Y'. Normally, females have two X chromosomes (they are 'XX') and males have one X and one Y chromosome (they are 'XY'), 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.
There are many different genetic problems, with very different consequences. Some humans do not have the usual 46 chromosomes. There are numerous possible problems. For example, three copies of chromosome 21 causes Down Syndrome; XXY males (males with an additional X chromosome) have Klinefelter syndrome; and 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.
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 (probably between one 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 many people who are intersex (according to the broad definitions) manage to live and die with no idea that they may be intersex - the condition is only discovered when they are autopsied. So the claim that around 2% of people (which would be 40 in 2,000) are intersex is probably true, if you adopt a broad definition, but it can be rather misleading: it is not the case that 2% of people believe or understand themselves to be intersex - the real figure is something under 0.05%.
Of course, these are the figures for people at birth. For a long time, people have been modifying their bodies (and other people's bodies) in many different ways - the most obvious example is male castration. This produces something very similar to the result of many genetic problems - a male body which does not develop normally and is unable to reproduce. Modifications with the aim of 'changing sex' are very recent, and will need to be discussed in a different article: partly because it seems impossible to talk about it without using language which at least some people find deeply problematic or offensive, and partly because the purpose of this article is to establish a clear understanding which everybody can agree about, and upon which such discussions can be held.
With few exceptions (such as gametes and 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 bodies respond differently to drugs. The argument used here is quite frightening: we do not test the drug on females because we are afraid they will respond differently, but when it is approved, we allow it to be used on females because we now believe they will respond the same - after all, there is no evidence to the contrary.
There are numerous differences between the two sexes: some obvious, some less so. An obvious difference is that human males are, on average, taller and heavier than human females. A less obvious difference is that you can distinguish a person's sex from the sweat secreted by their hand, with 97% accuracy.
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 normally have at most only around 20 (although it is claimed that a Russian woman gave birth 27 times, and produced 69 children); and (until very recently) every new born child has needed its mother's (or a mother substitute's) milk for roughly 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 can refer to 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 explicit structural power is often held by men and denied to women. 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 permission to open a bank account - or their father's permission, if they were unmarried. 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 seen as 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 genetic - 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, strengthen relationships, 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.
As far as we can tell, pre-industrial societies had differentiated roles for men and women: somethimes this was a clear and rigid division, sometimes the boundaries were more flexible. In hunter-gatherer societies, the men typically go out hunting and the women gather nuts and berries while they care for the children; every adult spends the majority of their waking hours mainly with members of the same sex. This is why boys in these societies generally have a coming-of-age ceremony, marking the transition from spending their days as a child with the women to spending their days as a man with the other men. Of course, the men may also forage, and the women who are not heavily pregnant or caring for children may also go out hunting: these sort of details vary with the tribe's culture, but invariably it is the women who care for the sick, the young and the elderly, and these responsibilities inevitably reduce the opportunity they have to hunt or explore a long distance from the camp.
Until the Industrial Revolution, this segregation and distinction of roles was almost universal; afterwards, new jobs were 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 (and sometimes after) 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: against all the cultural expectations, women were accepted as both disciples and apostles, and 'in Christ' there is neither male nor female. The institutional church soon moved back to a more traditional division, but through the subsequent centuries, many reform groups have allowed women the freedom to perform roles normally restricted to men, and many denominations allowed women in leadership much earlier than was permitted in secular organisations.
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: if you ask people to put them into one of two columns, headed 'Female' and 'Male', you will find near-unanimous consistency for many items. Each of us will display each of these characteristics to some extent: some of them will probably correspond to what is expected for our sex, but this is unlikely to be true for all of them: very few of us are 'typical' of our sex in every aspect.
The question is whether these associations are hard-wired into us genetically, or are a result of individuals learning to conform to society's expectations. Clearly, both things happen, and it is very difficult to distinguish between them: we are social creatures, and naturally conform to the expectations of the society in which we grow up, so some of our behaviour will be performative but feel natural, and some of it (whether innate or learned) will feel wrong or unnatural because we have learned the 'wrong' things or do not naturally conform to the expectations of our society. These things were always difficult, but were probably easier to address when almost everyone grow up in a single culture; today, most of us grow up in a multicultural world in which we can pick up behaviours and expectations which are distressing or offensive to the people around us.
Traditional female and male roles and behaviours continue to dominate, despite some concerted efforts to disrupt or undermine them, and despite much disagreement about how far they originate from nature and how much from 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 racing motorcycles and men who are sensitive, caring and compassionate - but the exceptions do not undermine the common expectations.
Gendered attributes are not only found in 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; 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 women and men 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, but the details vary a great deal. In some countries, there is a legal requirement that both parties to any sexual activity must be willing participants (see Consent), but not in all - in some countries, rape is acceptable as long as the rapist marries his victim.
Societies do not only control who is allowed to have sex: they also control how and where sex is expressed - in part through explicit laws, and in part through social norms. In every society, there are some things which are socially acceptable, and some things which are socially unacceptable. They are rarely spelled out, and a newcomer to the society may only discover a boundary when they 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 some things change does not mean that everything will 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, so societies reward and punish people accordingly. Sex (and the more general expressions of sexuality) is 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, some occupations and some personal characteristics as being very male, and a few people, occupations and characteristics as being very female. A very few people, a few more occupations and a good number of personal characteristics are seen as essentially sexless, at the 'mid-point', 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 in their lives, for others it provides so little pleasure that is it really not worth the effort (and yes, sometimes that is because they have 'not yet met the right person', but sometimes it is simply because they do not enjoy it), and for many it is somewhere in the gaps between those three points.
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 significant aspects, is very different from the person they thought they were looking for.
Whatever group or groups we belong to, it is almost certain that there will be some expectations concerning sexual behaviour and activity. It seems to be the case that many people, perhaps the majority, feel that their personal desires and preferences are in conflict, to some extent, with these expectations. Some people accept the tension, some attempt to live a 'double life', and some change their social group - which can be very difficult, and sometimes involves a significant distancing from the old group. When people join a new group with is better aligned with their desires and preferences, there is often a strong feeling of belonging and 'coming home'. But it is sometimes the case that the new group is still not a perfect fit, or the individual continues to change and develop, and after a year or two the new group's norms generate different tensions.
Group norms can be damaging and contradictory, and this can often be clearly seen in the way that female sexuality is policed. Girls are expected to avoid being labeled as a 'slut' or a 'prude', and the gap between these categories is often very small - and be quite different in the different groups an individual belongs to. For a very long time, it has been socially acceptable for boys to experiment with pe-marital sex with girts, but not acceptable for the girls to participate. In the UK, children cannot be exposed to advertising of period products (all advertising was banned before 1972) in the name of 'child protection', despite there being no evidence that such adverts are harmful to children, and there being considerable evidence that some children are harmed emotionally by their ignorance of female periods, and of the ready availability of products to deal with them.
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
Here are some links.
- New Scientist: Women show signs of cellular ageing earlier than men
- New Scientist: Men and women's hands can be distinguished just from their scent
- Different:What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender, by Frans de Waal.
- Wikipedia: Intersex
- Grid: DNA showed a mother was also her daughter’s uncle
- The Tech Interactive: Can you generate offspring from two eggs?
- Guardian: Scientists create mice with two biological fathers
- NPR: For the intersex community, 'Every Body' exists on a spectrum