Battle of the sexes

I was already thinking a thought about sexes when I happened upon some help from the most excellent Hoyden About Town, writing about a newish dating service that thinks sex is more complicated than one from column A and one from column B. Well hallelujah, brothers, sisters and friends, let’s run with that for a moment.

Much of third-wave feminism has been about troubling the categories of the body, by taking seriously the huge variety of human experiences of embodiment and in particular, of gender/sex/sexuality. Morals and practices are often quite narrow and rigid about these things, but vary dramatically from place to place and from time to time. Grappling with these differences in what parochially seem to be fundamental categories of our existence is now one of the ordinary requirements of a liberal education, which is my biz.

A favorite resource for me as a teacher lodged in history is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur shows that in Europe well into the early modern period, and supported by close anatomical study, the dominant understanding of sex was that there was only one. Basically, they thought that everyone was a male but either an innie or an outie; depending on the body’s heat the goodies either got pushed out or retained inside. Ovaries are retained testicles, vaginas are inverted penises, and so on. (I’m simplifying Laqueur’s rich discussion quite a bit and he simplifies a rich history filled with a variety of understandings to make his point. See Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture for a far more nuanced and comprehensive analysis.)

There were some interesting corollaries to this view, including the ones where both partners (obviously) had to orgasm for conception to take place, and women were (obviously) the natural sexual aggressors because they wanted to incorporate men’s heat, aka precious bodily fluids:


Laqueur shows that in this as in so many other ways the modern advances of knowledge and civilization of the 19th century were a load of crap for women, who went from being second-class but sexually empowered to being second-class and sexually repressed. More than this, he shows how our ‘readings’ of the body are always mixed up in our cultural preconceptions and political agendas. (A neat parallel discussion about weight and dieting is at Savage Minds.)

So, to boil this down even further, it used to seem obvious to educated European persons that there is one sex. Now it seems obvious to educated Euro-American persons that there are two. History and anthropology show that a three-sex model is not at all uncommon. This is all by people living within, looking at and thinking about ‘the same’ physical bodies.

It’s all very well to play with the wrong wacko theories of other deluded folks, but fortunately we now have things properly sorted out and there are two sexes, no more no less, right?… except I can’t see any final reason to believe this, even if we take a very strict scientific view. Science went from one to two before, and science does not deal in settled truths, it deals in robust theories (e.g. two sexes, evolution, laws of thermodynamics) subject to new findings. It may well turn out that there are biologically three sexes, or six, or forty-two, with all sorts of surprising consequences for getting the pairings wrong.

Let’s say there are six. There are various ways this could work. The above-mentioned dating service points to one. Protein, hormone or immune-system variances may turn out to sort into sexualizing packages one through six, such that ones and fours are well-mated but ones and fives are not. It could be that twos and sixes can only work with help from a three or four. Could something like this explain reproductive difficulties? Was Henry VIII a three looking for his six but foolishly marrying one five after another? Maybe he ought to have smelt their pee more carefully….

How about if it turns out that the gender continuum — ultra-masculine to ultra-feminine — actually contains sexualizing thresholds, creating natural sex/gender composites? So the six sexes might be: masculine male, neutral male, feminine male; masculine female, neutral female, feminine female. Who knows how this is written into the genes, I’m speculating here. Sexuality might still have little to do with any of this, as is the case with the current two-sex theory. Or it might turn out to run most smoothly through the ‘gender’ component of the sex composite (masculine to feminine, with neutrals most open to anything), with conflict inherent at the extremes. Or it might turn out that same-to-same works best. Although this version of the hypothesis obviously feeds off of a lot of old stereotypical gender garbage, it would certainly naturalize, explain and demarginalize a lot of things about transgendering and transsexuality, as well as a variety of familiar failures in normative hetero/homo relationships.

One thing’s for sure. We don’t know the full truth of these matters yet; or rather, we know a variety of mutually-inconsistent truths about them. And maybe, given how people abuse the truths they have, it’s better that we don’t. My vote is for Burkean existentialism.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Family values « Dead Voles

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