Is Biology Important in Defining Gender Essay Example
Is Biology Important in Defining Gender Essay Example

Is Biology Important in Defining Gender Essay Example

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  • Pages: 6 (1469 words)
  • Published: December 21, 2017
  • Type: Article
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The relationship between gender and biology is an increasingly complex issue. This essay will argue that traditionally in Western Culture, biology is seen as an important factor in defining gender; but that the emergence of a greater universal cultural awareness, recent philosophical, psychological and legal debate has lessened the biological emphasis in determining gender. It is now understood that maleness and femaleness encompasses many shades of grey both in a biological and a gendered sense. At face value Sex can be considered a biological term and gender a psychological, cultural and philosophical one.

For a clearer understanding of their problematic relationship this essay will first clarify the terms, gender and biology (biological sex), focusing on basic baseline definitions. However, as the developing essay will show, even the scientific has problems with the straight binary and dualistic distinction of


man and woman, complicating its relationship to gender further. In most contexts, sex is determined by biological factors and is binary, meaning that beings are classified as one of either 'male' or 'female'.

This is usually ascertained on examination of external genetalia, internal genetalia, gonads, hormonal states and secondary sexual characteristics but also chromosomal qualities, which are usually 23XX (for females) or 23XY (for males). Traditionally, this biological classification has been heralded as an important in defining gender because, although definitions of gender vary, it is generally considered that gender is "a social construction organised around biological sex. Individuals are born male or female, but they acquire over time a gender identity, that is, what it means to be male or female.

Gender is a package of expectations which a society associates with each sex1" So, the concept of gende

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was, throughout much of Western history, considered to be synonymous with sex and this remains the case to a large extent even today. However, if one examines the OED definition of 'gender', we see that the word was "often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes2". Gender can be said to have a much wider spectrum of meaning than sex.

There are so-called 'shades of grey' between the two poles of classification of sex, though these usually arise when developmental anomalies result in ambiguous external genitalia or in the possession of an extra chromosome (eg. 23XXY). It is in such cases that the concepts of sex and gender can be said to begin to overlap. A rare hormonal imbalance during pregnancy can affect the physical development of the genitals so that their shape becomes indeterminate. This condition is called intersex and affects about 1 in 12,000 or 60 births each year in Britain.

Societal expectations of unambiguous gender often pressurises a decision to be made regarding the sex of the child, resulting in surgery to alter their genetalia so they can be categorised. This often leads to complications for the individual in later life because although biologically speaking their sex is defined, their internal mental state, their perception of their own gender may be at odds with the sex assigned to them, resulting in gender dysphoria, 'men trapped in women's bodies' and vice versa. , so if it is assumed that gender is linked to sex and biology even in a biological sense gender can be ambiguous.

It is true that every society uses biological sex as a criterion

for the ascription of gender but, beyond that simple starting point, no two cultures would completely agree on what distinguishes one gender from the other"3When examining gender, it is important to consider non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian perspectives of gender. There is great diversity on the world wide stage, carrying different conceptions of what exactly gender is and how many gender groups people can be classified into. The most famous 'neither-male-nor-female' groups are probably the Hijra of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Hijra are usually considered to be members of "the third sex" and as such are neither men nor women. The majority of Hijra can be sexually classified as male or as intersex, although there are some who would be sexually classed as female. Linguistically, Hijra speak of themselves as female and they usually dress as women. The 'Berdache' of some tribes of the North American indigenous peoples are a further important example of a 'third sex'. Usually male, the Berdache adopted the dress, occupations and behavior of the opposite sex. It was a movement toward a somewhat intermediate status that combined social attributes of males and females. The terminology for Berdaches defined them as a distinct gender status, designated by special terms rather than by the words "man" or "woman"4. Separation of sex and gender is, therefore, not consistent across cultures or often even within one society. In the examples given above, the members of the so-called 'third sex' often fill important roles in the culture and even religion of the societies to which they belong.

Although there is often discrimination against these people from outsiders (and less frequently from those within the society), the perception of the people

seen to be of the 'third sex' is rarely that they are 'unnatural'. Indeed, cultures in which a 'third sex' has existed for millennia are now beginning to define their members using terminology borrowed from the West but which is careful to distinguish between the concepts of sex and gender. The confusion of sex and gender could be seen as the reason the question contained in the title of this essay, has been asked at all.

The association between biology and gender has been disputed by feminists for a long time. While fighting for the equal rights of women, feminists believe that biological arguments have helped perpetuate gender inequalities. Being biologically woman to some is meant to predispose the gender traits of femaleness, i. e. private, domestic, passive, maternal. "If existing social inequalities are firmly rooted in biological differences between women and men, then there is little that any reasonable person can do to effect change5", yet Feminists argue that there is no longer a need for gender roles to be associated with biological function.

This is eroding the biology/gender line making biology less important in defining gender. Judith Butler interrogates the 'natural fact' of sex (biology) as well as the fixedness of gender. She argues that if sex as well as gender is socially constructed, then 'any attempt to ascribe sex specific attributes becomes impossible"6. From an outsiders perspective this could be seen as self defeating. Perhaps a short way of defining sex and gender is to say that sex is the physical, outward state which nature and our genes have given us, while gender is the internal, mental view of oneself.

But this argument degenerates back

in favor of biology. The extremist argument for genetic determinism which purports that because are bodies are nothing but a collection of genetically predetermined matter and that our identity lies within our brain, simplistically thought of as no more that an organic creation, our identity, our gender must be biological too. This seems to be a wholly reductionist view that disregards the nature of human consciousness, the role of the individual and the role of society.

Earlier definitions of gender in this essay cite the role of culture and society as critical, regardless of biology. Whilst it is important to entertain an extremist biological position, it has obvious flaws. Extremist positions lose their appeal as they fail to encompass the aforementioned 'shades of grey'. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that one's sex is the bedrock on which society's perception of a person rests. If we were to examine gender in a social vacuum, it could be contended that no two people rest on exactly the same point of the gender-spectrum.

One's gender could be said to be as unique as one's personality. As it is not possible to construct a social vacuum and we must conduct any examination of sex and gender in a world full of social and moral judgments and preconceptions, it is most often the case that the majority of people will try to fit themselves into one of the 'boxes' that society wants to put them in. While it is true that perceptions of gender identity and what is generally acceptable to society in the West is changing, most people still do not understand gender and sex as discrete concepts.

For this reason,

it can be argued that biology is important in defining gender, though only when gender is viewed through the prism of social expectations. Needless to say, every society believes that its own definition of gender corresponds to the biological duality of sex. In conclusion, "to be a man or woman, a boy or girl is as much a function of dress, gestures, occupation, social network and personality as it is of possessing a particular set of genitals"7

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