Friday, October 19, 2007

Five Sexes?

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. The legislation has provoked a debate between gay-rights activists who support the bill and transgender activists who oppose it. Originally, the bill had language protecting people who are born one sex but live as another sex. This language was removed to enhance the chances of passage. Protecting gay rights is more popular than protecting transgender rights.

The idea of being "transgender"--being neither male nor female or passing from one to the other--would seem to challenge my claim that "sexual identity" is one of the 20 natural desires. Here is how I describe it in Darwinian Conservatism (28): "Human beings generally desire to identify themselves as male or female. Sex is the single most important characteristic of personal identity. It is the first question we ask about a newborn infant. It is the first thing we notice about a person and the last thing we forget. In all human societies, sex terminology is fundamentally dualistic. Male and female are the basic sexes. Others are either a combination of the basic sexes (hermaphrodites) or a crossover from one to the other (men who act as women or women who act as men). All human societies have some sexual division of labor. And although different societies assign somewhat different sex roles, there are some recurrent differences that manifest a universal bipolarity in the pattern of human desires. For example, women in general (on average) tend to be more nurturing as manifested in a greater propensity to care for children, and men in general (on average) tend to be more dominant as manifested in a greater propensity to seek high-status positions. Yet while this average difference is true for most men and women, for some it is not: some women have manly desires, and some men have womanly desires."

One should notice that even as I stress the dualism of sexual identity as male or female, I recognize the variation from this strict bipolarity--hermaphrodites who combine both sexes or those who cross from one to the other--as well as the manifestation of manly women and womanly men. One dramatic way to speak of this variation would be to consider Anne Fausto-Sterling's claim in a famous article that there are actually five human sexes. In addition to males and females, there are three other sexes. True hermaphrodites ("herms") have one testis and one ovary, and they might have a vagina with a large clitoris that at puberty grows to the size of a penis. Female pseudohermaphrodites ("ferms") have ovaries and female chromosomes (XX), but they might have beards, what looks like a penis, and other apparently masculine traits. Male pseudohermaphrodites ("merms") have testes and male chromosomes (XY), but they might have a vagina, a clitoris, and breasts. In fact, there is a long history of intersexuality that can now be explained as products of biological disorders.

This phenomenon of intersexual ambiguity creates legal and moral problems. For some time, doctors have advised parents with intersexual infants to authorize surgical and hormonal treatments to force sexually ambiguous infants to look more clearly male or female. Fausto-Sterling argues that this is an attempt to force a culturally constructed sexual dualism on a biological nature that resists such dualism. She recommends that children should be free to grow up as intersexuals, and then at the age of reason, they can decide for themselves whether they want medical treatment to assign them more clearly to one sex or the other.

What we see here is an ambiguity about nature recognized by Aristotle in his biological works. Aristotle studied the natural causes that created hermaphrodites (History of Animals, 589b30-90a5; Generation of Animals, 770a25-71a15). In one sense, he reasoned, hermaphrodites are "contrary to nature," because they deviate from what naturally happens "for the most part." But in another sense, hermaphrodites are "natural," because they arise from natural causes. So it is natural for human beings to have a sexual identity that is either male or female. But the biological nature of sexual differentiation sometimes deviates from this central tendency.

Deciding how to handle those cases that deviate from the central tendency of sexual bipolarity is a matter of cultural tradition and prudential judgment. But the fact that biological nature throws up such exceptional cases should not obscure the fact that the central tendency of nature is to clearly distinguish male and female.

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