Borderline Cases

Anne Fausto-Sterling's books are informative and fascinating.  She writes in an exploratory, non-dogmatic way that I really appreciate.  She is hard to pin down and I (often) like authors who are hard to pin down. But one argument she seems to make in her books does not convince me much -- the argument that sex must be socially constructed, based on there being intersex individuals who wind up "assigned" to a sex in a social fashion.

About 1.7% of people are born with some sort of an intersex condition, she says.   In these cases, decisions have to be made about whether the child will be brought up male, female, both, or neither.  These decisions are typically made in light of cultural understandings of what is important in males and females.  Therefore...what?  Therefore, all sex categorizations are "socially constructed"?   

Surely that doesn't follow.  Why shouldn't we simply construe intersex individuals as borderline cases?  There are clear male babies and clear female babies, and there are also individuals who fall in between.  This is so in all sorts of other domains.  There are clear chairs and clear couches, but also pieces of furniture that fall in between.  There are clear trees and clear bushes, but plants that fall in between.  Borderline cases can just remain borderline, unless there's some particular reason to categorize them.  Maybe the furniture store has a chair room and a couch room, so we simply must put a chair/couch in one or the other.  If we do that on some basis, such as which room has more space available, we don't have to think that has any general relevance to what makes chairs chairs or couches couches. Likewise, even if the sexes of intersex people are "socially constructed," if doesn't follow the sexes of clear cases are socially constructed. 

And then, should we even embrace the social construction of sex in the intermediate cases? If you take "social construction" very literally, it seems to suggest we leave it up to society--the community, the state, the doctors, the family.  If the community says it takes a penis to be classed with males, then so be it. If the community says it takes two X chromosomes to be classed with females, then so be it.  But that's a terrible way to "assign" sexes to intersex babies.   Fausto-Sterling actually advocates intersex children being tentatively (and non-surgically) assigned to a sex but later making their own choices based on how they see themselves.  These kids will come to see themselves as male or female in a cultural context, so there is a social element there, but the child's self-perceptions have an internal component too, as I think she recognizes.  If the child's eventual self-perceptions are given lots of weight, the sex classification of intersex children is at most partly "socially constructed."

As the chair/couch example shows, self-perception could be relevant to categorizing intersex people, but not relevant to clear-case males being male and clear-case females being female.  The way borderline cases are dealt with does not necessarily have anything to do with how clear cases are classified.  But perhaps that's merely a logical point:  in principle, self-perception doesn't have to be relevant to clear males being male or clear females being female.  But you might think it is relevant, even if it doesn't have to be.  Clear males can come to have a sense of being female and clear females a sense of being male.  If we do respect these self-perceptions for intersex individuals, then maybe self-perceptions should also take precedence when sorting supposedly clear cases into male and female categories. All maleness and femaleness would be defined in terms of self-perceptions, as opposed to self-perception entering the picture when other criteria aren't decisive.

That would be a win for the psychological nature of sex, not the social construction of sex.  And it certainly would be a hard thing to embrace. It makes sense to think a truly intersex child has no sex until self-perceptions emerge, but some kids are born with a definite sex.  Coming to see yourself as having a sex different from your natal sex is difficult for transgender kids precisely because there is (usually) a natal sex.

In any event, I really don't see at all how intersex children provide much support for the claim that all sex classifications are socially constructed.  That seems to be the idea in Fausto-Sterling's work (again, she is hard to pin down), and she's had a lot of influence.  But I don't see how this reasoning is supposed to work.


Faust said...

Discussion in this area is, I think, vulnerable to linguistic confusion. It's the kind of subject matter where you want to bring in Wittgenstein - how are the language games operating?

It's not at all clear that the formulation "sex is socially constructed" is helpful in non-human contexts. When it comes to a study of animal biology, no one feels any special confusion about this subject. There might be edge cases or deviations from the norm, but generally there is no special literature on the "true" sexual identity of animals. They will either be physically male/female (even in those cases where the animals change gender!)

The question of "social construction of sex" strikes me as being tautological. Clearly there is a layer of sexual identity that IS cultural, and clearly the physical structure of a given human can be used as raw material that a given cultural engine can use to output some cultural meaning. But I don't see how this gets us much beyond "cultural constructions are cultural constructions."

No amount of cultural construction is going to change that generally speaking the apparatus of biological reproduction is based on two distinct biological systems that work in concert. How that gets labeled and what it "means" is up for debate. But at a certain point we get into silly season.

Scu said...

But, that's not really her argument, is it? It's been a long time since I read Sexing the Body, but I always felt her argument was that sexual dimorphism was socially constructed. To use your analogy, it would be living in a world that only believed there were two types of furniture that one sat upon, a couch or a chair. Anything that didn't fit into those categories had to made to fit. So, she is not arguing that there are not males and females, just, there are a lot more beings besides males and females (somewhere she argues for five sexes, and I think she changes that few times, but you get the idea).

Here is a story to make my point (It's not Dr. Seuss, but I didn't get much sleep last night, so I currently feel the story is good at explaining my point).

You go to sale your beautifully handcrafted couch-chair, and someone comes up and goes, "That's a weird looking couch you got there."
"Well," you respond, "that's because it is a couch-chair."
"A what?" the perspective buyer replies, confused with a hint of hostility thrown in for good measure. He doesn't like confusion.
"Yes, yes," you continue excitedly, "a couch-chair. And a I couldn't be prouder."
"But, is it a couch, or a chair?"
"Neither, it is a couch-chair"
"Can't be neither. Either it is a couch, or it is a chair. Look, maybe if he sawed off those extra legs, then it would be nice, decent looking chair. Probably pair up with a fine couch in a room someday, don't worry."
"No!" you shout. "It's a couch-chair."
"Well, the perspective buyer responds, clearly hostile now, "at least put a good skirt on that thing, cover up those extra legs. After a few years, you know it will want to be either a couch or a chair. It'll fit in better. It's for its own good."
"Look, it's a couch-chair. A surprisingly large amount of furniture that is produced is not either a couch or a chair. And while we are at it, some of those couches probably want to be chairs, and some of those chairs, want to be couches, and some are tired of being either. And that couch over there, it looks like a couch. Right number of legs, good height for couch. But if you look inside the upholstery, isn't that sort of stuffing we normally use is chairs instead? What I am saying is that we need to stop making all of our furniture into couches and chairs. I know you were raised in a world where those are the only two options, but it hasn't always been seen that way. There have been cultures that had more places for furniture, and the ancient Greeks believed that all furniture was just chairs, and that couches were deformed, inferior chairs. And to get to this point of seeing all furniture as couches or chairs has had several influences, including the techniques and rationality of modern carpentry. So, good day sir. I am taking my couch-chair, and we are leaving."


Okay, sorry for the silly story. I do think it is interesting that your counter-example was something constructed. I also think couch-chair is a bad term, because it still sorta assumes all furniture is couches or chairs, and I should have come up with a different term in the story.

Scu said...

Faust, I just saw your comment. You might want to look at the work of Myra Hird in your discussion of sexual identities in non-human beings. She has an article "Animal Trans" in Queering the Non/Human (an earlier version appears in Australian Feminist studies http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08164640500470636?journalCode=cafs20#.U6ncp5SwJ_g ) She also has a few chapters on this issue in her excellent book Sex, Science, Gender http://amzn.to/TgxP09

The short version would be that there is no strong version of sexual dimorphism in non-human beings.

Jean Kazez said...

Scu, I don't think it really matters, logically, that my example involves an artifact, but it's a little odd, I admit...

Fausto-Sterling really is hard to pin down, and she doesn't crisply make the argument I'm attributing to her. It seems to be the idea in many chapters of Sexing the Body. Wish I had a nice quote...

She certainly ALSO makes other arguments. Yes, she says in some places that there are lots of sexes--5, 279, whatever. So she is not an anti-realist about sex (in those passages), but rather saying there are more than two.

I find that stuff a little glib because little children are the ones who have to live in the intersex bodies she's talking about. In a world where 97% of people (or so) are male or female, it's very hard for a child to just accept being a couch-chair (so to speak--fun Seuss-ish story!). When the child grows up, he/she will also find that most people are attracted to couches or to chairs but not to couch-chairs.

I guess also, to be honest, I don't think realism about all these different sexes is very plausible. It's easier to talk about this in a different domain, where there aren't the same sensitivities. So...geology. There are a bunch of structures in a cave--stalagmites and stalactites etc. A broken stalagmite is not a third kind of thing. Something between a stalagmite and a stalactite is not a third kind of thing. It takes meeting various criteria to recognize a whole new kind. The intersex individuals she's talking about don't belong to new gender kinds in any ordinary sense.

Yet, they have to live their lives and decisions need to be made. I like what she says about that (provisional sex assignment, later surgery if desired) but to accept that, I don't need to buy either her social constructionist views (to the extent she has them) or the idea of there being 5, 25, or 125 sexes.

s. wallerstein said...

Let's imagine a culture where there are 7 different names for objects which are "between" chairs and couches. People will use those 7 different names.

So too with gender. If we begin to expand our vocabulary about gender, people will begin to see more gender variety. But I don't think that there is a pre-set number of genders just as there isn't any pre-set number of objects between chairs and couches.

People comform to traditional, binary gender stereotypes in many, many different ways and actually, there may be hundreds or thousands of possible gender identities and each could be given a name.

Anonymous said...

I think what Fausto-Sterling is doing is to show how our notions of sex are constructed because our notions of gender (which are social constructs) fill in the gaps.

To explain, suppose we ask how do you tell if someone is male or female? We can give various answers such as the way he or she dresses, hair length (sometimes), gait, comportment, voice, breasts, types of pants, tightness of pants, interactions, facial hair, stature of the body, musculature, etc. But with these examples, what are we appealing to? It's gender. It’s the social stuff.

Perhaps one could reply if sexual dimorphism is given in nature/biology. The presumption is yes. But then how to explain intersected people. Do intersexed people question sexual dimorphism, or is it that intersexed people have to somehow be male or female inherently? So now the question is what is the defining biological difference between males and females? By what criterion do we /should we decide?

Perhaps one could reply through primary sex characteristics. Males have testes and a penis; females have a vagina, ovaries, uterus, etc. But that doesn't work because there have been many cases of males having traditional female parts and vice versa.

Perhaps one could reply through chromosomes: xx or xy. But again, this doesn't work either because of the same argument above: there have been many cases of traditional males having female chromosomes and vice versa.

Perhaps one could reply through secondary characteristics such as hormones. These hormones would mainly be testosterone and estrogen, post-puberty. But again, this doesn't work because there have been many cases where traditional males have lots of estrogen, and traditional females have had lots of testosterone.

With these options running out, it seems that the only way to decide is by consensus. For a good example, check out Caster Semenya with this link: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/11/30/091130fa_fact_levy?currentPage=all

Male/female is superfluid and we can't figure out what marks out the differences between them. So what do we do? We use our notions of gender fills in the gaps.

We have a cultural lead with sexual binaries and it’s because we need gender.
The harm of an ambiguous child is a result of holding onto the gender binaries.

At least, this is how I see Fausto-Sterling making her point about the social construction of sex categories.