Defining male and female

Thanks to the author (who wishes to remain anonymous) for her permission to reprint this essay.

The fact is that sex is always, and only, determinable by a multifactorial analysis. No single attribute standing alone will suffice. This is how we do it every day of our lives.

Let's examine in more detail how the analysis takes place.

(1) Genitalia. Typically, a judgment is made about sex at the moment of birth based upon the appearance of the infant's genitalia. The doctor takes a glance, and if he sees a penis he categorizes the child as male. If he sees a vagina (or at least the absence of a penis), he calls it a female. Nothing else is known about the baby at that point.

Yet this is clearly inadequate by itself. A man who loses his penis due to accident or illness does not stop being male. A woman who loses her vagina due to cancer doesn't stop being female.

Further, genitalia can be changed through hormones and surgery. If the configuration of genitalia is the only determinant of sex, then ipso facto a post-op transsexual woman is female.

(2) Secondary sexual characteristics. Can we use any of these attributes by themselves? Is a person without facial hair necessarily female? Is a person with a deep voice necessarily male? Are factors such as height, weight, body fat and hair distribution, vocal tenor and range, scalp hair, or even breasts sufficient by themselves to categorize someone as male or female? Clearly, I think, the answer is no. There is such enormous variation within each sex that none of these things alone will permit that classification. A short slender person with no facial hair and a high-pitched voice could be either male or female.

Moreover, virtually all of these attributes are altered by aging, illness, injury and medical intervention. They won't get the job done by themselves.

(3) Reproductive capacity. This isn't a good determinant either. Females don't quit being female after a hysterectomy, and males don't cease to be male following vasectomy, or testicular cancer resulting in orchiectomy. Sterile men and barren women don't lose their status as male or female based on their inability to procreate.

(4) Endocrine status. Again, this is often ambiguous, and subject to change by physiological changes, aging, injury or medical intervention.

(5) Chromosomal characteristics. There is much ambiguity and variation here. And of course, only a tiny fraction of the population has ever been genetically tested anyway, and we virtually never insist upon this type of analysis in order to decide whether people are male or female.

(6) Social role. This is clearly a major determinant in the practical sense. People who live and function according to the parameters we traditionally call "female" are generally denoted as females. It is rare for us to conduct any examination of sex beyond what we see and observe of people as they go about their ordinary affairs in life.

Yet social role is likewise changeable, as is easily seen.

(7) Sexual affinity. Tens of millions of gay, lesbian and bisexual people prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that sexual preference or orientation are not determinants of sex.

(8) Psychological self-identification. This may be the most pertinent factor of all. Which sex does the individual believe he or she belongs to. The Money reports show clearly that even if a person is raised completely in one gender role, they may yet self-identify as a member of the opposite sex. Transsexual and otherwise transgendered people prove that self-identification transcends physical and social considerations.

But even this, standing alone, doesn't permit us to categorize someone as male or female. If, without changing anything else about himself Arnold Schwarzenneger simply stated, "I identify as a female," few would acknowledge that as sufficient to make him female in the eyes of the world, no matter how often or vigorously he asserted it.

(9) Legal identity. There really is no specific mechanism for assigning a legal identity as male or female other than the initial glance at genitalia by the doctor who delivers the baby. It's an utterly arbitrary process, and is continued through each individual's life without reference to any further assessment, injury or evaluation. In many jurisdictions, legal identity may be changed on birth certificates, driver's licenses, passports, and other documents.

The fact is that literally the only way we are able to assign an individual as male or female is by reference to a cluster of the above factors. If the weight of the evidence is sufficient, we agree that they fall in one category or the other.

To understand how this works, stop someone at random on the street and ask them to prove which sex they belong to. How can they respond? "I am male," he may claim. Prove it! "Well, my birth certificate says so, and so does my driver's license. I have a penis. Look at me, I'm balding, and I have hair on my chest and belly, my voice is deep and I'm strong and muscular. I live as a man and everybody thinks I'm male. I feel like a man, and there's testosterone in my body which gives me a male sexual drive."

Most of the world would accept and acknowledge this person as male. They would do so irrespective (and indeed without knowledge) of what he was called at birth. They certainly would have no idea what his chromosomes were, nor ask about them. And this is one of the easy cases! In many people, perhaps even most, there are ambiguities. To respond to the request for proof of one's status as male or female, we turn not to any one attribute, but all of them. There is no "formal" process other than the birth certificate—based on a doctor's glance at the genitalia—for establishing which sex someone belongs to. It's always a multiply factored, functional analysis, incorporating a variety of elements and attributes.

So what does this mean for transsexual people? Simply stated, it means that their sex should be determined like that of everyone else. They should likewise be evaluated by the cluster of attributes that they present and if the weight of them shows the female person, then that's simply what they are. There is no logical basis to penalize them or submit them to additional scrutiny due to the happenstance of birth.

Sex is essentially a construct—a classification based not on any single factor, but on the weight of multiple attributes and characteristics. As a construct, it is not immutable, for each of the factors that compose it is fluid, relative and subject to change.

Properly viewed, transsexuals do in fact change sex, and they do so by changing each (or at least enough) of the elements by which they were initially classified as members of their originally designated sex.