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Does the mere existence of intersex people (and people with 1 XX chromosomes, for example XXY) destroy the claim that gender is based on biological sex? Can this be considered a valid exception, and if yes, why exactly?

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  • But intersex is a biological property that is not necessarily related to gender. And you could try to fit intersex people into the binary of sexes like "if there is 1Y chromosome it's male otherwise female". Whether that makes sense is a different question though.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 17:16
  • @wizzwizz4 Here's the reference for my first sentence. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12476264 You're right, I don't actually know if ROGD (rapid onset gender dysphoria) has statistically displaced anorexia and cutting among adolescent girls or just added to them. It's my subjective impression. Here's one article about ROGD replacing anorexia, but it's from a politically-oriented site and I don't know whether it's scientifically authoritative. thefederalist.com/2018/09/06/transgender-new-anorexia
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 21:41
  • @wizzwizz4 Reference please? I'm interested in the topic but doubt I'd get lucky just looking at the NIH's main page.
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 21:45
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    @user4894 There's a search box at the top. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34793826 "Using adolescent clinical data, we tested a series of associations that would be consistent with this pathway, however, our results did not support the rapid onset gender dysphoria hypothesis."
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 21:47
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 21:52

3 Answers 3

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Does the mere existence of intersex people (and people with 1 XX chromosomes, for example XXY) destroy the claim that gender is based on biological sex?

It does not. The existence or non-existence of intersex individuals has no bearing on gender.

  • Categorise people into sex categories.
  • Provided that there is at least one gender category, there exists a mapping S → G from sex categories to gender categories. (If you're a constructivist, gender_of := s ↦ "woman" is your witness.)
  • This mapping may or may not be what gender is based on. That's an empirical question about the nature of gender, and it's not one that "intersex people exist" is at all relevant to.

Learning about the existence of intersex individuals might make somebody question gender binarism, but that's a different thing to "destroy[ing] the claim". People who care about truth more than certainty might be convinced – or, at least, rendered less certain – but the argument doesn't follow out of logical necessity.

While it's tempting to do (and I have done) so, I don't feel it is right to use the existence of a demographic as a logically-unsound gotcha, especially not without at least mentioning that they've got struggles of their own – which I'm not informed enough to speak on, by the way. Intersexrights.org is a site with loads of resources on this topic, which I hope you'll look at.

Alternatively, there's Wikipedia, from which I quote Mauro Cabral Grinspan:

People tend to identify a third sex with freedom from the gender binary, but that is not necessarily the case. If only trans and/or intersex people can access that third category, or if they are compulsively assigned a third sex, then the gender binary gets stronger, not weaker

Or, if you want a pithy picture, the Phall-O-Meter:

Intersex Society of North America's Phall-O-Meter: a ruler with a section marked "unacceptable (surgery!)"

Is gender sex-based, socially constructed or both?

Your title question is much more interesting! Kevin's answer is a good one, but I'll try to answer more briefly.

  • Different societies categorise gender differently. Even with all the merging and subsuming of once-distinct cultures that globalisation is causing, traditional third genders are still a part of how society is structured in parts of the world.
  • Most cultures have two distinct genders corresponding to human sexual dimorphism.
  • I know of no human society that has no gender.

So it's probably "both". In some cultures, I expect gender is heavily based on sex, to the extent that the very existence of trans (especially non-binary) and intersex people is unthinkable – but that view of gender is not the only possible view, so its selection from the space of possible gender systems is a social construction.

It's also worth noting that, for many people who suffer from gender dysphoria, a large part of it is about how they're perceived – by themselves, and by others. What their voice is like, whether they can grow a moustache, how strong they are. If gender were just about the facts of life, I dare say people wouldn't feel this way about things unrelated to sex or reproduction.

And many of these concerns are not exclusive to trans people! I once knew a cis boy who was upset about not being able to grow a beard. Not out of any social pressure – he was from a culture where being clean-shaven was expected, and stubble was seen as a sign of unkemptness – but because he really wanted to grow a beard. (Maybe he wanted to be a philosopher?)

I am tempted to make the stronger claim, that gender is:

  • partly sex-based;
  • partly socially-constructed; and
  • partly innate to human psychology.
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  • I would say that everything is partly. Down with rigid categories!
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 2:19
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There is a biological aspect (which we usually call "sex") and a social or cultural aspect (which we usually call "gender").* Although these things are strongly correlated, they are not the same thing. A person's sex is determined by their anatomy, chromosomes, etc., while a person's gender can only be determined by asking them.

Sexes other than male and female are collectively known as "intersex." Genders other than male and female are "non-binary genders" or just "non-binary." Although I would imagine that some intersex people do identify as non-binary, these are two different things. An intersex person may identify as any gender, and a non-binary person may have any biological sex.

Some people claim that the social aspect does not exist, and that we should only concern ourselves with the biological aspect. This is sometimes disguised as a claim that sex and gender are the same thing, which sounds like it's just arguing semantics, when in fact it is an empirical claim about reality. The problem with this argument is not the existence of intersex people, but rather the existence of transgender ("trans") people (i.e. people whose gender does not match their sex at birth). This argument has to claim that trans people do not exist, or else it runs afoul of Leibniz's law (if sex and gender are to be the same, that implies that everyone's sex must match their gender, because identical entities must be indiscernible). The problem is, the existence of trans people is fairly well documented at this point, and so the sex-is-gender argument has to contend that those people are not really trans, but lying about their gender identities.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a great deal of hate speech directed at trans people. I will not give examples, for obvious reasons, but given the sheer number of people who would need to be lying in order for this argument to work, it is for all intents and purposes a conspiracy theory, which need not be taken seriously.

Sometimes, the sex-is-gender crowd tries to sidestep this problem by claiming that trans people are "confused" about their genders, rather than lying. Plenty of trans people are adults, many of whom are quite adamant that they know their own genders. It seems unlikely that mere "confusion" could result in such strong convictions. In response to this, the sex-is-gender crowd will sometimes resort to accusations of mental illness, but to the extent that mental illness is even relevant (in the form of gender dysphoria), the American Psychological Association recommends a treatment of affirming care, i.e. recognizing and affirming the person's gender identity. Attempts to suppress gender dysphoria or change a person's gender identity have generally been ineffective or harmful, and are now regarded as tantamount to conversion therapy. On the other hand, there are established methods of changing a person's sex, usually through some combination of hormonal treatments and surgery, and these are effective treatments for gender dysphoria in many patients.


* This is a simplification. Gender can be further broken down into gender identity, gender expression, gender roles, and a variety of other elements. Similarly, there are different ways of determining a person's biological sex, and they won't necessarily agree with each other. Different cultures have different ways of contextualizing gender and sex, and not all societies adhere to a male/female gender binary in the first place.

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Let's define some terms here. When we talk about biological sex, there are several things we could be talking about:

  1. Primary characteristics: Does the organism in question produce spermatazoa or ova? What gentalia does this organims have?
  2. Secondary characteristics, for example, in birds, plumage, in mammals, the development of facial hair or functional mammary glands.

If an organism has secondary characteristics of one sex, and primary characteristics of another, we can't really handle that in a binary sense. If an individual produces no gametes, we can't define that individuals sex. Such individuals do exist, therefore the idea that biological sex is strict binary is flawed.

When we talk about gender, we're talking about social roles, expectations, behavior, but most of all about an individuals internal sense of what their gender is. I am, personally, a materialist, so if an individual has an internal sense of who they are, in my world view, that must be in some way dictated by the physical person, by things like brain structure, hormones, or life history. The existence of people who have primary and secondary characteristics of one sex, but an internal sense of belonging to another sex, therefore shows that the idea that primary and secondary sexual characteristics determine gender identity is flawed.

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  • @DavidGudeman Are you proposing some notion of natural kinds with essential vs. accidental properties? That sort of Aristotelian thinking is generally considered outmoded in the sciences, the way we divide organisms into groups, and what are the defining features of diff. groups, are seen as matters of convenience, not forced on us by nature. And how to reconcile essentialism with evolution, traits that are formerly "abnormal" becoming "normal" in a population? Would you imagine some precise point at which the species and its essential traits changed?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 22:51
  • @Hypnosifl, no, I'm not proposing essentialism. Quite the contrary, in fact. The idea that a category must have razor sharp boundaries with no exceptions in order to be a genuine category is essentialist. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 7:25
  • @DavidGudeman - I asked specifically about the philosophical notion of "natural kinds" rather than essentialism more generally--if you look at the linked article, the "realist" attitude towards natural kinds is said to involve the idea that "certain structure(s) of kinds of entities" are "mind independent", so "there are correct ways of categorizing the world that reflect this mind-independent natural kind structure". Do you believe in such a wholly objective natural kind structure, or do you think there is always an element of human convention in how we divide the macro world into categories?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 13:39
  • @Hypnosifl, my current thinking is that the categories we see in the natural world are artifacts of our brain structure and of the way that the brain is designed to interact with nature (I mean the biological brain here, not the mind). I think we see these categories because they are useful, not because they are mind-independent truths of some sort. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 14:00
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    @DavidGudeman - I agree with that position on categorization, but in that case how would you justify the earlier statement about chickens? Either we have a definition that does not require one head (perhaps defined in terms of genetic similarity to other chickens), or we use an odd definition that does require it, thereby excluding the two-headed bird. Since you deleted the comment maybe you changed your mind on this, though.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 19:31

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