The development of biology and social sciences is shuttering many concepts that seemed to be unshakable. Traditionally, the Western civilization has been relying on the dichotomous model of sex and assigned social roles depending on whether a person was male or female. Interestingly, as scientists have been learning more about human biology, their findings have been altering the conventional definition of sex. Today, there is enough evidence not only to claim that biological sex is not dichotomous but also that the very concept of sex may be socially constructed.
In the past, society distinguished men and women based on their outer appearance. When a child was born, its sex was determined by studying its genitals (Watson, 2017). Apart from clothes and hairstyle, sex of an adult person could be checked by looking at their body shape. In a society that had a dichotomous understanding of sex, these characteristics provided enough information to consider someone a man or a woman. Sex defined one’s social role because boys and girls were treated and raised differently, resulting in their different social position. It was believed that one could be either a man or a woman.
As methods of biological research became more advanced, scientists discovered that sex was not a set of two mutually exclusive characteristics. Also, it became clear that one’s sex depends not on one factor but many. Today, it is believed that fetuses develop five layers of biological sex (Watson, 2017). The first layer is the set of chromosomes, also called chromosomal sex. Females have XX chromosomes, and males have XY. The second layer is defined by a fetus’ gonads, which form the next, hormonal layer. Under the influence of male and female hormones, internal reproductive organs and genitals begin to form, accounting for the fourth and fifth layer of fetal sex. Most importantly, each new layer can develop in a way that is independent from a previous one (Fausto-Sterling, 2012). Various syndromes may affect one’s chromosomal set, responsiveness to hormones, formation of reproductive organs, or genitals (Watson, 2017). A person with XX chromosomes may develop male-looking genitals or do not have a regular chromosomal set at all, having XO or XXY. About 1 in 100 persons is intersexed, not being either a man or a woman (Watson, 2017). Therefore, it is incorrect to say that there are only two sexes. Some people simply do not fit these characteristics, and their existence proves that sex is not a dichotomously occurring natural kind.
These discoveries encouraged feminists to discuss the relations between sex and gender. Some of them claimed that biological sex was relevant because the ability to get pregnant and give birth determined women’s social role. Their opponents claimed that female gender has no connection to sex, and the most radical supporters of the completely socially constructed view insisted that the whole concept of sex was a social invention (Watson, 2017).
Sex is determined by so many criteria it is impossible to decide which one is the most important. In other words, there is no perfectly accurate definition of male and female sex. To illustrate this point, Watson (2017) describes how the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federation failed to come up with a credible method of verifying the sex of female athletes. They could not find medical criteria that would accurately determine one’s sex and take into account all possible hormonal disorders and mutations. To conclude, the phenomenon of sex is much more complex than the Western dichotomous model.
This fact urges to think about alternative ontologies of sex and gender, which result from the fact the true nature of sex and gender is different from the common understanding. Ontology provides members of society with the foundation of its social order, assigning special meaning to certain phenomena. The traditional Western ontology implies that sex is a natural kind and that males are fundamentally different from females (Watson, 2017). It has created the social order where a group of males dominates a group of females. However, alternative ontologies could build a very different society. It could have alternative criteria of who are women and who are men, expanding the concepts of sex and gender. Moreover, it could recognize more than two sexes and genders or not pay attention to these concepts at all. Without a doubt, it would be a society with a very different hierarchy of power and social stratification.
Other cultures provide examples of how alternative ontologies result in different social orders. Indian culture recognizes third sex, calling such people hijras. These initially male individuals undergo a procedure of ritual castration, and they are believed to have supernatural powers (Reddy, 2005). Native American tribes recognize two sexes and up to four genders. Such people are called berdache, and they are distinct from both men and women (Watson, 2017). In Albania, some women publically rejected the female gender and functioned socially as men, trying to overcome the strict restrictions imposed on them by traditions of patriarchal society (Watson, 2017).
Overall, the Western civilization traditionally perceived sex as a natural kind and easily distinguished men from women. However, it has become evident that the concept of sex is much more complicated and based on several factors, such as chromosomes, hormones, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and genitals. Since each of these layers of sex may not correspond to others, the phenomenon of intersex occurs. It proves that there cannot be only two sexes and that it is challenging to provide an accurate definition of who is a woman and who is a man. Knowing that categories of sex and gender are not natural kinds, it is possible to think about alternative ontologies of these concepts and redefine one’s understanding of who are women and men as well as how they relate to each other.