People say women and men are just different, by ‘nature’.
But would it surprise you to know that people didn’t always believe that these sexes were so inherently different?
In fact, from the ancient times to the 18th century, the western world primarily believed that there’s one biological sex.
People were regarded as variations of a single male sex, and females were males who didn’t develop fully because of a lack of ‘vital heat’. It was in the 18th century that science began to categories two distinct sexes with inherent biological differences.
Researchers on different fields built on this binary through theories that reinforced not only the difference between male and female humans, but female inferiority.
For example, one theory asserted that females have smaller skulls, and therefore lower intelligence, than males. But, it wasn’t coincidence that White, male scientists, Charles Darwin, James McGrigor, Gustave Le Bon, develop these theories of biological sex differences at the exact moment when these theories were socially and culturally convenient.
Just as White women were demanding rights, like voting and a greater role in life outside the domestic sphere, these scientific theories justified their place in the home, by ‘proving’ that men and women are just built differently.
But not only was this rooted in a sexist ideology, it has also strongly connected the racist development of evolutionary sciences at the time. Many of the scientists who advocated the sexual difference model like Carl Vogt argued that the more evolved the race was, the more pronounced the sex differences were.
Others argued that White women, as a sex, were inferior to White men much the same way that other races were inferior to White men.
Even after society turned a critical lens on the racist and sexist histories of many of these theories, the predominance of the two-sex model remained. It got even more entrenched in the early 20th century, when scientists discovered sex chromosomes, and concluded that the XXX or XY pairings of these chromosomes determined if humans were male or female.
But, biological sex, the thing we’ve been taught is an objective fact, ultimately responsible for the ‘natural’ differences between men and women, is less of a binary that we have been taught. Scientists estimate that as many as 1 in 100 babies are born intersex with biological characteristics, that can’t be classified as either ‘male’ or ‘female’.
Secondary sex characteristics, like breasts or facial hair, supposedly the markers of ‘make’ and ‘female’ bodies, are actually influenced by a host of biological factors, and not just X or Y chromosomes.
And recently, the debates around whether female athletes with high testosterone level should be disqualified from competing in women’s categories brought the problem with this sex binary to the forefront.
World Athletics has banned Caster Semenya and other Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) athletes from competing at world championships unless they take testosterone-reducing drugs.
Athletics wants to introduce a testosterone limit of five Nano moles per liter for athletes competing in international events between 400 meters and a mile. It shows us that even the ways in which we calculate what levels of testosterone make you ‘male’ or ‘female’ are completely arbitrary. And yet, this sex binary continues to be the basis on which society heaps gender norms and expectations upon people.
Anyone who doesn’t follow these expectations feels the discrimination as someone who is somehow ‘unnatural’. We see in the treatment of transgender people, intersex people, and cis men and women who don’t conform to these expectations.
So, maybe it’s time we acknowledge that the sex binary is a little more nuanced than we thought, and so many of the expectations we impose are based on a framework that’s not rigid.
We’d be much more liberated as a society and as individuals, if we critically question these supposedly ‘natural’ frameworks, and gave individuals the breathing room to exist freely outside of them.
[Images from different sources]
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