WHY WE WORRY

Second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s vigorously resisted regarding typical gender patterns as natural and inevitable. They did so for the sake of their daughters, who were being held back by gender norms and stereotypes, but also for their sons. In the 1970s television special Free to Be You and Me, hosted by Marlo Thomas, kids were told girls can be competitive and independent, but also that boys can cry and cook. The message was that girls are hindered by stereotypes, but boys are too.

More recently, a second and quite different worry has surfaced, a worry about categorizing itself. If we accept that there are flavors proper to boys and girls, some children inevitably will be put at a disadvantage. Some girls aren’t very girl-flavored and some boys aren’t very boy-flavored. While there have always been tomboys, and many parents seem to take rough-and-tumble girls in their stride, boys are under particular pressure to be good at being boys. A boy with traits and behavioral tendencies typically associated with femininity can be worrisome to parents and to peers, and sometimes also to himself.

Binary gender expectations create problems for other kids, too. Not every child is born with a clear-cut, easily identified sex. Some children are born chromosomally male (XY) but their genes are missing something crucial for producing a complete biological male. For example, in cases of androgen insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), a chromosomal male lacks the receptors needed to respond to testosterone. These children are born with genitals that haven’t been virilized during fetal development in the usual way. They look female externally and will acquire feminine curves during puberty, but they lack a female internal reproductive system and instead may have undescended testes. Other children are born chromosomally female (XX) but have genes that don’t produce a typical female. Chromosomal females with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) produce an excess of various hormones, including androgens, so that their genitals and other body parts wind up being virilized to some degree.

These two conditions as well as various others put a small number of children between the two sexes (1.7 percent of children, by one estimate). Medical intervention often comes next, as parents and professionals strive to make these children more nearly look and feel like typical males or females. For example, AIS kids are typically raised as females and have their internal testes removed. CAH chromosomal females are typically raised as females, having their genitals modified. If the interventions are harmful at least to some kids, then it’s not totally harmless to think that every child must be either a boy or a girl.

On the other hand, the male/female distinction can be a source of enjoyment. We—at least most of us—are drawn to masculinity and femininity and enjoy them in ourselves as well. Plus, the initial separation of the flavors makes for the possibility of flavor combinations, which some people also find appealing in their own way.

And it starts with children. We take a lot of interest in sex-associated characteristics of children starting when they are very young, probably because we’re programmed to do so, but also out of a conscious desire to prepare them for life in the society we know.

So caring about and cultivating the boy-girl distinction involves both dangers and rewards. If it were a matter of choice whether to keep the male-female distinction going, we might "do the math” and decide whether it’s an overall plus or an overall minus. On the other hand, if people simply do come in two flavors, we don’t actually have the power to eradicate the difference, whatever the cost/benefit balance. But do they? The philosophical parent will find that an interesting but difficult question.

 
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