Feminist parents used to take it for granted that girls and boys naturally belong to separate groups. They advocated for both groups: both were being held back by stereotypes and traditional expectations. But they didn’t question the reality of the groupings. Each child has a biological sex, they thought, though there was always some question whether sex entailed just bodily differences or brain differences as well, making boys psychologically different from girls.

More recently, a new brand of feminism has raised questions about the reality of biological sex. One influential argument has to do with kids with intersex conditions. Brown University biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling points out that the way doctors and parents choose a sex assignment reflects social norms. For example, there’s the norm that boys must have a penis and girls must not. To adhere to that norm, there may be surgeries and hormone treatments, and ultimately the intersex child winds up being placed into one sex category or the other.

The way this works suggests to Fausto-Sterling that male and female are not two natural, biological classes after all. You could put it this way (though she doesn’t): if more members can be added to the set of girls (or boys) at will, and out of adherence to norms, perceptions, and preferences, then how could that set have real, natural boundaries? Instead, sex must be socially constructed—not built into reality, but a result of choice, culture, and belief. Boy and girl are categories like cool and uncool, or, if a little more grounded in reality, then like ball and strike in baseball. Using terms suggested by philosopher Asta Sveinsdottir (author of the last two analogies), we might say these properties are conferred on individuals, instead of the individuals naturally falling into categories.

But does the intersex-based argument against the reality of sex really hold up under scrutiny? Even if the line between male and female may be drawn in multiple ways, the distinction could still be real. Surely there is a real distinction between children and adults, but the line may be drawn so that teenagers are categorized with children or with adults. At any given time, it’s debatable who belongs in the set of children and who belongs in the set of adults. And yes, there are cultural norms pertaining to being a child or adult, and these do vary with time and place, but it would be silly to say the child/adult distinction is a mere social construction and not at all real. It’s more accurate to say there’s a real difference there, but one with unclear boundaries, and one that’s given rise to a variety of beliefs and norms. We could quite plausibly say the very same thing about the male/female distinction.

Then again, there’s another way to see things. Intersex conditions don’t necessarily make for hard-to-draw lines between two groups, but instead create another category ... you might say.

Some feminists, such as Fausto-Sterling, believe we should construct more than two sexes (she suggests, a little bit tongue in cheek, five), but that’s not exactly what I mean. I don’t think (to take one example) a CAH child with virilized genitals can really be seen as a normal member of a third sex, because a third sex, by analogy with the first two, would involve some fully functional third way of contributing to reproduction. That’s not what CAH produces; rather CAH is actually a bundle of health disorders that affect anatomy but can also affect urination, growth, metabolism, hair distribution, and body biochemistry. More plausibly, a child with CAH has an in-between sex, biologically speaking. The same goes for AIS chromosomal males who are raised female, despite having no internal female organs and sometimes having intact, undescended testes that are surgically removed. As a matter of strict biology, the classification here is “other” as opposed to male or female. Or at least, I believe that’s the most plausible interpretation if we take care to think of sex categories as merely scientific, and not as honorifics or as personally or socially useful labels.

Regardless of there being intersex conditions, male and female do seem to be natural biological kinds, but how, exactly, are they defined? The definition should be broad, since there are male and female plants, male and female animals. Some biologists assert that it is extremely simple: males produce sperm (gametes that are mobile and numerous), and females produce eggs (gametes that are immobile and large). But maybe it’s not quite that simple. A better, but only slightly more complex, definition might be this: a male typically has sperm and a body tailored to using them reproductively. A female typically has eggs and a body tailored to using them reproductively.

On this definition, an individual’s sex is a question of gametes, but also a matter of other body parts and features. It would make sense to add one more qualification, in light of the vicissitudes of life. If we want to think of sex as a generally stable characteristic of individuals, then we’ve got to say being male is a matter of being equipped to use sperm reproductively at least for a part of the individual’s lifespan. Male humans are male before they mature; they’re still male into impotent old age. Female humans are female on the fertile days of their fertile years, but also on the other days, and before they become sexually mature and after menopause. On a definition like this, an individual could be both male and female. But being both doesn’t occur in every case where an individual has a mixture of male and female parts.

Of course, in different species, which have evolved in different environments, sexual differences vary. Male gonads and genes boost male size in some species much more than in the human species; they make for colorful plumage in many bird species but horns or antlers in many ungulates; they cause all sorts of different instinctive behaviors in many species. The stage of life when gametes can be used varies as well (human females are among the few animals who go through menopause). But the underlying sameness is this: females are equipped to use eggs reproductively and males are equipped to use sperm reproductively.

What if the equipment has been modified or isn’t working well? Is a gelding a male horse? What about men with low sperm counts or beta-males in a wolf pack who will always be prevented from using their sperm reproductively? Which individuals are anomalous or altered or subverted males or females, and which are “other”? Can an individual undergo a change of sex? A durable definition of “male” and “female” will need a little more work before it can yield a clear verdict on every single case. Should the definition allude to the way an organism could function, or is supposed to function, or stick to its actual (past, present, and future) functioning? Whatever we say, the hard cases needn’t threaten the basic idea that, as a matter of plain biology, there are two major sex categories. They don’t threaten the reality of the male-female distinction, any more than teenagers threaten the distinction between children and adults.

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