A discussion between my friends Samruddhi Bhartiya and Fatima A. Athar that was worth saving for posterity.
1.) Do you think that sex is biological, while gender is a social construct?
Yes, sex is biological and gender is a social construct. The biology of sex and the social construction of gender are both more diverse and complicated than we are typically told to believe.
2.) On what basis do you think that we can identify SEX of people?
In medical and scientific practice a lot of different methods may be used to identify the sex. There is no “one true method”. Broadly speaking biological sex is a tapestry, a mosaic if you would, of lots of different things. This includes sex chromosomes, hormones, phenotypes, anatomy, and so on.
3.) And how many sexes do we have, if we go by the markers based on which you believe that sexes can be identified & distinguished?
If there are more sexes than just males & females, then can you also name a few of them?
It’s difficult to count how many sexes we have because of the presence of numerous “intersex” conditions, a word which is itself a bit of a misnomer since it makes it sound like all the sexes that aren’t chromosomally & phenotypically XX or XY are simply stops in between these two poles. A professional in the field might be able to better help you with the number. Suffice it to say there are at least 4-5 combinations that I know of, probably more.
a.) Man/Woman/Demigirl/Demiboy/etc type classification (something which we see discussed a lot these days)?
Or does it mean
b.) feminine/masculine/neutral type classification (TERFs use this classification, and by gender, they often mean way of self expression)?
4.a. When we say gender is a social construct, we mean that the social identities and norms we associate with these sexes vary between societies, subcultures, and times. Our understanding of the world around us happens in our minds, our conversations, our thoughts/explanations, and the thoughts or explanations others pass on to us. This is how some societies recognize only 2 genders, others 3, yet others 5 or more. Think about how there was a time when early researchers thought homosexuals must not be men or women, because they understood heterosexuality as one of the traits of those two genders. In some forms this idea still survives.
4.b. Masculine, feminine etc are adjectives which is why different from the nouns above. They are not who you are but how you are. The point of this grammar lesson is that understanding these as descriptors is important because one, it does not limit the person to being 1 type of person and two, they can be combined and layered as ways of describing different norms, behaviors, subcultures and even people of any gender. There can be masculine women, feminine men, and androgynous individuals; there can be toxic masculinity and the feminine mystique; there can be performative masculinity or femininity; and the many culturally distinct permutations of these. For example, skirts can be symbols of dainty femininity in one cultural but warriorlike ferocity in another culture. In some cultures, being noisy is a feminine thing and in others it’s a masculine thing.
4.c. You absolutely can reject gender and all trans individuals do inherently reject the imposition of one form of gender: cisgender, or the idea that your gender is what your body appeared as to other people at the time of birth. Radical transfeminism has a wealth of insight into understanding different forms of experiencing gender or no gender whatsoever–the struggle is not against the subjective experience of gender, if any, but the prescriptive one. That being said, a “social construct” as explained in 4(a) does not mean “something that does not actually exist” but simply “something that we built up with each other”. Other examples of social constructs include morality, justice systems, and money. Think about that–even money is a social construct, given that it relies on all of us agreeing that something (bits of paper, bits of metal, shiny rock, cowrie shells) has some value to us (though we decide what “value” means and how much of that value this has). Economics is a science entirely devoted to the study of these socially constructed systems. Yet no-one argues that because money is a social construct the reality of class oppression or wealth inequality does not exist. Money is in fact a social construct so powerful that it can directly or indirectly lead to death, and death is probably one of the most absolute material realities possible. So gender as a social construct can and does still have both profound tangible impact on the individual and on wider society.
5.) whether there are disagreements on what sex/gender means, or how they can be distinguished, and how many types there are, one place where i have seen TERFs agree with intersectional feminists is, that the way one dresses, or whaterver interest someone picks up, has got nothing to do with sex, like they dont think that wearing dress/make up, or having an interest in cooking/stitching/etc, has got anything to do with gender, THEN, on what basis do ppl think that they were born in wrong bodies, if their interests have got nothing to do with their sexes?
The idea that behavior may have nothing to do with gender which in turn may have nothing to do with sex does NOT in turn mean that behavior *must* have nothing to with gender which *must* have nothing to do with sex. This is the difference between expanding vs essentializing our understanding of human diversity. A woman with facial hair is not a less authentic woman — a woman without facial hair is also not a less authentic woman. Depending on the moment in history and the culture, one may be socially validated more than the other. But it doesn’t change that basic premise and to dictate to either one that she is only more real if she can resemble the other is what the problem is. Similarly there are at least two ways to arrive at a society in which gender as a concept holds no influence: force everyone to conform to an androgynous ideal (and what is “androgynous”? Why t-shirts and not dresses?) OR ensure everyone has the necessary personal freedom to define themselves however they want without it leading to any systemic incentives or punishments. To this end not all trans people feel they are in the “wrong” body. Some of them might, just as some gay people feel their experience of sexual abuse contributed to their orientation. But the whole point of self-definition is that you get to decide about yourself.
6.) do biological differences affect our abilities/skills?
What biological differences, which abilities, how do we decide something has been “affected” and is not just part of the spectrum of variation in the skill? These are important questions that should not be taken for granted before answering or asking this question. The science is still out on this but we do know two things: the first, that the brain is a highly adaptive organ that is molded by its experiences; and second, the body’s survival depends on adapting to the demands of its environments. This why for nearly every difference that has been studied so far, it has been impossible to assign causality. There are other differences — for example, it’s not possible to gestate a human baby inside your body if you lack a uterus, whether you’re a man or a woman. (And just to add, it’s not only trans women who may lack a uterus; cis women can be born without one too. So if in #2 you had said women/female is the sex that has a uterus, those cis women would suddenly fall outside your definition as would cis women who have had hysterectomies. Interestingly, a very patriarchal line of thought already does insist that a woman without a uterus/breasts/vagina/menses/fertility is no longer a “real” woman.)
7.) if so, should trans women and cis women be allowed to compete against each other in sports?
The entire field of sports is based on the idea that people’s bodies can be trained or can be naturally gifted or BOTH to be included in a competition of physical excellence for the entertainment or inspiration of others. That’s about it. No male athlete has ever been thrown out for having an unfair natural physical advantage over his peers — that is the point of the competition. Personally, I’m of the opinion that separate categories for men and women are an archaic hangover from the time women were not expected to participate in (or be biologically capable of) physically vigorous activities. Yet at these same times and in these same societies, there would be working class and slave women engaged in massive physical toil for the benefit of their male masters. Nobody seemed to notice (then or now) the biological unfitness of these women for that backbreaking labor, or offer them comfortable cushioned parlor sofas to rest their delicate womanly bodies on. Now that women want to be in sports, there’s hemming and hawing about their physical capacity for them? Some people, including some trans people, do disagree with this — they argue that cis women with naturally higher androgens may have an unfair advantage and that trans women (who often have *lower* than average cis androgen levels during and after transition) may be at an unfair disadvantage. The reasoning doesn’t hold up, as far as I’m concerned. Anyone able to qualify should be able to compete.
8.) i have always denied admitting biological differences having any link/correlation with our abilities, bcos historically, it has been used as an argument to either push a lot of responsibilities on us, or to restrict our access to certain fields, but if at all you agree with 6th question, then keeping that in mind, how do you plan to combat ppl who use our disadvantages against us to restrict us more? (this question kinda takes away from trans ppl and their struggles, and i am sorry about that)
And do we also have somethings which give us an advantage over men, as a result of biological differences?
My plan to combat people who use other people’s natural or systemic disadvantages to deny them rights and restrict them against their will is feminism. That’s about it. That is all of it.