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Around the web: sexual differentiation and identity

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

This week I taught my students about sexual differentiation in humans. We also watched the PBS special Sex: Unknown. This film documents the botched circumcision, gender reassignment surgery, social and hormonal conditioning, then later gender reversal of Bruce, turned Brenda, turned David. They also interview David’s mother, Anne Fausto-Sterling, a few scientists (to set up a sense of “controversy”) and a transgender man. Overall I think it’s a very well done, devastatingly sad film.

One of the things I always take away from this film when I watch it is how malleable gender is, and how gender is something that is up to the individual who supposedly possesses it, not parents or doctors. I think my students got the second message, but not the first. They found David’s story — an XY male who was gender reassigned due to the botched circumcision, but that gender reassignment ultimately failed — as confirmation that sex is not malleable, and that it’s binary. We had a hard time defining gender and sex and making sure to parse them out. And despite what we learned in the film, about the large number of people born with genitalia that is not obviously male or female (more than those born with cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome combined), most thought there are only two sexes.

While I think sex is more determined, in some obvious and very interesting ways, compared to gender, I have a feeling that sex is still more malleable than we would like to admit. We have so much interesting comparative evidence in other animals of hormonal organizational effects that are not permanent. So, while the majority of people likely are male or female, I think the awareness the intersex movement brings, for us to acknowledge more variation rather than bin people into two categories, is an important one.

Sex determination, sex and gender identity

First, from Ed Yong: Sex runs hot and cold (look, even the amazing Ed Yong conflates sex and gender! It’s ok, we all do it sometimes). Here is some of that comparative evidence I mentioned — environmental stimuli impacting sex determination in jacky dragons. A very cool read. Also check out the comments; one of them contains a useful citation.

I also found a few others in Discover Magazine: Of Mice and Men is interesting, as it chronicles the importance of pheromones in sex determination and sex behavior in mice. This bleeds over, at least a little, into our class’s next topic of behavioral endocrinology. Transsexual brains also looks at sex identity, by examining the brains of transgender folk. They found differences between transgender and not-transgender male brains in parts of the brain that are probably determined in utero.

Related to this story was another in Scientific American Mind. I had a hard time finding a link that would allow you to read the full text, but this one should work. The article is called the Third Gender, and similar to the previous link, it looks at transgendered folks as a way to think about sex and gender differently and flexibly. An interesting read.

Next, the basic story of sexual differentiation often implies that male factors are needed to produce males, whereas females are just produced so long as there are no male factors around. Not so fast! Rather than seeing female sex determination as a passive process, this article suggests a more active role. This complicates the story, but that is rarely a bad thing!

Finally, a rather sad story, but one I thought worth sharing regarding our conversation on sex and gender: Afghan Boys are Prized, so Girls Live the Part. This is a New York Times story about families in Afghanistan dressing their daughters as sons in order to improve their status. Once the girls hit puberty, they generally have to go back to being girls, but for those years that they dress as boys they enjoy all the privileges of being male. You need to read this story.

Nothing random to share in this Around the Web, but I’m saving a few good ones for the next post. You should just read what I’ve linked here!


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