01 March 2009

Sunday Snow and Biological Sex Dimorphism

I think that we will not have evensong tonight. It is snowing like mad and has been for hours. The roads were just starting to freeze while I was walking home. Perhaps we'll even have the day off school tomorrow. That would be a great help.

The weather has been very extreme lately: warmth and thunderstorms one day, snow and tornadoes at the same time the next, temperatures travelling from 14 F (-10C) in the early morning to 57F (14C) by 4.00pm. I didn't bother to take my coat with me yesterday, even though I was out late, but today I was bundled up in the coat, two scarves and a very ugly hat that was my mother's when she was at university. I love to wear the ugly hat, especially to church, because I get such odd looks. Anyhow, here is yesterday:

And here is today:

It has gotten even snowier since I took that picture. Crazy mountain weather, I tell you. I love it though. I just hope that the ex-girlfriend, who is travelling quite a distance to visit a university that has made her an offer for grad school, made it out of the mountains before the snow started.

Other things than weather have happened, of course. I'm no longer worried about my strangely acting friend because I understand the reasons why, now. (That sentence had very odd grammar.) I also found out yesterday that my paper has been accepted to an undergraduate conference. Hurray!

The paper is called "The Logical Invalidity of Biological Sex Dimorphism as an Exclusive Disjunction" and I had much fun writing it a year or so ago. It was for my philosophy of sex and gender class and my professor hated it. She doesn't believe in logic and thinks that it is only ever used to oppress people. I tend to think that that's throwing the baby out with the bathwater, to employ a cliche.

Anyhow, we read a fascinating book called 'Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex' by Alice Dreger*. Her explanation of the evolving scientific understanding of hermaphroditism/intersexed persons helped to delineate the categories of sex, sexuality and gender, which are now commonly separated but were once assumed to always hang together as either male or female but not both (which is an exclusive disjunction). The common contemporary medical practice dictates that at the birth of an intersex infant, that is, an infant with ambiguous genitalia, an emergency is declared and the infant is taken away before its parents can see it so that a group of doctors can evaluate and 'declare' the infant either male or female, determined nearly entirely on the formation of the genitals. The process is deeply phallocentric, with the main criterion being the formation of the penis. If it is hypospadic (the urethra located closer to the base of the penis rather than the tip), the infant is many times declared female because (and I am sadly not making this up) the infant, when older, would not be able to urinate standing up. The same declaration holds for penises that are deemed to be too small. Such genetalia are reclassified as clitorises. If a 'female' infant is born with a clitoris that is, in the eyes of a doctor, too long, it is often surgically altered in the first weeks of life to conform to a feminine appearance. There are no cases that I know of where a long clitoris has resulted in the sex assignment of male, as one might expect as the converse of the case of short penises.

If the genetalia are not ambiguous on the basis of gross anatomy as is the case in some forms of intersex, such as 5-alpha reductase, then further investigations are made later in life, often around the time of puberty. On occasion, the sex assignment is changed from female to male or, less commonly, male to female at this time. Sometimes the 'patient' is informed of the details of the intersexedness, sometimes not. Sometimes their testimony is taken into consideration, sometimes the doctors or parents or both make the decision. Fertility, unless it concerns the production of sperm, is rarely considered as a determinant of sex.

Now, having read about all the varieties of intersexedness and the way ambiguous sex is treated as a medical emergency, it seemed to me that it was impossible, even in the case of what are considered to be unambiguous genitalia, to declare that anyone was male or female exclusively. For instance, there is a great deal of freely acknowledged crossover between male and female secondary sex characteristics. Women may develop 'masculine' facial hair while men may develop 'breasts' that are female in contour (there is a technical name for this but I cannot call it to mind). This crossover of characteristics is also a locus of anxiety, though not an emergency. But I would contend that most women who develop dark hairs above their mouths would bleach them or pluck them. Would they not suffer a decrease of desirability and femininity if they did not?

Fertility is too capricious a condition to determine sex. (If it were used, would women not be women when menstruating? Before menarche? After menopause? Where could that line be drawn?) Sex is always declared, even if only implicitly, because there is no absolute characteristic or set of characteristics that is necessary and sufficient to serve as an indisputable marker of sex. So, even though I, personally, have an anatomy that is generally considered to be biologically female, and visually conform to the cultural conception of femaleness there is no way for me to prove that I am female or for anyone to prove that I am not male.

Having said that, none of this means that male and female are invalid categories. These two categories have meaning, positive and negative. If sex didn't in some sense truly exist, then no one could be transsexual or homosexual or bisexual. However, we are quite possibly making a mistake when we say that there are only two sexes and that no individual can be both male and female and that no individual can be neither male nor female. If we were to recombine sexuality and gender with anatomy in creative ways, we could decide as a culture that there were eight sexes, or five sexes or the the idea of a biological sex was altogether misbegotten. There have, in fact, been several cultures through the course of history, some that still exist today, that have three or four categories of sex. So much possibility so quashed, and quashed with so much violence. People are killed over it, raped over it, go through painful and not medically necessary surgery over it. It seems to me that it is worthwhile to re-evaluate or cultural notions of sex.

I'm surprised that it made it into the conference. So many philosophers think that the body is not an appropriate focus for philosophy and I had such a negative reaction from my professor over it. I'm glad it's in, though, and I can't wait to present it.

* Dreger, Alice Domurat. "Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex." Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

I wonder if this post will drive up my hits from google?

No comments:

Post a Comment