Tag Archives: sex

Is there sex selection among Asian immigrants in the US?

There is a 2008 paper reported in the New York Times in 2009, which found skewed sex ratios among children of immigrants from China, Korea, and India, if their older siblings were girls, using the 2000 Census. The implication was that some parents were using IVF or abortion to select boy children if their first two were girls — as is the case in their home countries. There has been some other research on this from the early 2000s, but I haven’t seen it updated since then.

I took a quick stab at it, but don’t have time right now to pursue it more thoroughly. So here’s the quick answer I got, and I shared my data, code, and results in an Open Science Framework project, here. I hope someone will be interested and pursue it further (using my approach or not). The files there include all different ethnic/racial groups.

This is preliminary.

Using the American Community Survey data from 2010-2015, from IPUMS.org, I took U.S.-born children ages 0-5, whose parents were both born in China, Korea, or India and both were present in the household. I counted the sex of any present siblings under age 15 (excluding step- and adopted children). Then I restricted the data to those with 2 older siblings, and compared the sex ratios among those who had 0 or 1 older sister to those who had 2 older sisters. I did this in a logistic regression controlling for individual years of age, and using ACS person weights. There are judgment calls to make about age, siblings, data and other issues. The older you get the more likely you are to have kids moving out in a way that is not sex-neutral (for example, if parents with girls are more or less likely to divorce), and so on. Should parents be matched on immigration status, siblings born abroad included, why the years 2010-2015, and so on. This is what I mean by preliminary. But these results are interesting enough to prompt me to post them and encourage discussion and more analysis.

Here’s what I got:

sex selection.xlsx

The sex differences between those with 0/1 older sister and 2 older sisters are not statistically significant at p.<.05 in each of the three groups, but they are for the combined set (.046). These comparison involve a few hundred cases. Here are the unweighted, unadjusted results:


As you can see, just a few families intervening to choose boys — or some other force rearranging the living arrangements, or survival, of children and families, and the difference would not hold. Still, I think it’s worth pursuing. Maybe someone already has. If you decide to get into it, feel free to use this stuff, and let me know what you come up with!


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Transgender discrimination is sex discrimination


The people defending segregated bathrooms have weird ideas about privacy.

The Obama Education department says schools can’t discriminate against transgender students if they want federal funding, under Title IX of the Education Amendments. This relies on an interpretation of the law, which did not include gender identity in 1972. The law permits sex segregated bathrooms, athletics, and classes that teach body stuff, but by this interpretation they have to permit transgender students to use the facilities consistent with their gender identity. I’m not a legal expert, so this is just a semi-informed thought.

Some conservatives believe Obama is wrong because the new rule tries to make sex socially constructed, which it isn’t. On Fox News Sunday, George Will said:

The ’64 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination on the basis of sex. The administration is saying sex is a synonym for gender identity. Not true. The “party of science” ought to know that sex is a matter of chromosomes. And the — those advocating for transgender rights have been saying for years that indeed it is a matter of sexual gender identity that is not the same as sex. So what is sinister here is the — is the president saying the language of the law simply doesn’t mean what it says.

(This is one of the reasons I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction anymore).

The defense of sex segregation rules that exclude transgender people is based on notions of privacy that are counterintuitive (to me), whereby being seen naked by someone of the same sex is not a privacy violation but being seen naked by someone of another sex is. This has been litigated a lot with respect to prisons, where female prisoners have been successful in using privacy claims in some cases to get same-sex guards assigned to do strip searches and shower supervision. Although I support female prisoners’ attempts to reduce abuse by having female guards, the process we’re going through is part of a progressive weakening of sex segregation, which is mostly good. In fact, I think it would be a shame if we ended up shoehorning transgender rights into this binary-privacy construction, defending the right of transgender people to be seen naked only by the proper binary-category of people.

I don’t think transgender rights require creating new categories of protection, or changing the definition of sex and gender (although there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily). I think transgender discrimination is sex discrimination because it denies people the privileges one sex enjoys on the basis of their sex. I particularly like the logic of Judge Vaughn Walker’s Proposition 8 decision in California, in which he explained how sex discrimination creates sexual orientation discrimination, in that case by denying lesbians homogamous marriage rights:

Sexual orientation discrimination can take the form of sex discrimination. Here, for example, Perry is prohibited from marrying Stier, a woman, because Perry is a woman. If Perry were a man, Proposition 8 would not prohibit the marriage. Thus, Proposition 8 operates to restrict Perry’s choice of marital partner because of her sex. … Having considered the evidence, the relationship between sex and sexual orientation and the fact that Proposition 8 eliminates a right only a gay man or a lesbian would exercise, the court determines that plaintiffs’ equal protection claim is based on sexual orientation, but this claim is equivalent to a claim of discrimination based on sex.

I think you can apply the same logic to transgender rights with respect to bathrooms, etc. Laws insisting on sex-matched bathroom use have the effect of forcing only transgender people to use bathrooms with people of the other gender. If you’re going to have sex segregated bathrooms, it’s an equal protection problem if transgender people disproportionately suffer the negative consequence of that. But underlying that, it’s a problem of sex discrimination: because of her sex, a trans woman can’t use the facility that she is most comfortable with.

Under the new education guideline, schools can provide everyone with an individual-user options (but not force only transgender people to use them), or they don’t have to have sex-segregated bathrooms at all (although they would presumably have to provide individual-user facilities as an option).

If people are deeply committed to the gender binary, the last bastions of which are sex-segregated bathrooms and athletics, then I think they are right to be freaking out. As much as transgender rights activists often reinforce the gender binary by asserting a right to cross it without challenging it, the very debate we’re having undermines the concept. Eventually, someone could argue successfully that sex segregated bathrooms are sex discrimination for everyone, which they obviously are – and the justification for that is weakening.


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Does doing difference deny dominance? (vocal fry, sports sex testing, and resting bitch face edition)

Does women’s behavior make them less equal?

“Guess what,” Camille Paglia said the other day in Salon. “Women are different than men!”

Usually when people point out gender differences, they don’t just mean men and women are different, they mean “women are different from men.” As an archetypal example, in “Do women really want equality?” Kay Hymowitz argued that women don’t want to model their professional lives on male standards, and therefore they don’t really want equality:

This hints at the problem with the equality-by-the-numbers approach: it presumes women want absolute parity in all things measurable, and that the average woman wants to work as many hours as the average man, that they want to be CEOs, heads of state, surgeons and Cabinet heads just as much as men do.

So the male professional standard is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. Of course, what women (and men) want is a product of social interaction, so it’s not an abstract quality separate from social context. But also, I’m no statistician but I know that when there is a gap between two variable quantities (such as men’s and women’s average hours in paid work), moving one of them isn’t the only way to bring them closer together. In other words — men could change, too.

What about vocal fry and uptalk?

Naomi Wolf would add these speech patterns to the list of women’s self-inflicted impediments:

“Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways.

So the male speech pattern is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. In opposition is the argument made here:

Teaching young women to accommodate to the linguistic preferences, a.k.a. prejudices, of the men who run law firms and engineering companies is doing the patriarchy’s work for it. It’s accepting that there’s a problem with women’s speech, rather than a problem with sexist attitudes to women’s speech.

So some feminists want more respect for vocal fry, saying: “when your dads bitch about the way you talk it’s because they’re just trying to not listen to you talk, period, so fuck your dads.” This stance is not just feminist, it’s young feminist:

[Vocal fry] is the speaking equivalent of “you ain’t shit,” an affectation of the perpetually unbothered. It’s a protective force between the pejorative You — dads, Sales types, bosses, basically anyone who represents the establishment — and the collective Us, which is to say, a misunderstood generation that inherited a whole landscape of bullshit because y’all didn’t fix it when you had the goddamn chance.

Elevating vocal fry to a virtue would be more persuasive if the common examples weren’t mostly rich women talking about basically nothing. As an old dad who has done nothing to fix society, I personally bitched about the way the two women interviewed for this NPR story fried and uptalked their way through an excruciating seven-minute conversation about the awesomeness of selfie culture.

Of course, this being a patriarchal society, double standards abound. Men fry their vocals, too, and no one cares. (I myself transcribed this awesome piece of run-on from a young man on the radio once, but I didn’t blame him for holding all men back.) And then there’s resting bitch face, “a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless,” according to Jessica Bennett (whose RBF is not to be trifled with). But only for women:

“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default,” said Rachel Simmons, an author and leadership consultant at Smith College. “We don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile. So if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.’ ”

Many men feel that RBF is a blight on their scenery — one they have the right to demand improvement upon — which is why they tell random women on the street to smile. Plus, they just like exercising informal personal power over random women who aren’t conforming with various social rules, including the rule that you show your love for patriarchy at all times.

Sometimes women should act more like men, because some of the behavior that men would otherwise own is about power and access and self-determination and other things that women want and deserve. And some gender differences are just little pieces of the symbolic architecture that helps establish that men and women are different, which means women are different, which means men are dominant. Difference for its own sake is bad for gender equality.

It’s tricky because we don’t have different audiences for different messages anymore, but we need two true messages at once: It’s wrong to discriminate against and shame women for their speech patterns, and it’s a good idea not to undermine yourself with speech patterns that annoy or distract men and old people.

What about sports?

One process people use to essentialize sex categories — to enhance rather than downplay gender differences — is sex segregated sports (which I last wrote about with regard to Caster Semenya). As is the case with many gender differences, our sports establishment and culture is built around male standards, which is why women are granted a protected sphere of difference . Writes Vanessa Heggie in a fascinating historical review of sex testing in international sports:

Sex testing, after all, is a tautological (or at least circular) process: the activities which we recognise as sports are overwhelmingly those which favour a physiology which we consider ‘masculine’. As a general rule, the competitor who is taller, has a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, and the larger heart and lungs (plus some other cardio-respiratory factors) will have the sporting advantage. It is therefore inevitable that any woman who is good at sport will tend to demonstrate a more ‘masculine’ physique than women who are not good at sport. What the sex test effectively does, therefore, is provide an upper limit for women’s sporting performance; there is a point at which your masculine-style body is declared ‘too masculine’, and you are disqualified, regardless of your personal gender identity. For men there is no equivalent upper physiological limit – no kind of genetic, or hormonal, or physiological advantage is tested for, even if these would give a ‘super masculine’ athlete a distinct advantage over the merely very athletic ‘normal’ male.

Heggie adds that, for every claim of gender fraud that turns out to be “true” — that is, a male or intersex person with an unfair advantage competing as a woman, which is vanishingly rare — there are countless cases of “suspicions, rumour, and inuendo” regarding women who are simply unusually big and muscular. As in wide swaths of the professional world, men are the standard, and successful women often look or act more like men — and then they are shamed or penalized for not performing their gender correctly.

There is a sex versus gender issue here, however. When men’s behavior or activity is the standard by which all are judged, there are gendered (social) reasons women have trouble competing — such as exclusion from training, hiring, promotion, and social networks, or socially-defined burdens (such as childcare) impeding their progress toward the top ranks. And then sometimes there are sex (biological) reasons women can’t win, such as in most organized sports.

Here are the world record times in the 800-meter foot race for men and women, from 1922 to the present:

For all the fuss over Caster Semenya’s natural hormone levels, she never got to within two seconds of Jarmila Kratochvílová‘s 1983 record of 1:53.3. It’s presumed that Kratochvílová was taking steroids, but not proven — though the longer the time that lapses since her record was achieved, the more that seems likely.

It’s very telling that no woman has beaten Kratochvílová’s record. In fact, after women made steady progress toward equality for four decades, men’s lead has increased by almost a second in the last four decades. In this contest of physiology, the fastest women apparently cannot compete with the fastest men. This makes a strong case for sex not gender as the difference-maker. But, as I’ve argued before, that does not mean we’re outside the realm of social construction, because the line has to be drawn somewhere to create the protective arena in which women can compete with each other, and that line is defined socially.

We solve the problem if we “stop pawning this fundamentally social question off onto scientists,” say Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis. They want to “let all legally recognized women compete. Period.” But if it is fundamentally social, instead of biological, why are men’s times so much faster?

Aside: How deep a difference

Thinking about all this, I was half interested in what Camille Paglia had to say in Salon about the similarity between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby — in some ways obvious, in some ways an obvious overreach — and I might even have looked up her book, Sexual Personae, if she hadn’t said the book “of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind!” So that rules me out.

Anyway, in the interview she goes beyond the idea that men and women have different preferences and habits. Here is “why women are having so much trouble dealing with men in the feminist era”:

equality in the workplace is not going to solve the problems between men and women which are occurring in the private, emotional realm, where every man is subordinate to women, because he emerged as a tiny helpless thing from a woman’s body. Professional women today don’t want to think about this or deal with it.

Not recognizing such inherent conditions is a problem for modern feminism, she believes:

Guess what – women are different than men! When will feminism wake up to this basic reality? Women relate differently to each other than they do to men. And straight men do not have the same communication skills or values as women – their brains are different!

In this view, which you could (she does) loosely call Freudian, the sex difference and the gender difference are nearly unified, because the psychological basis for difference is universally present at birth. The short-sighted feminist attempt to erase gender difference thus makes both women and men miserable:

Now we’re working side-by-side in offices at the same job. Women want to leave at the end of the day and have a happy marriage at home, but then they put all this pressure on men because they expect them to be exactly like their female friends. If they feel restlessness or misery or malaise, they automatically blame it on men. Men are not doing enough; men aren’t sharing enough. But it’s not the fault of men that we have this crazy and rather neurotic system where women are now functioning like men in the workplace, with all its material rewards.

What is out of whack is women entering men’s sphere, apparently.

The political stakes attached to the nature and extent of difference between male and female people makes it an ever-important question. It underlies, for example, the opposition to marriage equality, as demonstrated in the terrible Catholic video series called Humanum, where you might hear such nuggets of wisdom as this:

In every human being there is a masculine part, and a feminine part, and as a man I get this feminine part from my mother or from the maternal image in my family, and I get this masculine image from the paternal part, from the paternal image in my family. And I get to make some equilibrium inside. And without this equilibrium my humanity is not really sane.

There is a difference between saying there is a difference between men and women and saying there is such a difference between men and women that your humanity is not complete unless you have both a mother and father.

Difference and dominance

Times like this, like it or not, are good times to revisit Catharine MacKinnon’s essay, “Difference and dominance: On sex discrimination.”*

There is a politics to this. Concealed is the substantive way in which man has become the measure of all things. Under the sameness standard, women are measured according to our correspondence with man, our equality judged by our proximity to his measure. Under the difference standard, we are measured according to our lack of correspondence with him, our womanhood judged by our distance from his measure. Gender neutrality is thus simply the male standard, and the special protection rule is simply the female standard, but do not be deceived: masculinity, or maleness, is the referent for both.

Between the rock of neutrality and the hard place of special protection. Difference and dominance.

In reality … virtually every quality that distinguishes men from women is already affirmatively compensated in this society. Men’s physiology defines most sports … their socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their inability to get along with each other — their wars and rulerships — defines history, their image defines god, and their genitals define sex.

So, check that referent. Of course, those women who work more hours, adopt male speech patterns and facial expressions, and run faster, may do better than those who do not (under the risk of overstepping). But why can’t women embrace gender difference in things like speech patterns, and wield them in the service of equality? They might. But under these conditions, enhancing gender differences works against inequality.

* There are several versions of this essay available by Googling. I’m quoting the one published in her 1988 book Feminism Unmodified.


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Off gender-script art

Fortunately, the hotel we’re stranded at is only a few blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago. Tooling around the museum I was still thinking about sex dimorphism, especially this piece in Time where I referenced ancient art and this one where I compared depictions of Hercules. I have no expertise in art history, so file (or skip) these as random observations of someone interested in cultural depictions of gender.


I’m intrigued by the idea — recurrent in the comments I get — that because animation for kids exaggerates things, then it is obvious that it will include extreme dimorphism. It seems to me that extreme dimorphism is a more common ideal now than it was in lots of other times and places, which perplexes me. So, in the category of dimorphism they didn’t do in the old days, here’s a Greek jar from 500 BC that shows men and a woman fighting. The caption describes her as “a fair-skinned Amazon, or foreign female warrior.”

vaseThe woman warrior’s body is just about the same as the man’s. “Of course,” they’ll say, “it’s because she’s a warrior.” And this is just super realistic art that happens to be about a female warrior — with no implication for gender ideal types.

Beauty standard

On a different subject, thinness in general, which of course is a historically-recent obsession. Here’s a nice example, an 8th century, Tang Dynasty, earthenware sculpture featuring a “matronly rider” with “ample proportions — conveyed by the folds of her flowing, wide-sleeved robe as well as by her plump cheeks and double chin,” which was “fashionable at the mid-eighth-century Tang court.”

chinahorseThey don’t mention her tiny hands, also in fashion among Chinese elites, and possibly bound feet (footbinding is supposed to date from around this period).

Gender (non-)differentiated children

The Art Institute is all about Impressionism, and there is a recurring theme among the French painters of little boys with long hair and dresses. Here is Jean Renoir, from 1899. The caption says the boy wanted his hair shorter but his father made him keep it long till school rules required him to cut it at age seven.

jeanrenoirThe caption doesn’t say whether he liked sewing.

Who knew Claude Monet also had a son named Jean? Here he is at age five or six, in 1873, playing hoop while his mother watches. The scene depicts the well-being of a period of “financial security” for the family, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford boy’s clothes.


Finally, Camille Pissarro’s Woman with Child at the Well, part of a series “depicting peasant girls taking a break from their chores.” The model for the little boy was the painter’s fourth son, Ludovic-Rodolphe, who was four at the time.

ludovicNone of this is surprising to people who’ve seen this portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two, in 1884:


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Does sleeping with a guy on the first date make him less likely to call back?

I have no idea. But there is a simple reason that it might seem like it does, even if it doesn’t.

Let’s imagine that a woman — we’ll call her “you,” like they do in relationship advice land — is trying to calculate the odds that a man will call back after sex. Everyone tells you that if you sleep with a guy on the first date he is less likely to call back. The theory is that giving sex away at a such a low “price” lowers the man’s opinion of you, because everyone thinks sluts are disgusting.* Also, shame on you.

Photo by Emily Hildebrand, from Flickr Creative Commons

So, you ask, does the chance he will call back improve if you wait till more dates before having sex with him? You ask around and find that this is actually true: The times you or your friends waited till the seventh date, two-thirds of the guys called back, but when you slept with him on the first date, only one-in-five called back. From the data, it sure looks like sleeping with a guy on the first date reduces the odds he’ll call back.


So, does this mean that women make men disrespect them by having sex right away? If that’s true, then the historical trend toward sex earlier in relationships could be really bad for women, and maybe feminism really is ruining society.

Like all theories, this one assumes a lot. It assumes you (women) decide when couples will have sex, because it assumes men always want to, and it assumes men’s opinion of you is based on your sexual behavior. With these assumptions in place, the data appear to confirm the theory.

But what if that those assumptions aren’t true? What if couples just have more dates when they enjoy each other’s company, and men actually just call back when they like you? If this is the case, then what really determines whether the guy calls back is how well-matched the couple is, and how the relationship is going, which also determines how many dates you have.

What was missing in the study design was relationship survival odds. Here is a closer look at the same data (not real data), with couple survival added:


By this interpretation, the decision about when to have sex is arbitrary and doesn’t affect anything. All that matters is how much the couple like and are attracted to each other, which determines how many dates they have, and whether the guy calls back. Every couple has a first date, but only a few make it to the seventh date. It appears that the first-date-sex couples usually don’t last because people don’t know each other very well on first dates and they have a high rate of failure regardless of sex. The seventh-date-sex couples, on the other hand, usually like each other more and they’re very likely to have more dates. And: there are many more first-date couples than seventh-date couples.

So the original study design was wrong. It should have compared call-back rates after first dates, not after first sex. But when you assume sex runs everything, you don’t design the study that way. And by “design the study” I mean “decide how to judge people.”

I have no idea why men call women back after dates. It is possible that when you have sex affects the curves in the figure, of course. (And I know even talking about relationships this way isn’t helping.) But even if sex doesn’t affect the curves, I would expect higher callback rates after more dates.

Anyway, if you want to go on blaming everything bad on women’s sexual behavior, you have a lot of company. I just thought I’d mention the possibility of a more benign explanation for the observed pattern that men are less likely to call back after sex if the sex takes place on the first date.

* This is not my theory.


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Why I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction

Or, the sex/gender distinction which is not one?


(This post includes research from my excellent graduate assistant, Lucia Lykke.)

Recently I was corrected by another sociologist: “Phil – ‘female’ and ‘male’ refer to one’s sex, not gender.”

Feminists — including feminist sociologists — have made important progress by drawing the conceptual distinction between sex and gender, with sex the biological and gender the social categories. From this, maybe, we could recognize that gendered behavior was not simply an expression of sex categories — related to the term “sex roles” — but a socially-constructed set of practices layered on top of a crude biological base.

Lucia informs me we can date this to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. In 1949 she wrote:

It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.

Later, she added, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” And this is what Judith Butler put down as the root of the gender/sex distinction, calling it “the distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation”:

The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny… At its limit, then, the sex/gender distinction implies a radical heteronomy of natural bodies and constructed genders with the consequence that ‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sort of being.

In their famous article, “Doing Gender,” West and Zimmerman report making the sex/gender distinction in their sociology classes starting in the late 1960s. I’m guessing this really started to catch on among sociologists in the 1970s, based on this ngram of “social construction of gender” and “social construction of sex” as percentages of all uses of “social construction” in American English:


The spread of this distinction in the popular understanding — and I don’t know how far it has spread — seems to be credited to sociologists, maybe because people learn it in an introductory sociology course. As of today, Wikipedia says this under Introduction to Sex/Gender:

Sociologists make a distinction between gender and sex. Gender is the perceived or projected component of human sexuality while sex is the biological or genetic component. Why do sociologists differentiate between gender and sex? Differentiating gender from sex allows social scientists to study influences on sexuality without confusing the social and psychological aspects with the biological and genetic aspects. As discussed below, gender is a social construction. If a social scientist were to continually talk about the social construction of sex, which biologists understand to be a genetic trait, this could lead to confusion.

Lots of people devote energy to defending the sex-versus-gender distinction, but I’m not one of them. It’s that dichotomy, nature versus culture. I got turned on to turning off this distinction by Catharine MacKinnon, whose book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State I have used to teach social theory as well as gender. In her introduction, she wrote (p. xiii):

Much has been made of the supposed distinction between sex and gender. Sex is thought to be the more biological, gender the more social; the relation of each to sexuality varies. I see sexuality as fundamental to gender and as fundamentally social. Biology becomes the social meaning of biology within the system of sex inequality much as race becomes ethnicity within a system of racial inequality. Both are social and political in a system that does not rest independently on biological differences in any respect. In this light, the sex/gender distinction looks like a nature/culture distinction in the sense criticized by Sherry Ortner in ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’ I use sex and gender relatively interchangeably.

From another perspective, Joan Fujimura argued for mixing more social into that biological scheme:

My investigation is an argument for broadening our social imaginaries—our definitions and understandings—of the material, the natural. A critical sociomaterial view of sex integrates sociocultural and historical investigations of the production of the material (e.g., the complexities and variations of sex physiologies and genetics) with diverse social imaginaries about sex and bodies proposed by feminists, queer theorists, intersexuals, and others. In this approach, we study and juxtapose the actions and interactions of social activist groups, social theorists, biologists, bodies, and genes in order to understand the collective, contentious, contradictory, and interactive crafting of sex in humans.

… [D]emonstrations of the sociomaterial production of sex, the Möbius strip production of sex, are useful for maintaining our awareness that natural categories are also social categories. Further, even as our current language of analysis maintains the division between the natural and the social, the point of a critical sociomaterial approach is to move in the direction of a language where there is no division, where we are always conscious that the natural and the social are not separated.

For example, we need to think of the categories male and female not as representing stable, fundamental differences but as already and always social categories. They form a set of concepts, a set of social categories of difference to be deployed for particular purposes. Ergo, what counts as male and female must be evaluated in their context of use. The categories male and female, like the categories men and women, may be useful for organizing particular kinds of social investigation or action, but they may also inhibit actions.

In that West and Zimmerman article, you may remember, they argue that “since about 1975 … we learned that the relationship between biological and cultural processes was far more complex — and reflexive — than we previously had supposed.” To help smooth the relationship between sex and gender, they use “sex category,” which “stands as a proxy” for sex but actually is created by identificatory displays, which in turn lead to gender. As I see it, the sex category concept makes the story about the social construction of sex as well as gender. For example, their use of the bathroom “equipment” discussion from Goffman’s 1977 essay is also about the social process of hardening sex, not just gender.

The U.S. Census Bureau says, “For the purpose of Census Bureau surveys and the decennial census, sex refers to a person’s biological sex,” and their form asks, “What is Person X’s Sex: Male/Female.”

But that explanation is not on the form, and there’s no (longer) policing of people filling it out — like race, it’s based on self-identification. (Everything on the form is self-identification, but some things are edited out, like married people under age 15.) So for any reason anyone can choose either “male” or “female.” What they can’t do is write in an alternative (there is no space for a write-in) or leave it blank (it will be made up for you if you do).

So its words are asking for something “biological,” but people are social animals, and they check the box they want. I think its eliciting sex category identification, which is socially produced, which is gender.

This all means that, to me, it would be OK if the form said, “Gender: Male/Female” (and that’s not a recommendation for how forms should be made, which is beyond my expertise, or an argument for how anyone should fill it out). I’m just not sure the benefits of defending the theoretical sex/gender distinction outweigh the costs of treating biological sex as outside the realm of the social.


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All hands dimorphic: Gnomeo and Juliet edition

I previously complained about Tangled‘s 75%-male cast and extreme sex dimorphism in the romantic leads, as seen in this hand shot:


Keeping to my policy of two-year delays in movie reviews, let me add the same complaint about Gnomeo and Juliet, the charming adaptation from Disney’s Touchstone imprint. Here, a writing team of 8 men and 2 women (including Shakespeare) gives us a named cast of 14 men and 7 women, in a love story featuring these two adorable garden gnomes:

gnomeojulietHe’s only a little taller, and (judging by the gray beard) a little older. And in the movie she demonstrates bravery and feats of strength, as is now the norm. But look at those hands! Take a closer look:

gnomeojuliethandsWhat is it about hands that makes it so essential for men and women to have such differences? In the “man hands” episode of Seinfeld we learned how distressing it can be for a man to find out the woman to whom he was attracted has large hands.


That scene required a hand double. In real life, men’s and women’s hands differ on average but with a lot of overlap in the distributions — lots of men have hands smaller than lots of women. But in animation the gloves are off — and Disney is free to pair up couples who are many standard deviations apart in hand size. If real people commonly had this range of hand sizes, would such an extreme difference be considered desirable?


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