American social expectations based on gender are reached by way of an unacknowledged, but very commonly understood logically valid argument roughly like this:

  • Premise 1: Every human being is born with either a penis or a vagina.
  • Premise 2: Those human beings with penises are males, starting life as 'boys', and upon reaching sexual maturity, becoming 'men'. We will call this set "men". Those with vaginas start life as girls, and upon reaching sexual maturity, become 'women'. We will call this set "women".
  • Premise 3: In the set "men", certain innate emotional and behavioral characteristics are very common, among them: Sexual attraction to women, aggression, toughness, etc. In the set "female", certain other innate emotional and behavioral characteristics are very common, among them: Sexual attraction to men, a nurturing demeanor, tendency toward emotion, sensitivity, etc.
  • Premise 4: People should behave in a way that is consistent with their gender-set’s common characteristics.

  • ______________________________________________
  • Conclusion: Adults with penises are "men", and should behave in the ways consistent with the rest of their gender set, i.e., consistent with masculinity. Adults with vaginas are "women", and should behave in the ways consistent with their gender set, i.e., consistent with femininity.

There are three problems with the valid argument above:

Premise 3 asserts that certain emotional and behavioral characteristics are very common in the gender sets. That much is not too difficult to accept. But are those characteristics innate? Well, they're certainly not innate for everyone; if they were, there'd be nothing to discuss here. While common gender-variegated behavior norms may be innate to some (or even most) members of a gender set, we should consider that behavior paradigms may actually cause themselves, through widespread a priori acceptance. That is, men turn to male society to establish their correct behavior, but that correct behavior is in the first place established by those men themselves, since collectively, they ARE male society!

I liken this circularity to an interesting phenomenon in modern language: the body of English-speakers consults dictionaries as guides for "correct" word usage and spelling; but lexicographers consult this same body of English speakers to determine the word usages and spellings which are very common, and therefore "correct." These systems of authority--in the examples of language and gender--are recursive and closed, because each entity regards the other as the authoritative standard, denying its own role in the matter.

Premise 4, that a person "should" behave in a gender-specific way has two problems. Besides being completely baseless, it has some unintended consequences. Paraphrased, Premise 4 says that anything that is common in a gender set is good, and anything that deviates from the most-common traits is bad. Notice that this Premise renounces effeminate behavior AND exceptionally-masculine behavior alike! It is no more 'normal' (i.e., common), for a man to be an excellent sharpshooter ("masculine") than it is for him to be a homemaker ("feminine"). Both are uncommon, and therefore, by this reasoning, 'abnormal'. Yes, perhaps the premise could be rephrased in a way that avoids that problem, but even so, the following question would remain: Why 'should' a male behave in a way that is common, even if such behavior is not natural for him? Says who?!

Finally, the most basic premise of the argument, Premise 1, is also the most provably false. I'm serious: it is very simply not true that every human being is born with either a penis or a vagina.

In her fascinating and commendable paper, "Indeterminate Biological Sex: An issue of Gender Determination," Tia Scagliarini of the University of Maryland, College Park, thoroughly and scientifically debunks the binary sex concept, demonstrating that biology exhibits no such thing. The incidence of "intersexuality" in an astounding 1.7 percent of American births (63) is alone enough to disprove the premise that "all humans have penises or vaginas." Intersexuality includes (but is not limited to) hermaphroditism, and refers to a set of medical conditions in which sex chromosomes, external genitalia, or the internal reproductive system are either gender-ambiguous or otherwise "non-standard" (Ibid.). Some of Scagliarini’s findings about the reactions of the American medical community to the intersexed were troubling:

The average length of a male penis at birth is between 1 and 1.5 inches. However, if a baby is born with a penis of 0.6 inches or less, the penis is generally removed along with the testes and a vaginal opening is created. (64) "In cases of intersexed children assigned the female gender, surgeons may carve a large phallus down into a clitoris attempting to make it appear invisible when standing, create a vagina using a piece of colon, and mold a labia out of the remnants of the penis" (Dreger, qtd. in Scagliarini, 64)

. . . It is extremely rare for . . . [a] sexually abnormal infant to be created a penis as penises are thought to require much more precision and accuracy to be believable while vaginas are less scrutinized (64).

. . . The only occasions when emergency gender alteration will favor a male sexual identity is in the case of true hermaphroditism, when both a physically perfect penis and vagina are present. In this instance, physicians will save the penis and attempt the elimination of the vagina through fusion of the labia (Ibid).

These findings lend weight to the comments of A. Fausto-Sterling, author of The Five Sexes, Revisited, who asserts that the disparity between social expectations of biological sex (i.e., unequivocally male or female), and the truth of biology, forces physicians to "explain otherwise natural biological variation as 'deformity' and hold[s] them responsible for imperative gender determination and assignment," (qtd. in Scagliarini, 63).

Here again is the interesting problem of recursion. Physicians assign gender in two categories because it is the expectation of society that all persons have either a penis or a vagina--that every person is either male or female by primary virtue of their genitals. It is only when viewed from this perspective that ambiguity necessarily equals deformity. But note that societal expectations are set (at least in part) by the behavior of physicians. So, just as in the example of dictionaries and speakers, surgeons perform genital modification to fulfill the expectations of society -- expectations which those surgeons themselves are partly responsible for establishing through surgeries!

Not only do I claim that gender is necessarily a social construction, but furthermore, sometimes, biological sex itself is too.

Source Cited:

Scagliarini, Tia. "Indeterminate Biological Sex: An Issue of Gender Determination." Maryland Essays in Human Biodiversity. Vol. 2, No. 1, Dec. 2003. University of Maryland. Ed. Benjamin Auerbach, Wendy Gilley, et al. 63-64.