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The claim that humans are "naturally" female or male is a contentious one. This debate stems in large part because of varying definitions of gender (how society defines femininity and masculinity) and sex (female and male). The categories of "female" and "male" sex stem from a biological classification, which typically begins by noting whether an organism can produce ova (and thereby classified as female) or sperm (and thus classified as a male). However, this distinction provides only an initial dichotomy. For humans, biological sex is determined by their chromosomes, genitals, gonads (ovaries or testes), and hormones. Typically, these factors are aligned so that a person is considered biologically male or female. Scientists have also become invested in determining what genes may play a role in human's biological sex, noting, for instance, that the lack of a Y chromosome does not necessarily make one biologically female; nor does having a Y chromosome make one automatically male. Yet such binaries risk overlooking the complications of how "female"ness and "male"ness function and are ascribed meaning in society (see Ortnor and Whitehead 1981; Warren and Bourque 1991). Casual references about the "opposite" sex not only suggest that men and women are in opposition to each other but also that there is nothing in between. This gender binary is challenged if one takes a cross-cultural, historical, or interdisciplinary view of sex categories.

All humans begin, biologically, with a "female" brain. Eight weeks after conception, the testes of male fetuses begin producing testosterone, thereby altering fetal development so that the fetus becomes masculinized (for information on the role of sex development and brain structure, see Brizendine 2006). Because this time of fetal development corresponds with the increase of sex hormones and the development of major organs, biologists continue to investigate possible biological differences between males and females. However, biologists also wonder if there are structural (as well as hormonal) differences between female and male brains. They typically focus their energies on the communication and emotional centers of the brain to see if those components develop differently in men and women. Indeed, many researchers try to link sexual anatomy with gender identity. Some biologists insist that females, because of reproductive demands, have limited intellectual skills (such ideas stem from medical texts in the Middle Ages and continued into the twentieth century) or should be prohibited from certain activities. Other biologists examine biological differences between males and females without attempting to limit either sex's agency. For instance, Richard Udry (2000) found a correlation between the amount of testosterone that fetuses were exposed to in utero and the degree of masculine traits that they exhibited later in life. Others have found consistent differences in childhood developmental milestones (sitting independently, walking) to suggest some differences due to sex alone (Reinisch, Rosenblum, Rubin, and Schulsinger 1997). The mentioned researchers associate the trend of male infants achieving these skills with those infants developing more independence, suggesting a biological component to the agency we associate with masculinity and to the extended dependence some associate with females.

Others are reluctant to make such a link between biological sex and gender traits, claiming that labeling someone a female is a social construct rather than a biological mandate. Yet there is a wide spectrum of opinion about how to best understand the relationship between the theoretical concepts of sex and gender. Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000), for instance, foregrounds the extent to which concepts of gender—rather than biological science—can make supposedly rigid biological constructs of sex quite relative. She critiques focusing on anatomy to the exclusion of one's genetic, hormonal, and cultural influences. Yet certain cases have demonstrated risks in absolutely divorcing sex and gender. In the 1960s and 1970s, John Money (1952) emerged as an influential figure in debates about sex and gender identity, arguing that children's gender identity is fluid until a certain age (for differing perspectives, see Powlishta, Sen, Serbin, et al. 2001). Money is perhaps best known for his role in the John/Joan case of David Reimer, whose penis was amputated during what should have been a routine circumcision. Money "reassigned" Reimer, an infant, as a female and reported that the treatment was successful. Later, evidence about the failed efforts to socialize Reimer as a female and Reimer's 2004 suicide cost Money credibility in the medical community and established him as a divisive figure in debates of sex (Colapinto 2001). Although the John/Joan case was atypical in many ways, such cases reveal the myriad ways that biologists and the medical profession address sex.

Fausto-Sterling (2000) and others have proposed that sexual categories be rethought and expanded from the original two (female and male) to recognize that not all people have alignment between their sexual characteristics (chromosomes, genitals, gonads, and hormones). Approximately 1 in 100 people have some sex deviation from these categories (Blackless, et al. 2000). Some deviations that occur naturally are termed intersex (formerly referred to as hermaphroditism) and may include ambiguous genitalia, discernable at birth, and other subtler signs that present later in life. This condition does not pose a physical threat to humans and yet is often treated, typically involving surgery on nonconsenting patients (infants) who may not be told their full medical histories as they mature. In 90 percent of these surgeries, infant bodies are typically transformed into "females" because surgeons consider the procedure easier than creating a penis (Angier 1997). Many scholars note the degree to which medical anxiety about the family's response to such an infant, as well as the pressure to announce a sex, constrains medical practice (Kessler 1998). Some contend that these bodies are not "corrected" out of medical necessity but because they disrupt biological binaries (male and female), threatening cultural norms about sex and gender (Herdt 1994). Those who have undergone such treatment have begun speaking out about their experiences, as have other people who are not intersexed but have been treated to reconcile their "sex" and gender (Scholinski 1998).

Some people, in addition to intersexed individuals, find these sexual categories oppressive. The possibility that biological attributes linked to sex can be challenged—or conquered—by culture has energized various social sciences. Many insist that gender is not based solely on biology but manifests itself in other spheres (values, relationships, communication, interests, self-presentation, and self-concepts [Ruble and Martin 1998]). For instance, U.S. parents continue to interact with their infants in ways shaped by their gender expectations, focusing on their daughter's appearance and supposed vulnerability (Karraker, Vogel, and Lake 1995) and continue to allow gender to alter their interactions with their children as they grow. It would be inaccurate to state that children simply absorb gender messages; children themselves become quite interested in discovering, questioning and/or reinforcing gender norms, particularly at certain developmental stages (see Martin and Ruble 2004). Scholars have found that differences in the gender socialization of children can affect their sexuality as well, both in terms of people's self-definition and expression (Levine and Evans 2003). However, these gender norms shift significantly depending on one's social setting, and thus an understanding of culture provides a necessary context to explore how "sex" operates.

Anthropologists, by definition, study humanity in the hopes of understanding how people function in society. Anthropology is different from other social sciences in its investment in cultural relativism and cross-cultural comparisons. In the 1960s, anthropologists began to write about the parallels they saw between the scholarship that overlooked indigenous histories and that which overlooked females. Given the field's investment in comparative work, some viewed both exclusions as intensely problematic. The first recourse for many was observing and addressing the discipline's male bias. Margaret Mead's (1928) earlier work about the malleability of what was appropriately female and male, depending on one's geographic and cultural contexts, became newly important because of this reevaluation.

Others began observing the ways in which work may be asymmetrically distributed along sex lines. Many noticed that the bulk of domestic labor was not only accomplished by females, but that such work was often unseen and unvalued, especially when compared with "male" work that received public recognition and monetary compensation. Theorists began observing that sexual categories were used as metaphors for other social interactions, including those based on racial terms, class, and colonizer/colonized divides (Stoler 1991). People who inhabited social categories linked with the female typically had less power, fewer resources, and less control over their representation. Certainly, anthropologists acknowledge that a group's lived life and the way in which it understands its meaning may vary. For example, some observe that popular myths about which sex is more powerful may contradict a group's lived reality. However, by expanding the work of Gayle Rubin (1975), who offered the field the term sex-gender system and thereby separated those theoretical terms, the field began addressing how matters of sex can impact a community. Anthropologists, finding that gender norms not universal (see Lamphere, Ragone, and Zavella 1997, Ortner 1996), continue to examine assumptions that the female's primary role is a nurturing and subordinate one in order to construct a fuller understanding of how women actually live their daily lives.

Sociology as a field is largely concerned with recognizing societal issues and generating solutions to those dilemmas. This discipline uses the term status to describe how various members of society are categorized and treated and also how relationships among people are shaped. Sex can be considered a "master" status, in that being female or male affects multiple aspects of a person's life (Lindsey 1997). Sociologists analyze what is considered "normal" for different types of statuses and then decipher how larger social institutions and arrangements uphold these norms. They also consider how power affects these definitions and the people within these statuses. "Sex roles" then, may convey inaccurate information about men and women, as they privilege the stereotypical and assumed behaviors for various sexes. Sociology's three major paradigms (functionalism, social conflict, and symbolic interaction) articulate different understandings of how society operates.

Within the field, women have historically been excluded from discussions of social institutions other than those of the family and home. This trend began with the foundational work of Auguste Comte in the 1850s, whose pattern of addressing females exclusively in relation to their family role was repeated by other key figures. Comte's model was continued by functionalist theorists who focused on how society is organized and how those parts cooperate to build a social whole. For instance, some functionalist theorists (including Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim) saw the domestic sphere as the most apt choice for women because it gave females a restricted function in proportion to their assumed limitations. Sociologists who focused on symbolic interaction may question how individuals experience, initiate, and alter social patterns; because such fields were dominated by men, it took time for this field to consider women's experience of society. Conflict theorists (who focus on social inequality within systems) were among the first sociologists to critique women's status in society, noting that this power dynamic (within the home, for instance) paralleled other social problems seen as pertinent to the field (see Engels 1972 [1884] and Weber [1947]). Questioning the status quo has been a standard part of sociological practice; the repercussions of conflict theory encouraged sociologists to see sex as a productive variable for investigating power distributions within society.

Since these developments, sociology has embarked on research that investigates differences between the sexes, analyzes the stress of individuals' playing their sex roles, and recognizes women as a culturally peripheral and economically dependent group. Sociologists have begun critiquing their methodology as well, noting that some theoretical models were developed without considering female experience, a crucial absence given that women compromise over half of most populations (Harding 1986). Those invested in female autonomy began synthesizing sociology's methods for critiquing social injustice and feminist theory in order to generate alternate questions, paradigms, and institutions for social change. Both approaches focus on how females have experienced and do experience their lives and continue sociology's contention in critiquing power as a malleable phenomenon (Chafetz 1988). It is important to note that the sociology of women is not necessarily feminist (Delamont 2003).

A definitive consensus within psychology about the significance—or reality—of differences between the sexes does not exist. Clinical psychology encountered its first major feminist critique in the work of Naomi Weisstein (1968). In Psychology Constructs the Female, Weisstein contends that when it comes to the consideration of women, the "science" of psychology frequently repeats stereotypes of the female and underplays or ignores individual contexts. After her influential book, journals (including Journal of Feminist Family Therapy and Women and Therapy) continued her exploration of the role that sex plays in clinical practice. Subsequent psychologists analyzed the ways that social norms about gender impact individuals' emotional lives (Miller 1976). Others noted that some disorders (historically, hysteria in the early 1900s and survivors of violence in the 1980s) tend to be diagnosed by the individual's sex (Brodsky and Hare-Mustin 1980).

The field of psychology's analysis of "female" can be roughly categorized as having four themes that overlap chronologically: an initial inquiry into "exceptional" women (focusing on women designated as successful); "problematic women" (focusing on females deemed deviant or deficient, especially in comparison to men—Freud's work is often included within this category); "psychology of gender" (looking at how gender structures relationships between females and males); and "transformation" (critiquing the assumptions and practices of psychology; Crawford and Marecek 1989). Researchers' theoretical background helps shape the field: Some focus on the historical and methodological practices that excluded women except to consider their abnormality, others focus on how biological factors may impact (but not irrevocably determine) people throughout the lifespan, whereas others focus on the social context of gender and how those systems affect individuals. Many psychologists continue to ask the question about how sex could be considered not just a variable but a salient characteristic. In 1973, the American Psychological Association designated the studying of women's psychology as a subfield (Unger 2001). Journals such as Sex Roles, the Psychology of Women Quarterly, and the international journal Feminism and Psychology focus on such questions.

Undoubtedly, these larger scale issues impact individuals and their families. Social-cognitive psychologists note that children's gender lessons are influenced by factors outside the sphere of one's individual family and can include modeling by others, interactive experience, and explicit instruction (Bussey and Bandura 1999). Adult females and males may find that their gender is determined by personal goals, environment (political, social, economic) and various conditions that occur—a model that suggests a larger amount of fluidity (Deaux and Major 1987). Awareness of these patterns led to the critique of diagnostic standards. Other psychologists continued to reflect on the relationships between patient's issues and the larger society—such as the relationship between the prevalence of eating disorders in women and social pressures for women to conform to beauty norms—are kept in focus (see Fredicksen and Roberts 1997).

Some claim that quantitative and qualitative work of psychologists is affected by society and that they are, therefore, unable to properly critique gender (for an assessment of approaches, see Kimball 2001). Many researchers in the field remind colleagues that the sexes differ not only biologically but in terms of their political, economic, social, and psychological backgrounds (Rabinowitz and Martin 2001). Quantitative studies, then, that present differences between the sexes as "essential" or hardwired may find those differences resolved when controlling for those additional contexts (see Deaux 1984, Deaux and Major 1987). Qualitative psychologist Carol Gilligan's (1982) work was influential for her critique of ways that moral development had been conceptualized within the field; her demand that psychologists scrutinize one's social location and absences and/or silences (termed women's voice theory) was championed and criticized within the field. Others have continued to contend that scholars analyze their relationship to research subjects and topics to avoid repeated dismissals and devaluing of females (Fine, Weis, Weseen, and Wong 2000; Morawski 1988).

see also Male.


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                                       Maureen McDonnell

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