An amended version of this article was originally published in the first edition of Exposition Magazine.

The Social Construction of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

“Male is to female, as masculine is to feminine, as penis is to vagina.” These few words embody the predominant view of sex, gender, and sexuality in the 20th Century. This period was historically governed by the presumption that male and female were the only two sexes. Masculinity was viewed as the natural manifestation of maleness, while femininity was considered to be the biological outgrowth of femaleness. And heterosexual sex – defined as the union of penis and vagina – was perceived as the only normal form of sexual expression. Anyone who did not fit this supposedly natural and divinely ordained heterosexist model (such as: feminine males, masculine females, people who changed their sex, intersexuals and homosexuals) was liable to discrimination, police persecution, and pathologization. Gender and sexual nonconformists were frequently branded “freaks of nature,” harassed by law enforcement, and placed under the not so benevolent care of the medical establishment. For example, a common “treatment” for gays and lesbians during the 1950s was the so-called “aversion therapy,” whereby psychiatrists attempted to rid homosexuals of their “immoral” desires by subjecting them to electric shocks. The horrors of this procedure have been poignantly depicted in the queer-themed films, Latter Days and But I’m a Cheerleader.

In the latter part of the 20th century, however, the heterosexist model began to come under consistent critique, questioning and consternation. The rise of feminist, gay and lesbian, transgender, and intersex social movements augured the de-pathologization of gender and sexual difference. Those who deviated from the heterosexist model were increasingly viewed as individuals deprived of their human rights, rather than sick people in need of fixing. At the same time, sociologists, historians, philosophers, queer theorists, and feminists began to question the naturalness of the heterosexist model. Since it was no longer possible to simply write off the lives and experiences of gay, transgender and intersex people as illegitimate and unnatural, this diverse group of scholars began to take them seriously in their work. Taking their cue from Simone de Beauvoir's now famous assertion, that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one,” they posed the following puzzles: “if masculinity for men, femininity for women, and heterosexuality are indeed natural and biologically pre-determined, then how is it possible that feminine women, masculine men, and homosexuals even exist? If sex is physically given at birth, then what do we make of the experience of transsexuals, who’s mental and physical sexes do not match? And how do we explain the diversity of masculinities and femininities across time and space?”

Contrary to the heterosexist model, which depends on assertions about biological given-ness, these scholars developed the idea that the categories of sex, gender and sexuality are socially constructed: they are created by human beings and depend on collective agreement for their existence. A good example of a social construct is money. Little multicolored slips of paper have no inherent meaning to them, and yet, they are extremely valuable in society. Their role in economic exchange can only occur because of a tacit social agreement about what they mean. While the slips of paper are certainly real, their most important function (as symbols of economic value) is purely a social construction. Similarly, while bodies, behaviors, mannerisms, and sexual desires are real, the meanings that we give to them, the way in which we organize and categorize them, are created by humans and reliant on social agreement for their existence.


The argument about the social construction of sex is perhaps the most difficult to make. Eager skeptics would surely say: “But aren’t there clear differences between male and female anatomy? And how would we reproduce without the two sexes?” Nevertheless, the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, has put forward a convincing argument that sex, at least in its 20th Century manifestation, is not a natural given.

The heterosexist model assumes that there are only two sexes, that all humans have either male or female sex characteristics, and that everyone is necessarily a member of a particular sex from birth. However, the existence of the intersexed, or people with a mixture of female and male sex organs, suggests otherwise. Knowledge of this phenomenon may come as a surprise to most because, until very recently, it was standard practice for doctors to, in Fausto-Sterling’s words, “catch intersexuals at birth.” Confronted with “ambiguous” genitalia, doctors rushed to operate on the infant in order to surgically craft “appropriate” male and female reproductive organs. Intersexuals were, thus, literally erased from existence in order to enforce the two-sex system.

Those intersexuals who escaped the surgeon’s knife faced an altogether different kind of erasure: social exclusion and discrimination. The story of the Spanish hurdler, Maria Patino, whose mixed sex characteristics were revealed by “femininity tests” mandated by the International Olympic Committee, is emblematic. While Patino had only ever known herself to be a woman, the tests showed that she had Y-chromosomes and testicles inside her labia, and this resulted in swift disqualification from competition at the 1985 Kobe World University Games, abandonment by her boyfriend, and the revocation of all her previous awards. “I was erased from the map, as if I had never existed,” she recalled. And while Patino did manage to return to competition, regaining her status as an athlete was an uphill struggle of titanic proportions, both financially and emotionally.

If intersexuality casts doubt on the proposition that there are only two sexes and that all bodies separate easily into male and female categories, transsexuality poses another challenge to the central tenets of the heterosexist model: it questions the assertion that sex is given from birth and remains constant throughout life. Trans activist and gender theorist, Julia Serano, has described transsexuality as the state of experiencing “subconscious sex” (or the sex one profoundly feels oneself to be) as fundamentally at odds with birth sex. Many trans people will take steps to change their physical bodies later in life in order to remedy this disjunction. This means that sex is not necessarily a fixed category that one is born into. Instead, it is more useful to conceptualize it as an “assigned” classification. Doctors, using socially agreed-upon definitions of what constitutes a man and a woman, will assign children a sex at birth and parents, relatives and everyone else will treat the child accordingly. But this assigned sex may not match the sex that a person feels himself, herself or hirself to be.

On the whole, the basic flaw that critics have identified in the heterosexist model is over-simplification: it overlooks the actual variety and complexity of sexed bodies and experiences. In the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, people who adhere to the heterosexist model tend to “regard femaleness and maleness as exhausting the natural categories in which persons can conceivably come: what falls between is a darkness, an offense against reason.”

The actual diversity and complexity of sex, viewed outside the framework of heterosexism, has prompted some to propose a fundamental transformation of our two-sex system. For example, Fausto-Sterling has argued that we should add a further three sexes (herms, merms and ferms) to our classification scheme, in order to come closer to capturing the diversity of human bodies and lived experiences. And while she has been criticized for basing her argument solely on genital diversity (as transsexuals have taught us, sex is not necessarily defined by one’s genitals), the presence of “Third Sexes” in some non-Western societies does suggest that a two-sex classification is not inevitable and can be transformed.

For instance, Serena Nanda has argued that the hijras of India represent “an institutionalized third gender role, [they are] neither male nor female.” This idea is controversial: some have claimed that since hijras are born male (or intersexual), but adopt feminine behaviors, names, mannerisms and styles of dress, they are simply trans women living in an Indian cultural context. But there is also evidence to suggest that some hijras do identify themselves with the “third sex” category. Take the example of Mona Ahmed, a hijra interviewed by prominent photographer Dayanita Singh. When Singh asked her about whether she would like to have a sex change operation, Ahmed replied negatively and explained: “You really do not understand. I am the third sex. Not a man trying to be a woman. It is your society’s problem that you only recognize two sexes.”

The second part of this article, which deals with the social construction of gender and sexuality, will be posted in two weeks' time. Until then, please feel free to start a discussion in the comment box below!

***For More Information***

On the social construction of sex, see Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. To find out more about intersexuality, check out The Intersex Society of North America. There is a lot of literature on trans issues, but Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity is a useful start. On social construction in general, see Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality. For a more radical view, check out Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter.

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