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21 What Does It Mean to Have an Assigned Sex?

Elof Axel Carlson Indiana University Press ePub

Long before birth certificates existed, babies were assigned their sex by examination of their external genitals: a penis and scrotum defined a male; a vagina and female pudenda defined a female. Children were then raised as infant boys or infant girls. They were assigned roles expected of their community. These varied. Some societies had both sexes involved in the same activities (e.g., butchering, farming, making tools) and some had one sex specialized in a division of labor. For almost all societies, until late in the twentieth century, raising infants was primarily and necessarily a female role, because women nursed babies. Things changed as the child got older. Fathers may have played significant roles teaching boys how to hunt if that was an assigned male role in that community. Some groups heeded the advice of older men and others heeded the advice of older women. Women in general were midwives delivering children until the eighteenth century in industrialized countries. Each society had a response to exceptions to the expected roles and sexuality assigned at birth. The larger the group was, the more these unusual events occurred, and the more society had to find explanations for them and ways to accommodate them. Those responses varied with religion and other traditions. It is characteristic of humans to generalize from a relatively small sample size.

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19 The History of Behavioral Gender Assignment

Elof Axel Carlson Indiana University Press ePub

Identifying genes for homosexuality is difficult, but it is even more difficult to assign a genetic or innate basis for gender roles. Why should this be so difficult? Because gender roles are notoriously variable. At the time of this writing, I am 79 years old. Almost three generations ago, when I was a child, my father was known as a breadwinner and my mother was known as a housewife. Most males were expected to earn a living for the family. If you mentioned the word “doctor,” I thought of a male. If you mentioned the word “nurse,” I thought of a female. In those days the police were policemen. Firefighters were firemen. Job assignments were sometimes genderized with suffixes—an actor was a male and an actress was a female. It was also widely believed that women were nurturing, emotional, and not as cerebral as men. Men were the thinkers, deciders, and protectors. Women cried, and men were supposed to tough it out. I remember my surprise when in June of 1940 I came home and saw my father crying. He told us Paris had fallen to the Nazis. It was so unusual I have never forgotten it.

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1 Introduction

Elof Axel Carlson Indiana University Press ePub

With rare exceptions, animals consist of sexually reproducing populations that are roughly half male and half female—at least that is a human perspective that is applied to other mammals, and generalized to all other animals. An observant individual will notice roaches mating rear end to rear end or horseshoe crabs on the beach in springtime mating with the male mounted on a female, reinforcing the idea that the image of human intercourse can be generalized. I can observe fruit flies mating in the same way without use of a microscope, and I can even tell which is male and which is female if I am looking at a solitary fruit fly resting on my finger.

But that idea of universality is undermined if I observe copulating earthworms, which seem to be engaged in some sort of symmetrical mutual engagement. The ambiguity of the earthworm’s hermaphroditism is also present in most flowering plants. Students learn that pollen bearing stamens are present in the same flower with female components—assigned scholarly names like stigma, style, and ovary—but that is also not universal.

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22 The Quest for a Unified Theory of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

Elof Axel Carlson Indiana University Press ePub

I have attempted to explore the history of sex determination. As a biologist, my outlook is comparative, because the human story was largely built from findings about other mammals, insects, plants, and even viruses. Although there are a scattered few species that have resisted the most common mode of exchanging genetic information, the term “sexuality” applies across all of life (Table 22.1). We think of that common mode when we use the term sex determination. It implies a two-sex system, although, as we saw in paramecia, there can be several more than two mating types. There are also non-sexual (or more accurately, female-only) species of rotifers, such as Philodina roseola, that use horizontal transfer of DNA to supply an influx of new genes, either by ingesting other rotifers or from other things that they eat.1 When we apply sexuality to humans, the nuances increase because we invoke cognate terms like “gender” which is not applied to bacteria, or even fruit flies. We can speak of “feminism” as a human academic study, but the term has no meaning when applied to most of the animal and plant kingdoms. Among many animals, there are atypical hermaphrodites or intersexes, some arising as accidents of cell division, like “gynandromorphic” fruit flies. We do not use that biological term for chromosomal chimeras that are XX/XY, or for mosaics, like XY/X, in humans. The older literature calls them hermaphrodites or “true hermaphrodites,” defining such individuals as having both testicular and ovarian tissue. We do not apply the term “freemartin” to our offspring. That is an intersex associated with twinning in cattle. Instead we use the term “female pseudohermaphrodites” (XX or ovarian DSD) to describe the androgen-stressed embryo in its first and second trimester of development.

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2 Wild Guesses in an Era of Scientific Ignorance

Elof Axel Carlson Indiana University Press ePub

Almost all of the topics taught in K–12 or undergraduate introductory science courses come from work published in the last two centuries. Before the nineteenth century, very little of the chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, or physics (other than Newtonian) that is covered in a twenty-first century class had been discovered. Almost all of a medical school curriculum, with the exception of gross anatomy, is a product of work done in the past two centuries. However, humanity centuries ago had the same curiosity about life and the universe as those born today. One of the universally recognized experiences of all people born is that roughly half are males and about half are females. When it comes to classifying who is a male and who is a female at birth, almost every adult in the world will use the external genitals. In a male there are a penis and a scrotum containing two testes. In a female there is a vaginal passageway surrounded by labia and a clitoris. Except for rare occasions we do not see the genitalia of our fellow adult human beings. Usually we classify a person as male or female by characteristics such as body shape, the presence or absence of hair on the face, the length, distribution, and style of hair from the cranial part of the head, the bony structure of the limbs and face, the deepness or higher pitch of voice, the presence or absence of enlarged breasts, and the presence or absence of an “Adam’s apple.” To that, in most cultures, we add the clothing that people wear and the behavior we assign to males or females out of tradition or experience.

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