Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Problematic Ideology of Natural Sex

What is human nature?

In the Western world today, science and religion are often understood to be enemies. It’s believed they offer two competing explanations of how the world works. What I want to show you is how when it comes to understanding human nature, Christianity and Science are in fact complete bedfellows. They both are deeply invested in a belief system, which I will call the Ideology of Natural Sex. And both have been shoring up that ideology, enforcing it brutally, and imposing it by force on others around the globe, for centuries.

What is this Ideology of Natural Sex? What do authorities from the Pope to our medical and scientific textbooks jointly believe, and insist we believe, about sex? It’s their unified theory of sex, gender and sexuality, and it goes like this:

“As ordered by God/evolutionary biology, humans come in two and only two physical sexes. This is the nature of things because a male and a female make a reproductive unit. The purpose of sexual interaction is reproduction. Thus, the determinative factor in dividing men from women is genitalia. Genitalia determine gender—the way society organizes people through gender roles, and the way people should properly identify and understand their place in the world. And this world is one in which men are (by God’s design or by biological imperative) the dominant sex, the sexual “aggressor,” while women’s interests center on nurturing families and offspring.”

Four things that are central to my own life pose challenges to this ideology. The first is that the empirical reality of physical sex is that it is a spectrum, and people, like myself, have always been born intersex. The second is that people around the world and throughout history have identified with genders other than male or female, and/or have been assigned to one sex at birth, and felt called to move to live in another. The third is that people engage in sex all the time that is not procreative. This is true of people who are infertile, people in same-sex pairings, and fertile men and women who do not wish to conceive with one another at the time of their sexual interaction. And the last is the reality that gender inequality is not inevitable. Patriarchy, the privileging of men over women, is a form of inequity that is successfully being reduced.

How have religious and scientific authorities dealt with these challenges over the past several centuries? They have periodically declared them to be “unnatural.”

Now, if ever you want to know when to suspect an ideology is at work, you can be sure it is the case when someone tells you something is unnatural and should not occur. Because here’s the thing about true natural laws: they function whether you want them to or not. Nobody needs to urge or force anyone else to obey them. Consider gravity. It’s a natural law, so nobody needs to enforce it. No religious tracts or psychological textbooks have been written urging people to obey the principle of gravity and refrain from floating about bumping into ceilings. Or consider this example: people may argue over vegetarianism, and whether it is healthy. But you have never seen a letter to the editor or an internet comment war complaining about how kids these days are engaging in the unnatural practice of giving up both meat and vegetables and choosing to engage in photosynthesis instead.

There is no #PhotosynthesisIsUnnatural hashtag because it truly is unnatural for people to turn green and live off sunlight directly instead of eating things for energy. Truly unnatural things do not occur, so they generate no outrage squads decrying their transgression.

As for the “laws of natural sex”—well, it’s another story.

Around the world, over the past four or five hundred years, people have been cajoled, threatened, forcibly re-educated, beaten, imprisoned, locked in mental hospitals, put in the stocks, publicly humiliated, mutilated, and burnt at the stake for violating one or more of the precepts of “Natural Sex.” That’s the sure sign of enforced ideology, not a true natural law.

And it’s not just a story of superstitious, ignorant days gone by. There is a war being waged over the ideology of “Natural Sex” today. And in that war, religion and science stand hand in hand on the same side. Who stands on the other?

Intersex people whose genitals are surgically mutilated without their consent to force their bodies to resemble binary sex expectations.

Trans people who are treated as having a mental illness, as delusional, as perverted, as pariahs.

People in same-gender relationships, who have made great strides in the West recently in terms of a right to secular marriages, but who are still not permitted to marry in many religious denominations, and who are not protected from perfectly legal discrimination of many sorts in many places.

Oh, and women pursuing sexual pleasure. Religious authorities frame women in particular as ruining themselves through seeking sex outside the context of marriage. Meanwhile, scientists continue to frame female orgasm as a puzzle as they state it is “unnecessary,” since women can conceive without it. Women, according to both religion and science, should want babies, and only engage in sex to make them, not for fun.

The extraordinary thing is, with so many groups fighting and suffering for recognition denied them under the ideology of “natural sex,” how incredibly powerful that ideology is, how amazingly resilient. We are taught the Ideology of Natural Sex so early, by parents and media and schools and churches, that we believe in it at the same fundamental level that we believe in things like gravity.

And even when individuals are persecuted in some way under the Ideology of Natural Sex, very often it never occurs to them to challenge the whole, as that seems unthinkable, but only one small part of the ideology impacting them particularly. Thus we have women who decry female genital mutilation as cruelly enforcing the belief that women should not have sex for pleasure, yet who see similar surgeries being performed on intersex babies as appropriate, as heroically “correcting malformation.” We have gay men and lesbians who frame themselves as natural and normal, wanting only to marry and reproduce like anyone else, while disdaining trans people as "crazies" who are making gay people look bad by association under the LGBT umbrella. We have people born with sex-variant bodies who reject the label intersex, and wish only to be referred to as “people affected by disorders of sex development.” Why? Because they are worried that the term “intersex” will make others associate them with trans people or think they have nonbinary identities or otherwise find them disturbingly transgressive of the Ideology of Natural Sex, and God forbid, they don’t want any of those things to be thought of them.

And everywhere, everywhere, we have ignorance of the long and violent history of the imposition of the Ideology of Natural Sex under European colonialism.

The genius behind framing an ideology as “natural” is that its history erases itself. Why would anyone study the history of something natural and eternal? We don’t study the history of covalent bonds in chemistry or cumulus clouds in meteorology.  And so we don’t study the spread of European binary sex ideology under colonialism. If you do, you’ll find that all over the world before European colonialism there were societies recognizing three, four, or more sexes and allowing people to move between them—but that’s a subject for another post. Suffice it to say that societies were violently restructured under European colonialism in many ways, and one of those was the stamping out of nonbinary gender categories and stigmatization of those occupying them as perverts.

Meanwhile, missionaries and European scientists spread the word that nonprocreative sexual practices—same-gender relationships, oral sex, masturbation—violated God’s will or the scientifically known purpose of sex, and were thus both sinful and sick. Christian missionaries even taught that the only acceptable intercourse involved a married man atop his wife, other positions being “unnatural.” Scientists concurred, saying that only in the missionary position would gravity lead semen to the uterus. Nature, colonized peoples were taught, requires men to be on top--of society, and in sexual activity, literally.

Most people today are ignorant of this history of the ongoing struggles to impose the Ideology of Natural Sex on reluctant nations and social groups. This ignorance allows each generation to believe that those who do not fit under the ideology, such as intersex and trans people, are rare freaks—or, if there are many challenging the ideology at that time, such as feminists demanding access to birth control and abortion, or the gay pride movement, as a brand new threat to an until-then-eternal system.

And for a system that is presented as eternal and inevitable, the Ideology of Natural Sex is also strangely framed as fragile and endangered, requiring vigorous defense. One example: the 20th century claim that “homosexuality is unnatural, and if it is tolerated, the human species will go extinct as procreation will stop.” This claim was made by opponents of the so-called gay liberation movement, many of them religious conservatives, but using the language of science. And after all, for many years, scientists had been claiming that homosexuality was a medical disorder that must be cured.

The really weird thing about the end-of-the-species claim, if you think about it, is that it presumed that if same-gender sexual activity were tolerated, then nobody would ever have mixed-gender sex again. Why would people who presumably happily identified as heterosexual think something like that? Well, it’s because each of the precepts of the Ideology of Natural Sex are seen as inextricably linked. The purpose of sex is reproduction; this requires men and women; people must accept their assigned gender roles. Allow two men or two women to have sex, and the other precepts will fall as well. Society as we know it will collapse, and in fact, we’ll die out as a species as we won’t reproduce anymore. Our nature will be destroyed and humans will suffer an apocalypse.

Today, in the early 21st century, intersex and trans issues are coming to the fore. And the same patterns emerge, as they have in the past of which we are unaware.

From science and medicine, what we see is the framing of bodies, identities and behaviors that fall outside the Ideology of Natural Sex as disorders to be classified and treated. The goal is to restore the “natural order” through techniques developed by science: eugenic programs, surgical “normalization,” and psychotherapies. Consider intersex status right now. There is a growing social movement of intersex people to put an end to the nonconsensual genital surgeries that have been imposed on intersex children since the 20th century. But doctors are extremely resistant to this movement. Living with a sex-variant body is presented by doctors as a fatal condition. It will lead to social death, which may lead in turn to suicide. Without a body that conforms to binary sex expectations, it will be impossible to find a mate, so even if one lives, it will be an empty life, a painful one full of strange nonconforming behavior and self-loathing. Surgeons claim they are compelled to continue intersex genital mutilation to preserve life and quality of life, dismissing the cry of intersex advocates that these “treatments” in fact degrade their quality of life.

From the religious side, what we see is an assertion that Natural Law created by God must be affirmed by all human laws. To do otherwise is not only an offense to God, but will destroy humanity. Speaking recently of the supposed danger of the trans rights movement, Pope Francis said, "We are experiencing a moment of the annihilation of man as the image of God." Natural law, understood as decreed by God, requires binary sex, and that gender conform to that binary sex. Worldly laws must not be enacted to acknowledge and support people's gender identities. In fact, say religious conservatives, to speak of gender at all is to offend God. There is only sex, and never before have humans suggested that one also has a gender identity and should express its inner truth! (The fact that gender identity recognition and gender transition are as old as humanity is a history that we’ve already seen has been erased by the “natural law” framing.) And fascinatingly, the Catholic church evokes science to “prove” its position. Sex, the Church states, is determined by DNA. DNA, unlike clothing or hormones or genitals, cannot be changed. Thus, one can never change one’s “true” sex. Gender transition is a wicked lie, a deception, and according to Pope Francis, as dangerous to humanity as nuclear weapons. It must be stopped and “nature” defended.

So science and religion walk arm in arm, trumpeting the ideology of the Natural Law of Sex. This gives everyone in the general population something to latch onto in framing the oppression of some group as necessary and good. Are you a socially conservative religious person who finds trans people disgusting? Claim that the statement “male and female created He them” in Genesis is not a generalizing poetic phrase but a morally prescriptive statement that must be socially enforced. Are you a radical cis feminist who disdains the Pope, but shares with him disgust for trans people?  Claim that DNA determines sex, that gender identity is a delusion, and that trans women are thus sick male threats to the safety of “biological women.”

There’s something for everyone.

What makes the Ideology of Natural Sex so powerful is that, like all deeply effective belief systems, it is so taken-for-granted that it is like water to a fish. Most people are unaware of the very concept of a sex/gender ideology. And therefore, merely to ask the question “How many genders are there in your society?” strikes them both infantile and very offensive. Show them a drawing of intermediate genitalia and they gasp in profound shock. Present them with a visibly trans body and they laugh or gag or feel incited to commit violence.  These strong negative reactions occur because having your ideology challenged is bad enough, but when you didn’t even know it was an ideology in the first place, it makes you question everything. And sadly, most people don’t want to do that at all.

But we have to do it.

If we truly believe in science, in a rational world where we look objectively at what is, rather than impose our beliefs onto reality, then we need to reject the Ideology of Natural Sex. We need to see the reality of the sex spectrum and stop framing intersexuality as a rare disorder that somehow violates natural law. We need to understand that different societies have divided the sex spectrum up into different numbers of social sexes, and that binary sex is no more or less arbitrary than trinary or quartic sex systems. We need to give up the silly idea that sexual interactions only serve reproductive purposes, when it is massively evident in nature that nonprocreative sex is everywhere in social species. We need to become aware of the omnipresent world history of gender transitioning, and let go of the myth that not until the 20th century introduced modern surgical transition procedures did “real” gender transitions occur.

And if we truly believe in religion, then we must adhere to the precepts of compassion that all religions teach, and stop using religion to oppress minorities or spread hate.

Intersex people, trans people, queer people, lusty women. . . we don’t violate natural law. In fact, we’ve always been a part of human nature. And accepting and respecting us as we are will not cause the end of the world. At all.

It could, however, spell the start of a kinder and fairer world. So please, just let go of the Western Ideology of Natural Sex.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Intersex Athletes of the Times

The NY Times Magazine is running a story on the binary sex policing of intersex athletes. Well, I should say, intersex woman athletes--nobody is testing to find out if men who are competing in international sporting competitions have intersex traits. Because what is really at stake here is ideology, not fact. And that ideology is that sex is binary when it is really a spectrum, and that the line being drawn between women and men is dividing lesser people from greater ones. Intersex men, framed not as "real men" but as lesser, are seen as pathetic. But intersex women are portrayed as unduly powerful, and a threat.

It's time for me to write another post on intersex athletes, as Dutee Chand's case is in the news. Because this issue keeps coming up. Because we, intersex people, continue to be out there, and contemporary Western society continues to frame us as violating the order of things, instead of a part of the natural order.

It's strange, the way we in the contemporary West collapse all the variety in human bodies into a sex binary. We're used to a trick of mind that allows us to say and believe "men are taller than women," while encountering plenty of women who are taller than plenty of men. Height, you see, is a spectrum, but the sexed-height-difference we speak of references just average heights. We ignore the spectrum and speak of the average difference when distinguishing women and men. Now, there are adult men who are under three feet tall, and there are men over eight feet tall. That's a five-foot range of difference. The difference in average height between women and men in the U.S. is five inches--a tiny amount in comparison. And this is true of all physical sex characteristics, including not just height or lung capacity or average hand size, but genital configuration and levels of sex hormones. The characteristics run along a spectrum, but we speak of them as a binary: "men's hands are bigger than women's" and "men have higher testosterone than women." The range of differences within a socially-imposed binary sex category is huge, while the average difference between those categorized as men and women is small. And the overlap between women and men is wide.

People of all sexes typically produce testosterone and estrogen and progesterone, and our bodies rely on all of them--though you might not know this by the way we say all the time that "men have testosterone and women have estrogen." You might imagine doctors and scientists would think less magically than laypeople when it comes to the idea that "T is for boys and E is for girls." After all, they should be aware of facts like estrogen being needed not just for ovulation in women, but also for spermatogenesis in men. But no. Doctors and scientists consulting with the Olympics have been speaking of testosterone in very magical ways. They have decided upon a "normal female range" of testosterone, and banned women who naturally produce more from competing.

Consider these facts:

1. Men competing in elite international sporting competitions do not have limits placed on how much testosterone they naturally produce. Women who produce higher-than-typical amounts of testosterone are treated as "cheating," men who do are not.

2. Actually, when studied, it turns out that 17% of elite male athletes have testosterone levels below the bottom of the "male range." These men are not disqualified as "cheating by being intersex." They aren't regulated at all, probably because it's presumed that their low testosterone must be a disadvantage. Yet these men with low testosterone are not lesser athletes; they are just as extraordinary in their performance as the men with typical testosterone levels. This illustrates how there's no direct relationship between the amount of testosterone a person produces and their athletic abilities.

3. Bodies vary widely in how sensitive they are to testosterone. Some intersex women have "complete androgen insensitivity syndrome." These are individuals with XY chromosomes who are born with female-typical genitalia due to their body's inability to respond to testosterone. They have internal testes where most women have ovaries, and these produce testosterone at puberty, but their bodies can't use it, so they develop breasts like other typical girls do, not beards. And focus on this fact: their bodies are insensitive to testosterone. The idea that they have some sort of athletic advantage due to having higher testosterone than typical girls is ridiculous--because they can't respond to testosterone.

4. People do not compete in athletic competitions using their genitals. Yet as the Times article discusses, girls with large clitorises are being told to submit to surgery to remove the "excess tissue" if they want to compete in the Olympics. When similar surgeries are performed on girls with average-sized clitorises for social reasons, this is deemed the outrage of female genital mutilation by the international community. Why is it acceptable to impose this on intersex girls? And what could be more magical thinking than saying that how your genitals look determines how fast you can run? By this logic, the longer the penis, the faster a man can run.

5. All Olympic athletes have atypical bodies. As one Olympian says in the article, they're all "freaks of nature." They may be endowed naturally with atypical levels of fast-twitch muscle, or unusually flexible joints, or huge hands, or extraordinarily long legs. We do not police these biological differences, or require that to compete in the Olympics, you must have an average body. We don't randomly pick citizens of each nation to compete in international sporting events--we get to see average people running for the bus all the time. We don't find this exciting, and it's the very atypicality of elite athletes' bodies that enthralls us. It's only this very specific type of atypicality--being a woman with hormonal or genital or chromosomal variance--that has been policed. And it's policed intensively, intrusively, punitively.

6.  The "science" being used today to exclude intersex women athletes is as amazingly full of biases and magical beliefs and unsupported assertions as it was many decades ago. Consider this: scientists testifying as to the supposed necessity of continuing to police intersex bodies recently claimed that a woman competing in Olympic track and field events is 140 times more likely to have a Y chromosome than the rest of the population. This is ludicrous, because we have no idea how many women in the general population have Y chromosomes. We don't test the general population for this--only women competing in elite athletic events. Right now, all over the world, there are millions of intersex people who have no idea of their intersex status--it's not like you can see your chromosomes. 

7. This reminds me of the magical thinking that went into the "supermale" theory in the 1950s and 60s. Scientists discovered that some men had XYY chromosomes, and decided that if one Y chromosome makes you a man, two must make you hypermasculine. So they went around testing the chromosomes of men who were imprisoned or institutionalized, and lo! they found out that a significant number had XYY chromosomes. There was a media frenzy about the powerful, predatory XYY superman. Only. . . nobody had done a comparison study. It turns out that when you test men who are not imprisoned or institutionalized, the same number have XYY chromosomes. Men with XYY chromosomes don't produce more testosterone than XY men. They aren't stronger, or more aggressive, or hairier. You're much more likely to be a sweet, tubby old history teacher than a serial killer if you are an XYY man.

What all of this makes clear is that scientists and doctors are just as immersed in our culture as anyone else. And our culture has been deeply invested in an ideology that sex is a binary--and that by virtue of being a male, a person is stronger, faster, more dominant, more assertive. It may be 2016, but our society continues to view women athletes as suspect, because they are strong, fast, and highly competitive. What is really at stake is patriarchy, and its positioning of men as superior to women. Powerful, nonconforming women still get pushback in the form of sex and gender policing, through street harassment, or poor work evaluations, or medical surveillance. And so we continue to scrutinize the bodies of women athletes, and to punish those whose bodies are deemed "too male" in certain ways. While we acknowledge that height is a spectrum, we insist that hormone levels require a no-gender's-land between acceptably female and acceptably male. And really, it would make no less sense to tell every woman athlete that women cannot be taller than 5'9", and that taller women must have their leg bones reduced until their height is in the female range or be banned from competition.

Sex and gender policing always pretend to be protecting "real women" from "fake ones" who would somehow hurt them. But in fact, they boil down to preserving the power that has been given to people categorized as male, by insisting that "real women" are vulnerable, small, submissive, weak.

Sex is a spectrum. Bodies don't cheat. If we really, truly, actually believed that testosterone levels determined ability, then we would test athletes of all genders and assign them to competition classes by testosterone levels. (The outcome of such a practice would immediately falsify the ridiculous premise.) If we really, truly believed that the size of the phalloclitoris corresponds to athletic ability, then we'd have the competition classes "small clitoris, medium clitoris, large clitoris, intermediate phalloclitoris, small penis, medium penis, large penis." That would be ludicrous, but would at least have the upside of being equally humiliating to men as it has been for all the women who have been forced to face genital inspections to get their "gender certificates" over the years.

Since sex is a spectrum, the division of it into a binary will always be arbitrary. We've been trying to hide the fact that sex is a spectrum, but it's time to grow up. And that means we have two choices. If we really think that bodily characteristics must define competition groups, then stop dividing athletes into men's and women's sports, and create competition classes based on leg length, or lung capacity, or body mass, or flexibility, or whatever is most central to a given sport. Or, if we insist on continuing to separate sports into binary gender categories, then stop policing the bodily characteristics of athletes. People who identify and live as women should compete as such, and the same for those who identify and live as men. People with nonbinary gender identities would have to just flip a coin or something, which would be cruel to them, but at least we would have stopped forcing people to submit to genital surgery they didn't want in order to run.

Dutee Chand was assigned female at birth and has always lived and identified as a woman. She has overcome amazing barriers to reach her level of competition, growing up in extreme poverty and running barefoot with no way to afford even a pair of sneakers. She is only 5 feet tall, and competing against women gifted by genetics and nutrition with much longer legs. To say she has an unfair advantage against her competitors because her higher-than-average testosterone level for a woman trumps all the advantages they have over her is ridiculous. Let Dutee run.

(P.S.--Whenever I post on this topic, inevitably I get an outcry from people who believe that simply letting people compete in their lived genders would mean that cis women would be pushed out of sports, which would be overrun with "men pretending to be women." This is the hysteria that has always driven sex policing in sporting competitions. It completely ignores reality. Cis men do not want to live their lives as women. Trans women face huge amounts of social stigma and violence that nobody wants to experience, and that negatively impact their ability to train or compete. And no one is proposing that a person who has lived their whole lives as a man can announce they identify as a woman and run in the women's marathon the next week, then say "oops, changed my mind" after they have a medal in hand. The rules for international sporting competitions in fact actively address this, by saying that in order to compete in women's athletics, a trans woman must have legally gender transitioned (a slow process), and continue to live as a woman for a least four years before any records or medals she wins are permanently awarded. So please, just let go of the myth that the humiliation and exclusion of intersex and trans women is necessary to protect innocent and deserving women from some ominous threat.)