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.