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Does the existence of intersex people invalidate the binary conception of gender

Does the existence of intersex people invalidate the binary conception of gender?

You ask a complicated question very simply! Here's some advice about how to pursue this topic, with a few oversimplifications of my own. Sex (physical sex) is often distinguished from gender (gender identification in people, often culturally influenced) as well as from sexuality (sexual orientation). Intersex people have bodies that are not "typically male bodies" or "typically female bodies" but have elements of both. This ranges from (controversially) hypospadias in men (the urethra not opening at the tip of the penis) to individuals with both an ovary and a testis. Anne Fausto-Sterling's excellent book Sexing the Body describes the range. Then the question is, do we regard intersex individuals as "abnormalities," and thereby preserve our traditional understanding of biological sex as a binary, or do we regard intersex individuals as counterexamples to our traditional understanding of biological sex? Some (including Fausto-Sterling) appear to think that the answer to this depends at least in part on the prevalence of intersex persons. I prefer the approach of Joan Roughgarden Evolution's Rainbow, who explores the biological significance of sex and its variability across the plant and animal kingdom. I think she shows that are biological reasons (from evolutionary considerations etc) for giving up the binary conception of gender.

(Intersex should be distinguished from "transsex" in which individuals have sex typical bodies but different gender identity. Both should be distinguished from sexual orientation.)

Suppose a very well to do doctor was married to a very bright man who happened

Suppose a very well to do doctor was married to a very bright man who happened to be a house husband. They had no children but he worked very hard maintaining their household. One day however the wife loses her job unexpectedly and asks her husband to help pitch in and get a job. He says, "well I don't want to do that." and in reply she says, "well then maybe we should get a divorce. And he says "Well, yes you can divorce me but I am entitled to half of your earnings for during the time we were married." I don't know this for sure but my gut tells me that most women would find something very wrong with that situation. It would seem wrong because it would seem like the man is responsible for his own livelihood after the relationship terminates. In most situations however the man is the bread winner and the women is the housewife and I think most people don't have a problem with a man paying half his earned income to his divorced wife. Am I wrong in my assumption that women (and men) would balk at the idea...

Certainly nowadays the law would require the woman to pay alimony in this situation, and I am sure there have been many such cases.

I find it hard to see how anyone who wasn't just flatly sexist might think it should be otherwise. Perhaps vestiges of sexist thinking with which we have all been saddled by our society would make our gut reaction a little different, but fortunately we have brains and do not have to be ruled by our guts.

Is it moral for me as a transexual to expect others to treat me as female? Is

Is it moral for me as a transexual to expect others to treat me as female? Is this a basic right of self-identification or am I inappropriately impinging my will on others?

You mean the word "expect" in a normative sense, I take it. You are asking others to accept and respect your self-identification and suggesting to them that they ought to accept and respect it. So you are asking for more than a basic right of self-identification. Still, I think what you ask is reasonable and something we others ought to accept and respect much as we ought to accept and respect another person's (newly changed or old) religious identification, sexual preference or choice of lifestyle when such choices do not harm us or third parties.

Obviously, a choice like yours may be hard for some persons to accept -- a wife may find it hard to accept that the man she loved and married now asks to be treated as a female. But leaving a narrow class of such exceptions aside, I don't think you are asking too much. Many may find it difficult to express their acceptance and respect in an easy and natural way as any explicit expression may strike them as awkward for themselves and also for you. But I don't think you really ask for, or need, such an explicit verbal acceptance. In fact, it may be more accepting just to treat you as a female, as you say, as just another woman -- without making a big to-do about it. Yes, we can do this, and we should.

I have heard that undergraduate philosophy majors are some of the most

I have heard that undergraduate philosophy majors are some of the most imbalanced university programs when it comes to gender, being a bastion of male enrollment even though most universities now have more women than men, and other traditionally male fields are seeing near-equal enrollement, and even female majorities. First off, is it true that a disproportionate majority of undergraduate philosophy majors are men? Where might I find such figures? And second and more interestingly, if this is the case, why do you think things have turned out this way?

Just on the basis of my own experience, it does indeed seem to be the case that a disproportionate number of undergraduate philosophy majors in coed institutions of higher education are male. (The same disproportion is to be found in the profession itself.) I'm not sure whether the data has been collected, although you might just do a simple Google search to see if anything comes up. I can only speculate why such a disproportion exists. It may in part have to do with the fact, noted above, that the overwhelming majority of faculty members in philosophy departments are male; it may have something to do with the nature of philosophy itself, which, on account of its focus on arguments, can often be seen as combative--although, of course, it need not be, and at its best, probably should not be--and such intellectual combat seems to be coded male. Philosophy courses may be seen as part of an 'argument culture' that puts off certain female students while attracting male students, therefore accounting for the disproportionate number of male as opposed to female undergraduate philosophy majors. For a perceptive exploration of the nature of and problems associated with the argument culture, you might check out Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War on Words: Chapter 6, "Boys Will be Boys: Gender and Opposition," treats the issue of the relation between gender and the 'argument culture'.

Some thinkers mention the possibility of a "feminine" (not feminist) form of

Some thinkers mention the possibility of a "feminine" (not feminist) form of ethical reasoning, and contrast this to prevailing forms of ethical reasoning, which are "masculine". What does it mean for a way of thinking about ethics to be masculine or feminine? What would a "feminine ethic" look like?

The idea that there is a distinctively 'feminine' approach to ethics was articulated forcefully in the pioneering work of Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Gilligan argued that there are certain distinctive virtues and traits--such as care, empathy, forgiveness, etc.--that are coded 'feminine' that had gone underemphasized in more traditional, 'masculine', approaches to ethics and character development, which stressed the primacy of the development of an impartial, more 'rational' standpoint in ethics. The basic idea, that there are differences in the way that men and women make moral judgments, that reflect the way that they are socialized, makes good sense to me, and has been championed by a number of philosophers and developed in various ways, particularly by those interested in the 'ethics of care'. However, it seems to me to be incorrect to think that these differences are somehow 'fixed', or that men cannot come to look at the world from a more 'feminine' perspective (and vice versa, of course), although it may well be a matter of psychological fact that men generally approach ethics from a more 'masculine' perspective, and women from a 'feminine' perspective. For more on this topic, and on feminist--not 'feminine'--ethics, you might follow the link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on feminist ethics.

I was reading an article where constructivist feminist views on gender were

I was reading an article where constructivist feminist views on gender were being discussed, and an example was given on how gender was constructed, how being a boy or a girl had nothing to do with physical bodies, and how physical bodies themselves are constructed by society. The text is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Instead, our sexed bodies are themselves discursively constructed: they are the way they are, at least to a substantial extent, because of what is attributed to sexed bodies and how they are classified. Sex assignment (calling someone female or male) is normative. When the doctor calls a newly born infant a girl or a boy, s/he is not making a descriptive claim, but a normative one. In fact, the doctor is performing an illocutionary speech act. In effect, the doctor's utterance makes infants into girls or boys." Isn't this kind of thinking somehow flawed? Surely, if the child was born with male genitals and the doctor said "It's a girl!", the parents would be briefly...

Most constructivists think that assigned sex has something do with physical bodies; but how physical/biological information is incorporated into gender categories can vary depending on cultural, historical, pragmatic etc interests.

Genitalia are one way in which we assign gender, but not the only way; we recognize, for example, that genetic males can have external genitalia indistinguishable from those of "normal" women (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), and that genetic females can have masculinized genitalia (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia). There are also true hermaphrodites (individuals with both ovarian and testicular tissue). And then there are transsexuals who look one way and yet are "gendered" another way. There have been some cases of parents/doctors choosing the gender of an ambiguous infant, and sometimes the gender identification takes, sometimes it does not (we do not all have an inborn gender identification that resists change, although many of us do, and for most of us it coincides with physical sexual characteristics).

Some interesting reading on these topics--Alice Dreger's work on intersex (you can find it at , Anne Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body and Joan Roughgarden Evolution's Rainbow.

Hello, do you think experiences of the world are structured by gender? If you

Hello, do you think experiences of the world are structured by gender? If you have read Young's 'Throwing Like a Girl,' that is what I'm getting at.

Iris Young's "Throwing Like a Girl" is a wonderful description of gendered experience. Our experiences of the world are influenced by many factors that have to do with our positions in the world, both our physical positions (biological sex, physical disabilities) and our political positions (race, gender, social class, power). "Experience" is defined broadly to encompass all we are conscious of (some call it phenomenological experience). I recommend Kay Toombs work on the phenomenology of disability as another rich description of perspective.

Why does it seem that everything that I read in philosophy always uses "she" or

Why does it seem that everything that I read in philosophy always uses "she" or "her" instead of "his" or "he"?

Hurray for singular "they". Apparently good writers have long used it--

This is not a new problem, or a new solution. 'A person can't helptheir birth', wrote Thackeray in Vanity Fair (1848), and evenShakespeare produced the line 'Every one to rest themselves betake' (inLucrece), which pedants would reject as logically ungrammatical.

Quote (and more on the subject) is here.

I have a question concerning the gender of words that exist in many languages,

I have a question concerning the gender of words that exist in many languages, except in English. What does the presence of grammatical gender in a language say about the mentality of its speakers? A different question is whether the features of a language reflect the characteristics of the societies where it's spoken in a largely unconscious and involuntary way. (Modern) Persian, spoken in Iran and Afghanistan, doesn't have the feature of grammatical gender (anymore), just as English. Many say that the languages that do have grammatical genders are sexist, and that they help to perpetuate the conviction that sex is a tremendously important matter in all areas. For Marilyn Frye, this is a key factor in perpetuating male dominance: male dominance requires the belief that men and women are importantly different from each other, so anything that contributes to the impression that sex differences are important is therefore a contributor to male dominance. Societies whose languages do not have...

As a matter of fact, there are some psychologists and psycholinguists investigating the very question you ask. Lera Boroditsky, at Stanford University, has data that suggest that speakers of languages that use broad gender marking do associate more feminine characteristics with things whose names are marked as feminine, and more masculine traits with things whose names are marked as masculine. You can read a summary of that research here: She argues that these and other data show that language shapes thought. However, psycholinguists at U Penn (Lila Gleitman and John Trueswell), and at Delaware (Anna Papafragou) argue against the view that language shapes thought in this way. (Here's a link to a very readable paper by Gleitman and Papafragou on this topic:

I don't think that Frye's case depends on how this particular debate comes out. Her point is that there are multiple ways in which everyday life demands that individuals make clear what their gender is. She calls this "mandatory sex announcing." The fact that our language gives us no neutral personal pronoun and no neutral form of address (it's either "sir" or "madam" or "miss") is one thing that makes us have to find out someone's gender even if the person's gender is completely irrelevant to our purposes in referring to or addressing that person. Think of writing a letter to someone when you cannot tell from the individual's name whether that individual is a man or a woman. (Think of how hard I had to work to write those last two sentences without using a pronoun!) But language is just one factor, one way in which our social practices and conventions make it necessary for us to classify people as "men" or "women."

My understanding is that, to enter the military, men and women must satisfy

My understanding is that, to enter the military, men and women must satisfy different basic physical standards. Women need not do as many push-ups, do as many sit-ups, run as fast, etc. The goal, I imagine, of these separate standards is to allow women -- who tend to be physically weaker -- to enter the military by expending the same effort (if not producing the same results) as men. My question, then, regards the man who is unable to pass the "man test" but can pass the "woman test." He is as physically capable as many of the women being admitted and, yet, simply by virtue of his gender, he is denied admission. Isn't this overtly sexist? Moreover, if the military thinks that there is some baseline minimum physical capability that every person ought to possess -- i.e., the capability for which they hold female applicants responsible -- then shouldn't anyone with that capability be allowed in? Surely, if the situation were reversed -- if women had to pass some artificially inflated test that attempted to ...

I agree with the thrust of your comments -- that there should be uniform physical requirements for anyone who wishes to serve in the military, and these requirements should be based on the physical demands of the jobs recruits will be required to do. But it's this second proposition that should engage our attention. What are the physical demands of a military career? Modern warfare is highly mechanized; that means both that a great many combat roles will not require much in the way of brute physical strength, and that many will require specialized knowledge and mental skills. There are, in short, no uniform physical requirements for serving in "today's army." So it may well be that the relaxed physical standards for women result in no loss of combat readiness whatsoever. In that case, the relaxed standards ought to be the norm for everyone, with more demanding standards imposed only for those who wish to serve in the more physically demanding roles. My guess is that the sexism involved in all this is in the maintenance of gratuitiously high physical standards for men -- the expression of tired old machismo. The obvious thing to do would be to pull out the people with high degrees of upper-body strength and make them the grunts who have to march with body armor and packs, while giving the driving, piloting, and high-tech jobs to the physically weaker people. But you won't see that happening because there are too many high-status jobs in the military that make minimal physical demands, and you can't have women clustered in the high-status positions.

It should be noted, by way of figuring out why things are as they are, that the US military is constantly revising its enlistment requirements, for reasons of political expediency (demands for more opportunities for women in the military) surely, but also in order to get the bodies they need. Without a draft, and with no end in sight to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has been quietly relaxing standards regarding educational attainment and criminal activity in order to meet its recruitment goals. (See for details.)