I Still Don’t Understand The Point Of These Arguments About Biological Sex
I could be missing something, but no one will tell me what it is!
Over the weekend, a couple people posted a new paper about neuroendocrinology to Sexnet, a sex-research listserv I’m on. It was published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, and it’s called “Deconstructing sex: Strategies for undoing binary thinking in neuroendocrinology and behavior.” The authors are Megan G. Massa, Krisha Aghi, and M.J. Hill.
Massa and her colleagues describe their paper as “a call-to-arms” against what they view as an over-simplistic, rigidly binary view of sex in the field of behavioral neuroendocrinology. The abstract nicely captures what they’re going for:
The scientific community widely recognizes that “sex” is a complex category composed of multiple physiologies. Yet in practice, basic scientific research often treats “sex” as a single, internally consistent, and often binary variable. This practice occludes important physiological factors and processes, and thus limits the scientific value of our findings. In human-oriented biomedical research, the use of simplistic (and often binary) models of sex ignores the existence of intersex, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people and contributes to a medical paradigm that neglects their needs and interests. More broadly, our collective reliance on these models legitimizes a false paradigm of human biology that undergirds harmful medical practices and anti-trans political movements. Herein, we continue the conversations begun at the [Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology] 2022 Symposium on Hormones and Trans Health, providing guiding questions to help scientists deconstruct and rethink the use of “sex” across the stages of the scientific method. We offer these as a step toward a scientific paradigm that more accurately recognizes and represents sexed physiologies as multiple, interacting, variable, and unbounded by gendered preconceptions. We hope this paper will serve as a useful resource for scientists who seek a new paradigm for researching and understanding sexed physiologies that improves our science, widens the applicability of our findings, and deters the misuse of our research against marginalized groups.
The first sentence of the introduction explains that “Neuroendocrinologists have long known that ‘sex’ is a specious category,” and the authors then continue: “Much of our research relies on identifying mechanisms that produce differences in brain morphologies and behaviors, including how factors like hormones, chromosomes, and life experiences differences across ‘the sexes.’ This work makes evident that ‘sex’ is not a biologically coherent concept (Karkazis, 2019; Roughgarden, 2013) but is instead a constructed category reliant on several biological criteria that do not always align (Ainsworth, 2015).”
At different points in the paper, the authors employ different terms to describe the problem with using sex in the allegedly oversimplified manner they are describing: sex isn’t “internally consistent,” it isn’t “biologically coherent,” and it lacks “internal coherence,” they argue. The concept is just a mess.
In my view, this paper is the latest example of what has become a yearslong effort on the part of some left-leaning scientists, activists, and journalists: fuzzing up the concept of biological sex as much as possible, attempting to turn it into a troubled, subjective, unknowable mystery.