My Somatic Sex is Male and my Behavioral Sex is Female

Posted: August 21, 2009 in Troll Wars

Hi Rachel,
Thanks for taking the time to write a detailed reply. I like your blog and I am happy that I have kept your attention. I will respond to two of your excellent points.

1) The research on behavioral sex and toy choices.
2) The politics of talking about Transwomen’s histories as somatically-male women.

As usual I use transwomen and somatically-male women as examples because that is my lived experience.

Somatic sex: male – Behavioral sex: female
After reading an overview of recent work on the biology of intersex, I have come to believe that affinity for gendered behavior and personality structures is imprinted in the fetus through the effects of prenatal androgens. A clear example in the literature is an ‘affinity for rough and tumble play’. Intersex research is interesting because girls with the intersex variation CAH were more masculinized as fetuses than their non CAH sisters. Comparing the two groups provides a natural control group. The CAH sisters showed more male-sypical behavior than their sisters. The researchers have also extensively studied the parental behavior, and found that parents put more pressure on the CAH girls to adopt gender normative behaviors than their sisters.
I think we have arrived at a point where this research is very very difficult to refute. However, this line of biological theory does not need to be viewed as a setback for feminism for these reasons:

1) Behavioral Sex varies differently than Somatic Sex. So, although an ‘aversion for rough and tumble play’ fits sex stereotypes of girlish behavior. This behavioral sex varies independently from somatic sex. So, if a person has the somatic sex female that does not mean they have a behavioral sex female. They could have a male behavioral sex or an intersex combination of the two.
2) Zoe Brain argues that most people are likely to be behaviorally intersexed. It is just those on the ends of the continuum that have a strong behavioral sex. These are the children who display a stong preference as children. Most people could internalize and perform both masculine and feminine genders (I use gender here specifically to refer to the socio-cultural strata).
3) This line of biological theory de-pathologizes somatically-male women (I am using woman to refer to refer to the female behavioral sex) and somatically-female men, as well as the behaviorally intersexed and the somatically intersexed. We stop being birth defects that can be cured. We are instead examples of the natural variations of evolutionary biology.
4) While the research strongly supports a biological foundation for behavioral sex, it has so far refuted biological theories of gender identity (for instance, Julia Serano’s subconscious sex). Behavioral sex is just one, component of gender identity. Gender still falls squarely in the realm of social construction. This model is not in conflict with either Judith Butler or Judith Halberstam, as long as we make behavioral sex and performative gender two separate constructs.

Implications for trans-politics
This model can be interpreted to give us four categories of biological sex.

(somatically) male (behaviorally) female   

transwomen, femmeboys, transvestites, queens

(somatically) male (behaviorally) male
(somatically) female (behaviorally) female (somatically) female (behaviorally) male   

transguys, butch, boi, stud

The borders are ambiguous and overlapping. This is not a perfect representation of complexity, but it is vastly superior to the unproblematic categories of male and female.

In this model I become M and F rather than M to F.

On the one hand this model supports transsexual autobiographies which point to very early and strong affinities for cross-sexed behaviors. This model validates and explains transsexual lived experience. On the other hand, it also supports a Queer Theory idea that there is not a fundamental biological difference between Butch and FTM or Femme Queen and MTF. We all share a dissonance between somatic sex and behavioral sex.
Current trans-activism is wedded to the orthodoxy that the somatic sex of birth, childhood, and adolescence is completely irrelevant. A model like I am proposing, will be very controversial.
Nonetheless, I think that our somatic sexes are very relevant. My male somatic sex in combination with my female behavioral sex is the basis for my discrimination. Somatic sex is the basis for the exclusion of MTF’s from lesbian spaces as well. It will not go away by putting a taboo on discussion of it. By so thoroughly disidentifying with their own original somatic sex, trans activists give up their ability to talk about core reasons for their exclusion. Instead of saying that somatic sex is a reactionary criteria for exclusion, many transwoman activists say, ‘somatic sex is a legitimate criterion for exclusion. You SHOULD exclude the somatically male, but I am not male.’
Progress will be made when everyone, including the gay and lesbian communities are forced to accept that somatic sex and behavioral sex are different, and policing space on the basis of somatic sex is reactionary and makes gay and lesbian separatism part of the problem rather than the solution.

Note: I have started to be much more precise in my use of the terms sex and gender. Gender belongs to the realm of society and sex to the realm of biology. Therefore I now use the term behavioral sex rather than behavioral gender. Terms like Halberstam’s Male Femininity do not capture the biological nature of behavioral sex. Femininity and masculinity belong to the realm of the social, and implicitly relativize cross-sexed lived experience.

  1. Rachel_in_WY says:

    A couple of things…

    I still think the terms of this discourse are problematic in that there’s no room for those who naturally display a combination of “masculine” and “feminine” traits. I was always very physical, assertive, competitive, etc while also being nurturing and cooperative and empathetic. So I’m somatically female but neither behaviorally male nor female. And I suspect many more people would display these tendencies if there wasn’t so much pressure to fit into a neat little box.

    And I think this is problematic

    Current trans-activism is wedded to the orthodoxy that the somatic sex of birth, childhood, and adolescence is completely irrelevant.

    In my experience, they’re objecting to the idea that somatic sex is constitutive – that it determines behavioral sex and gender, that simply because they presented as one sex at birth, that this said something significant about who they really were. And that’s simply not the case.

    Finally, I don’t think these disagreements have to necessarily result in exclusionary behavior. It is unfortunate that marginalized groups often end up excluding others who have been similarly mistreated by their culture due to a sort of defensive stance they’ve learned to take. It’s natural that we learn not to trust others and to sort of “circle the wagons” after a lifetime of abuse and othering. But it’s unfortunate when that results in the further exclusion of other marginalized bodies. And I don’t really have an answer for this. But I do think that moving away from binaries and little boxes and toward openness and fluidity and inclusiveness is worth a shot.

  2. Rachel_in_WY says:

    OK, I don’t think my second point was very clear, so let me expand on it.

    From an external view, it might look like I was a woman for x number of years, and then I became genderqueer. People might describe me as a (very poor example of a) woman who later “positioned herself” as a genderqueer individual. But that version of it does violence to my own experience of myself. In reality, I was always genderqueer, but lacked the vocabulary and the conceptual framework and the maturity to establish it and insist on public acknowledgment of it. Similarly, my cousin, who is trans, is seen (in this view) as being a man for x number of years until he chose to position himself as a woman. But this does violence to her experience of her own life. In reality, she was a woman (who was also somatically male) all along, who nonetheless attempted (under duress) to inhabit the male identity and follow the male scripts for x number of years, until she had gained the maturity and the emotional and financial resources to establish a more authentic identity and demand public acknowledgment of it.

    Do you see how these two stories are really, fundamentally, and significantly different?

  3. Rachel_in_WY says:

    And one last thing (sorry!)

    I’ve done a lot of reading on this stuff as well and get the whole rough-and-tumble play and choosing girl or boy toys, etc. One problem is that there’s no control group in terms of culture. All of this research is going on within the context of a strongly-gendered culture, where kids are internalizing messages about gender from the minute they’re born. So there’s no way to know what they would “naturally” do outside of this framework.

    Additionally, what counts as a “girl toy” and a “boy toy” changes from one culture and historical period to another, but for the most part, “masculine” and “feminine” behavior continues to track with it. For example, girls in our culture today know they’re supposed to like pink, and they’re constantly surrounded by it from birth, and so, unsurprisingly, most of them do show a preference for it, from a very early age. But if you go back far enough in our cultural context, girls were predictably preferring the very “feminine” light blue, while boys overwhelmingly preferred red and, by extension, pink. In some Asian cultures, boys overwhelmingly prefer yellow, which is thought to be the most masculine color. Given the fact that these behaviors track with cultural trends, it seems like a reach to conclude that all this stuff occurs independently of socialization.

  4. Jasper Gregory says:

    Wow Rachel,
    It’s nice to have a passionate and eloquent person to ‘talk’ with. I do wonder about the possibility of coming to a resolution in this medium. These conversations seem to have an continuous momentum. Ever considered making a youtube post?

    But anyway…
    Drantz’s model is actually very intersex/bisex centric. A more accurate representation of the model would let you choose behaviorally and/or somatically intersexed. A truly accurate representation would be points plotted on an x-y axis with no artificial boundaries.

    But, the power of representation is strategic simplification. All representation simplifies and makes trade-offs. Right now I feel like both mainstream and Serano-ian discourse are dominated by simplistic male/female.
    Four sexes is not accurate but it is far more accurate than what we have now and it is simple enough to be communicated. I guess I am arguing for incremental reform, and achievable goals.

    This leads into the issue of “the idea that somatic sex is constitutive”. I get that that is what trans-activism is fighting, but they are choosing to defend a different binary, namely that behavioral sex is constitutive. Some activists are taking it so far that any talk about the role of somatic sex is “politically incorrect”, and labels me as the enemy. Both somatic sex and behavioral sex are relevant.
    My model is an attempt to say that we do not have to replace one binary with another. A concept like somatically-male behaviorally-female gives us an abstract category which can be used as a crowbar to pry open doors and expose discrimination and exclusion.
    My goal and Serano’s goals are similar. I feel that she wants to maintain the binary but redefine it as behavioral sex. I want to make the first step towards breaking open the binary by expanding sex to both behavior and somatics.

  5. Rachel_in_WY says:

    I agree that incremental reform is about the best you can hope for.

    As for the question of whether somatic sex or behavioral sex is constitutive… that probably depends on who you’re talking to. In most of the discussions I’ve had online and with a (fairly small) group of trans activists I know IRL, it’s fairly well accepted that they don’t always track – that you can be cissexual but transgendered, or vice versa. And that contradicts this claim that behavioral sex is constitutive. In fact, one thing that many trans people wish the general population understood is that not all trans people want SRS, but that this doesn’t make them any less trans, or inauthentic in some way. So you may just be talking to different people than I am, but I wouldn’t characterize the stance of the trans activists I know as being that behavioral sex is constitutive. I think this is a different thing than claiming that we ought to give unmitigated respect to the self-identification of each person, and honor their experiences when we conceptualize and interpret their lives.

  6. Jasper Gregory says:

    I agree that trans-activist is too vague a term. I imagine that in the beginning of the feminist or gay liberation movement it was easier to critique a strand of thinking by referring to a group like the Lavendar Menace or a magazine like the Lesbian Tide. Now I just kind of run into the same idea of what is “politically correct” over and over again. Trans-activist is too broad but what then?

  7. Rachel_in_WY says:

    Trans-activist is too broad but what then?

    You can always throw in the “some” modifier, or better yet, link to the specific people and the specific comments to which you’re responding.

  8. Jasper Gregory says:

    “Some” is a good idea in most circumstances. Linking to specific authors is probably a better idea, but I am wary of starting blog wars. The most ethical is probably to critique published books, especially when they are influential.

  9. Schala says:

    I would object to your concept of somatic sex for other reasons than because I value behavioral sex above it (which I don’t).

    I object to it because my “transness” is just as somatic as my eyes, ears, mouth, hair color, hair quality (thin, thick), hair shape (curly, straight). It’s part of my brain, which is biological.

    I understand your usage of ‘somatic’ to mean exactly the same as ‘biological’ by the way.

    I’m biologically intersex because I display characteristics of both (even if it was only the brain). I never was somatically male, despite the presence of a penis.

    Your theory would be controversial mainly because people would not be able to claim legally to being male or female (on birth certificate, passport, IDs) if your theory came to be accepted as the norm – legislators would consider people who’ve physically transitioned as “altered males (who will always remain male)” (and vice-versa for trans men) and thus, undeserving of the legal mention of female on their papers.

    The lack of legal accomodations for genderqueer people who seek it is damning, but bringing down those already in place helps no one.

  10. Jasper Gregory says:

    Thanks for writing schala. I only have time for a short reply now.
    I think that you point out a fundamental problem of the legal-juridical system assigning binary sex.
    I am persoanlly just seeking flexible conceptual structures which allow me to talk about a shared experience of “being raised boy but not feeling boy”, without a priori dividing these beings into the standard Categories of Crossdresser, Queen and Transsexual.

  11. Schala says:

    The UK, Spain and a few other countries have developed policies letting a gender change (legally) occur despite no proof of genital surgery. A step in the right direction.

    Yet they should follow Australia’s tentative legislation of having no sex mentioned (or a sex ‘X’) on ID papers.

    Or do away with mention of sex altogether (on any and all IDs), it being unnecessary a mention in all but a few cases.

  12. Jasper Gregory says:

    I like Australia’s move. Also the step to decouple genital surgery and legal sex is a good one.
    Long term, I feel like the only equitable solution is to get the state to stop regulating gender, in all matters including law, marriage, education and fashion.

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