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Don’t Take Pride in Promoting Pseudoscience
The science is clear: biological sex is not a spectrum.
The article below was originally published in Queer Majority.
Over the last decade, we have observed a striking shift in the politics of LGBT issues. There has been a move away from broadly supported principles based on equality toward the imposition of radical, pseudoscientific ideologies concerning biological sex. A growing genre of articles in high-profile news outlets, magazines, and scientific journals is signaling the end of a binary and immutable perspective on biological sex. The appeal of these pieces lies in the belief that rejecting the binary concept of sex provides society with a liberating opportunity for self-definition, unfettered by material constraints.
One might consider these debates too arcane to have any real significance. However, the pseudoscientific notion that biological sex is mutable and exists on a non-binary continuum serves as a key justification for allowing males who identify as women to compete in female sports and access female prisons, and for administering treatments such as puberty blockers and “gender-affirming” (i.e., body modifying) hormones and surgeries to adolescents and adults alike to fix a perceived misalignment between their sex and “gender identity.” The implications are serious, as these recommendations make women’s sex-based rights unenforceable and directly impact the healthy bodies and minds of children. It is of utmost importance that such actions are grounded in reliable science, not in fashionable political ideologies.
On the first day of Pride month, the San Francisco Chronicle featured an article by ecologist Ash Zemenick titled, “Sex and gender are binaries? Sorry, that’s a scientific falsehood.” In the article, Zemenick wasted no time in proclaiming that the notion that “there are only two sexes available for humans to inhabit: male or female” is “false.” This stance stems from his argument that “Biological sex can be defined in many ways. And when it is accurately defined, it’s never binary.” He then goes down a list of candidate traits he claims are used to define sex with the aim of proving that none of them align with a binary view.
To the layperson unfamiliar with the science, Zemenick’s essay might seem like a compelling rebuttal of outdated, prejudiced notions of biology that have overstayed their bigoted welcome into the 21st century. However, this is far from the truth. Whether due to a lack of scientific understanding or a deliberate attempt to mislead, Zemenick's analysis falls short. To avoid being misled, it’s crucial to clarify several things: the difference between sex and gender, what sexes are, and what biologists mean when they refer to sex as “binary.” It’s vital to establish this foundation before demonstrating why Zemenick’s assertions lack credibility.
The distinction between sex and gender must first be disentangled. The term “sex” signifies whether a person is male or female, a categorization rooted in objective reproductive biology. Conversely, “gender” is usually characterized by notions of masculinity and femininity or the social roles, behaviors, and expressions traditionally linked to sex. Despite many activists’ efforts to blur the line between sex and gender, it is critical to maintain their distinctness. This conflation redefines sexual orientation in unscientific ways. Homosexuality, which means same-sex attraction, becomes “attraction to the same or similar genders.” Bisexuality, in turn, is morphed into “attraction to two (or more) genders”, gutting the term of meaning, and leading to asinine claims about bisexuality being uniquely transphobic. Needless to say, this makes advocating for LGBT rights as well as sex education much harder. Few people would seriously contend that human behavior and expression strictly adhere to two forms, but sex is different, which is why Zemenick’s arguments against the binary concept of sex fly in the face of science.
The sexes — male and female — represent two distinct reproductive strategies. Males are characterized as the sex that produces numerous small sex cells, or gametes, known as sperm. Females, conversely, are the sex that yields fewer but larger sex cells, referred to as eggs or ova. Consequently, we distinguish between males and females based on the type of sex cell their primary reproductive anatomy (gonads) can or are expected to produce. This is not unique to humans but is universally applied throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. Since there are only two types of sex cells — sperm and ovum — there exist only two sexes. This binary division between sperm and ovum forms the crux of biologists’ reference to sex as a “binary.”
In his introductory remarks, however, Zemenick asserts that “Biological sex can be defined in many ways,” none of which is intrinsically superior or more essential than the others. He lists external genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, and ultimately gametes as traits that, upon examination, fail to align with a binary construct.
Focusing on external genitalia, Zemenick highlights intersex conditions, which are developmental conditions that result in mixed or ambiguous appearing reproductive anatomy. He asserts that people with intersex conditions are as prevalent as "people with naturally red hair" (1-2%, according to his cited source) and that their existence discredits the sex binary. This argument, although widespread, is fundamentally flawed and relies on both misapprehension and distorted statistics.
The principal error in Zemenick's intersex argument lies in its gross misinterpretation of the sex binary concept. As explained earlier, the statement “sex is binary” from a biologist’s perspective does not imply that every human throughout history can be unambiguously categorized as male or female. Rather, it refers to the fact that considering the presence of only two types of sex cells (sperm and ova), there can only be two sexes. Sexual ambiguity does not undermine the sex binary because an intersex condition does not lead to anatomy that can or would produce a third type of sex cell.
Moreover, Zemenick’s claim that 1-2% of the population has intersex conditions vastly overstates the reality, exceeding the actual figure by nearly 100 times. This statistic originated from Anne Fausto-Sterling in Sexing The Body: Gender Politics And The Construction Of Sexuality (2000), and was reiterated in an American Journal of Human Biology article titled “How Sexually Dimorphic Are We?” Fausto-Sterling and her colleagues reached their 1-2% estimation by applying an arbitrary and excessively broad definition of “intersex” as “an individual who deviates from the Platonic ideal of physical dimorphism at the chromosomal, genital, gonadal, or hormonal levels.” To convey the absurdity of their strict criteria, females with unusually small clitorises and males with unusually large penises were classified as intersex.
Most critically, the vast majority of the people Fausto-Sterling categorized as intersex exhibited no sexual ambiguity whatsoever. When a clinically relevant definition of intersex is applied, such as when “chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female,” the incidence of intersex conditions dwindles to approximately 0.018%, or about 1 in 5500. Nevertheless, the prevalence of intersex conditions is immaterial to the binary nature of sex. The occurrence of sexual ambiguity, regardless of its frequency, does not constitute a third sex.
Zemenick then addresses sex chromosomes, seeking to debunk the assumption that girls always possess XX and boys always have XY sex chromosomes by highlighting other “varied arrangements” of sex chromosomes such as XYY, XXX, XXY or XO. From this he concludes that “Chromosomal sex is not binary.” The issue here is that no competent biologist would argue that chromosomes define an individual’s sex. Zemenick appears to be very confused about the distinction between how sex is defined versus how it is determined.
In the realm of developmental biology, the term “determined” describes the factors that trigger specific tissues to develop along a certain pathway, resulting in a particular organ or appendage. This is the concept biologists refer to when they discuss “chromosomal sex determination” in humans and other mammals. However, the manner in which an organism's sex is determined substantially differs from how it’s defined. For example, some animals like alligators lack sex chromosomes altogether. Instead, whether a particular egg hatches a male or female alligator is determined by incubation temperature. Critically, even though humans and alligators have drastically different mechanisms for determining sex, the sex of an individual human or alligator is always defined consistently: by the type of gamete he or she can produce or would produce, based on their gonads.
Zemenick’s assertion that varying sex chromosome combinations (known as sex chromosome aneuploidies) disrupt the sex binary reveals a novice understanding of biology at best, despite his self-introduction as “a doctorate-carrying scientist.” In truth, these “varied arrangements” represent chromosomal variation within males and females, not additional unique sexes beyond males and females.
Zemenick next shifts his focus to what he calls “hormonal sex.” He contends that this concept is not binary because males and females each produce both estrogen and testosterone, and that “the levels of estrogen and testosterone in bodies is a distribution.” However, this is putting the cart before the horse. Hormone levels do not define one’s sex; rather, they’re a result of one’s sex. Males have testes and females have ovaries, and these organs predominantly produce testosterone and estrogen, respectively.
Lastly, Zemenick considers gametes, which he calls “the most reductive definition of sex.” He argues that we cannot determine a person’s sex based on gametes because some individuals are sterile and thus do not produce gametes. Others have their gonads removed and consequently cease to produce gametes. Moreover, boys don’t produce sperm until they reach puberty; does this imply they are sexless prior to that point? According to Zemenick, there exist “three states: no gametes, eggs or sperm,” leading him to conclude that “gametic sex is not binary.”
This overlooks the fact that one’s actual ability to produce gametes doesn’t define their sex. A sterile or pre-pubertal male remains male due to the development of male primary reproductive organs, irrespective of their current functionality. Similarly, surgical removal of one’s gonads doesn’t alter a person’s sex, as their reproductive phenotype has already manifested. Most importantly, “no gametes” doesn’t denote a third sex (which would require a third kind of gamete). Therefore, even under Zemenick’s proposed system, there would still be only two sexes.
As I have pointed out several times, an individual’s sex is defined by the type of gamete they can or would produce. This definition is not arbitrary; its validity can be evidenced by the fact that all of Zemenick’s alternate sex definitions — genital, chromosomal, and hormonal — still depend on the primacy of the gametic definition of sex to maintain any sense of coherence.
We know human males typically have penises and females have vaginas because we understand that being male or female is independent of external genitalia. We recognize that females usually have XX chromosomes and males XY because these chromosomal combinations correspond almost invariably with female and male sexes, respectively. We associate high testosterone levels with males and high estrogen levels with females because we comprehend that these hormone levels correlate with an individual’s sex. It would have been literally impossible to associate any of these traits with males and females without first understanding what males and females are, apart from these traits. And what all these traits are caused by or correlate with is the type of gamete — sperm or ova — that an individual’s gonads can or would produce.
One red flag that should alert readers to Zemenick’s unscientific, ideological agenda is that he fails to explain or clarify anything. Instead, his sole aim appears to be to muddle matters and leave his audience perplexed. A competent educator, possessing a mastery of their subject, wouldn’t undermine basic textbook portrayals of concepts only to leave their audience floundering. Instead, they would substitute one model with another that imparts a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of known facts.
It’s easy to differentiate a truth-seeking scientist from a Critical Social Justice activist masquerading as one. A scientist searches for patterns in the natural world to understand it in light of more fundamental truths. In stark contrast, the objective of these activists is simply to sow confusion while asserting that truth is always elusive and relativistic. Considering these different approaches to the natural world, Zemenick’s true modus operandi should be unmistakably clear.
Pseudoscience on the biology of sex has indeed permeated academia, medicine, and society at large, proliferating unchecked due to its perceived alignment with Critical Social Justice ideals. However, let us remember that political trends, while captivating, are transient in nature, whereas truth endures forever despite its unpopularity at times. Human rights must be built on a foundation of truth. Hope lies in speaking that truth as loudly as possible and limiting the collateral impact of reality-distorting ideologies on policy, medicine, and society until evidence and reason make their inevitable comeback.
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