Tag Archives: sexual orientation

Authenticity

Recently, I heard a claim that there were only two authentic expressions of sex, i.e., the natural binary of male and female. The speaker argued that this binary and only this binary is natural and therefore authentic. As I considered this claim, my thoughts went back to the early history of life on this planet when sex evolved as a reproductive strategy. Biological evolution, as a process, produced two reproductively distinct sexes. The strategy has endured because it improved the odds of successful reproduction of any species using it. Sexes exist for a biologically functional purpose and only for that reason. Remove the biological advantages from sexual reproduction and sexes never would have evolved. This means in its most fundamental sense male and female reflect reproductive sexes. The majority of individuals are male or female in the reproductive meaning of the two categories. Any fundamental differences between the two reproductive sexes, whether in anatomy, physiology, affect, cognition or behavior appear of necessity to be tied to reproductive functions. This seems to be what the speaker mentioned above had in mind. In another piece on this site, I have argued that male and female represent a complimentary pair that anchor the points at either end of a spectrum lying between the pair. The speaker denied as authentic the spectrum and thus anyone representing it.

Evolution is not an invariant process and a minority of births result in atypical outcomes related to sex, as well as other characteristics. Some atypical sex related outcomes are more easily identified than others. There are variations in anatomical outcomes such as in the structure of the genitalia. There are also physiological variations such as Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which result in a genetically XY individual who appears female but has no internal female reproductive organs. There also appear to be a range of atypical sex related outcomes, possibly related to physiological processes, that aren’t well understood. For example, there are likely atypical outcomes due to hormone exposure during development that is hypothesized to occur at the wrong time or persist for too long or too brief of a period or to involve the wrong hormone altogether. These are usually only identifiable through overt behavior and/or reports of covert psychological states such as thoughts, feelings and behavioral impulses arising in awareness and becoming objects of consciousness, which may or may not be overtly acted upon. Thus, in addition to anatomical variations, there can be outcomes resulting in variations in sexual orientation, sense of sexuality and gender identity. These atypical variations can be manifest in various combinations and to varying degrees and will be stronger and more intense in some individuals than in others. I would say that any variation that is a product of nature is natural and any claim that it is unnatural is a false claim.

If you take the variations above, which arguably have a basis in biology and then insert them into the psycho-social context represented by culture, a whole new layer of considerations emerge. Culture represents a range of narratives about human nature and the role of people in the institutions and practices of society. These include such things as religion, politics, medicine and psychology among others. During development, we all begin to build up a narrative about how we fit into this many-faceted cultural matrix. For example, many would call this personal narrative ego or self. How we define our fit into this matrix or allow it to be defined for us can have far ranging implications. It is my assertion that it is a human right for each individual to define for themselves their relationship to the cultural matrix in which they live. That said, understand that there are components within the matrix that resist such a right in many of the variations within a population. Deniers of human rights tend to have rigid personalities and a need for certainty even if they are certainly wrong. Such people could be said to be lost in their mind.

What I mean by the mind is that scaffold of mental constructs that go by names such as ideas, concepts, beliefs and facts that are usually revealed in our use of language. Our experiences are encoded through images and words and are therefore linked to the scaffold. The development of the cultural mind is supported by the experiences of the body in the physical world. Experience is a critical contributor to the development of the cultural mind. Complimentary pairs, like male and female or good and evil, exist because they make experience possible through the tensions produced by the contrast between the end points – if no contrasts, then no experience. You can’t have the experience of temperature without the binary of hot and cold.

The cultural mind, in my view, might be thought of as a cognitive structure existing within awareness. By way of illustration, imagine a large grassy field (awareness) with a complex set of “monkey bars” (cultural mind) set up on part of it. Most of us spend most of our time “playing” on the monkey bars and are largely oblivious to the field (awareness). When an experience occurs, we usually interpret it through the structures comprising the cultural mind. This is what is known as top-down perception. Looking at an experience from the perspective of the field and excluding the monkey bars is called bottom up perception and is typical of young children and awakened adults. This is the perspective of the natural mind.

I would suggest that the self that resides in the cultural mind is a personal myth and is a story woven from memories, which are selective and ever changing. This self can never be authentic in any foundational sense. Authenticity in a person is, in my view, to be found only in the beingness from which awareness arises, not in the cultural mind. Thus, to legitimately characterize someone as authentic is to speak of them as an expression of that underlying beingness, a state that precedes mind and body. A state that resides in the source of awareness, which is Primordial Awareness or Universal Mind. The authentic Self shines through some individuals’ way of being in the world and is hidden by others’ way of being in the world. It is not that one has it and another lacks it, for both have it. It is just evident in one and not the other. Let us seek communion with our authentic Self and then let it shine into the world to be seen by all who have eyes with which to see it.

Night Owl Interviews Teresa Gentry on Phenomenological Psychology #2

Welcome to another edition of Night Owl, where people with unusual perspectives on life get a chance to be heard. This interview is with Teresa Gentry, a phenomenological psychologist who uses introspection to study issues of interest. The following is a transcript of the live interview done with Teresa over Zoom. For brevity, I’ll simply use initials to indicate who is speaking. Subscribers can watch the video of the interview on the Night Owl web site. Let’s dive in.

NO:     For openers why don’t you tell us briefly what a phenomenological psychologist is and what introspective methods are.

TG:     A phenomenological psychologist studies one subject — herself or himself. Introspection attempts to observe the thoughts arising in the mind and to allow a free association among those thoughts without attaching one’s thinking mind to any of them.

NO:     That doesn’t sound like a very scientific approach. It certainly isn’t objective.

TG:     No. It isn’t objective. It is clearly subjective, which is the nature of phenomenological research. No one is truly objective. Researchers who claim to be objective are deluding themselves. We inhabit a holistic universe. How can a researcher stand aside from the whole and conceptually isolate an aspect of the whole as an object for study and not bring anything phenomenological to the investigation? It isn’t possible. There are methods that can be employed to minimize phenomenological confounding, but they can’t be eliminated. The phenomenological self decides on what questions to ask, what methods to use to obtain an answer to a questions and what the answer means. The mere act of studying an objectified aspect of the whole has the potential to significantly impact the study.

NO:     How can you learn anything generalizable to others by simply studying yourself?

TG:     It is pretty simple. What you do is observe thought patterns until the more personal ones fade and deeper patterns begin to emerge. Through an evolving process of extinguishing personal patterns one begins to reveal core patterns.

NO:     And what is a core pattern?

TG:     A core pattern is similar to what Jung called an archetype. It is somewhat like a template that is shared by all people or subgroups within a larger population. Personal patterns are permutations or individualized elaborations of core patterns that adapt the template to an individual. At the core level, common patterns are revealed that are generalizable beyond the research subject, that is, me.

NO:     Is there a methodology to introspection or is it a personal talent?

TG:     Certainly, some untrained people will be better at it than others. However, there are a variety of protocols that are taught that facilitate the introspective method. These begin with contemplative and meditative practices, use of autosuggestion, conditions of sensory deprivation and psychoactive substances, to name a few.

NO:     Do you have a specialized focus for your studies?

TG:     Yes. To return to Jungian terminology, I currently focus on the anima.

NO:     Please define anima for our viewers.

TG:     Anima, in depth psychology, is related to the female archetype or the core patterns related to being female.

NO:     Please tell us something of what your studies have revealed to you.

TG:     As a female researcher my goal was to uncover core patterns unique to females.

NO:     Did you find any core patterns and, if so, what was their nature?

TG:     Yes. First and foremost was the core physical pattern. This pattern is one that begins to be understood at an early age. Even as a child, a female recognizes that she has a body designed for a specific and complex biological function. She may not fully understand this pattern yet but she is aware of it.

NO:     Are there any other core physical patterns?

TG:     Size and strength are observed by female children to be attenuated in adult females relative to most adult males. Later in development this is personally experienced with male peers. Thus, a female child comes to see females as physically smaller and weaker than most males.

NO:     Rather obvious to adults, but I can see where it might be a significant understanding when it first arises in a child.

TG:     Yes. This is recognized as a defining characteristic of the species. This core physical pattern is compounded by recognition of a core temperament pattern. In general, the temperament behind actions executed through the core physical pattern is more assertive or aggressive when articulating male behavior relative to female behavior. In short, the female child recognizes that she will probably be physically smaller and weaker and that her physicality is less energized by temperament.

NO:     Yes. I can see where the first realization of these core patterns could have a psychological impact for both female and male children. What follows on this realization?

TG:     The earliest stage of social development rests upon a perception of “like me” or “not like me.” This usually leads to differentiation into male and female peer groups and the development of different peer cultures reflecting differences in physicality and temperament. These groups tend to stereotype one another while viewing themselves to be diverse and complex. This tendency is reinforced and elaborated by the family and society into several layers of secondary patterns. The two groups move through childhood on different tracks with minimal cross-over or overlap.

NO:     I have observed exactly what you’re describing. I have also observed a significant weakening of this division later on.

TG:     Specifically, one sees the division broken down to some degree by the onset of puberty. The introduction of sex hormones into the relatively stable same-sex groups is disruptive but is not sufficient to destroy the groups and their respective gender cultures. Hormones also initiate additional core patterns.

NO:     Elaborate on these patterns from your studies, please.

TG:     In the pubescent female, sex hormones stimulate two new core physical patterns. The first core pattern in puberty is the transformation of the body by the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The second core pattern is the initiation of internal physical changes that initiates fertility. These two patterns then become the stimuli that trigger the full activation of sexual orientation that in most cases casts males in a different and more desirable light.

NO:     So it would seem. What do you find following on from these changes?

TG:     Along with the full activation of sexual orientation comes desire for male attention, along with anticipation of pleasure and intrusive thoughts and feelings related to sexual activity and conception.

NO:     This suggests to me a potential conflict with earlier core patterns that you described.

TG:     Indeed. The development of secondary sexual characteristics, coupled with awakened sexuality, puts a young female in an awkward position. Such a girl gets a lot of attention both covert and overt from males ranging in age pretty much across the spectrum from adolescents to seniors. The attention can be and often is intrusive and unwelcome. The girl wants attention but realizes that it has to be managed because there isn’t any way to selectively attract it with high precision.

NO:     I can see how it could be something of a shock to unexpectedly find yourself the center of unwanted sexual attention. So, how is it managed?

TG:     Yes. Attention that is unsolicited, unwanted and often difficult to repel. Keep in mind the other earlier realization that one is smaller, weaker and less aggressive than most males. Physically managing unwanted attention isn’t generally an option. Fortunately, during the preadolescent period the same sex peer group provided an educational experience in which young females had an opportunity to refine their social perception and skills.

NO:     Why is this fortunate?

TG:     Because it provides skills that help a female become more adept at picking up on social cues and to then deploy social skills suitable for manipulating an undesirable situation.

NO:     Is this usually effective?

TG:     It can be effective in situations where the male is well socialized, not highly aroused and not intent on imposing his sexual arousal on the female. However, all too frequently this is not the case. To see that this is true one need only look at how common sexual abuse and sexual assault are in society.

NO:     So, it is often the case, isn’t it, that a female in her very person is a walking advertisement that has a general rather than a selective appeal, which can attract potentially dangerous attention and even assault.

TG:     Yes. In fact, society uses females as sexual objects, which exacerbates the situation. I refer to enhancement of secondary sexual characteristics for social ends such as commerce.

NO:     Are you saying that society socializes women into roles that require them to make a certain type of presentation if they are to be seen as socially acceptable.

TG:     Clarify “presentation.”

NO:     I mean things like fashion in clothing, sensual fabric, color, make-up, adornment, styling of hair, as well as patterned movement and mannerisms. Things that are aimed at stimulating sexual attention in males.

TG:     I know that women can and do present themselves with the intent of being sexually attractive at certain times. However, my research suggests that many women actively work on their presentation out of an aesthetic sensibility or a desire for beauty that is on average much stronger in women than in men. In short, their presentation is usually for the appreciation of others with a similar aesthetic sensibility, which is largely other women, though it also captures the appreciative attention of some men.

NO:     What do you think is the basis for this aesthetic sensibility?

TG:     It is an ability that evolved over the history of the species and is intimately tied to women’s use of aesthetic sensibility to select for traits in males that altered first their appearance and then their behavior in order to further female sexual autonomy. This is, evolutionarily speaking, driven by the desire in females to produce the most viable offspring possible. Especially, male offspring that have a high probability of being, at maturity, selected by females as mates and therefore highly likely to successfully reproduce.

NO:     I’ll have to give this idea some thought. How does this lead to fashion, make-up, adornment and so forth, if its origins lie in an evolutionary need for women to mold male appearance and behavior?

TG:     You are correct about the origins, but once an aesthetic sensibility was established, it took on a life of its own. In short, it became a foundational block in the establishment of a female culture. A culture that has generally been interpreted wrongly because it has been viewed from a male-centric perspective in the context of an overall male-oriented culture or patriarchy.

NO:     So, you would say that there is a biologically based tendency within the female population to individually take their person as a canvas on which to make their best attempt at creating beauty?

TG:     Yes, I have no disagreement with that as a summary statement. I would also mention that this tendency also manifests itself not only in personal presentation but also in contexts associated with the person, such as the beautification of living spaces.

NO:     A most interesting digression. Shall we get back to the original topic concerning the objectification of woman as a sex object and the conflict this leads to ?

TG:     Certainly, the need for attention in some ways creates an approach-avoidance conflict. The female desires male attention to find a mate and seeks to attract it but fears unwelcome and intrusive attention and tries to avoid it. This creates the potential for a lot of anxiety about cross-sex interaction, because it is often difficult to predict how such interactions will develop.

NO:     I hadn’t thought much about it, but I see your point. Are there further points that you would like to bring out?

TG:     Yes. Not only is the maturing female faced with the real possibility of becoming the victim of male sexual assertiveness, if not outright aggression, but she also recognizes the potential for long-term complications.

NO:     Are you referring to an unwanted pregnancy?

TG:     That is one possibility, though that risk is more easily managed than in the past. Even so, the risk still exists and has many social, economic and personal consequences. Coupled with this risk are others. There is always the possibility of being physically injured or even killed, of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease and even long-term mental health problems such a PTSD.

NO:     You paint a pretty scary picture.

TG:     It can be, especially for some young females, but also for mature females as well. It is not uncommon for significant problems related to anxiety to impact female behavior. Social anxiety and withdrawal as well as problems such as eating disorders and substance abuse are also possible.

NO:     I have never really thought much about it, but what you say makes a lot of sense.

TG:     I’m sure you’ve had little incentive to think about it. However, imagine running around on a firing range with a target on your back and you may get some sense of the situation.

NO:     Being aware of your predicament then leads to anxiety?

TG:     No, not initially. There are social conventions that serve to provide some protection from potential problems, especially if one exercises discretion in combination with social conventions.

NO:     I take it bad experiences are most likely if one lets her “guard” down at some point?

TG:     Yes, it is easy to get relaxed and feel comfortable as one sort of habituates to one’s circumstances. I don’t think it is necessary to go into detail, but most women probably could tell you about getting “cornered” on dates when alone with a male who has been a “gentleman” up to then and suddenly becomes both aroused by the situation and is motivated to be very demanding. I would also point out that letting one’s guard down is not the only problem.

NO:     What else poses a problem?

TG:     Males have historically used chemical means to reduce or eliminate resistance to their intentions. For a long time alcohol was probably the most widely used chemical disinhibitor. More recently a range of intoxicants have been introduced that can be employed to make “date rape” much easier to accomplish.

NO:     It is becoming clear to me that the circumstances you describe have potentially serious psychological and lifestyle consequences.

TG:     One should become very vigilant and always on the alert for suspicious circumstances, suggestions and invitations. It can become difficult to openly trust many of the people you encounter. Such a state of vigilance is a precursor for a rather persistent feeling of general anxiety, which can lead to a psychological disorder.

NO:     Do you have any parting words that you’d like to leave with the audience?

TG:     Yes, most people either don’t see or refuse to see the degree to which they are driven by evolutionary biology. We are self-replicating organisms and our evolution has left as little of that to chance as possible. We are driven by biological processes that we veil with all kinds of cultural and personal narratives. The purpose of such narratives is to delude ourselves into believing that we are free agents rationally choosing our actions in the world. We aren’t necessarily zombies but most of us come pretty close. A few of us take the trouble to understand their true nature and find ways to stand aside from it when appropriate.

NO:     Would you say a little more about biological processes?

TG:     Sure. I would divide these processes into three basic categories. We all have them, though they vary somewhat by biological sex. The first category is purely biological. These programs regulate basic biological functions such as heartbeat, liver function, kidney function, menstrual cycles and so on. Not many of us think we have any degree of control over these functions other than in marginal ways. For example, you can do things to slow down or speed up your heart but that is mere influence, not control. We do have some influence over our breathing as well but that is not control. If you think you control your breath, just try stopping it for an extended period of time, say five minutes. You’ll feel the force of the biological program.

There are other processes like thought that we have or can develop control over for specific tasks such as solving problems, planning or creating. But, before you conclude that you fully control your thoughts, try to stop them for a significant period of time. You’ll soon be dissuaded of the idea that you are in control. It is true that some meditators can achieve protracted states free of linguistic thought, but thinking continues in more subtle ways.

The second category I think of as bio-social programs. These are programs that have a primary biological component and a secondary social component. Another way of looking at this is that the same biological program may be expressed somewhat differently depending upon the socio-cultural context in which it has been refined. A simple example is hunger. Pretty much everyone feels a biological urge to eat but what we find appealing as food, how it is prepared and consumed is learned through our culture. If you feel erotically attracted to someone, you can be sure that there is a biological program at the root of it. This program too is likely to have a secondary cultural overlay. Further, biological programs are at the root of such phenomena as the impulse to engage in sexual activity, to conceive a child, to bond with a child and so on. These programs too usually have a social overlay that varies by culture. We often think of these things as personal choices and we have narratives that explain why we believe we make the choices we do, but in the final analysis these narratives are just rationales for things we do and don’t really understand.

The third and final category I would call idiosyncratic or personal. These are programs that we learn through our experience. These include many skills that we acquire such as driving a car or solving an equation. Such skills are subject to our control, though even these become automatic with practice. Of course, in a sense, even these are biological in nature. In one sense because we are biological organisms and learning is a capacity built-in to us. In another sense, learning these skills may often be motivated by programs of the other two types, because they indirectly contribute to meeting the purpose of such programs. For example, think of the possible links between an adolescent learning to drive and potential for sexual activity or assertion of independence.

Finally, I’d like to say that in physical terms we are biological animals. To the extent that we identify with our physical body, we are “slaves” to our biological nature. However, the truth is that we are spiritual entities that merely inhabit these physical bodies temporarily. These vehicles provide us with an opportunity to gain experience, learn and grow. Learn to identify with your unconditioned awareness or spiritual nature and you will be able to stand aside from your biological or animal nature when you wish and make choices less driven by biological and social programs.

NO:     Well, you have certainly left us with a lot to think about. Thank you sharing your thoughts with us.

TG:     It was a pleasure talking with you and your audience.

Sex, Gender and Language

          One of my personal peeves is the regular substitution of the word “Gender” for “Sex” on forms and in conversation. While the choice “Sex: Male or Female” when strictly referring to biological or external morphological characteristics is not always accurate, the choice “Gender: Male or Female,”  in my opinion, marginalizes, if not pathologizes everyone outside the normative range (statistically speaking). Below I will outline the understanding of these terms that leads me to see absurdity in the way that they are frequently used.

To keep this relatively simple I will limit myself to sex as one can perceive it from a visual inspection of external morphology or physical appearance. This leaves out the confounds of internal morphology, which includes internal sex organs, and genetic sex or what pair of chromosomes one carries in one’s cells. These two confounds are most clearly illustrated in cases of CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome). In this condition, an individual would be classified as female by the external morphological criterion above. This individual would most likely self-identify as female and would be almost universally seen by others as female. However, this individual will not have internal female organs and will have an XY genotype. A third confound is the growing evidence for the possibility of “sexed” brain structures, which can occur independently of the sexing of external morphology during gestation. This sexing of the brain is probably responsible for one’s “sense” of sexuality. The sexing of the brain may also be related to sexual orientation independently of one’s sex and sense of sexuality. Given the imposed limitation, there are three discernible possibilities:

 1,              Sex:

              a.           Male

              b.          Female

              c.          Intersex (ambiguous)

Gender is a more complex term and has far more social, cultural and behavioral components to it than physical sex but probably has an underlying biological component affecting one’s sense of sexuality. Gender is often used as if it had a one-to-one correspondence with physical sex, which is clearly not the case. The most common gender terms are masculine and feminine but these are not all-or-nothing categories and includes several possibilities:

2.              Gender:

              a.              Masculine

                            1.          Hyper  (More masculine than the norm)

                            2.          Modal (Normal range of variation, the norm)

                            3.          Hypo   (Less masculine than the norm)

              b.          Feminine

                            1.          Hyper  (More feminine than the norm)

                            2.          Modal (Normal range of variation, the norm)

                            3.          Hypo  (Less feminine than the norm)

While sex can be treated as categorical without grossly distorting reality, especially if three categories are used, gender is clearly dimensional. Gender can significantly vary along a somewhat normal (or bell shaped) distribution curve that has tails anchored by hyper and hypo and a modal center. Clearly, there are numerous potential positions all along this continuum that aren’t being given labels. If conventional classification of someone by gender is the goal one might do better to use a numeric scale where 1 is hyper masculine, 4 is neutral and 7 is hyper feminine.

There is one further complication to gender that must be introduced to make this discussion somewhat complete. The concept of transgender is important to this discussion as well. Presentation of transgenderism can be either overt, covert or both and along both behavioral (doing) and cognitive dimensions (imagining). Overt behavioral presentations can be either public or private. Some variations of transgenderism would not be observable and would only be known through self-identification. The following outline for the range encompassed by transgenderism is taken from the work of British sociologists Richard Ekins and Dave King.

              c.              Transgender

                            1.          Oscillating                    (Switching)*          

                            2.          Migrating                    (Shifting)**

                            3.          Negating                      (Neutralizing)

                            4.          Transcending              (Blending)

  *              Episodic switching between masculine and feminine.

**              Permanent shifting from masculine to feminine or feminine to masculine and may, in some individuals, include changing external morphology as well.

The use of sex and gender as interchangeable terms implies that reality conforms to the following structure:

 1.              Sex:                    Male &                    Female &

2.          Gender:                 Masculine               Feminine

A more accurate, if incomplete, structure would resemble the following:

1,              Sex:          Male

2.          Gender:

              a.          Masculine

                            1.          Hyper          

                            2.          Modal

                            3.          Hypo

              b.          Feminine

                            1.          Hyper          

                            2.          Modal

                            3.          Hypo

              c.          Transgender

                            1.          Oscillating

                                      a.          Masculine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                                      b.          Feminine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                            2.          Migrating

                                      a.          Masculine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                                      b.          Feminine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                            3.          Negating

                            4.          Transcending

 

1.              Sex:          Female

2.          Gender:

              a.              Masculine

                            1.          Hyper          

                            2.          Modal

                            3.          Hypo

              b.              Feminine

                            1.          Hyper          

                            2.          Modal

                            3.          Hypo

              c.              Transgender

                            1.          Oscillating

                                      a.          Masculine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                                      b.          Feminine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                            2.          Migrating

                                      a.          Masculine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                                      b.          Feminine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                            3.          Negating

                            4.          Transcending

1.              Sex:          Intersex

2.              Gender:

              a.              Masculine

                            1.          Hyper          

                            2.          Modal

                            3.          Hypo

              b.              Feminine

                            1.          Hyper

                            2.          Modal

                            3.          Hypo

              c.              Transgender

                            1.          Oscillating

                                      a.          Masculine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                                      b.          Feminine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                            2.          Migrating

                                      a.          Masculine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                                      b.          Feminine

                                                1.          Hyper          

                                                2.          Modal

                                                3.          Hypo

                            3.          Negating

                            4.          Transcending

 

The above is not intended to be definitive and is certainly open to alternative arrangement. The purpose is not to delineate but to illustrate. What is being illustrated is that sex and gender and especially gender is a complex topic and one that is grossly over simplified in the ordinary use of language. Add to this an individual’s sense of sexuality and sexual orientation and the complexity grows exponentially.

If I had to take a stand on the collection of public information from individuals, I would suggest that in almost all cases a three category, self-identification for sex would be adequate for public purposes. In ordinary verbal or written reference to people by sex, I would favor limiting labels to male or female, by appearance, except in cases where individuals have publicly self-identified otherwise. I would be opposed to asking about gender because the meaning of the term is far too complex to be easily queried and would seldom be relevant information for most public purposes, including conversational use of the term. I would definitely favor disassociating the terms male and female from the concept of gender because not to do so confuses two different concepts: sex (biological) and gender (social).

The equating of gender with sex in common language usage is in fact an example of how the modal majority “democratically” attempts to define a public, social reality and marginalize and at worst imply pathology in anyone not fitting the majority stereotype. As Milton Diamond founder of the Pacific Center for Sex and Society has said, “Nature loves variety. Unfortunately, society hates it.” Language is the primary tool for creating socio-cultural reality and how it is used has important implications that should not be taken lightly.

Speculation About Transgender Conditions

[Note: I use transgender in a broad sense and do not limit the term to persons who transition physically into the binary alternative to their assignment at birth. Personally, I make a distinction between sex identity (biological basis), gender identity (requires a biological basis but largely socio-cultural) and sexual orientation (biological basis). I consider each to be a separate factor in every individual, in whole or part. I also consider these factors to be variable and interactive producing a wide range of outcomes. While some outcomes are atypical relative to the norm, I consider all to be natural outcomes.]

          Incidence data suggests that TG has a wider occurrence in males than in females and I am more knowledgeable about this condition. Therefore, this speculation will be largely focused on TG in males. I do not intend to dismiss TG in females, I am simply trying to keep the level of complexity in this piece manageable. Thinking about biological factors in males who are TG it seems to that a definitive answer is unlikely simply because such an answer would require experimental research on humans, which would be unethical to perform in the first case and would never be permitted by a human subjects review board even if some scientist or group of scientists had no ethical qualms about performing the research. The animal alternative will not provide a definitive answer because animals aren’t human beings and generalization from animal studies to humans will always be open to challenge, especially in something as unique as human sexual identity.

What is left then? I would suggest that the next best thing to controlled, experiments on humans is what’s often called a natural experiment. These are unplanned, unintentional events that often provide a source of data that would otherwise simply never be available.

For example, there is the case of David Reimer. Reimer was born a male along with a twin brother. Shortly thereafter, the two brothers were taken for circumcisions. The operation on David was badly botched. After consulting with “experts” on sex and development, David’s parents decided to have him surgically modified to be structurally female. From that point on he was reared as a girl and was on estrogen therapy appropriate to developmental needs. At an early age David began resisting his status as a girl and insisted that he was a boy. By the time that s/he reached the age of 14, the parents gave up and explained what had actually happened. From that point forward, David did everything that was within his power to reverse what had been done to him. He subsequently lived as a man as implied by the name David that he took for himself. Unfortunately, David ended his own life at age 38 (more here). There are apparently a number of such failed natural experiments, but David Reimer is the best know because he decided to allow all the details of his case to be made public.

What this natural experiment clearly suggests is that there is no significant socio-cultural contribution to sex identity. You cannot have a cleaner test of the socio-cultural hypothesis than a young child surgically modified to conform to external female morphology, estrogen therapy and socialization during childhood as a girl. Even if one argues that the parents weren’t fully committed to the path they had chosen, the influences marshaled to affect a change in sex identity were far greater than can be imagined under any set of typical childhood circumstances. The likelihood that the parents weren’t fully committed to making this natural experiment a success seems remote. They were convinced that it was possible by doctors who were supposed to know about these things. They chose to embark on the recommended course of treatment, which for all practical purposes was irreversible once the surgical procedures to remove the male testes and modify the genitalia was completed. They, no doubt, gave the project their best effort knowing that there was no going back. It just didn’t take.

Another natural experiment that has bearing on some of the issues is that of individuals with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) [more here]. The cells of which these individuals are comprised either do not have receptors for testosterone or do not respond to the hormone. The default morphology in such cases is female. When this occurs in a male fetus, the outcome is a child that is genetically XY or male and whose external morphology is female. Such individuals do not, however, have the internal female reproductive organs. In other words, a male genotype and a female phenotype, at least in most observable respects.

Individuals with CAIS are reared as girls and the parents and the child are often unaware of the presence of the condition until puberty. Many of these individuals do suffer psychological issues when they become aware of their condition but they do not grow up thinking they are male. Further, they almost invariably live as women and follow a typical female life course. They are sexually oriented toward men and usually marry. Many also become mothers and rear adopted children within their marriages. When there are other than temporary identity problems in these cases, they seem to be mostly accounted for by partial AIS (PAIS) in which the male child is born with deformed or incomplete genitalia. In such cases, the insensitivity to testosterone is not total. In some such cases, they may be surgically modified to be female depending on the status of the genitalia.

What this natural experiment suggests is that sex identity is not a simple product of DNA or genes. The outcome in CAIS is, for all practical purposes, a woman with male genes. These genetic males have female physical features, female sex identity and a female sexual orientation (i.e., toward males), which seems to be the human default condition. A cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, argues that DNA directly controls nothing and these cases appear to bear him out. Lipton argues that DNA is simply a blueprint for various proteins and that like any blueprint it is not self-activating. DNA in a cell’s nucleus must be turned on or activated before it will respond and produce a protein. What turns it on, according to Lipton, is a signal that is external to the cell. Such signals attach to a receptor on the surface of a cell and cue the cell to send a signal to the appropriate DNA sequence or gene in the cell’s nucleus to activate it. Testosterone clearly seems to be a signaling chemical that can activate sex related genes and modify some cellular functions. In the absence of the external signal, the genetic sex of a male remains unexpressed.

Sorting out the particulars and understanding the mechanisms and the variations may be possible by a careful study of natural experiments. The two types of cases discussed above seem to clearly rule out socio-cultural factors and simple genotype. The answer to the questions about TG in males will probably be found in exploring natural experiments that represent the middle ground between these two types of cases. It appears that the middle ground is probably formed by individuals with PAIS. What seems probable is that in TG males, sex hormones in their role as external cues that activate genes will be critical.

In TG males, testosterone production is adequate for activating the genes that modify the fetus to follow a male line of morphological development. However, there apparently are further functions for testosterone that are in whole or part not carried out. It seems likely that the critical function is related to a signal to the cells, especially the neurons in the brain, masculinizing the male fetus. Several possibilities follow but do not represent an exhaustive list:

1.              The testes fail to produce a sufficient quantity of testosterone during a critical period of brain development.

2.              The testosterone production of the testes is adequate but blocked or neutralized by some interfering chemical during a critical period of brain development.

3.              There is some interference with the sensitivity of the testosterone receptors on neurons by an outside agent during a critical period of brain development.

4.              Testosterone production is normal, there is no external agent interfering and the cell receptors are functioning normally but the timing of the testosterone release must match closely with a critical period in brain development and the timing is off.

5.              Normally, there is an additional surge of testosterone in male babies perinatally or immediately postnatally. There might also be a failure of this late surge or variable levels of weakness in it that could affect brain development related to sexuality.

 In any of the proposals above, the outcome is likely to be variable depending on a variety of factors. The outcome could be the default (female sex identity) resulting in a transsexual condition. The outcome could also be only a partial conversion of the default female sex identity to a male sex identity (mixed sex identity) resulting in a range of TG associated outcomes.

The speculative hypothesis put forward here is that TG males arise from hormonal signaling gone awry. The errant signaling is likely to be largely, if not wholly, related to testosterone, especially too little hormone or weak sensitivity to the hormone at the wrong time. It seems likely that the explanation for TG females might also be found to be related to errant testosterone signaling or receptor sensitivity that occurs too late in the gestation process to affect morphology but could still cause neurons to activate DNA with male sex identity functions. It seems likely that TG males and females are due to errant androgen biology. In the former, this is probably due to a deficiency of some sort and in the latter probably due to an excess of some sort. It also seems likely that there would be fewer TG female outcomes simply because the default biology is female and should thereby be more robust and less susceptible to errant hormone signaling.

Genetic activation, to one degree or another, of biological sex identity probably has limited but necessarily some biologically based behavioral implications. There is some pretty clear evidence from evolutionary analysis that there are some basic differences in male and female reproductive strategies that lead to differences in behavioral styles. For someone who has some degree of sex identity associated with the morphologically opposite sex, the greatest behavioral impact will be through socialization. Much of socialization takes place through social learning, which is observation based. The most critical factor in observational learning is attention to models. Thus, sex identity might be considered an attention orienting variable. For example, a male with a female sex identity, in whole or part, will to some degree be biologically oriented toward attending to female models. This is not unlike the priming that a fetus’s brain receives to focus attention on language models to facilitate acquisition of language in its developmental environment.

The content that makes for femininity is largely socio-cultural and will vary by time and place. An individual with a focus of attention for female behavior will through observation or social learning acquire some degree of those behaviors and attitudes associated with the female models in his or her life. The strength of this biological orienting response will affect how strong or weak are the learning conditions. A further impact on the strength of the learning will be governed by whether or not the environment supports and reinforces the learning of feminine content. In the case of TG males, there should be variability in the strength of sex identity both for male and female aspects. This should result in variable degrees in the attention orienting response to both male and female models. Combine this with variability in the environmental support for or disapproval of attending to and imitating cross sex models and there exists the potential for a wide range of outcomes ranging from fantasy male femaling (to borrow a term from Richard Ekins) to medically orchestrated sex change, which in fact is what is seen in TG males.

In sum, the hypothesis is that a male’s sense of sex identity is determined at the biological level and is related to hormonal signaling. When this signaling goes awry, TG males result. It seems likely that the errant signaling is related to diminished androgen signaling at a critical time or selective cellular insensitivity such as in neurons to androgen signaling at a critical time or more generally. The degree to which the signaling goes awry accounts for different degrees of expression seen in actual TG males. That femininity and masculinity are learned expressions of gender is, no doubt, largely true. However, it is also proposed that the focus of attention needed to readily acquire expressions of gender through observational learning has a biological basis in one’s sense of sex identity. Finally, attempts to socialize against one’s biological sense of sex identity, as in the Reimer case, will be met with resistance and will likely fail.