Field of Science

Point-Counterpoint: the use of 'sex' and 'gender' in physiological studies

ResearchBlogging.orgI recently read a very interesting point/counterpoint on the use of 'sex' and 'gender' in physiological research from last month's AJP:RICP. In Point: a call for proper usage of "gender" and "sex" in biomedical publications, King points out that sex and gender are often used interchangeably when the variable involved is very clearly sex and not gender, such as studies involving non-human animals (since gender is a sociological construct, animals can not have a gender per se) or studies involving humans that do not have a psychosocial aspect. He calls for physiologists to pay more careful attention when using the term 'gender' in human studies, and to not use the term at all in animal studies.

In Counterpoint: physiologists should not distinguish "sex" and "gender", Geary spends a while criticizing King's definitions of the two terms, then concludes that since the two terms have been used synonymously since the 14th century, that physiologists should use them interchangeably. I don't think this argument has any merit whatsoever, since languages are constantly evolving and words that meant one thing historically do not necessarily mean the same thing today. It is a fact that sex and gender refer to different things today, and physiologists should not stand in opposition to that. However, Geary does make some interesting points.
[G]ender identity and role result from complex interactions among genetic, hormonal, and social factors. [...] Sadock [...] defines sexuality as gender identity and the associated thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and unconscious neural processes. Gender identity, the person's sense of maleness or femaleness, and the consequences of that, is seen as intrinsically connected to biological sexual characteristics on the one hand and to personality traits on the other. [...] The point is that there is no time when biology is clearly not involved. As described above, biological mechanisms that may influence gender identity are still being discovered.

This line of thinking has interesting implications for the choice vs. genetics argument for people who aren't strictly heterosexual, and while I like where this specific train of thought is going, I don't think it backs up Geary's other argument that we shouldn't differentiate between sex and gender. While they may be biologically linked, they most definitely aren't the same thing. To argue that they should be used interchangeably is a logical fallacy.

King, B. (2010). Point: a call for proper usage of "gender" and "sex" in biomedical publications AJP: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 298 (6) DOI: 10.1152/ajpregu.00694.2009

Geary, N. (2010). Counterpoint: physiologists should not distinguish "sex" and "gender" AJP: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 298 (6) DOI: 10.1152/ajpregu.00113.2010


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  2. here's the thing: What is described as gender seems to be more a personality type. I think it's actually causing harm to link it to ideas of femininity and masculinity, which after all have a "normal" physical type, automatically making anyone with a mismatch "abnormal". Rather, we should be referring to the various categories as one (sex- or gender-neutral) aspect of personality, while using sex and gender to refer purely to physical types, thus removing any stigma from having a personality type normally associated with one sex while having the physical form of another.

  3. Gender isn't just a 'personality type', though. Gender is a mental construct of multiple variables, which includes physical sex, but also how the person has been 'gendered' by society and whether or not they accept or reject that gendering. It is true that cis-gendered people have a lot of privilege that trans-gendered people do not, but I don't think it is the use of our terminology for 'sex' and 'gender' that cause that privilege disparity. Transsexualism and transgenderism are two very different things.


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