What do people, including bioscientists, mean when we say “sex is a social construct?” That’s weird, right? Sex is about biology, isn’t it? Sometimes people hear “social construct” and think “random thing totally unrelated to anything else that we can just change willy-nilly.” That’s the “Blank Slate” position, and it’s a strawman. It is not what people actually mean when we say “sex is socially constructed.” We mean something way cooler and more legitimate.
“Sex” is a human word for the observation that many different things are somewhat correlated. Some things tend to appear together: more muscle mass, testosterone, testicles, Y chromosomes, SCOTUS seats, jail sentences, body hair, height, shorter life expectancy… all correlated. Because we see all of those things more or less tend to go together, and people like finding & naming patterns, we group people into categories–male and female–then call that categorization sex.
Importantly, though, sex is not any of the physical things in a body (chromosomes, hormones, gonads, hair, muscle mass…), nor is it any of the social things in a life (outfits, jobs, interests, actions…). Sex is our name for the correlations among them. It’s a human idea. So “sex is a social construct” in the sense that sex is an idea people discussed together (social) and built up (constructed). Of course we constructed sex using observations of “real things” in the world, gonads and so on. Being socially constructed doesn’t deny that.
So why emphasize that sex is a social construct at all? Why point out the gap between the “reality” of bodies and our human description of those bodies? Well, because our human description “sex” oversimplifies things, and sometimes those oversimplifications are wrong and/or harmful.
When we construct sex, we make a bunch of choices about what things to count as part of it. In 1900, education correlated very strongly with gonads. We saw much talk about how intelligence was part of sex, same as ovaries. Education, it was said, could even cause ovaries to shrivel! We hear that less now that women earn more college degrees than men. 30 years later, we found some chemicals that seemed correlated with other things in sex. So we added them to the rest in our idea of sex, calling them “male and female hormone.” Some scientists were very displeased to later discover “female hormone” in urine from horse penises. Penises and estrogen weren’t supposed to go together! We called it “female hormone” exactly because we were sure it was correlated with *not* having a penis. Still today, some propose estrogen to treat covid because women have lower covid morbidity & sex says “estrogen=woman.” The biological correlations and differences we think of as part of sex change with time and social context. Women now run much closer to men’s speeds than they once did (changing access to sport), scholars use sex differences in height as a measure of “son preference” (changing access to nutrition).
There are many examples like these, indeed a whole vibrant field of STS scholarship about it. And there is an even bigger, more vibrant field of biological research on variations in sex, i.e. the ways that lumping many different things into a two-category idea is wrong. Some of this is research on intersex conditions (e.g. a Y chromosome does not guarantee development of testicles), but much of it is boring normal science on physical and developmental pathways showing levels of, timing of, and complex interactions among things in sex matter. Of course, if this were just academics talking among ourselves, I wouldn’t be tweeting, blogging, or writing a dissertation about it.
Where things go really awry is when people start making prescriptive claims about how society should be based on their understanding of sex. Sadly, we are in the midst of intense public and legislative battles over sex. For example: HRT is increasingly difficult for trans people to access, but it remains easily available for people like Joe Rogan. Why? For trans people, HRT is technology to change and defy the expected correlations of sex. For Joe, taking testosterone confirms them.
Here we make the mistake of confusing sex, our human idea summarizing how the world works, our mental model, for not just the truth of the world, but also the morally correct way of being. We mistake the descriptive truth of a loose correlation, “having between 264 and 916 ng/dL Testosterone often correlates with having Y chromosomes, a penis, a beard, etc…” for the moral assertion that, “Testosterone must be below 5 nmol/L if you were not born with a penis.”
When we say that sex is socially constructed, we are trying to remind people of this. To remind them that our ideas about what things do and should go together are just that: human ideas. They are sometimes wrong about what does, in fact, go together. And they are sometimes immoral when they make claims about what should go together (e.g. women in engineering). If we remember that sex is a human claim about the world, then we have the tools to change it, to make it more accurate, more ethical.
This understanding also changes how we talk about sex. Sex can’t cause things biologically. It can’t be the source of differences. It is our name for the patterns we observe. Sometimes it’s a useful proxy for them. But it can also prevent us from looking into actual mechanisms. Similarly, “being male” or “being female” can’t cause things either. Those are names for our socially constructed categories of sex. As recent calls for precise language note, they mostly obscure the biological and social mechanisms of phenomena.
Some will be quick to object that “sex is about reproduction and gametes.” Yes, it is! “Sex” is also the word for fucking, even when it doesn’t make babies, as in “to have sex.” But the social conversations aren’t about either of those meanings of sex. Nobody runs around with calipers measuring gamete size to determine access to sports, bathrooms, healthcare, education, employment, etc. Moreover, those conversations aren’t about banning infertile people. No one says newborn boys should not have an “M” on their birth certificate because they do not have gametes yet (sperm). Nobody is trying to take away the “F” on a woman’s driver’s license or ban her from bathrooms after menopause or a hysterectomy (1 in 9 women get hysterectomies). Reproduction is not really the point. Instead, people make guesses about sex based on myriad correlated things like face structure, breast tissue, voice pitch, hair length, clothing choice, etc. That is, they’re using sex the way I describe in this post, not as reproduction. (Although there are a ton of fun facts in sexual reproduction of other species where it works way differently than humans. Sex is complicated even in reproduction only land. If we are actually interested in biology, not just in brandishing it to support our social agendas, sex is way more fascinating and messy than we give it credit for.)
Others will be quick to agree with my explanation here, but insist we use the word “gender,” not “sex.” That distinction comes from the old and very valuable feminist argument that many things in social life should not be tied to biology (careers, education, housework, etc.) People arguing for the social construction of sex agree with that. But we also go further and point out that scientists’ (and the public’s) understanding of biology behind sex is socially constructed, just like gender is socially constructed. Here’s where the large body of STS (science and technology studies) research comes in handy.
Some have objected to my use of “correlation” here, saying that there are real causal relationships involved. Yes, absolutely: correlations can happen when things are causally related. Anyone who has ever been on HRT can attest that injecting certain chemicals can have dramatic effects on bodies, for example. The causal processes involved in relating the various components of sex together are long and involve many complex interactions. Good research on the biology of sex explores that and helps us revise and refine our concept of sex (i.e. it is a good and necessary part of the social construction of sex).