Modelling Sex/Gender

Think 16 (46):79-92 (2017)
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People often assume that everyone can be divided by sex/gender (that is, by physical and social characteristics having to do with maleness and femaleness) into two tidy categories: male and female. Careful thought, however, leads us to reject that simple ‘binary’ picture, since not all people fall precisely into one group or the other. But if we do not think of sex/gender in terms of those two categories, how else might we think of it? Here I consider four distinct models; each model correctly captures some features of sex/gender, and so each is appropriate in some contexts. But the first three models are inadequate when tough questions arise, like whether trans women should be admitted as students at a women’s college or when it is appropriate for intersex athletes to compete in women’s athletic events. (‘Trans’ refers to the wide range of people who have an atypical gender identity for someone of their birth-assigned sex, and ‘intersex’ refers to people whose bodies naturally develop with markedly different physical sex characteristics than are paradigmatic of either men or women.) Such questions of inclusion and exclusion matter enormously to the people whose lives are affected by them, but ordinary notions of sex/gender offer few answers. The fourth model I describe is especially designed to make those hard decisions easier by providing a process to clarify what matters.

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Helen Daly
Colorado College


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