A friend posted the below meme on social media, and I thought it really deserved a few corrections. As I public service, I share my response to the picture below.


Actually the science of sex is far more complicated than this. First, in addition to the binary chromosomal structures usually associated with male and female there are other potential combinations I encourage you to look up Turner syndrome, Trisomy X, and Klinefelter to get some of the other possibilities. But beyond chromosomes, there is a lot more to sex. Chromosomes usually send the signal for the fetus to produce either testes or ovaries, and thus trigger the release of particular hormones. It is the hormones that then give impetus for the formation of genitalia. But even if the chromosomes do line up XX and XY, they don’t always send the signals usually associated with them, and the organs don’t always produce the correlated hormones in the usual quantities. So, it is possible for a person with XX to grow a penis, and for a person with XY to have a vagina, or for there to be a range of other possibilities, including having versions of both. I would encourage you to look up “intersex” to learn about the array of possibilities here.

Now, all of the above has only dealt with what are called primary sexual characteristics. But actually, in public we rarely make judgements about a person’s sex on this basis. Otherwise, we would have to go around taking people’s blood or looking in their pants to make sex judgements. So popular judgments about sex start at secondary sexual characteristics, characteristics that are not directly related to reproduction but which are generally correlated with what we think of as sex types. So, the development of breasts, the growth of facial hair, the Adams apple, etc. Of course, just as there are times when primary sexual characteristics don’t line up as expected in our culturally constructed binary, of male and female, secondary characteristics take us even further from that.

Beyond this, we get to the question of sexual orientation, which has a whole body of scientific literature devoted to it. Really, google it!

But, even that doesn’t get us all the way to where we make popular judgments. To get there, we have to move from what is typically called “sex” to “gender” (the meme confuses these categories). Gender concerns all sorts of other cultural cues that we usually associate with the male/female binary. So: wearing a dress, having long hair, being a tomboy, liking pink, etc. (and by etc. I mean to include a lot, this list runs on and on and on). Since at the level of gender the correlations between male and female are often way off, and entirely different in different cultures, it is much easier to see that these are cultural constructions (did you know that blue used to be the color associated with femininity? This is why old images of the virgin Mary usually have her in blue. Can you imagine Mary dressed in pink? How girly!). Note that the “science” part of the meme explicitly colors the chromosomes in line with our culturally shaped, genderd color constructions, blue and pink, thus providing a visual metaphor of its own utter confusion of all of this!

Notably, people are capable of, and often do, seek to get their experienced gender, secondary, and primary sexual characteristics to line up in more socially expected ways. This leads us into issues of transsexuality, which, again, has a whole set of its own scientific research.

Now, in public judgments concerning sex we usually work from the gender symbols down, not from chromosomes up. This is why you have the paradox that current “bathroom bills” would actually force people we would publicly judge to be women (wearing dresses, having developed breasts, and identifying themselves as women) to go into the men’s restroom (because their chromosomes might not match up the way we expect). The same is true vice versa, where someone we would publicly judge to be a man would be forced to go to the women’s restroom. Further, in order to be applied equally, such laws would require that we check people’s chromosomes or genitalia at the door. We would need the penis police!

All of this comes out of a reductive notion of sex and gender that identifies sexuality and gender with underlying structures that just don’t tell the whole story. THAT is what science says about sex and gender.

Ok, actually it’s not all that it says, but it is enough to show that the meme is wrong in just about every possible way. I encourage you to go out and study the rest!