What's the point of sex?

The act of penetrative sex has evolved over millions of years as a mechanism to deliver sperm to eggs and initiate pregnancy. But there’s more to sex than just the meeting of two sets of genes. The ‘What’s the point of sex?’ series examines biological, physical and social aspects of sex and gender.

Today’s piece looks at sexual identity and gender, and how these are expressed in a social context.

Comedian Russell Brand recently sparked a flurry of excitement in the media when speaking about his impending fatherhood. He revealed in an interview with Jonathon Ross that he and his partner, Laura Gallacher, were considering raising their child “gender-neutral”. He said:

We don’t know the gender and I may not even ever impose a gender upon it, let the child grow up and be whatever the hell it is, never tell it there is such a concept.

Russell Brand is a colourful character: a comedian, social entrepreneur, commentator and media personality with a well-documented history of sex and drug addiction. Given his exuberant personality and flamboyant approach to life, he was never likely to take a conventional approach to parenting.

But what does it mean to raise a child “gender neutral” and why has his flippant comment generated such a range of views from ridicule to praise?

What are you having, pink or blue?

It’s no surprise Russell Brand was asked about the sex of his soon-to-be-born child. It is a topic frequently discussed with expectant parents, who now have the option to find out whether they are expecting a boy or a girl, and may choose to keep the secret until the baby is born or disclose the information to others. Gender reveal parties have even become a thing.

The terms “sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably in casual conversation. Although there are many ideas about how terms should be used most correctly, in general the idea of gender refers to the way that biological sex is understood and expressed in society. Characteristics a society determines to be more “masculine” or “feminine” may be called “gender roles”.

Of course there is wide variability in the way masculinity and femininity are expressed by different people, at different times in history and across different cultures.

Gender neutrality is the idea social institutions, policies and language should avoid assigning roles based on sex or gender. The desire not to constrain a child by the social expectations associated with sex and gender underpins gender neutral parenting.

This approach does not attempt to ignore or abolish the notion of sex or gender, but rather avoids forcing preconceived expectations on a child on the basis of their sex or gender. It does not push a child toward the expression of any particular gender identity.

Rather, it comes from a desire to raise a child with the freedom to develop an individual identity without being constrained by expectations about how a boy or girl is meant to behave, act or be.

‘Sex’ comes from more than just chromosomes

A person’s sex is usually considered to be related to biology. At the simplest level it is defined as whether a person is male or female on the basis of the presence or absence of a Y chromosome: males carry XY chromosomes and females carry XX chromosomes. That sounds simple, yes?

But it’s not! Sex is a lot more complex than genetics or even genitals. There is no single or simple marker that defines a person as clearly male or female. This supposedly simple binary concept is really a complex combination of genetic, hormonal and developmental processes that aligns people more closely with one sex or another, and these markers may be mismatched.

As a recent paper in the respected scientific journal Nature stated:

New technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body.

There are many examples of differences in sex development that may affect chromosomes, gonads and/or genitals. The range and nature of such intersex differences is extensive, and may affect up to one in 100 people.

Scientific discoveries about the range of “sex” and the social implications of this diversity are now becoming better known, and are also made visible through the advocacy of people who identify as intersex.

As they tell their stories we can better understand how to modify our social and legal structures to better and more meaningfully accommodate the biological realities of sex.

However, it is still the case that:

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.

Times are changing, slowly

The concept that sex is not simply a case of “male” and “female” is strongly resisted in some quarters despite the scientific evidence, and sadly, people who challenge the binary notion of sex are often the target of hate crimes and abuse.

Nevertheless, changes are being made to more accurately reflect reality. For example, the most recent Australian census offered an “other” box for those who do not identify as either male or female, and Canada now offers the same options for passports. Gender neutral toilets are also becoming more common.

After all the anticipation of Russell Brand’s impending fatherhood, his child was born in November and appears to be a girl who has been named Mabel. It remains to be seen how her parents will embrace the challenges of parenting, and how our society will continue to embrace the ongoing challenges of redefining sex.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Photo: renawgraphy/flickr