Moving beyond the binary? The enduring power of biological sex in our survey responses

by Han/Hannah Newman @hannahnewm and Elizabeth Peel @profpeel,  Loughborough University | Photo: “Conversation” Annabelle Shemer ( Flickr)

Do people think sex and gender are, or should be, binary? In this blog post we focus on responses to three survey statements that explore this issue: ‘There are two genders, female and male’; ‘Gender identity is on a spectrum’; and ‘Genders outside of male and female should be recognised as equally valid’. Despite some evidence of movement beyond the gender and sex binaries, this blog post demonstrates the enduring power of biological sex in respondents’ reported understandings. “Gender” is a structural, societal and individual phenomena, with feminists debating the extent to which – and how – gender is a feature of society or an aspect of people’s identities. Exploring individual perspectives on gender, in this instance the so-called “gender binary”, reveals something about gender societally.

The gender binary is the dichotomous classification of gender into two distinct forms. This binary has been (and continues to be) widely challenged and contested by those who embrace an understanding of gender as diversely experienced and expressed (Barker, 2018). This perspective can be considered as gender as identity diversity (Cooper, 2019). The gender binary is not universal. Scholars have demonstrated how dualistic models of gender have been imposed on indigenous peoples by western colonisers, replacing pre-existing concepts, and invalidating specific third-gender social roles such as Native American Two-Spirit people and Indian Hijra (Lugones, 2006). Some are also challenging the notion of physiological sex as binary, something that has long been seen as an immutable biological fact (e.g., Fausto-Sterling, 2000; 2018).

Another contrasting perspective challenges gender’s status as the proper social life of binary sex, approaching it as a binary class relation of domination anchored in biological sex. This perspective can be considered as gender as sex-based domination (Cooper, 2019). These two perspectives – gender as identity diversity and gender as sex-based domination – continue to be disputed in what Cooper (2019) calls a ‘very binary drama’.

So the accuracy of notions that both gender and sex are binary, dimorphic constructs are currently being challenged and contested. One of the areas our Attitudes to Gender survey explored was perceptions about the binary or non-binary nature of gender and sex. We also asked for views on the fluidity or fixedness of gender and/or sex categories. The survey was open to anyone aged 18 or over, was live from October to December 2018, and received 3101 usable responses. Seventy-five per cent of respondents lived in England or Wales, 73 per cent were legally female, and 15 per cent did not identify with the sex/gender they were assigned at birth. The median age of respondents was 40, with an age range of 18 to 82. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents identified as feminist, and 46 per cent reported holding left wing political views. More information about the demographic makeup of respondents is here.

The survey posed a number of ‘opinion statements’ which respondents were asked to answer by selecting their view on a scale from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’. Respondents were also given the option to expand on their view and/or explain their attitudinal choice for each of these statements if they so wished. More discussion of the construction of the survey can be found here. It is responses to three of these opinion statements, focusing on the binary or non-binary nature of gender, that are the focus of this blog post.

Statement 1: ‘There are two genders, female and male.’

Over half (53.1 per cent) of respondents selected ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ in answer to this statement, with 29.5 per cent selecting ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’. At first glance these figures appear to suggest that a large percentage of respondents were supportive of the view that gender is not binary, and that genders outside of female and male exist and are valid. Indeed, a significant number of the optional explanations given from those who selected either ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ support this. For example:

‘Strongly Disagree’: with the explanation ‘Gender is fluid and unfixed. A simple two-gender binary isn’t representative’ (Female, 22, lesbian).

‘Strongly Disagree’: with the explanation ‘Gender is not binary and non binary people exist’ (Female, 34, bisexual).

However, although this support for the notion of gender as non-binary and fluid is clear, we recognise that there was less support for the notion of sex as anything other than binary and dimorphic. Many of the responses portrayed binary sex as an immutable, biological reality, with people with intersex variations and people with differences of sexual development (DSD’s) referenced as being a small and by extension insignificant ‘outlier’. People with intersex variations or DSD’s were positioned as the exception that proves the rule, and not substantial enough to refute a binary norm. The following examples illustrate this:

‘Disagree’: with the explanation ‘There are two sexes (in rare occasions there are indeterminate sexes). Gender is a more fluid concept not based on biological evidence’ (Female, 64, heterosexual).

‘Strongly Disagree’: with the explanation ‘Male and female are biological sexes. They are not genders. There are two sexes. (Intersex people make no difference here as they are outliers which do not disprove the existence of sexual dimorphism and certainly don’t demonstrate that sex is a spectrum’ (Female, 30, bisexual).

While the first example here does highlight the increased receptiveness to gender as a ‘fluid concept’, the perceived fixedness of biological sex is reinforced. This is also reinforced within the second response, which additionally appears to disagree with the statement based on the use of the term gender instead of sex in its wording – a viewpoint that was expressed from a number of those who answered ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ to this statement. The problematic erasure of people with intersex variations in the second response (above) also demonstrates a highly ‘endosexist’ (non-intersex) perspective.

As we can see below, the next statement discussed gender as being on a continuum as opposed to being dichotomous.

Statement 2: ‘Gender identity is on a spectrum.’

Over half (53.8 per cent) of respondents selected ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ in answer to this statement, with 23.6 per cent selecting ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’. Similar to the first statement discussed, this suggests that there was considerable support from our respondents for an understanding of gender that moves beyond it being a binary and dimorphic construct. Support for the notion of gender as a spectrum is demonstrated in the following example:

Agree’: with the explanation ‘I don’t think there is a clear distinction like the gender binary implies. Gender is complicated and is negotiated daily by everyone whether they realise this or not’ (Female, 22, lesbian).

Some other responses, though, framed this acceptance of gender on a spectrum differently. Gender is positioned as somewhat unimportant in relation to biological sex, which is suggested as being the more powerful and meaningful aspect of one’s identity, as in the following examples:

‘Strongly Agree’: with the explanation ‘we can all be put on a spectrum between extremely masculine and extremely feminine. Nothing to do with biological sex though’ (Female, 39, heterosexual).

‘Agree’: with the explanation ‘we are all ‘non-binary’. Sex, however, is not on a spectrum’ (Female, 46, heterosexual).

The final statement we consider in this blog post focuses on the recognition of a range of different genders.

Statement 3: ‘Genders outside of male and female should be recognised as equally valid (e.g., non-binary, agender, genderqueer).’

Less than half (46.7 per cent) of respondents selected ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ in answer to this statement, with 32.7 per cent selecting ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’. The significant amount of support for recognition of those identities outside of the binary, at an individualised level, is illustrated by the following responses:

‘Strongly Agree’: with the explanation ‘To NOT do so is to dehumanise these people and opening them to abuse and discrimination’ (Female, 23, asexual).

‘Strongly Agree’:  with the explanation ‘Unquestionably, non binary people should be empowered to be themselves’ (Non-binary, genderqueer, 24, queer).

Other responses to this statement once again give greater importance to biological sex, which is given more weight than formally acknowledging individual gender identity. This is reflective of the dismissal of non-binary identities demonstrated in the responses to statement two. Gender identity is dismissed, and biological sex is again deemed most important to one’s identity. This is shown in the following examples:

‘Agree’: with the explanation ‘I guess so, because I think people should be free to live their lives how they like. And if gender means something else to them, then who am I to argue, especially if the world treats gender and sex as different. If we are talking about gender and sex as the same though, this has to be a binary system surely?’ (Female, 33, heterosexual).

‘Strongly Agree’: with the explanation ‘I’m not sure what they should be recognised as, but sex should be of higher importance’ (Female, 40, lesbian).

Like the two previous statements, there is a substantial amount of support for gender as a non-binary construct, and for recognition of identities outside of the binary, in responses to this third statement. However, also like the previous two statements, many of the responses present biological sex as binary, fixed, and undisputable. This suggests a perspective that believes that the structural position in relations of inequality caused by biological sex cannot be escaped by living as another gender. Hence this emphasises the importance of biological sex over gender in society.

This prominence given to biology has also been demonstrated beyond responses to this survey. One key example is the case of Freddy McConnell, the trans man who recently lost his court battle to be named as father on the birth certificate of the child he gave birth to, despite his male legal gender status. Priority is hence given to biological function in this ruling: if you are a person who gives birth then you are legally ‘the mother’ regardless of your own legal and social gender as male (Strudwick, 2019). In other words, ‘mother’ is a particular reproductive role rather than a legally gendered status.

Together then, responses to these three statements in our Attitudes to Gender survey depicted a landscape in which there appeared substantial movement towards, and support for, a model of gender that exists beyond the dualistic, binary one that has long been taken for granted. However, there was also a considerable resistance to this movement, characterised by the dismissal of gender as a concept in its entirety and/or the positioning of gender as either inferior to biological sex, or irrelevant or unimportant. This perspective aligns with a gender critical approach.

In responses to this survey, the sex binary was largely understood by respondents as an immutable, biological reality. Challenges to this binary were refuted, and those with intersex variations were deemed a small and insignificant ‘anomaly’ within this model. The influence of biological sex in shaping people’s lived experience was evident, and persistently used as a bottom-line argument to counter any challenges to the gender binary through its placement as a central, undisputable fact.

The presence of those respondents with a more positive perspective towards movement beyond the gender and sex binaries, however, was of a sizable proportion in this sample, supporting the recognition and validation of identities that exist outside of these dimorphic constructs, and challenging the enduring prominence given to biological sex.

 

We are currently looking for volunteers to reflect on their understandings and experiences of gender in everyday life. We are recruiting a range of people who are over 18 and live in England or Wales. You will be asked to reflect on your experiences, understandings and interpretations of gender through a face-to-face interview with one of our research team. For parents of young children, the interview will seek to explore both your own and your child/ren’s experiences and understandings of gender. 

 

We are looking to interview people from a range of different backgrounds and life experiences. If you are over 18, live in England or Wales, and are interested in participating, please contact Han Newman via flag@lboro.ac.uk with ‘Participate’ in the subject line. 

 

References

Barker, M. J. (2018). Rewriting the Rules: An Anti Self-help Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships. London: Routledge. Second Edition.

Cooper, D. (2019). A very binary drama: The conceptual struggle for gender’s future. Feminists@Law, 9(1), 1-36.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body. New York: Basic Books.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2018). Why sex is not binary: The complexity is more than cultural. It’s biological too. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/opinion/sex-biology-binary.html

Lugones, M. (2006). Heterosexualism and the colonial/modern gender system. Hypatia, 22(1), 186-209. Retrieved from: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/206329

Strudwick, P. (2019). A high court judge has ruled that “mother” no longer means “woman”. https://www.buzzfeed.com/amphtml/patrickstrudwick/mother-no-longer-means-woman-judge-rules?utm_source=dynamic&utm_campaign=bfsharetwitter&__twitter_impression=true

Wiggins, S. (2017). Discursive Psychology. London: Sage.

 

 

Do people think sex and gender are, or should be, binary? In this blog post we focus on responses to three survey statements that explore this issue: ‘There are two genders, female and male’; ‘Gender identity is on a spectrum’; and ‘Genders outside of male and female should be recognised as equally valid’. Despite some evidence of movement beyond the gender and sex binaries, this blog post demonstrates the enduring power of biological sex in respondents’ reported understandings. “Gender” is a structural, societal and individual phenomena, with feminists debating the extent to which – and how – gender is a feature of society or an aspect of people’s identities. Exploring individual perspectives on gender, in this instance the so-called “gender binary”, reveals something about gender societally.

The gender binary is the dichotomous classification of gender into two distinct forms. This binary has been (and continues to be) widely challenged and contested by those who embrace an understanding of gender as diversely experienced and expressed (Barker, 2018). This perspective can be considered as gender as identity diversity (Cooper, 2019). The gender binary is not universal. Scholars have demonstrated how dualistic models of gender have been imposed on indigenous peoples by western colonisers, replacing pre-existing concepts, and invalidating specific third-gender social roles such as Native American Two-Spirit people and Indian Hijra (Lugones, 2006). Some are also challenging the notion of physiological sex as binary, something that has long been seen as an immutable biological fact (e.g., Fausto-Sterling, 2000; 2018).

Another contrasting perspective challenges gender’s status as the proper social life of binary sex, approaching it as a binary class relation of domination anchored in biological sex. This perspective can be considered as gender as sex-based domination (Cooper, 2019). These two perspectives – gender as identity diversity and gender as sex-based domination – continue to be disputed in what Cooper (2019) calls a ‘very binary drama’.

So the accuracy of notions that both gender and sex are binary, dimorphic constructs are currently being challenged and contested. One of the areas our Attitudes to Gender survey explored was perceptions about the binary or non-binary nature of gender and sex. We also asked for views on the fluidity or fixedness of gender and/or sex categories. The survey was open to anyone aged 18 or over, was live from October to December 2018, and received 3101 usable responses. Seventy-five per cent of respondents lived in England or Wales, 73 per cent were legally female, and 15 per cent did not identify with the sex/gender they were assigned at birth. The median age of respondents was 40, with an age range of 18 to 82. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents identified as feminist, and 46 per cent reported holding left wing political views. More information about the demographic makeup of respondents is here.

The survey posed a number of ‘opinion statements’ which respondents were asked to answer by selecting their view on a scale from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’. Respondents were also given the option to expand on their view and/or explain their attitudinal choice for each of these statements if they so wished. More discussion of the construction of the survey can be found here. It is responses to three of these opinion statements, focusing on the binary or non-binary nature of gender, that are the focus of this blog post.

Statement 1: ‘There are two genders, female and male.’

Over half (53.1 per cent) of respondents selected ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ in answer to this statement, with 29.5 per cent selecting ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’. At first glance these figures appear to suggest that a large percentage of respondents were supportive of the view that gender is not binary, and that genders outside of female and male exist and are valid. Indeed, a significant number of the optional explanations given from those who selected either ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ support this. For example:

‘Strongly Disagree’: with the explanation ‘Gender is fluid and unfixed. A simple two-gender binary isn’t representative’ (Female, 22, lesbian).

‘Strongly Disagree’: with the explanation ‘Gender is not binary and non binary people exist’ (Female, 34, bisexual).

However, although this support for the notion of gender as non-binary and fluid is clear, we recognise that there was less support for the notion of sex as anything other than binary and dimorphic. Many of the responses portrayed binary sex as an immutable, biological reality, with people with intersex variations and people with differences of sexual development (DSD’s) referenced as being a small and by extension insignificant ‘outlier’. People with intersex variations or DSD’s were positioned as the exception that proves the rule, and not substantial enough to refute a binary norm. The following examples illustrate this:

‘Disagree’: with the explanation ‘There are two sexes (in rare occasions there are indeterminate sexes). Gender is a more fluid concept not based on biological evidence’ (Female, 64, heterosexual).

‘Strongly Disagree’: with the explanation ‘Male and female are biological sexes. They are not genders. There are two sexes. (Intersex people make no difference here as they are outliers which do not disprove the existence of sexual dimorphism and certainly don’t demonstrate that sex is a spectrum’ (Female, 30, bisexual).

While the first example here does highlight the increased receptiveness to gender as a ‘fluid concept’, the perceived fixedness of biological sex is reinforced. This is also reinforced within the second response, which additionally appears to disagree with the statement based on the use of the term gender instead of sex in its wording – a viewpoint that was expressed from a number of those who answered ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ to this statement. The problematic erasure of people with intersex variations in the second response (above) also demonstrates a highly ‘endosexist’ (non-intersex) perspective.

As we can see below, the next statement discussed gender as being on a continuum as opposed to being dichotomous.

Statement 2: ‘Gender identity is on a spectrum.’

Over half (53.8 per cent) of respondents selected ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ in answer to this statement, with 23.6 per cent selecting ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’. Similar to the first statement discussed, this suggests that there was considerable support from our respondents for an understanding of gender that moves beyond it being a binary and dimorphic construct. Support for the notion of gender as a spectrum is demonstrated in the following example:

Agree’: with the explanation ‘I don’t think there is a clear distinction like the gender binary implies. Gender is complicated and is negotiated daily by everyone whether they realise this or not’ (Female, 22, lesbian).

Some other responses, though, framed this acceptance of gender on a spectrum differently. Gender is positioned as somewhat unimportant in relation to biological sex, which is suggested as being the more powerful and meaningful aspect of one’s identity, as in the following examples:

‘Strongly Agree’: with the explanation ‘we can all be put on a spectrum between extremely masculine and extremely feminine. Nothing to do with biological sex though’ (Female, 39, heterosexual).

‘Agree’: with the explanation ‘we are all ‘non-binary’. Sex, however, is not on a spectrum’ (Female, 46, heterosexual).

The final statement we consider in this blog post focuses on the recognition of a range of different genders.

Statement 3: ‘Genders outside of male and female should be recognised as equally valid (e.g., non-binary, agender, genderqueer).’

Less than half (46.7 per cent) of respondents selected ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ in answer to this statement, with 32.7 per cent selecting ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’. The significant amount of support for recognition of those identities outside of the binary, at an individualised level, is illustrated by the following responses:

‘Strongly Agree’: with the explanation ‘To NOT do so is to dehumanise these people and opening them to abuse and discrimination’ (Female, 23, asexual).

‘Strongly Agree’:  with the explanation ‘Unquestionably, non binary people should be empowered to be themselves’ (Non-binary, genderqueer, 24, queer).

Other responses to this statement once again give greater importance to biological sex, which is given more weight than formally acknowledging individual gender identity. This is reflective of the dismissal of non-binary identities demonstrated in the responses to statement two. Gender identity is dismissed, and biological sex is again deemed most important to one’s identity. This is shown in the following examples:

‘Agree’: with the explanation ‘I guess so, because I think people should be free to live their lives how they like. And if gender means something else to them, then who am I to argue, especially if the world treats gender and sex as different. If we are talking about gender and sex as the same though, this has to be a binary system surely?’ (Female, 33, heterosexual).

‘Strongly Agree’: with the explanation ‘I’m not sure what they should be recognised as, but sex should be of higher importance’ (Female, 40, lesbian).

Like the two previous statements, there is a substantial amount of support for gender as a non-binary construct, and for recognition of identities outside of the binary, in responses to this third statement. However, also like the previous two statements, many of the responses present biological sex as binary, fixed, and undisputable. This suggests a perspective that believes that the structural position in relations of inequality caused by biological sex cannot be escaped by living as another gender. Hence this emphasises the importance of biological sex over gender in society.

This prominence given to biology has also been demonstrated beyond responses to this survey. One key example is the case of Freddy McConnell, the trans man who recently lost his court battle to be named as father on the birth certificate of the child he gave birth to, despite his male legal gender status. Priority is hence given to biological function in this ruling: if you are a person who gives birth then you are legally ‘the mother’ regardless of your own legal and social gender as male (Strudwick, 2019). In other words, ‘mother’ is a particular reproductive role rather than a legally gendered status.

Together then, responses to these three statements in our Attitudes to Gender survey depicted a landscape in which there appeared substantial movement towards, and support for, a model of gender that exists beyond the dualistic, binary one that has long been taken for granted. However, there was also a considerable resistance to this movement, characterised by the dismissal of gender as a concept in its entirety and/or the positioning of gender as either inferior to biological sex, or irrelevant or unimportant. This perspective aligns with a gender critical approach.

In responses to this survey, the sex binary was largely understood by respondents as an immutable, biological reality. Challenges to this binary were refuted, and those with intersex variations were deemed a small and insignificant ‘anomaly’ within this model. The influence of biological sex in shaping people’s lived experience was evident, and persistently used as a bottom-line argument to counter any challenges to the gender binary through its placement as a central, undisputable fact.

The presence of those respondents with a more positive perspective towards movement beyond the gender and sex binaries, however, was of a sizable proportion in this sample, supporting the recognition and validation of identities that exist outside of these dimorphic constructs, and challenging the enduring prominence given to biological sex.

 

We are currently looking for volunteers to reflect on their understandings and experiences of gender in everyday life. We are recruiting a range of people who are over 18 and live in England or Wales. You will be asked to reflect on your experiences, understandings and interpretations of gender through a face-to-face interview with one of our research team. For parents of young children, the interview will seek to explore both your own and your child/ren’s experiences and understandings of gender. 

 

We are looking to interview people from a range of different backgrounds and life experiences. If you are over 18, live in England or Wales, and are interested in participating, please contact Han Newman via flag@lboro.ac.uk with ‘Participate’ in the subject line. 

 

References

Barker, M. J. (2018). Rewriting the Rules: An Anti Self-help Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships. London: Routledge. Second Edition.

Cooper, D. (2019). A very binary drama: The conceptual struggle for gender’s future. Feminists@Law, 9(1), 1-36.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body. New York: Basic Books.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2018). Why sex is not binary: The complexity is more than cultural. It’s biological too. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/opinion/sex-biology-binary.html

Lugones, M. (2006). Heterosexualism and the colonial/modern gender system. Hypatia, 22(1), 186-209. Retrieved from: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/206329

Strudwick, P. (2019). A high court judge has ruled that “mother” no longer means “woman”. https://www.buzzfeed.com/amphtml/patrickstrudwick/mother-no-longer-means-woman-judge-rules?utm_source=dynamic&utm_campaign=bfsharetwitter&__twitter_impression=true

Wiggins, S. (2017). Discursive Psychology. London: Sage.

 

 

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