A Note on “Biological Sex”

A couple of the talks in Bournemouth yesterday required people to talk about the “sex” of trans people, as “discovered” after their death. This tends to get people (including me sometimes) into trouble over lack of clarity, because sex too is something of a social construct. I thought it might be useful to explain.

When a doctor or corner says that a body is “biologically female” what they usually mean is that the outward physical manifestations of sex correspond to femaleness. That is, the body has female genitalia, and probably breasts. If the body appeared to have a penis it would probably be described as “biologically male” (even if there was significant breast development).

When an archaeologist says that a body is “biologically female” it probably means that the skeleton is typical of someone who went through female puberty, as opposed to someone who went through male puberty. We can’t always be 100% on this, and sadly in the past archaeologists tended to go on skull size. Yes, they did assume that a bigger skull meant a bigger brain meant male. I’ve been told that some still do this.

Neither of those two things is necessarily indicative of chromosomal sex. There are a variety of intersex conditions that can result in a body having external sexual features and/or a skeleton that is at odds with the chromosomal sex.

So when we say that a body was “found to be biologically female” what we mean is that someone made an educated guess based either on external physical characteristics or on the shape of parts of the skeleton. We have said nothing about chromosomes unless an actual chromosome test was done.

Of course a chromosome test is no guarantee of the gender identity of the person whose body we are examining, or of how they lived their life, or of what gender they were assigned at birth. Assignment at birth is likely to be a guess made on the same basis as that made at death, but with less data. Gender identity may not correspond to external characteristics, and the ability of someone to live socially in the gender that comes naturally to them is dependent very much on social circumstances and that person’s strength of will.

All of which is to say that when we read in an historical account that a body of a presumed man was examined at death and that the person in question was “proved to be really a woman” (or vice versa) all we actually know is that there is some level of uncertainty as to the person’s sex and gender.

This is a particular problem when dealing with cases of apparent trans men from before the 20th Century. We know that in the early 20th Century a significant number of people assigned female at birth were re-assigned as male by doctors for a variety of reasons. Lennox Broster at Charing Cross was the leading expert in this work. His patients generally presented themselves to him because they had a strong male gender identity. If they were happy living as women there would have been far less need to consult a doctor. In previous centuries such people would have had no medical options but may have chosen to try to live as men. Having been assigned female at birth, it is plausible that they would again be deemed female after death. That doesn’t mean that they were “really women”.

You may of course argue that intersex conditions such as those that Broster dealt with are very rare, so the chances of some random body exhibiting such a condition would be equally low. However, if that condition is one in which persons assigned female at birth often have male gender identities (or acquire them at puberty) then we would expect such people to be attempting to live as men. That changes the probabilities massively.

Of course it is also possible that such people had no intersex condition but had a gender identity strongly at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth. They might conceivably be ambitious women trying to make their way in a man’s world, or lesbians trying to find a way to express their sexuality in a straight world, though as I have argued before I think these are less likely because of the difficulty of living a life contrary to your gender identity. My point is that we only have the reports of people who saw the body to go on, and those people almost certainly didn’t have anything close to as sophisticated an understanding of human biology as we have now.

Sex, it’s complicated.

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One Response to A Note on “Biological Sex”

  1. Dr Bob says:

    It’s even more complicated than that if you are talking archaeology. One of my archaeology textbooks quoted the probability of successfully identifying the biological sex from a beautifully intact, absolutely perfect skeleton is 99%. So 1 time in 100 they will get it wrong, even in ideal conditions!

    If the pubic bones are damaged – and given that they are quite delicate that’s not unusual – then archaeologists use the width of the sciatic notch to ‘determine’ the sex. Wider than 45 degrees = female, narrower = male.

    Except that I read a fantastic archaeology paper where the researchers had used huuuuuuge sample sizes from collections of known sex skeletons (covering a whole range of ages and racial groups) to try and solve a problem in archaeology: too many old men and not enough old women’s skeletons being found. They discovered that if all you use is the sciatic notch, you are in trouble!

    They categorised the skeletons into 5 types: very narrow, narrow, intermediate, wide and very wide. And found that about 10% of the people with the narrowest possible pelvises were women, and roughly 10% with the widest were men. Oh and everyone’s pelvis slowly got narrower from about age 20 to about age 50. So mystery of where the missing old women had gone was solved… But a huge can of worms opened for assigning sex to a skeleton without perfect pubic bones!

    Can’t remember the title of the paper. It might have been this one: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.10422/full

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