Not Oprah’s Book Club: Sex Itself

University of Chicago Press, $45Although gender expression has flourished in the wake of feminist, queer, and trans interventions, our society as a whole still claims the primacy of “biological sex.” From the fetishization of trans peoples’ genitals and tales of “transition” (Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox took down Katie Couric on this point), to constant mis-gendering in mainstream media (as with the treatment of Janet Mock and Chelsea Manning), the policing of trans individuals makes evident a continuing reliance on “biological sex” as the ultimate determinant of identity.

In Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (University of Chicago Press, $45), Sarah S. Richardson examines the biological grounding of sex at its apparent root: in the X and Y chromosomes. “The visual binary of the XX and the XY signify that part of sex that is thought to be unchangeable and most fundamental,” she writes. “At the level of the chromosomes, the gender rainbow, it is thought, falls away.” Although scientists acknowledge that sex emerges out of a complex “choreography” of biological factors, the association of X and Y with absolute sexual difference has always held the public imagination—and driven chromosomal research as well. It is Richardson’s project to “make gender visible” in this chapter of scientific history.

The idea that the X and Y form the biological foundation of “sex itself” has inflected sex chromosomal research with gendered assumptions for decades. Richardson demonstrates how this association often misdirected scientific research and shielded bad hypotheses from reproach. In the 1960s and 70s, for example, scientists were collectively swept up by XYY “supermale” theories, which claimed that men with an extra Y chromosome were taller, stronger, and more aggressive than XY men. The theory was resoundingly discredited in the 1980s and cast as an embarrassing episode in the history of genetic science (the television series, “The XYY Man,” about a criminal mastermind, eventually went off air). But the fact that “supermale” theories remained in currency for as long as they did points to the strength of traditional gender norms and the will to believe in biologically encoded sexual difference.

Feminists themselves have played a part in this. In the late 1990s, women’s health advocacy groups began promoting “sex-based biology” in order to investigate health issues unique to women’s bodies, putting genetic and genomic research at the center. Big pharmaceutical companies have been quick to fund these efforts, looking to capitalize on lucrative “subgroup” markets targeting members of a specific race or class. These studies almost always find the genomic sexual difference they posit—but only by ignoring important external factors, like age and hormones, and consistently overstating their results. Health outcomes do differ between men and women, but it would be a mistake to imagine that these differences originate solely at the genomic level.

In the 1980s and 90s, changing social currents shifted the scene of scientific research. Increasing numbers of women entered the field of biological research, intersex activists challenged the clean sexual binary, and scholars offered feminist critiques of science. It is during this time, Richardson argues, that a new “gender-criticism” emerged within chromosomal research. “Gender criticism…is a critical orientation or practice that attends specifically to how gender beliefs may influence human knowledge,” she writes. By the 21st century, Richardson argues, scientists had begun to see the methodological value in taking such an approach.

The story of the SRY sex-determining gene illustrates the rise of “gender-criticism.” Discovered on the Y chromosome in 1990, the SRY gene was heralded as the holy grail of biological sex difference, a “master switch” though to turn “on” male testes development. However, feminist research Jennifer Graves criticized this model.  She noted that sex determination research focused exclusively on the Y chromosome and male gonadal development. The presumption that male development would be “active” had blinded researchers to the possibility that the SRY gene was merely defending against a factor that would otherwise turn male development “off.” By the 2000s, understandings of chromosomal sex determination had transformed. Scientists began to prioritize research on female ovarian development, and theories of a multifactorial sex determination replaced the strictly binary “master switch” model. A “normalization” of gender-critical methods had occurred.

Richardson’s history of chromosomal research is surprisingly conservative. Social and historical currents only occasionally contextualize the laboratory action, and the laboratory as an institutional structure is never investigated at all. Even when the outside world seems to be beating at the gates, Richardson mutes its role. “The shift [to a gender-critical approach] was informal and not self-consciously feminist,” she writes. “Rather, a general awareness matured—not evident previously—of the pitfalls of androcentric and gender-dualistic thinking.” Doesn’t this ignore, like…a heckuvalot of struggle? Surely the “pitfalls” of androcentrism and gender-dualism had been in view long before the 2000s; trans and intersex individuals had been protesting their pathologization for decades. The Scientists weren’t exactly “maturing,” so much as being confronted with their prejudices and exclusions.

This is perhaps the most glaring absence in Richardson’s text: a failure to analyze scientific research as a field of power. She portrays the laboratory as reflecting gender norms and ideas of sex difference, seldom examining its generative role in producing these beliefs. In reality, science is coextensive with the systems of dominance that exist beyond its hallowed walls. The collusion of sex difference research and Big Pharma is but an obvious recent example—science has long been instrumental in producing theories of racism, heterosexism, and ableism.

It is its denials, its claims to “objective” truth and an unpolluted, apolitical space, that makes science so authoritative—and so dangerous. Feminist writer Ruth Hubbard writes, “The question is who has social sanction to define the larger reality into which one’s everyday experiences must fit in order that one be reckoned as sane and responsible…At present science is the most respectable legitimator of new realities.” The imposition of sex assignment surgery on intersex infants, the constant violence trans individuals face—these instances speak to the “everyday” power science exerts beyond its bounds. As the mainstream receptions of Mock, Carrera, Cox, and Manning illustrate, science and biology remain the ultimate “legitimator” of today’s reality.

Consciously or not, Richardson augments this scientific authority. She encourages an analysis of the social dimensions of science, but only in order to address its gendered blind spots. She seeks more rigorously designed experiments, more nuanced interpretations of facts, and sounder empirical conclusions.  Richardson seeks, in short, to make science more Scientific. But just as scientific researchers need to be vigilant about the distorting influence of gender beliefs, so we as feminists must be vigilant to the distorting influence of science. If science remains on a pedestal as the ultimate arbiter of our beliefs, those who do not conform to its worldview will continue to be marginalized.

Emily Villano

Emily Villano is a guest contributor to Feministing. She is a feminist living and writing in Central Oregon.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted February 15, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily! I’m the author of Sex Itself. Thanks for reviewing my book – it’s a real gift, and you capture its contributions well. I must take issue with your very striking claim that “”the most glaring absence in Richardson’s text [is] a failure to analyze scientific research as a field of power. She portrays the laboratory as reflecting gender norms and ideas of sex difference, seldom examining its generative role in producing these beliefs.” It is true that my central methodology is to show the role of gender beliefs within the cognitive work of science, but as I make clear, the reason I want to do this is to prevent the harmful social consequences of gender biased science. From start to finish, the book is openly situated with feminist concerns about the harmful impact of sexual science that reifies sex differences: In the introduction, I name the feminist “Genes and Gender Collective” from the 1970s as my inspiration. Many of the chapters deal with claims emanating from the sciences that appear to buttress racism, sexism, and heterosexism, such as the chapter taking scientists to task for the recent claim that “males and females are as different as humans and chimpanzees.” And I do go well beyond the laboratory. The concluding chapter, for example, is all about the role of funding agencies, women’s health advocates, and big pharma in fueling genomic sex difference research. I simply can’t imagine that a reader would come away from Sex Itself without understanding science as a generative space for harmful ideological conceptions of sex differences that have real consequences in the world!

    • Posted February 15, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      Hi Sarah, thanks for reading the review and for writing a response! I really appreciate the pushback. I wish that my article had room for a more nuanced discussion of your book. You’re evidently indebted to feminist critiques of science, yet you remain sensitive to the methods and internal norms of the scientific community, the notion that “there is something distinctive about science.” In the midst of this balancing act, I often felt that you made concessions to your latter commitment at the expense of the former. You sought to demonstrate how a vigilance toward gendered beliefs would result in scientific theories with greater explanatory power (as in the case of the SRY sex-determining gene). Certainly, it is important to expose the ideology of sex difference genomic research has had a tendency to produce. What I would have liked to see foregrounded, however, is a sense that science remains dangerous whether or not it is socially conscious and gender-vigilant. I think it’s important for feminists to be critical of the ‘truth-claims’ of any political field, particularly one with the enormous epistemological authority of science. I think the ‘science question’ continues to be deeply pertinent for feminists, and your contribution is extremely valuable. I hope feminists can continue to foster a dialogue with the scientific disciplines, and build a worldview which reveals the partialities of both.

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