The Spectrum of Sex

Like gender, we have this understanding of sex as a binary system of classification- male and female- where our gonads and hormone levels dictate which of the two categories we fall under. But as our understanding and perception of gender is changing, so is the scientific world’s understanding of sex. As politics is shifting towards conversations about gender identity and acceptance of a wider range of genders, the scientific community is also changing our perception of sex. Greater understanding of our genetic makeup has shifted what it means to be male and female, as well as the system of classification that we place ourselves under.

Mutations in our DNA can lead to disorders of sex development such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia causes the body to produce excessive amounts of testosterone, which lead to ambiguous genitalia in women, or in milder cases, develop male-like body hair or fertility issues. The gene WNT4 actively promotes the development of female sex organs and suppresses male development, but an extra copy of WNT4 in XY individuals can lead them to develop atypical genitalia and fallopian tubes. The delicate balance of genetic material within our bodies can place a person outside of the phenotypic range by which we categorize ourselves under.

Outside of mutations, humans can also have extra or fewer sex chromosomes than what we define males and female as. Our standard is that males are XY and females are XX. However, females with only one X chromosome, as in the case of Turner’s syndrome, are still defined as female, despite the lack of extra X. People who exist as intersex due to an extra X or Y are born with both female and male sex characteristics. The difference in gonad development has no medical repercussions, but our societal ideas of the sex binary lead to corrective surgeries on patients that cannot consent.

The scientific community has a responsibility to change our perception of sex, at the very least for the reduction in unnecessary corrective surgeries on children and infants. Our society has always valued the idea of self-determination, which should also extend to our ideas of our bodies’ biology. These new discoveries surrounding our perception of sex needs to move towards perceiving sex as a spectrum in order to accommodate our shifting understanding of scientific truth and cultivate in-depth and accurate conversations surrounding our genes.

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