The sex/gender distinction has been fundamental to feminist theory, and very often while gender is understood to be a social construct, sex is taken to be a biological fact. In the modern West it is widely believed that there are two and only two sexes – male and female – and that we are born one or the other of these. It is also widely believed that it is easy to determine whether a person is male or female, based on their anatomy, or whether their bodies menstruate or produce semen, or, more recently, whether they produce more testosterone or estrogen or whether they have XX or XY chromosomes. In the previous module, however, we had a glimpse of what has been called the “one sex” model of sex, suggesting that “biological facts” may be interpreted very differently than they are in the modern West. Moreover, there is a range of ways in which biological sex may be determined – anatomical parts, whether a body ovulates or produces semen, hormones, or chromosomes. In cases of ambiguity, which of these do we take to be determinate? This has in fact been a significant question in a number of recent controversies concerning women athletes who were determined to have too much testosterone or the wrong chromosomes to compete as women. In different historical periods, geographical locations and cultural contexts, how sex has been determined has varied, suggesting that sex – including the most basic question of how many sexes there are – is just as determined by social factors as gender. Put otherwise, perhaps both sex and gender are social constructs. This is the argument that you will be introduced to in this module through the works of three scholars working in three different disciplines: a historian, an anthropologist, and a biologist.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Explain the difference between biological essentialism and social constructivism in relation to both gender and sex
  • Distinguish between one sex and two sexes models of the body, provide historical and contemporary examples of each model, and explain the political role that each model has played
  • Recognize some of the feminist stakes in debates about sexual difference
  • Understand some basic biological facts about intersex as well as the fundamental political claims of the intersex advocacy movement