How Fuzzy Is Sex?

The answer has to do with more than the last time you shaved your legs.

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick

Last week, I reviewed several conversations I had in the past four months. Although reviewing past work helps me plan future work, its greater value is to remind me where to hone my arguments — to find where I was wrong and to correct it. Since I began writing last October, there has been clear evolution in my thought and message. What I believed I wanted to say has changed — for the better, I hope!

One conversation I had was with a biologist about the definition of “sex.” He was adamant that sex is very clearly defined. My argument was that genetics is not clearly defined, and as a result, sex is “fuzzy.” We were both right — sex is well-defined and genetics is not well-defined. Where we disagreed is the level at which to observe the effect.

The biologist’s definition of sex is only half the story of a species. Because I intend to return to an exploration of evolution (as a result of reviewing two other conversations), I want to correct where I have been vague in my explanation of sex, gender, and their impact both individually and socially.

Is the definition of sex “fuzzy?” Why does it matter? Can we ever equate sex and gender? Given the current political environment, clear and scientific answers to these questions are more critical than ever.

The strictest definition of sex

The first question to answer is why sex matters at all, and the short answer has to do with reproduction. There are two ways an organism can reproduce — sexual or asexual — and the difference lies in the origin of the offspring’s genetic material.

Asexual reproduction requires only one organism; offspring inherit genetic material only from that parent. In contrast, sexual reproduction requires (at least) two sources of genetic material — two organisms; offspring inherit a semi-random combination of genetic material from both parents.

From an evolutionary standpoint, sexual reproduction developed because it leads to more variability in a species, which leads to more efficient adaptation to changing environments, or better survival.

The strictest definition of sex derives from the packages in which genetic material is delivered, which are called gametes. In almost all species biologists have observed, there is a clear binary of gamete sizes — one is typically several orders of magnitude larger than the other. By definition, the smaller of the two gametes is named sperm. The larger of the two gametes is named ovum.

From these two gametes come the definition of sex. Organisms that create sperm are defined as male. Organisms that create ova are defined as female. And that’s it.

From this definition, using the term “sperm-producer” to imply male, or “ovum-producer” to imply female is precise. But to be clear, there is nothing inherently special about either gamete — they are simply packages of genetic material. Obviously, the genetics of male and female organisms must differ enough to build their characteristic gamete, but other than that, the two sexes display few substantive genetic differences.

Labels revisited

As I mentioned in a previous article, applying a precise label doesn’t necessarily make it accurate. And just because some dork in a white lab coat says it (or some bint with purple hair, for that matter) does not make a label any less susceptible to being inaccurate.

The words “male” and “female” begin to lose meaning as focus shifts from the species as a whole to a single organism. In the organism, genetics dominates semantics. Sexual reproduction opens the door to intersex characteristics — genetics is not clear-cut, nor is it infallible. Many imaginable genetic combinations result in unviable offspring. And this is where sex begins to get fuzzy.

There are viable offspring in almost every species observed that are capable of producing both sperm and ovum. In fact, in many species, every offspring is capable of producing both gametes. From a biologist’s standpoint, humans are atypical in our predominantly binary expression of gamete production — not the norm by a long shot. Yet humans persist in applying a group of sex characteristics — that is, the machinery of gamete production in the species — to an individual organism, where the definition breaks down quickly.

Recently, I read an article by a person offended by the words “sperm-producing” and “egg-producing” as applied to humans. From the definition of sex, however, those words are appropriate. We are offended by their bluntness because we think in terms of gender, not sex.

A universal definition of gender

What biology accomplishes by separating organisms by the size of gametes produced is to provide a rough estimate of the life that organism may live. As a member of the species — and, presumably, part of perpetuating the species by reproducing — the organism’s life is defined by how it expresses its sex within the context of its environment. Or, more succinctly, by its gender.

Although gender is defined as the expression of sex within the context of an environment, different studies emphasize different aspects of the context or environment.

To a biologist, gender describes the role an organism plays in one act of reproduction. An organism may be gendered as expressing male or female characteristics — whether it produces sperm or ovum for that act of reproduction. An organism may shift genders during life or express both at once. Many species have multiple male and female genders, defined by how an organism participates in reproduction.

To a psychologist or sociologist, gender describes how a human expresses several aspects of identity, including — but by no means limited to — the role in reproduction. A human may be gendered as expressing both male and female characteristics at once. But while a biologist is concerned with gametes, a psychologist or sociologist is concerned with behavior, which may play a part in reproduction at both individual and cultural levels. Gender plays a significant part in evolutionary psychology, a point to which I will return.

To society, unfortunately, gender describes both gamete production and behavior as components of the role the organism may play socially. Many humans want to find a partner to reproduce. Many humans want to connect intellectually. And many humans just want everybody to fit into narrow definitions.

Why gender is more important than sex

Imagine for a moment that we are to classify furniture. One characteristic of a table might be “having at least one leg that prevents the furniture from falling over.” Likewise, one characteristic of a chair might be “having at least one leg that prevents the furniture from falling over.”

In this contrived example, both tables and chairs are “leg-owners,” but the defining characteristic lies outside simply having legs. Instead, it has to do with the role the furniture plays — how it will be utilized by people in context.

To return to humans, we are not solely defined by “sperm-producer” or “ovum-producer.” The classification is too broad and the genetic possibilities too numerous to place all human organisms into only two buckets.

There are humans classified as male or female, but do not take part in reproduction and the perpetuation of the species, whether for biological or behavioral reasons. All humans have a defined sex — fuzzy or otherwise — but the expression of sex in context of society differs.

So to answer the final question, then: can we ever equate sex and gender? The clear answer is no. The two concepts are different, whether viewed from a biological, psychological, behavioral, or emotional standpoint.

And that, readers, is just science.


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the offical policy or position of Purplepaw Publications, LLC. Please view the Disclaimer page for further information.