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Sex/Gender, Sexuality, and Neuroscience

In preparation for this week’s Neuroethics Journal club meeting, where we are discussing Deboleena Roy’s article “Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference,” I wanted to give a short primer on some of the issues that are discussed in that article, most notably, sex, gender and feminist science studies and their relationship to neuroscience. I close with a short discussion of the complications these introduce to the study of sexuality. 

One of the fundamental things we teach in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies is the difference between biological sex and the cultural construction of gender. “Sex” refers to a measurable, biological, or innate difference – such as the presence or absence of a Y chromosome or a functioning uterus.[1] “Gender” refers to all of the cultural and social meanings that are layered on top of sex and which may or may not be innately attached to one sex or another. The majority of people alive today have clearly delineated sex and gender, and although what constitutes the proper performance of gender varies both culturally and historically, the majority of people also find that their gender matches their sex.  For others, these categories are more complex – and often in our field we use the categories of intersex and transgender to demonstrate this complexity.[2] Although sometimes when studying gender and women’s lives it is proper to focus on either sex or gender, most people move between the two categories. In 1975 Gayle Rubin introduced a concept she called the sex/gender system to help describe how these concepts work together. This continues to be widely proliferated.[3] The parameters of the sex/gender system are debated even to this day, but generally it is meant to be inclusive of both biological sex and the cultural meanings of gender.[4]

Feminist science studies has always been vitally important to emerging feminist discourse on sex and gender, both as a source of information and as a mode of critique. One area of feminist science studies focuses on the inclusion of women in science both as research subjects and as scientists.[5] Another area critiques the lack of distinction between sex and gender differences in science. Often, these feminist theorists would point out that researchers were assuming that social gender attributes were necessarily linked to sex, or noting where sex-based research was used to validate sexist gender norms.[6] Recently, feminist science scholars have advocated a richer engagement of feminism with science. This move is often called a return to materialism, and invovles a systems-theory based reimagining of the sex/gender system as not simply gender laid over top of sex, but rather as two concepts so inextricably linked as to be inseparable.[7]

Elizabeth Grosz uses the möbius strip to illustrate the melding of sex/gender.

The treatment of the sex/gender system in neuroscience is complicated due to the fact that it is not always possible to know if differences in brain function are due to innate or learned characteristics. Unlike the study of X-chromosome linked color-blindness or uterine cancer, sex difference in the brain is a scientific study which requires referencing sex/gender as a total system, which is, honestly, to me, kind of wonderful. That is not to say that treatment of sex/gender differences in neuroscience is always ethical or feminist, or that neuroscientists utilize the actual language of sex/gender in a way that is intelligible to feminist and gender theorists.[8] One of the major problems that feminist critics continue to find with neuroscientific research about sex and gender is the fact that the sex/gender system is collapsed into sex, either by the researchers themselves or by outside interpretations of their results.  Kristina Gupta’s blog post last month covered one specific problematic assumption about sex difference that proliferates, and Deboleena Roy’s article, which we are discussing next week, covers much of the problems that are contained in (and often obliterated by) the slash we put between sex and gender, and the relevance of the feminist return to materialism.[9]

The scientific study of sexuality is also critiqued within feminist theory, although in a different way from the study of sex/gender difference. Unlike sex, sexuality is cultural and behavioral and thus largely identified through self-reporting or self-identification. Critics, both from inside and outside of feminist theory, have noted many problems with categorizing “homosexuality” in particular, as sexual object choice is not necessarily static over someone’s lifetime, and many people exhibit some level of attraction or interest in people of both sexes.[10] Additionally, some studies of homosexuality utilize sexual dimorphism when searching for difference, often relying on something called “inversion theory” where it is presumed that homosexual men must be “feminized,” or similar to heterosexual women, because of a shared interest in dating men. This mode of categorization means that the study of homosexuality is subject to many of the same feminist criticisms that are levied at studies of sexual difference.
Rejecting the gender binary.

The study of sexuality, particularly of sexual orientation, is further complicated once sexuality is combined with the sex/gender system. Assuming that sexual orientation is always reducible to sex someone’s sexual preferences may map nicely onto a male/female sex system, but this does not take into account gender preferences, nor does it take into account gender performance. Most people do not choose their sexual partners based solely on factors we would consider to be unassailable markers of sex. Generally, people choose sexual partners through the lens of gender, because that is how we encounter people in everyday life. Feminists, queer theorists and scholars of sexuality studies have commented on the complexities of this system, arguing for a multiplicity of categories to accommodate all possible variations of sexual orientations, the obliteration of the gay/straight dichotomy, and pointing out that the continued use of terms like “homosexual” only reinforce sexual dimorphism, in no small part due to the proliferation of “inversion” theory.[11]

I would argue that, even further than this, the fact that sexual orientation is located not in a sex system but in a sex/gender system poses unique opportunities for neuroscientific studies of sexuality. Critically, it means that studies that examine neurostructures of sexuality have to be more attentive to the role of gender in sexual preference in order to avoid being overly reductive and to retain relevance to the lives of all queer-identified people. However, thinking generatively, perhaps it is possible, if researchers are aware of the distinctions they are making, that new research could complicate our understandings of sexual orientation and sexuality, by, for example, looking at sexual orientation as a function of gender preference as distinct from sexual preference.

I can only cover so many aspects of this topic in a blog post, so this introduction has been necessarily short. Do you have favorite studies of gender or feminist theorists I have overlooked? Want to give an example of the use of sex/gender in neuroscience?  Put it in the comments! I look forward to seeing many of you this week at the journal club.   

Want to cite this post?

Cipolla, C. (2012). Sex/Gender, Sexuality, and Neuroscience. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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[1] For an excellent and humorous discussion of when it might be necessary to focus on chromosomes rather than gender, even in an online survey, see the “blag” at XKCD. 
[2] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body : Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, 1st ed. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000).
[3] Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women : Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1975).. For an example of sex/gender in neuroscience, see Rebecca Jordan-Young and Raffaella Rumiati, “Hardwired for Sexism? Approaches to Sex/Gender in Neuroscience,” Neuroethics..
[4] One of the most significant complications to Rubin’s system was introduced by Judith Butler in Judith Butler, Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge Classics (New York: Routledge, 1990 (2006))..
[5] Londa L. Schiebinger, Nature’s Body : Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993); Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
[6] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender : Biological Theories About Women and Men, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1985/ 1992).
[7] E. A. Grosz, Volatile Bodies : Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Theories of Representation and Difference (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Vicki Kirby, “Natural Convers(at)Ions: Or What If Culture Was Really Nature All Along?,” in Material Feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008); Elizabeth A. Wilson, Psychosomatic : Feminism and the Neurological Body (Durham [N.C.] ; London: Duke University Press, 2004).
[8] See Katrin Nikoleyczik, “Towards Diffractive Transdisciplinarity: Integrating Gender Knowledge into the Practice of Neuroscientific Research,” Neuroethics. for a discussion of how sex, gender and sex/gender have been used in neuroscience.
[9] Deboleena Roy, “Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference,” Neuroethics (2011).
[10] Edward Stein, The Mismeasure of Desire : The Science, Theory and Ethics of Sexual Orientation, Ideologies of Desire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Paul R. Wolpe, “Ethics and Social Policy in Research on the Neuroscience of Human Sexuality,” 7, no. 10 (2004).
[11]  The following immediately come to mind: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Axiomatic,” in Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Stein, The Mismeasure of Desire : The Science, Theory and Ethics of Sexual Orientation; Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC ; London: Duke University Press, 1998); Judith Lorber, Paradoxes of Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter : On the Discursive Limits Of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).


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