Sex/Gender, Sexuality, and Neuroscience
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. “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. 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. 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.
|Elizabeth Grosz uses the möbius strip to illustrate the melding of sex/gender.
|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.
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Cipolla, C. (2012). Sex/Gender, Sexuality, and Neuroscience. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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