Do We Need More Sexes?

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Our world is complex – perhaps nowhere is that better showcased than in our evolving knowledge on genetics, gender, sexuality, and sex. The more we learn about these topics, the more it becomes clear that the way we currently organize and label them are inadequate at best.

The animal kingdom: sexless to multi-sex

In the animal kingdom, multiple species can be said to be sexless or even multi-sex. Certain species of shrimp have hermaphrodites which can self-fertilize in addition to mating with males. Protozoan Tetrahymena, on the other hand, have seven distinct “sexes”. Meanwhile stick bugs have been asexual for over a million years – essentially cloning themselves with each new generation. The variety of reproduction and sex throughout our world cannot fit within two neat boxes.

Human diversity

Even in humans things are not so clear cut. With advances in genetics and scientific understanding, we have learned much more about just how diverse our own “sex spectrum” is. In humans alone it can be said we have six genetic “sexes”:

X – Roughly 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 5,000 (Turner’s )
XX – Most common form of female
XXY – Roughly 1 in 500 to 1 in 1,000 (Klinefelter)
XXXY – Roughly 1 in 18,000 to 1 in 50,000 (Klinefelter)
XYY – Roughly 1 out of 1,000
XY – Most common form of male

And this may or may not include intersex people – depending on your definition of the word, which can sometimes vary. All told though, over four million people in the United States alone are estimated to have a “sex” which doesn’t fit neatly into the male / female dichotomy.

Disorder or not?

In the case of babies who are born with “atypical” genitalia, it’s not uncommon for parents and their doctor to assign them a sex based on dominant characteristics and perform corrective surgery. While there can occasionally be health issues to take into consideration, by and large most of these surgeries are done to “normalize” the baby – even though they could grow up to lead healthy and happy lives just as they are. And there is growing evidence that these sex assignments and corrective surgeries can lead to lifelong physical and mental problems for those that receive them.

All things told, a disorder is really something of our own making. It is true that, today, some of these chromosomal combinations and genital expressions are considered a “disorder”. However, it’s important to note that, at one point, things like female hysteria and homosexuality were considered diseases or disorders – but as our knowledge on these topics evolved, so too did the way we classify these. Today, female hysteria doesn’t exist and homosexuality is recognized as simply a normal part of human sexuality.

Time for an update

Our use of “male” and “female” and its classic duality stretches back centuries, perhaps millenniums – before we even conceived of genetics or the scientific understanding we have of the world today. Today, scientists acknowledge that this model of “absolute sexual dimorphism” is incorrect. We also understand better than ever the inherent social constructs in gender, masculinity and femininity. The fact is, people do not fit neatly along binary lines. Intersex people exist. Transgender people exist. Gay people exist. And they’re not uncommon.

There are spectrums of sex, gender, and sexuality – and the world is far more complex than we have so far categorized it. The time is long overdue to make changes for better clarity, further inclusiveness, and more holistic living.


EDIT: After publishing this article, I came across THIS GREAT THREAD on the topic from a science veteran. I highly recommend reading through it!

Additional information on these topics

UCLA Institute for Society & Genetics: Biologists Say Gender Expands Across A Spectrum

New York Times: Anatomy Does Not Determine Gender, Experts Say

Discover Magazine: Skeletal Studies Show Sex, Like Gender, Exists Along a Spectrum

Scientific American: The New Science of Sex and Gender

Harvard University: Between the (Gender) Lines: the Science of Transgender Identity

AP News: Science Says: Sex and gender aren’t the same

WHO: Gender and Genetics

U.S. National Library of Medicine: Intersex

Scientific American: Where Transgender Is No Longer a Diagnosis

American Psychological Association: Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression

National Institutes of Health: Suicide and Suicidal Behavior among Transgender Persons

Casey has a background in writing and journalism – and is known for his mediation and discussion skills. In his spare time he enjoys absorbing, dissecting and disseminating information — particularly in U.S. politics, religion, technology, science, music, gaming, and pop-­culture.

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