Gender and sexuality differences in the brain: should we study them?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them.

Thoughts this week about

and our conversation based on them ....
K. Smythe's picture

Spectrum versus opposites

 

            The idea of sex being a spectrum and not two polar opposites is one that does deserve some discussion.  Although I am totally willing to say that there is middle ground between the two sexes, I do think that it is important to look at what we think of as main stream sexes (i.e. male versus female).  Although there definitely is middle ground/a spectrum I think that I am hesitant to use the word spectrum because of the connotations that word has for me.  To me a spectrum implies a spread over varying degrees, this spread is usually associated (for me) with either an equal spread over the spectrum or a normal distribution.  This to me is the difference between using the word spectrum and defining two opposites between which a middle ground or spectrum exists. 

            It is also important to think about why we have come to as a culture recognize two distinct sex opposites rather than a spectrum.  I would imagine (though I have no actual data) that these categorizations arose from observation.  If we had observed (long, long ago) a wide and common spectrum of genitalia or chromosome distribution we would have developed a cultural understanding of sex as a spectrum.  It seems logical to me that we chose instead two opposites because the majority of the time we saw two main options (albeit some variation between the individuals in each category) with some in the middle.  That the two “opposites” were more common than the middle range is not something I have a statistic on and may have changed over many, many generations, but I do believe that most of our language is based on observation rather than arbitrary choice (in this case between a spectrum and two opposites).  It is also interesting to me that we don’t have many (although Jessica did mention one example in class) common examples of cultures where the sexes are not seen as opposites but are considered a spectrum.  The sexes have for years and across cultures been a dividing line.

It seems to me something that has lasted ages and is seen across cultures probably has some value or reasoning behind it and should not simply be tossed aside without serious thought as to where it comes from and why we use it.  Perhaps it is now outdated since procreation and survival of the species are not as much of a concern for humans as a species as it once was however it would be more interesting to me to investigate where the idea of two opposite sexes came from before we redo all of the research that says there are some differences between them.

tlogan's picture

Hi all, Sorry for missing

Hi all,

Sorry for missing class last week. I was there in spirit. Just from reading the articles and the online discussion, I believe I have gleaned the topics of discussion that were covered in class. I'm going to circumvent the binary-spectrum debate for a moment, and re-visit a question that Alex posed, specifically if assigning these intrinisc qualities to "man" and "woman" will reinforce social stereotypes. I would argue that this already happens, for example, just look to the gender dichotomy between a random sampling of english vs. engineering or computer science departments at a university level. I think, and I could be wrong, that english departments would be significantly more mixed gender, while engineering and computer science would be weighted heavily towards men. In cases like these, is it underlying social stereotyping pressures that lead to self-selection, or is it due to intrinisc differences that cause difference in performance?

Also, Andrea brings an excellent point that in terms of neuropathology. If men and women have fundamental differences, how do we know that treatment is equally effective for both? If women and men experience a disorder differently, should there treatment be different. In the case of panic disorder with agorophobia, a recent (2006) study shows that there were little in the way of gender differences in PDA.

http://lib.bioinfo.pl/auth:Latas,M

Andrea G.'s picture

Animal models

I'd like to get back to a subject that Rebecca brought up about science using a binary to assign sex and then only actually doing research on males.  This is especially true in rodent models, where, as Rebecca said, the estrous cycle is thought to be too confounding, and females are simply not used.  This is a topic I've thought about a lot, especially since both major research projects I've worked on have involved animal models of fear or anxiety.  The prevalence of anxiety and depression in women is much higher than that in men.  Models of treatment for these disorders come directly from animal research.  If males and females have a different incidence of these disorders, it's conceivable that they also react to treatment differently.  So how can we extrapolate animal models that have only been tested on males to say that the same treatments will be effective in females?  Maybe there's a treatment for depression or anxiety disorders that would be particularly efficacious for women, but it'll never be discovered if animal research continues to be conducted on males only.  In reality, while the estrous cycle in female rodents may make experiments more complicated, I don't see how it can't be incorporated into research.  It'd require several more experimental groups, and therefore, more subjects, but if you can separate out stages of the estrous cycle, you can get a lot of valuable information about the female brain and behavior that's been previously ignored.  There are ethical issues to consider, with the increase in the number of animals needed for experiments like this, but overall, I think the benefits of collecting data about females in order to be able to better diagnose and treat women with mental and physical health issues far outweigh the costs.
Amelia's picture

Studying Sex Differences, Social Sterotypes

I do think it is worthwhile to study gender and sexuality differences in cognition (and other differences observed between different genders and sexualities). If looking at the example that males are better at spatial tasks, and we were able to find out why this was, this could lead to an ability for scientists to maybe understand people who suffer from a deficiency in spatial abilities (not females, but people who regardless of sex have problems that affect their daily lives). Being able to point to why some people do better at certain things will aid us in identifying what may be malfunctioning in people with a decreased ability. Additionally, by learning what differs in brains of people who are good at spatial tasks and those who are poor at them, researchers may be able to develop more balanced ways of testing aptitude.

In terms of social stereotypes, research really suggests that the knowledge of these stereotypes affects a person’s ability on different aptitude tasks. In terms of SAT math, there is the stereotype that Asians are good at math but women are bad at math. A study was done (I can’t remember if I read this for this class or not) where Asian women were made (I forget how) to focus on their identity as an Asian or their identity as a woman. Those that focused on their identity as Asian did significantly better than those who focused on their identity as a woman, seeming to cement the idea of stereotypes influencing a person’s ability. While the stereotypes must stem from somewhere, they reinforce the cycle since people follow the stereotypes. Research has also found that when African-American high school students are given a test and are either told that it measures aptitude or that its just a test (not measuring talent), the students who were told it was measuring talent did significantly worse than those who did not have to confront the stereotype that African-Americans aren’t as talented on achievement tests (they were both reminded that African-Americans don’t do as well on aptitude tests). Once again, stereotypes seem to be changing how people perform.

Finally, looking at the difference of the number of men and women in the math and science fields, I am always forced to wonder if the interest in such fields is biological (or socially based). I won all of the math awards in high school and can immediately see how to solve math problems, but I found it boring; because of that I haven’t taken any math (besides statistics) in college. My boyfriend majored in math and saw it more as solving puzzles---I was never able to see it that way. While I think my inherent aptitude for math is still high, I have no desire to ever do another math problem. Since I feel that this disinterest is biologically inherent to me, I wonder if the interest in such fields is biological (and therefore the basis for difference of the number of men and women in these fields). While I see obvious reasons for it to be socially based, my personal experience makes me think that the interest may be at a more biological level.

Elliot Rabinowitz's picture

Some more thoughts...

Last week’s conversation was certainly controversial, but also quite interesting. Though I don’t want to get stuck on the binary vs. spectrum debate that occupied much of our discussion during class and already on these boards, I can’t help myself but add my own thoughts. Overall, I think I ultimately come back to one of the points brought up during one of our first classes (the one on neurodiversity) – every person is an individual. I think Professor Grobstein and many others continue to stress this point throughout the course, and I firmly agree. In treating patients, health professionals must take many variables into consideration and not only base their judgements on simple one-word answers, but rather a more overall understanding of the individual patient. For instance, we talked about pain scales and how they are used for treating patients – it’s not enough to just ask “does it hurt,” but also to determine how much, where, why, and what else the person may be feeling (though understanding others completely obviously has its limitations – beetle analogy). This same approach should be taken when considering things that are more commonly presented in a dichotomous manner, such as male/female and homosexual/heterosexual. Supporting people to not make blanket judgments about large supposed groups of others is a great idea, and I think this should be brought up more often in our everyday lives.

 

However, as some have already expressed, I too have trouble fully agreeing with some particular ideas from class and on this discussion board. I would suspect a self-reporting scale of male/female to not be very useful. This by no means it should not be attempted, that’s just my hypothesis. As Liz suggested, I don’t think a socially-constructed/affected ideas such as a tomboy would necessarily identify as more male than a valley girl. I think a lot of people’s self-reporting would be based on the words chosen on the scale and the connotations those words hold. For instance, many people (myself included) would most likely rate themselves differently on a scale for “male to female” as compared to a scale for “masculinity to femininity.” So, as Emily suggested, taking into account all the variables and differences between individuals would get so complicated that I’m not sure it would end up being productive.

 

With that said, at least in the clinical arena, I think the trust goes to our health professionals (just as when we discussed their roles in treating pain). Educating them as to how to best interact with patients and realize individual differences is crucial for them to provide the best care possible. I hope we can at least all agree on that.

 

Something else I just quickly want to touch on is the idea of homosexuality/heterosexuality as a scale. I too believe in the spectrum idea for sexual identity, but I’m not sure it’s fair to say that society is on the same boat or even that most people are comfortable with this concept. Many people still believe sexual preference to be a strict dichotomy. Whether this is true, I’m not sure. It makes sense to me that it would be a spectrum, but I also know I’ve read papers that studied sexuality and I remember the results markedly supporting two separate trends – homosexuality and heterosexuality, even for people who self-report as bisexual. I can’t recall where I read these papers, and so cannot follow up on them, but I remember these findings as surprising and striking. Maybe it is simply a social construction that leads people to fall into either group. Or maybe it’s more biologically based. Or maybe it’s a spectrum. I obviously don’t have the answers, but this topic certainly has plenty to be discussed.

 

Thanks for a great presentation!

ehinchcl's picture

 There were so many

 There were so many interesting points brought up from last weeks class and I’d like to touch on just a few—again mostly as they relate to the binary v. spectrum debate. I think I’m somewhat oddly in the middle of the debate in terms of what I believe—I think that the spectrum model is actually much more accurate. Im not sure what I believe about the physiological basis for gender, but I think that the point about multiple factors contributing to percieved gender is incredibly important and that in this way there is indeed a spectrum for gender. For some reason I find this spectrum analogy much easier to justify in terms of sexual preference, which I think is probably true for most people—we accept that sexual preference is not necessarily just homo or heterosexual, and Im interested as to why this is the case. (sort of off topic I admit, but why are we much more willing to accept this spectrum? Perhaps because of all the media coverage it has gotten within our lifetimes? You never see much press on the “gender spectrum”). Anyway, to reiterate, I feel that the spectrum model is definitely more accurate. Where my views start to diverge however is how this affects research and how we can apply this. Honestly, maybe I’m being pessimistic here, but I think it is impossible to consider all the variables that would need to go in to creating such a spectrum in order for people to be able to “accurately” identify themselves as male or female. And the whole idea of self report isn’t failsafe either, because self report is inherently affected BY all those criteria so it probably wouldn’t provide more useful information. Therefore, I think to do research at all you need to take some “shortcuts” (though I hesitate to call them that) in terms of category definition. No, we’re not all the same. No, we didn’t all have the same experiences growing up… or the same genes… and even if we did have a ton of clones of one person that we could study the results wouldn’t be interesting because they wouldn’t be applicable to the wider population. So I think in order to make research generalizable—and therefore applicable on a wider scale—it becomes necessary to make categories and to put similar subjects into groups so that they can be compared to subjects who are less similar. That’s just how research works, and I can’t think of any good productive way to account for all the differences found in a subject population—and even if I could, im not sure I would want to. 

Just a quick note on the other thing that has been brought up: the whole idea of women as learning and excelling at different things. Like Kara brought up earlier, I think it is interesting that this concept has come up with the discussion of “disease states” such as autism among other things. I think it is entirely possible that women are hardwired differently and therefore may excel at different things. HOWEVER, I think the minute we make generalizations about these characteristics we get into trouble—as we’ve said so many times in the past, we as a society need to be much more accepting of neurodiversity and allow people to excel as they are capable. It does rub me the wrong way that we can say that men are “better at complex engineering” or something, because I think this then leads to the thought that no woman can be better than a man. (Which I don’t believe is true at all—I think predisposition only has so much to do with it, so any broad statements like that really worry me). 

Thanks again for the discussion

atuttle's picture

Is gender Identity a bad thing?

Picking up on Emily's seemingly pessimistic point, that in order to create a representativie spectrum we would have to create an endless amount of criteria to identify one individual, I wholeheartedly agree that this is simply not possible. In addition, I am wondering that even if we were able to create this spectrum, would we want to use it? As individuals we tend to have a set of two conflicitng needs. One) that we are capable of free will and are unique in our "selfness." Two) We crave to be identified in a certain social context by those around us (i.e., as part of a group, or against a group--in both cases, we want a social identity. With simple dichotomies like gender identity or sexual preference, humans are able to easily broadcast and interpret social identities, to the detriment of our goal (that we are all different from each other). By adopting a continuous measure of these aspects of identity, however, an individual's identity would become infinitely more complex and confusing for others to derive in a social setting. In addition to scientific problems to which Emily alludes, a spectrum would also complicate an individual's projected identity.

We use oversimplification as a way to easily identify a person in a social context. We also spend a lot of time projecting a first impression for others. While this behavior can lead to prejudice and an "in-vs-outgroup" mentality, I believe it is an intractable aspect of our social selves. But just because this mindset may lead to negative predispositions, does that mean we should scrap it in favor for something more complicated? I believe that rather than encouraging people to interpret one another as 17 or 69.3 percent male vs. female, we should use the older, simpler method of social identification. However, it is also important to teach people that differences between sexuality, gender, ethnic identity, etc. are so small that any individual is capable of being better than any other. This method of identification addresses both human needs while addressing the drawbacks of these social oversimplifications.

 

~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08

Ian Morton's picture

Biological Components of Gender Degree?

In discussing gender and sex, I am most struck by cases where males were castrated at a young age and raised as females, yet most of them grew up feeling as though that something was wrong, that they were somehow male in a woman’s body and social role. Even without a large amount of androgens circulating, these people still felt like they were in some manner male. In keeping with Paul’s reminder that there exists no single and absolute standard for differentiating between sex, I think it would be worthwhile for many studies to be conducted or re-conducted to examine what biological factors influence one’s perceived gender. While there is certainly a social component to gender, the previously mentioned cases seem to suggest that there are fundamental biological components that influence how one perceives one’s gender. I would be interested to see how various biological components influence the degree to which one perceives oneself as male or female, especially in the face of social conventions.  While several people have commented on the difficulty in ascribing to oneself a value of gender, a process which is rapt with subjective variance, I still believe such an approach could prove valuable for better understanding gender.
Emily Alspector's picture

lets move on.

Hey everyone, sorry for the late post!

I thought last week's discussion, though interesting, was heavily focused on something which we as a class can do very little about. The idea that scientific exploration happens to account for gender in a binary fashion rather than a spectrum is perhaps the one stable part of science. There is so much we don't know and are presuming when we do experiments, that having the "Mark one box" really just makes it easier. At this point, if society were to see things as professor Grobstein suggested, every previous study would have to be negated and redone for the sake of a spectrum. To me, this seems illogical and quite unnecessary. As Liz mentioned, the odds of someone actually being able to accurately rate their femininity and masculinity on a scale seems highly unlikely. Self-report is not the answer in this case. Maybe testing hormone levels, etc could be a starting point for this sort of methodology, but it seems to me that this has already been considered.

Moving on to a different topic, I think this is obviously worthwhile to study. What is unfortunate is the stereotype susceptibility that so often reinforces stereotypes. It's interesting to think that maybe these differences in the brain are purely socially-induced. Because women were for so long thought of as the subordinate sex, learning about these inferiorities are perhaps the only reason for them. It would be interesting to see if women's brains are slowly becoming more like the structure of men's over the centuries (and where brains of homosexuals fit in to the scheme of it all).

Paul Grobstein's picture

Sexuality/gender: binaries or continua?

Natsu nicely provided the clarifications she asked for. I do indeed think people should free free to identify themselves as male or female, homosexual or heterosexual. Or anywhere along a spectrum/across a combination of these. I personally know many people who would in fact prefer to have some leeway in this regard, and suspect many others would as well.

The point is not that whether or not there are bodies that don't fit well into a male/female dichotomy (though there are) nor whether or not there are genomes that don't fit well into a male/female dichotomy (though there are). The point is instead that the empirical evidence is increasingly telling us that sex/gender doesn't reflect any single underlying dichotomous variable at all but is instead influenced by a number of different variables including genes, bodies, hormones, culture, and personal choices. From this perspective, it makes sense that some people would be content with the traditional male/female, homosexual/heterosexual dichotomies and others would prefer more fluidity along more continuous scales.

And this in turn relates to my larger point, which Natsu also nailed on the head:

"there is an issue in conducting research with the sole purpose of trying to find a distinction between the two genders by putting each subject into the "male group" or the "female group", because there really are no set of criteria which would allow people to be 100% male, or 100% female, and even if there were, there would be no group of individuals who would fit all the criteria."

 

There is indeed something to be gained from recognizing that individuals are different from one another and so may, among other things, respond differently to different therapeutic procedures (or educational environments). And to the extent that studies comparing "males" and "females" (or "homosexuals" and "heterosexuals") help us to appreciate individual variation, they are useful. But when they are conceived as (or understood as) validating the hypothesis that "males" and "females" (or "homosexuals" and "homosexuals") are different, the studies are simply bad science: the conclusion follows from dichotomous presumptions that determined the methods of data collection, and not from the observations themselves. In fact, what the observations themselves typically actually show is very large and continuous variation in both sample populations with at most small differences in population means.

As Natsu also points out, a doctor (or an educator) may find it useful to know about these small differences in population means when they first meet a patient (or a student), but it would be a serious mistake to treat (or educate) someone based on this information alone. One needs much more information about the individual than is available from their classification in any dichotomous scale. The situation, as usefully suggested during our discussion, is much the same as knowing whether someone is a left-hander or a right-hander. Different people may be in the dichotomous categories for different reasons, and there are lots of things for which knowing whether someone is left or right handed is irrelevant entirely.

kbrown's picture

Gender and Broken Brains

Hi everyone, thanks so much for participating in our discussion last tuesday.  I think that Alex and Jenna have summarized the questions still remaining with respect to gender and sexuality studies really well, but just to re-iterate, and aside from the interesting discussions that have been going on on the board on the gender spectra, I think a few questions that might promp more discussion are:

Whether discoveries of areas of the brain that correspond to sexuality can be used as a means of explaining homosexuality as a natural variation, or whether we cannot glean any conclusive information from these studies about homosexuality and its origin because of the extremely complicated nature of the interaction between genetic makeup, biology and social environment; whether cognitive studies of how males and females differ could augment our educational programs, or whether these simply maintain previously held stereotypes about male and female capabilities; whether gender-specific treatments for mental disorders lend validity to gender studies of the brain.

Another topic that I thought would be interesting to hear people speak about is in relation to our discussions of broken brains and mental disorders earlier in the semester.  Clearly the history of female psychology demonstrates that females were treated not as equals but as a group with distinctly inferior mental capabilities to that of men.  Obviously today there is a vast difference in how we view intelligence and ability, with women being respected as intellectual and world leaders.  How does the history of women's treatment in the field of psychology relate to the way in which we treat, say, people with autism?  Is this a fair analogy to make or are there inherent differences between the way females differed from what was considered to be the norm and the way that autistics are now seen as being somewhat disabled?

Thanks again guys!

Marissa Patterson's picture

Gender

Thanks for such a great topic and discussion!

I wanted to expand upon the idea Rebecca brought up about science and research (often) soley looking at male subjects. I was recently reading a book entitled Eve's Rib about the ways in which disease is different for females as compared to males, and how detrimental it is to only study males and then try to extrapolate that information back to women. Futhermore, doctors tended to take female complaints and reply condecendingly, saying something like "I've never heard of that" instead of validating their concern. However, occasionally over time these complaints are actually studied and it turns out that this "imaginary complaint" in fact is a result of a way by which a woman's body processes a medication differently than a man.

There has also been research done suggesting that the symptoms of a stroke or heart attack are different in men and women. The "typical" heart attack signs (chest pain radiating down the left arm) often do not occur in women. Instead they frequently have "only" generalized weakness and shortness of breath that many doctors discredit. Why is it that people (researchers, doctors, the media) insist on trying to generalize illness in one way? Everyone is different (think back to our beetle in the box discussion), with different genes and cultural backgrounds, and so it seems rediculous to me that these variations are frequently not studied in a research setting, or if they are and differences are found, they are explained as "normal progression" (of middle class white males) and "abnormal progression" (everyone else).

Another issue I have thought about before, particularly on the subject of a range of sexualities and genders, is something I have seen happen at Bryn Mawr. If a person who identifies as a female dates another person who also identifies as a female, most people would say that they are homosexual. But what if that second woman actually identifies as male and is (or may not even be) planning on transitioning genders. What does that mean for his partner? Is she still a lesbian since she is "technically" in a relationship with a female? These are not questions that can be answered because gender and sexuality are not as straightforward as the questions suggest. Particularly when thinking of terms of gender as coming from a self-identification as opposed to a concrete genetic/physical category, the lines get blurred and the situations messy. I think that even identifying on arange wouldn't clarify this example, because there are so many factors (each person, their relationship to each other, society, etc) that come into play.

aamen's picture

Hey guys, thanks for all

Hey guys, thanks for all the comments both in class and here on the forum.  I think the range of how people feel about treating sex as a binary vs. a continuous variable is really interesting to see.  I was wondering in addition how people feel about sexuality as a continuous variable vs. one with set categories (i.e. heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc.).  Obviously, like we talked about, current research already does at times recognize sexuality as a spectrum by asking people to place themselves on a scale from straight to gay.  Honestly to me sexuality is easier to fully conceptualize as a spectrum than sex/gender, but is there a reason for that?  What do other people think?  Also (as I think was mentioned in class), if we have people place themselves on a continuous scale, say a scale from 1-10, does that really just mean that we’re creating 10 discrete categories instead of 2, 3, etc., or do you think it would serve its purpose?

 

Also, like Jenna brought up, I’m still curious to know if people think that this research is worthwhile in terms of having some sort of applicable purpose.  If we can say that males seem to be better at spatial tasks than females, and are able to map that to an area of the brain/hormones, what does that really tell us?  It may mean that males overall are better at these tasks than females, but (especially considering the idea of sex as a spectrum) some females are bound to be better than males – so how might data like that be used in a helpful way?  Or, like Jenna said, will this just end up being used to cement social stereotypes (i.e. women are bad drivers)?

 

Just some things to think about…

natsu's picture

Looking at differences

Well it seems like our class discussion on binary vs spectrum has carried on to this forum!  From reading all the comments posted above, I feel like we might need some clarifications from Prof Grobstein about his argument; I seem to have a slightly different understanding of the argument from some of the other students... I didn't think the argument was that people don't or shouldn't identify themselves as one sex or the other.  Of course they do, and as Rebecca mentioned, there are some benefits of gender categorization such as the power to unite people of the same gender.  What I understood Prof Grobstein saying was that there is an issue in conducting research with the sole purpose of trying to find a distinction between the two genders by putting each subject into the "male group" or the "female group", because there really are no set of criteria which would allow people to be 100% male, or 100% female, and even if there were, there would be no group of individuals who would fit all the criteria.  

In the posts above and during our discussion, several people mentioned the benefits of studying gender differences using the binary gender model, because the findings may allow us to provide more appropriate treatments.  However, as I briefly mentioned during class I personally think it is so much more important for us to focus on why it is that there is a difference in the way different individuals benefit differently from a certain treatments. For instance, ebilter raised an example that a different diet may be more effective for males with high blood pressure while females may benefit more from a different medicinal option. If this was the case, I think it is really important to examine what it is about the certain male subjects in the study that makes them so much more responsive to a change in diet.  I can't imagine that it is just the title "male", so it must be something about the biological, psychological or habitual characteristics of the certain male subjects in the study that allowed them to benefit from the diet change.  If we could pin point what it is, then we can predict that females with this characteristic may also benefit from a change in diet, rather than the medicinal option.

Jenna's picture

Thanks for the interesting

Thanks for the interesting discussion in class and in the forum so far. As you think about this topic here are a few more questions to consider:

I agree with what has been said that most people would probably identify as female or male. That being true should research continue to treat these categories as different even though the variation within a sex is just as large as the variation between sexes? (in research for treatments, etc.)

A lot of research about sex differences focuses on cognitive differences. Is there any value to this research besides one sex being able to say "I'm better than you?"
If not, should this research continue to be done? Is it valuable to know which sex is better at certain tasks?

Should researchers be trying to find a biological basis for homosexuality? If there is a biological basis would this stop some of the prejudices against this group or promote more? Ultimately, does it matter if sexual orientation comes from biological or social influences?

Again, thanks for your discussion!
ebitler's picture

more arguments for Binary

I absolutely agree with Stephanie. The one thing that I kept thinking to myself over and over again during the discussion portion of class (which was focused on the issue of gender as a spectrum), is that I just can't imagine anyone marking on a 10 inch VAS scale that their gender is 6 inches to the left of male and 4 inches to the right of female. Unless of course that individual is a person who feels that they have the mind of a female and are trapped in a male's body. Thus the only real reason that I think gender would reflect a spectrum when self-reported along a scale would reflect sexuality or a mis-match of mind & body gender. But even in that situation it's important to realize that the trans-gender individual still identifies as having a "female" brain and a "male" body. It's one or the other (in my opinion). Just because a girl would be classifies as a tomboy for liking sports doesn't mean that she's any less of a female than the girl that likes to wear pink, frilly dresses. And she shouldn't report herself as such. If the physiology is so different within a gender as Paul suggested it may be, it still doesn't change the fact that in society we are raised as one or the other, and the environment has a huge (not 100%, but really really big) effect on our self classification of gender. Even those castrated-at-birth males considered themselves boys, just boys that "felt like" girls. And considering that our environmental learnings of gender largely reflect a gendered physiology, the gender "dichotomy" still works for me.

Additionally, despite all of the evidence that Paul mentioned (are there any studies as to the actual percentage of males walking around with uteri? I just can't imagine that it's more than a handful and really does represent a rare minority like Stephanie mentioned...) I still find any sort of practical application difficult to imagine. As Rebecca pointed out, it's hard enough sometimes to study two genders separately to ensure that conclusions drawn from the studies will be applicable to all individuals to whom they will be applied. Because females experience medications, pathologies, mental disorders, and the world in general differently than males, it's important to consider both a male and a female subject pool in any study where the two may be effected differently. And it's important to consider these differences when offering potential treatments for pathologies or mental disorders. For example changing diet may be more effective for males with high blood pressure while females may be more responsive to the medicinal options. Or CBT may be more useful for females suffering from OCD while medication may be more effective for males. To think of all genders on a spectrum would render all previous psychology and biology experiments that consider males and females separately useless, which I don't think they are. And the even bigger problem for me is that we would have to consider absolutely everything along the spectrum and consider every variable in relation to a point on that spectrum which I still believe is highly unreflective of commonplace biological differences (as opposed to social differences). So in the example I gave before, the person with OCD who's 6in from male and 4 from female, but has the general physiology of a male, would get what? The medication or the CBT first? All practical applications of the gender classification in research are lost on the individuals who rank themselves somewhere in the middle. OCD probably won't kill someone who tries the ineffective method first, but other conditions can. And for the physiological males that consider themselves to have a female mind (a hypothetical self rank of 8in from male and 2 from female) but don't have the cycling hormones and other female physiology, taking the "female" medicinal approach has the potential to be really dangerous.

I don't think it's unreasonable to start a few gender spectrum pilot studies to see what various ranks on a gender spectrum really reflect (I would predict that they would reflect the sexuality spectrum in the individuals not ranking according to their external physiology/environmental raising)... But because of all of the biological implications, I just can't bring myself to stray away from the 2-gender view for (what I believe to be) the uncommon exceptions.
Danielle's picture

Scientific studies reguarding gender are bias

The problem that I have with many of these studies, showing that the male and female brain are constructed and think differently, is that they push to find a correlation. As we have concluded from class, these conclusions and correlations are not so simply understood. The complexity lies in, what Professor Grobstein brought up as, a continuous spectrum of sexuality and gender. Not only do these studies base their results on male versus female, as two distinct categories, they do not consider the intermediate area between those women that are more male, and those men that are more female. Like was discussed in class, the science is bias to the societal view of male and female as being two distinct non-overlapping categories. I think that the science cannot be completely accurate until these social biases are dissolved. To make conclusions, I think that scientists use their preconceived notions regarding gender to influence their conclusions about male and female. I think it is important to understand that the science is run by dichotomous categories. I agree with Rebecca that the sex binary is not completely bad, but I think it plays a negative role in science. Socially, the clear division of the sexes is a reality, but in science I think that the gendered spectrum can be explored and can yield more concrete results about gender differences.

Stephanie's picture

Binary vs. Spectrum

This past week's discussion was very interesting and controversial.  I enjoyed the information concerning sex differences in the brain, in cognitive abilities, brain differences in sexuality, and sex differences in mental disorders that the group presented.  I think the information is valuable and applicable to many realms, including education, psychology, biology, and medicine.

Our primary topic of discussion: binary vs. spectrum way of viewing gender & sexuality- was very thought-provoking.  Personally, I can understand and believe that sexuality is best characterized on a spectrum rather than by two categories (homosexual vs. heterosexual).  However, I believe that gender is better thought of in a binary fashion.  Despite our lengthy discussion and arguments about why gender should be viewed on a spectrum, I personally believe there are two genders: male and female.  I think most people would identify themselves as one of those two genders and only a small amount of people would identify as neither or as somewhere in between these two genders (if there was a spectrum).  Although female bodies vary greatly in nature and male bodies vary in nature, I believe there is a general layout/ outline that the bodies of each gender follow.  Most of our bodies will fit into the male or female category.  Yes, there are a few exceptions that arise, such as individuals born w/ both male and female body parts, but these are exceptions- and this is not the case for most people.  So, I believe the binary categories of gender (male & female) work for most individuals, and I think even if you gave a spectrum of gender (with male at one end and female at the other end), that most individuals would identify themselves at the ends of the spectrum (either male or female extremes), and not in the middle of the spectrum.  When I talked w/ some friends outside of class about this, they definitely could only really envision gender in two categories- and we talked about how both girly-girls and tomboys both identify themselves as female, even though some may share more similar interests w/ males.  

I know that some people may disagree w/ my binary view of gender- however, I cannot justify a spectrum of gender to myself and I personally believe in using two genders: male and female b/c most people fit into these categories and would identify themselves as one of these categories.  Yes, there are some exceptions, and I acknowledge that- but these are exceptions that are rare in nature, and that I believe do not fit into the binary gender category.  But, for research purposes and medical purposes, I believe using 2 gender categories of male and female can be useful- as described by Alex in her presentation of different ways mental disorders manifest in different psychological disorders and how different treatment for each sex may be beneficial.  

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Rethinking the Binary

Thank you for a really great topic.

I'm taking a philosophy class right now called Feminist Theory, and in this post I'd like to use an example that we discussed in that class (and that I'm writing a term paper on!) of how the gender binary negatively impacts science. As a disclaimer, I missed the discussion on animal models in science, so I don't know if this topic has already been discussed. Our philosophy class has spent a lot of time talking about hard to pin down, hard to define, structural sexism in science and in other disciplines, something the Dean article alludes to. This example is one of many that shows this bias.

In science, sex is thought to be two binary categories, and though data may suggest otherwise, these two sexes are thought to be morphologically distinct. The supposition that these two sexes are inherently different would suggest that research should be done on them separately because they would react so differently to experimental variables (drug administration, surgeries, etc.) Considering that science admits and advocates this binary and acknowledges that both sexes would react differently to experiments in such a way that would confound data, why is it that primarily male subjects are used but then the results are extrapolated back to females without running the same tests on female subjects?

Examples of this are everywhere. One that's particularly relevent to humans is that many cases of heart attack and stroke in women are overlooked because women present differently, but those differences aren't known becuase the only data we have used primarily male test subjects. In other words, women were excluded from these trials because their female morphology was thought to be so different that it would confound the data, and yet in the same breath the scientific community then tried to apply the male data to the females. This is not only a contradiction, it creates harm by disadvantaging women from appropriate medical care. Additionally, in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, women were systematically excluded from clinical vaccine trials, and reserachers sited the binary to support this. The argument to exclude female test subjects of all species (including in my senior thesis on rat models of anxiety!) is that their hormonal cycles like the estrous cycle and the menstruel cycle will confound the data. The question that I'm curious to hear discussed is why the criteria used to exclude female subjects from testing don't either discourage the scientific community from extrapolating the data back to them, or encourage tests to be run on female subjects. It's a pervasive catch-22 in experimental design that affects all of us and, I think, produces stilted and biased data that's touted as universal. I think this is a real problem.


I have to say, it's very hard for me to hold in my mind the image of a society without this binary and simultaneously to recognize that this binary reinforces inequality and exclusion. I don't think that the sex binary is a wholly bad thing, just as I don't think that racial categories are a wholly bad thing. They have the capacity to unite groups of people in useful ways, but it's essential to examine how these categories negatively impact people as well. Even though it's difficult and uncomfortable to conceptualize a society without two discrete sex categories, I think that it's worth talking about, imagining about, and thinking about, if only because it might shed valuable light on the system we currently have.

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