In what ways can we think about the sexed body as socially constructed?

In order for us to examine the ways in which the sexed body could be perceived as socially constructed we must first illustrate what we mean by the term “sexed body”. Physical sex is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions”. Whether a new-born baby is labelled as male or female is largely dependent on their genitalia (amongst other physiological characteristics), presence of a penis and testes in a new-born would be determined as a “male” and presence of ovaries, cervix and vagina indicate the new-born to be “female”. On the face of it, it would seem clear that the body is “sexed” purely due to physiological and biological features however when a baby is born with ambiguous genitalia that fit neither of the “male” or “female” definitions then it poses many questions including whether the notion of “male” and “female” are socially constructed. In this essay I am going to examine the ways in which the sexed body can be seen as a construct of the society in which we live and also the view that is a result of biology.

Biological determinism is a theory often referred to when talking about the notion of physical sex; the approach believes that the biological and physiological differences of a male and a female are the reasons behind why men and women maintain the different roles and positions in society that they do. The theory also concludes that naturally there are only two sexes, male and female. Biologically speaking an individual is classified as male if they possess an XY chromosome pair, have male internal (epididymis) and external (penis and scrotum) genitalia and high levels of male sex hormones (testosterone). To be classed as a female an individual must have an XX chromosome pair, high levels of oestrogen and progesterone, and have female internal (vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus and fallopian tubes) and external (clitoris and labia) genitalia (Alison Stone, 2007).

The amygdala is a small mass of cells located within the temporal lobes of the brain and is responsible for emotions amongst other things. This almond-shaped shaped grey matter has scientifically been found to be of a larger size in women than in men (Goldstein et al. 2001) and this is said to be the reason why women are supposedly more emotional than men and have more emotional reactions to certain situations. One could suggest that the difference in volume of the amygdala in men and women is evidence that the differences of the two sexes is an effect of biology and has not been socially constructed. Although, after looking further into this analysis, knowing that the brain is a dynamic and altering organ (Kolb, B., Gibb R. 2011), one could suggest that the contrasting socialisations of females and males is the cause of the emotional disparity between the two sexes and as a result, the brain has adapted itself to fit the social expectations of emotional differences in the sexes. For example, women’s emotional identities are shaped and influenced by the ideas that they are supposed to show emotion and that it is perfectly okay for them to cry whereas men are taught that if they cry or show emotion then it is a sign of them being weak. Hence this leads us to the conclusion that sexing of the bodies and implying that there are marked differences between the brains of the two different sexes is due to the contrasting ways that males and females are socialised by our society.

Following on from the debate surrounding biological differences of sexed bodies, we can look at the work by Friedman (2013); Blind Sameness: Sexpectations and the Social Construction of Male and Female Bodies. In her chapter, Polarization, she writes “Polarizing grooming practices create sex differences where there are none “naturally” or significantly exaggerate subtle differences thus reducing the proportion of human commonalities male and female bodies would otherwise share” (Friedman 2013: 82). Here she is suggesting that polarisation of our societal grooming habits succeeds in creating disparities between supposedly male and female bodies. She discusses different body parts that naturally would not be seen as specifically sexed because biologically and physiologically they are alike however we have created dissimilarity of them through social norms and practices. For instance, Friedman (2013) describes the “ungroomed body” and the “groomed body” and on the “ungroomed body” eyebrows have no characteristics that are different on a male or a female body and hence they could not possibly be biologically sexed. However, on the “groomed body” in the majority of cases it is certain that one could tell the difference between “male” and “female” eyebrow, this is because in our society there are polarising norms that suggest male and female bodies should not look the same. Furthermore, females are socialised and taught to look after their bodies, to pluck and shape their eyebrows and to pay exceptional attention to their personal grooming and hygiene whereas males are not and many men who do take part in these practices are often ridiculed and stigmatised. Thus indicating that a sharp division between the physical male body and the physical female body has been established by our society and effectively leading to the social construction of the sexed body.

Until now this essay has largely been focussed on the disparities or lack thereof between male and female bodies. And also whether they have been identified as either male or female as a result of them having distinct physiological characteristics or because our societal norms, values, beliefs and conceptions have constructed them to appear this way. However, this response to the essay title could be criticised for not considering human beings who are born intersex or whose bodies do not fit in to these two binary oppositions as well as variations in sex amongst difference cultures. A person who is born intersex has genitals and other sexual characteristics that are ambiguous and cannot be defined as singularly male or female. For example, they may have external male genitals but an XX chromosome pair typical of female DNA.

Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) writes profusely on this subject in her book, Sexing the body: gender politics and the construction of sexuality, to paraphrase, she discusses how when a baby is born with ambiguous sexual features and genitalia then medical guidelines (typically in western Europe and the United States of America) state that the baby must receive treatment/surgery in order for them to be one specific sex and this must be done with twenty-four hours of the baby being born (Fausto-Sterling 2000). The fact that human beings are sometimes naturally born intersex and there are approximately 65,000 species of animals that are also intersex (Auld. J., Jarne, P. 2006) poses the question of why there is considerable weight placed on the importance of a new-born intersex baby being assigned and raised as either categorically male or categorically female and whether these two sexes have been socially constructed by our society. Expanding on this, it could be argued that our society has created and reinforced the idea that if you do not conform to being all male or all female then you are abnormal and something must be done to correct this, since it is clear biologically speaking, that there can be gradations of sex and that a person could be anywhere on a scale between male and female. Therefore, adding weight to the notion that not only has the supposed differences between male and female bodies been socially constructed but also the concept that the physical body must comply with these narrow definitions of sex and fit clearly into our socially constructed two-sex system.

Fausto-Sterling (2000) goes as far to say that surgery carried out on intersex children that forces their sexually ambiguous bodies to comply with our societal need for a strict two-sex system is outright genital mutilation. She considers this practice unjust for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the baby is having this choice forced upon them and obviously due to its age it cannot give its consent to this life-changing surgery that will supposedly “cure” them; it also completely eliminates any chance of the child having autonomy over their own body and sex when they are old enough to do so. It could be argued that this cruel, unnecessary surgery is a consequence of the social construction of sexed bodies and if we did not have this intolerant system that requires conformity to the two-sex system then this surgery, that often causes more harm than good, would not have to take place.

In response to the social construction of the sexed bodies and effects of the two-sex system, Fausto-Sterling (1993) proposed a five-sex system in which there are gradations of sex and that intersex babies are not required to have reassignment surgery. Including males and females, this system also incorporates “Herms” who are true hermaphrodites that have one ovary and one testis, “merms” who are named after male pseudo-hermaphrodites and have no ovaries but a combination of other male and female genitalia and “ferms” who are female pseudo-hermaphrodites and have no testes but do have ovaries and other male genitalia. Many scholars and academics were shocked by this proposal and rejected it however there are many societies and cultures around the world that have a variety of different sexes and biological evidence of being born with ambiguous sexual characteristics surely demonstrates that sexed bodies and binaries have been socially constructed by our society and it makes sense to operate on the basis of a five-sex system. So why is the idea of implicating this in our society regarded as so abhorrent?

Following on from Fausto-Sterling’s (1993) proposal of a five-sex system we can look at the findings of Margaret Mead (2001), an anthropologist who studied three different cultures in Papua New Guinea, the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli. She found that these cultures all had a different expectation of how the people were to act in a sexed way. For example, the Arapesh required all people regardless of genitalia or sexual characteristics to act in a typically feminine manner, whereas the Mundugumor had the opposite expectation. And finally the Tchambuli people, males acted like females and females acted like males (western Europe/US understanding of females and males). There are clear cultural variations across the world of different interpretations of what it means to be a certain sex and how that certain sex should act, hence this strengthens my conclusion that the sexed body is a construct of society.

On a final note, it is important to appreciate the many implications of the arguments that I have discussed in this essay regarding the social construction of sexed bodies. Despite having a number of criticisms, the biological determinism theory, could easily become a justification for sexual discrimination. For example, females could be denied certain opportunities on the grounds that they are biologically and physiologically proven to be too emotional to cope with certain situations. Furthermore, to add weight to the argument that the sexed body is a construct of society, it is worth mentioning that if sex is not formulated by our culture then surely around the world, in all societies, from France to the Philippines, there would be the same amount of sexes, every single person would fit in to sex binaries and what it means to be a certain sex would be entirely universal.

Author: Georgina Lord


Auld, J., Jarne, P. (2006) Animals mix it up too: the distribution of self-fertilization among hermaphroditic animals. Evolution, 60(9): 1816-1824.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (1993) The five sexes: why male and female are not enough. The Sciences, 33(2), 20-24.

Friedman, A. (2013) Blind sameness: sexpectations and the social construction of male and female bodies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Goldstein, J, Seidman, L., Horton, N., Makris, N., Kennedy, D., Caviness, V., Faraone, V. and Tsuang, M. (2001) Normal sexual dimorphism of the adult human brain assessed by in vivo magnetic resonance imaging. Cerebral cortex, 11(6), 490-497.

Kolb, B., Gibb, R. (2011) Brain plasticity and behaviour in the developing brain. Journal of Canadian Academic Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 20(4), 265–276.

Mead, M. (2001) Sex and temperament: In three primitive societies. New York: HarperCollins.

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