Thursday, 5 May 2011

A Continuous Quantitative Theory of Sex, Gender and Sexuality

In this post, I will be sketching an idea that I have been toying with for some time. It connects to recent discussions in queer theory, criticism of so-called heteronormativity and suggestions about introducing a "third sex". My basic take is that I am sympathetic to this direction of thought, but I find it to be vulnerable to the same sort of criticism that it usually wields against its intended target. Therefore, I present a skeleton version of a theory of sex, gender and sexuality that would avoid this problem. I would like to stress that I make no claim to originality – too preoccupied with my duties as manager and researcher in various projects, I have had no time to thoroughly scan the gender theoretical and biopolitical debate for suggestions of the sort I here try to describe. If you know of one – I'm quite happy to be alerted!

1. Background
At least since Judith Butler's questioning of the sex-gender distinction, the sex categories as naturally given and the ensuing wave of so-called queer theory (but really the tendency can be found already in Mary Wollstonecraft's classic A Vindication of the Rights of Women from 1792), there has been a wave of proposals for refining the taxonomies used for classifying people in terms of sex/gender/sexuality. Whatever one may think of Butler's style of writing, and her philosophical underpinnings (I, for one, is not a big fan), it is hard to resist her central point: Just as gender (i.e. social norms and expectations attached to sexual classification) is a social phenomenon informed by normative assumptions open for questioning, our classifications of each other in terms of sex and sexuality are (collectively) chosen as a response to a normative assessments of surrounding conditions - natural as well as social – that may be questioned. Moreover, our perceptions of what natural and social circumstances there are and whether or not we can change them are often mistaken and, when correct, open for revision in light of, e.g., technological development.

This, of course, is not to deny that given a specific taxonomy of, say, sex, certain people will belong to sex-category A, B or C whatever they or other people may think about it – in that sense sex-category membership may well be an "objective" fact (I choose to square-quote this term mainly because it is used in so many, often not very clarified senses). In another (stronger) sense, however, such membership need not be objective (or as some would like to have it, "essential"), since (a) it may be possible for people to change class (e.g. by transsexual surgery), and (b) we may adopt another taxonomy with completely different classes without losing our ability to truthfully describe the world. On my read, what Butler's point boils down to is that this choice of taxonomy is not given by nature and rests on certain perceptions of circumstances and normative assumptions that may all be critically assessed. Now, among some queer theorists or queer theoretically inspired activists, it sometimes sounds as if this embedded normativity implies some sort of "anything goes" position. This is a mistake. Butler's as well as the queer theoretical basic take is social constructivist, according to which certain facts are determined by variable social factors (familiar examples of such facts are, e.g., the facts that a dollar bill is money, that some street has a certain name, that homosexuality is not a disease, and so on). This does not imply that there are no grounds for critically assessing those factors from a normative standpoint. E.g., it was such an assessment that eventually led to the 1973 abolishment of homosexuality as a diagnostic category in psychiatry. What it implies is, rather, that any suggestion as to what taxonomies to apply in order to create a basis for determining social facts, needs to be backed up by arguments, some of which need to be normative. Getting from that idea to the "anything goes" position would require a whole package of peculiar metaethics demonstrating that normative issues can in no way be assessed rationally. That, of course, would also include such positions on social justice normally wielded or assumed by gender or queer theorists. Any such metaethical theory would be highly controversial and, in fact, most developed metaethical theories today acknowledge that a warranted such theory needs to be able to account for the apparent possibility of rational argument on ethical and other normative issues.

2. The Third Sex/Gender Idea
Apparently, it is also such considerations of social justice that motivate recent suggestions of trying to introduce in contemporary Western societies a "third" gender or sex. The idea is, basically, that there are many people who suffer harm and injustices due to not fitting current socially endorsed taxonomies of gender, sex or sexuality and that this fact provides a reason for introducing a richer palette of categories in these respects. That is, it is not given that the addition of one extra category would be enough. In 1993, Anne Fausto-Sterling famously suggested that five sex-categories would be needed. Anthropological and sociological research has revealed that around the world and through history there are plenty of examples of socially endorsed gender/sex/sexuality taxonomies applying three, four, five or even more categories. The harm and injustices referred to include enforced genital surgery, enforced psychological conditioning, socio-economic discrimination, parent-, teacher- and peer-group degradation, and so on. The recent wave of queer theory has particularly held out the effects on the self-image, self-respect and social identity of people not fitting well into the established taxonomy.

Now, basically, I find the general tendency of this reasoning to be quite sound. How we choose to (publicly) categorise each other in a society needs to be based on sound ethical grounds and the cases highlighted by the effects on people of rigid sex/gender/sexuality taxonomies being endorsed by society reveal that there are ethical reasons for considering revisions of the current societal stance on this matter. In fact, these reasons seem to hold more or less no matter what exact minimally plausible basic ethical theory is applied – all such theories support the principle that we should not harm or force people, or treat them unequally, unless there is a good reason for it. And there seems to be no good reason for society to enforce any particular rigid sex/gender/sexuality taxonomy – in fact, most such enforcements seem to be arbitrary and based mainly on unreflected habit or custom. Note that, even with a very rich taxonomy, restrictive views in sexual ethics – such as the one advocated in official Roman Catholic doctrine – are possible to formulate. Sexual ethical views, however, are about which sex/gender/sexuality types in any taxonomy that can morally engage in what sexual acts. Ergo, they provide no reason for enforcing a public taxonomy that harm people – at best, they support the claim that a plausible such taxonomy should include the types they speak about. This, however, is compatible with having a taxonomy that contains many other categories as well.

3. Criticism of the Third Sex/Gender Idea
However, plausible as this direction of thought may seem, it still rests on the assumption that a good and just society should enforce some public taxonomy of sex/gender/sexuality categories. I agree that such a need may seem apparent as long as we avoid looking beyond the attitudes and needs of people created by the fact that our societies enforce such taxonomies. As long as such an enforcement is the case, people will have the need of adjusting to the fact that their society recognizes and endorses certain categories of people in terms of sex, gender and sexuality, but not others. However, this actually exposes a fundamental weakness of the third sex/gender suggestion – namely that whatever taxonomy is publicly enforced, some people will be forced to accommodate to it in spite of not really fitting any category. That is, the third sex/gender idea seems to be vulnerable to similar criticism as the one motivating this idea in the first place.

This vulnerability is due to the feature of the third (fourth, fifth...) sex/gender idea that it shares with the traditionally Western taxonomy of two sexes/genders the property of being a classic qualitative taxonomy, built on the binary notion of membership/non-membership of some of a number of classes (sets). As a consequence, if you don't fit into any of the classes, you basically have no sex/gender.

4. The Idea of a Continuous Quantitative Theory
The basic contrast between the just described type of taxonomy and a continuous quantitative theory is the following. The classic qualitative taxonomy is made up by a number of qualitatively defined sets (in the technical sense). If an entity meets the criteria for being a member of some such set, it is such a member and if not, it isn't. Another way of expressing this is that, according to this sort of taxonomy, the variable sex/gender/sexuality has a finite number of so-called attributes (or values). A continuous quantitative theory, in contrast, relate entities not to the membership/non-membership of a collection of sets, but to what values they attain on a number of continuous variables or dimensions. These variables/dimensions may (and in the present case, should – see below) be manifold, and (most important), they have an infinite number of attributes/values. The easiest way of expressing this is to say that, for any such variable, a random entity may attain any value between two whole numbers, such as 0 and 1 (or 0 and 100, or....). An example of continuous variables are, e.g., the various established scales for temperature. 

Now, to have a theory of sex/gender/sexuality built according to this blueprint, we obviously need to select and describe what variables are to be included and what determines what values various entities attain on these variables. If we are going to avoid the objection against the classically qualitative sex/gender/sexuality taxonomies, as indicated, the number of such variables need to be quite high. Moreover, it is quite likely that most of these variables will describe micro- or sub-structures of the human body or behavioural repertoire, rather than those sorts of "middle-sized" features focused on in the traditional type of taxonomies. To specify what determines the value that an entity attains on any such variable, some qualitative ingredients are needed – just as when, on the Cecius scale, we define 100° as the point to which, e.g., a certain amount of mercury contained in a tube of a certain perimeter rises when this tube is placed in boiling water in a certain atmospheric pressure for a minimal amount of time. However, we need not go that far – we can simply say that the value on another (or several other) continuous variable(s) determines the value of the variable we focus on – just as the average speed of molecules of a substance determines its temperature.

So, let us take the example of sex to begin with. The starting point is that sex is to be seen not as a collection of sets or a discrete or binary variable, but as a continuous one. Let us therefore first assume: Sex = the property of attaining a value on the variable S [0.....1] – where the block parenthesis describes the range of values possible for this variable.

It now follows that there is an infinite number of sexes that a being may have. One may be 0.23, another 0.00000043, yet another 0.7 – and so on. This, however, tells us nothing about what determines such values. So let us consider some seemingly plausible suggestions of the types of variables that may perform this function. What sex a being has depends on (among other things):

a) The size and shape of certain cell-types assembled in (and inside) the genital area (examples would be, e.g., the presence of a uterus or a penis or a clitoris of a certain size and shape, but less clear examples also have ample room to determine what sex one belongs to).
b) The production-level of certain basic bodily substances (hormones, various gene-products)
c) The presence of certain combinations of genetic components (here, we may also take into account how much these components are present and activated in relation to the entire cell-mass).

I'm sure that several other variable types may be thought of, but these three seem to be obviously related to our common sense notions of what sex-membership may be about. Remember also that these are variable types – under each of them we may have a very large number of actual variables, the values of which influence the sex of a particular being. So, already here – the theory is quite rich, flexible and full of nuances. In any case, to have a complete theory, one thing is obviously missing: We need some sort of formula for how values on the variables under a)-c) in various combinations translate to a value on the variable S. One way of starting to approach this issue would be to postulate the following:
If a being attains the value of 0 on every variable influencing the value of S, then this being's value on S = 0.

If a being attains the value of 1 on every variable influencing the value of S, then this being's value on S = 1.
That is, in these two cases, the being's sex is 0 and 1 respectively. Other than that, however, I will not here propose any further specification. It suffices to note that there is an infinite number of values of S onto which various combinations of values of the relevant variables in between the two extreme cases mentioned above may be mapped.

On the basis of a theory of sex of this type, we may then go on to formulate similar theories of gender and sexuality. So, in the case of gender, we would have a continuous variable where sex-membership and various behavioural and attitudinal variables determine what gender a being has. In the case of sexuality, both the sex and gender theories may be combined with variables regarding things as erotic attraction, tendency to fall in love, willingness to engage in sexual activity, and so on, in order to determine values on a continuous quantitative variable of sexuality. When we're done, a person's answer to questions in this are may look like this (all these numbers are here taken out of thin air, of course):
What sex are you? – 0.4371
What gender are you? – 0.1435
What is your sexual orientation? – 0.867

Moreover, every person will have a belonging and an identity in all of these dimensions! 

5. Objections and Reflections
Obviously, according to the theory just outlined, no one will be a man or a woman, no one will be masculine or feminine and no one will be hetero-, bi- or homosexual. Such crude categories may be linked to the theory by those who find it important, though, by arbitrarily selecting certain intervals of the values on the variables of sex, gender and sexuality. However, the theory does not imply any such linkage to be either true/correct or false/incorrect – these are additions to the fabric of reality regarding sex, gender and sexuality that are not themselves parts of that reality. They are, at best, linguistic tools that some people may feel important to use. But, it may be asked, isn't this a substantial cultural cost?

The answer to this question depends on how it is framed. First, remember that the continuous quantitative theory has a major advantage from an inclusion, identity and recognition perspective: there is a place for everyone, just as they are. Second, remember that I have never proposed that society should impose this theory, or that we should switch to it in one go. I acknowledge that our perception of our sex, the social roles and ideals we attach to it and our sexual leanings and preferences are important ingredients in life and, since the rigid qualitative taxonomies in these areas have been around for so long, just casting them off would probably be painful and difficult to achieve in a coordinated manner. However, these are questions about method, not about whether or not, if we managed to start looking at the world through the spectacles of the continuous quantitative theory, would have a better world. I claim that we would, at least in the respect that our culture would be more inclusive and fair. How we get there is a practical question that the theory by itself does not answer.

Also, remember that all moral ideas today entertained with respect to sex, gender and sexuality may be readily formulated on the basis of the continuous quantitative theory, they just have to be reformulated a bit. So for example a moral ban on sex between adults and children would simple be expressed as the ban on the acting out of sexuality x – y (where "x –y" signifies the interval of values on the sexuality variable capturing the preference of engaging in the behaviour that is banned). In laws, education, et cetera, we may want to express it in more simpler terms, using crude category terms such as "child" and "adult", but as mentioned that is perfectly possible to do on the basis of the continuous quantitative theory. But, in fact, the more exact formulation would in fact make more clear what's so wrong about sexual molestation of children – since the values of the variables determining this sexuality would describe in stark detail what is involved in such activities.

However, let me share this guess. If we were successful in changing our theoretical-cultural spectacles in the way indicated, I suspect that many norms and values surrounding sex, gender and sexuality that we hold in a more or less habitual or culturally inherited way would actually start to lose their attraction to many people. For example, the idea that men shouldn't really wear bras, women's dresses, and so on in public (a very common idea, in spite of the populatrity of drag shows, Dame Edna and such). This since, I suspect, when formulating this opinion through our new spectacles, we see more clearly that, at best, this is a phenomenon among many that happens not to agree so well with our personal aesthetic preferences. This is no different to, e.g., food we happen to not like, houses or streets we find ugly or repulsive, and so on. There is nothing deeper than that and we are helped to see that by the theory, since it doesn't trick our intellect with apparent (but false) opposites, like "man" and "women's". This, of course, is just one example of very many.