Sociology of Sex, Beyond Two Sexes

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the concept of gender binary.
  2. Understand what components possibly determine if an individual is intersex.
  3. Evaluate sociologists views on gender non-conformity.

Gender Binary

One of the most basic understandings most people believe they have about reality is that of the gender binary, based on the idea that nature created two distinctly different and complementary sexes. Social institutions and norms have long upheld a traditional cisgendering of reality and a cisnormative view of the world that silences the experiences of non-binary individuals such as those with intersex or transgender experiences. Cisgender refers to people who conform to the gender binary and identify their gender as the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Therefore, cisnormativity is the concept that assumes all people should be and are cisgender, therefore silencing non-binary individuals and experiences. Religious and medical narratives, especially, have maintained a cisnormativity that people rarely reject. Religion, in particular, are teachings that many Americans live their day to day lives by and, “most contemporary religions teach some variant of an origin story wherein God created woman and man only, imbued each with mutually exclusive traits and responsibilities” (Sumerau, Cragun & Mathers, 2015, p. 3). Cisnormative interpretations of reality by institutions that are central to how people choose to understand their world have created a culture of cisnormativity that persists in today’s society. Some modern day cultures and languages, “don’t even have proper terminology to identify or label individuals who are not entirely ‘male’ or entirely ‘female’,” which, leads to the understanding of those individuals as wrong or deviant according to cisgender norms (Sumerau, Cragun & Mathers, 2015, p. 4).

Contemporary sociological literature has been arguing against this binary understanding since the 1970s. As intersex and transgender individuals’ voices have been joining mainstream media and literature, feminist sociologists have increasingly described a gender non-binary reality. Intersex people do not fit into the gender binary.  Intersex people are individuals born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies”. Such variations may involve genital ambiguity and combinations of chromosomal genotype and sexual phenotype other than XY-male and XX-female. Many sociologists, biologists, and other researchers have been looking into and learning about these experiences more and more to support academic advances in the social construction of gender and the non-binary reality of society.

Social Construction of Sex

Anne Fausto-Sterling is one of the leading biologists conceptualizing sex as a socially constructed term. Fausto-Sterling argues that the belief that sex is completely biologically determined is not the absolute truth. In fact, society’s decision to assign a sex label to humans at all is a socially constructed decision, meaning that society decided to create these labels and create them with only two categories, male and female. Biology did not come up with sex labels, humans did. Fausto-Sterling asserts that, “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision. We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender–not science–can define our sex” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, p. 3). The reality is, scientists and medical professionals use a socially agreed upon set of guidelines to determine what they believe the sex of a newborn child is. Even then, these ‘scientific guidelines’ become a moot point in certain situations, for example, a child born with intersex features that do not fit what is traditionally understood as ‘male’ or ‘female.’ The is no biologically ascribed factor for medical professionals to make a decision on “where the category of ‘male’ ends and the category of ‘intersex’ begins, or where the category of ‘intersex’ ends and the category of ‘female’ begins. Humans decide” (Intersex Society of North America, 2008). These biological determinisms medical professionals choose to use to determine sex come already influenced by their social understandings of gender.

Based off the sex criteria that others see on the outside, as well as the way people present themselves, society assigns everyone a sex category. We, as humans, assume other’s sex based off how they display themselves to others like how they look, talk, eat, and interact with others and the world around them. These identificatory displays that West and Zimmerman (1987) discuss lead us to interpret one’s performance of their gender and therefore, assign them a sex category that matches. Their sex category, in turn, puts expectations on people on how they are supposed to act and what society excepts out of them. However, “it is possible to claim membership in a sex category even when the sex criteria are lacking” (West & Zimmerman, 1987, p. 127). This can sometimes be the case for intersex individuals whose gender displays do not necessarily match their medically assigned sex or their sex characteristics. This is just another way in which society defines both our sex and our gender by the way they perceive our sex category and identificatory displays.

Although there is still general discomfort regarding the gender non-binary reality, sociological advances regarding the social construction of sex and gender have begun to change how modern society approaches non-binary individuals. This progressive change can be seen through the history of treatment of intersexed individuals, especially by the medical community.

Intersex conditions have always existed but were further legitimized in the 20th century with the discovery of sex chromosomes. The Hopkins model, introduced by John Money in the 1950s, quickly became the most accepted medical model in the treatment of intersexed bodies. The Hopkins model is rooted in the idea that nurture, rather than nature, was the sole force responsible for gender development. John Money and his followers believed that regardless of physical appearance or biological sex, if you raise your child with strict gender guidelines, they will grow up as gender conforming individuals. For intersex infants, the “optimum gender of rearing” was enforced which asserted that parents and medical professionals should settle on a gender assignment for their intersex child earlier rather than later so that they could nurture the child into a “good” girl or boy. This idea supported the use of cosmetic genital surgeries “to get the bodies of patients to do what they thought was necessary not just for physical health, but for psycho-social health” (Intersex Society of North America, 2008). These surgeries were many times done without parent consent and sometimes went undisclosed to both children and their families. The effect of usage of the Hopkins model ended in traumatic ways for many of the intersex population.

However, feminist critiques of these types of medical interventions on intersex bodies began to come to light and a movement towards intersex rights began drawing attention to the social construction of sex and gender. Medical professionals began being criticized for the way that they were treating intersex individuals, especially after when John Money was exposed for falsifying “data to uphold his gender theory, which in turn was harmfully used to justify surgical interventions on intersex bodies” (Davis, 2015, p. 56). As intersex began being understood differently due to this doubt of medicine and the strengthened presence of sociological knowledge, confusion arose on what the optimal care regimen should be for those born with ambiguous sex. Today intersex is beginning to be seen as a relatively common anatomical variation from the “standard” male and female types; just as skin and hair color vary along a wide spectrum, so does sexual and reproductive anatomy. Intersex is neither a medical nor a social pathology.

Changing the medical and social narratives surrounding gender non-conformity will be a long-term goal for many contemporary sociologists, gender specialists, intersex individuals, and society as a whole. Management of intersexuality should not remain exclusively on medical turf as sex is no longer understood exclusively as a biological or medical construct. With no documented evidence that “corrective” surgeries are beneficial or even necessary for intersex individuals, feminist scholarship must continue to infiltrate medical scholarship to eradicate surgical interventions on perfectly healthy and normal gender non-binary human beings.

Key Takeaways

  • Gender Binary is restrictive and does not allow for the experiences of many individuals
  • Early medical treatment for intersexed individuals is no longer seen as a best practice.

Self Check


Works Cited

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. (2016) Gender Development. Retrieved from

Davis, Georgiann. (2015). Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. (2000). Dueling Dualisms. In Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (Chapter 1). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Intersex Society of North America. (2008). Frequently Asked Questions.Retrieved from

Kane, Emily W. (2006). “NO WAY MY BOYS ARE GOING TO BE LIKE THAT!” Parents’ Responses to Children’s Gender Nonconformity. Gender & Society, 20(2), 149–176. doi: 10.1177/0891243205284276

Sumerau, J. E., Cragun, Ryan T., and Mathers, Lain A. B. (2015). Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality. Social Currents, 1–19. doi: 10.1177/2329496515604644

West, Candace and Zimmerman, Don H. (1987). Doing Gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125-151. doi: 10.1177/0891243287001002002


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