I’ve been working for a while to come up with a theory of sex, gender, and sexuality that accounts for the wide variation seen in the world. This work has been done primarily through responses to specific issues, or viewpoints—often with my personal experience thrown into the mix. However, I haven’t done much to collect my positions and unify them into a theory of everything (so long as it’s related to gender). So, allow me to take a second and do that:
Sex, gender and sexuality are overarching concepts that provide a structure for thinking about various sets of multivalent descriptive categories and their relationships to each other. Membership in these categories is interpreted in different ways in different contexts, and it varies along multiple lines—many of which are not easily measured objectively. As a result, individuals—as those with the most information—should be trusted to know best which categories they belong to.
Ok, what the heck does that mean?Let’s start by seeing how it plays out with regard to sex.
First thing’s first: you don’t have a sex is the way that most people think they have a sex. Your sex is not *a* thing. Your sex is actually a label for a collection of physical states of affairs. Some of these are visible, and some are invisible. Some of these are measurable, and some are not measurable—at least without specific medical tests, exploratory surgery, or analysis of your brain after you’re dead.
Your sex only appears to be *a* thing because the various states of affairs that make up your sex almost always align uniformly in one of two ways: male, or female. This binary vision of sex is accurate in most contexts, which is why your sex is assigned based on whether your genitals appeared to match those of a typical male or female at birth.
However, the appearance of your external genitalia is just one of the many states of affairs that make up your sex. Commonly accepted states of affairs that relate to sex are: chromosomes, internal genitalia, external genitalia, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. While these states of affairs typically line up perfectly with the categories male or female, there are a variety of intersex conditions that result from them not lining up perfectly. Some intersex conditions are noticed at birth, and some aren’t noticed until puberty. Still other intersex conditions aren’t noticed until individuals have fertility concerns, and some can even go unnoticed for someone’s entire life.
Recently, evidence has started to emerge that suggests that additional states of affairs related to sex might be found in your brain and other less stereotypically “sexed” places–even before the introduction of sex hormones etc. In this sense, it might be possible to have female, male, or intersex brain states regardless of your other physical states of affairs related to sex.
Regardless, the physical states of affairs that make up your sex vary depending on the context in which it is being discussed, and the information available. This is where multivalence comes in. “Multivalent” means “having or susceptible to many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values.” Because sex is not *a* thing, it requires some degree of interpretation.
For example, which states of affairs count when it comes to determining whether someone is female, male, intersex, etc.? Some people might include all sexually dimorphic traits in their list, while others might only focus on a couple of them. This difference in interpretations leads to differences in what it means to people for someone to be female, male, intersex, etc.
All this is to say, your sex is not *a* thing, it’s a multivalent descriptive category, and chances are you are a better judge of your sex than others—because you are likely privy to information about yourself others do not have. Most likely, others perceive your sex the same way that you do, because the traits that make up your sex almost always align, but that may not be the case.Moving on to gender.
Like your sex, your gender is not *a* thing. Your gender is actually a label for a collection of mental, behavioral and social states of affairs.1 And, like your sex, your gender only appears to be *a* thing because the various states of affairs that make up your gender almost always align uniformly in one of two ways: boy/man, or girl/woman.
In fact, sex and gender are often thought to be coextensive—someone assigned male at birth is automatically assumed to be a boy/man and someone assigned female at birth is automatically assumed to be a girl/woman. This stance is enabled by the fact that sex and gender almost always line up perfectly, and the fact that significant social pressure is put on people to conform with the expectations of the gender associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.
However, not only does your gender not always align with your sex, individual aspects of your gender may not align perfectly with each other. For example: your gender identity and your gender expression may not be in complete agreement.
When we talk about gender identity, we typically talk about it as encompassing various states of affairs related to how you perceive your gender. In other words, your gender identity is the gender you understand yourself to be. Gender expression then encompasses the various states of affairs related to how you express your gender. In other words, your gender expression is the gender you communicate to others through your actions, behaviors and demeanor.
Gender identity is often represented as a spectrum ranging from man to woman, while gender expression is often represented as a spectrum ranging from masculine to feminine. It is entirely possible for you to find yourself at completely different spots on these spectrums—for example, you might be a feminine man, or a masculine woman etc.
However, this sort of breakdown is still an oversimplification of a myriad of states of affairs. There is no one thing that it is to “be a man” or “be a woman” or even to “be masculine” or “be feminine.” These things are not fixed points—they change depending on the culture, the era, social status, personal attitudes and experience etc. This fact leaves some question as to what any given point on the spectrum even means. Ultimately this question is one you have to answer for yourself, and that decision is highly contextual to you as an individual.
All this is to say, your gender is not *a* thing, it’s a multivalent descriptive category, and chances are you are a better judge of your gender than others—because you are likely privy to information about yourself others do not have. Most likely, others perceive your gender the same way that you do, because the traits that make up your gender almost always align, but that may not be the case.Finally, sexuality.
Those who have caught onto the pattern likely know what’s coming next. Your sexuality is not *a* thing. Your sexuality is actually a label for a collection of erotic and romantic states of affairs. Your sexuality only appears to be *a* thing because the various states of affairs that make up your sexuality are often categorized in one of two ways: heterosexual, or homosexual.
However, as more effort has been put into studying sexuality, this idea of most people falling neatly into the categories “heterosexual” or “homosexual” has been called into question. An early (and famous) example of this can be found in the Alfred Kinsey’s Kinsey Scale. Kinsey, along with many subsequent researchers, found that human sexuality involves multiple different factors and evolves over time.
This fact should be obvious. It’s even present in the widely accepted concept of having a type. This way of thinking about attraction belies our basic understanding that people can be attracted to a variety of physical and personality traits in others. In fact, it is not all that uncommon for someone to have more than one type. Nor is it uncommon for someone to occasionally be interested in someone who is not, broadly speaking, their type.
You can be attracted to or romantically interested in others for a variety of reasons including their personality, secondary sex characteristics, interests/hobbies, attractiveness, intelligence etc. The list of things that might factor into your sexuality is long and covers a vast swath.
All this is to say, your sexuality is not *a* thing, it’s a multivalent descriptive category, and chances are you are a better judge of your sexuality than others—because you are likely privy to information about yourself others do not have. Most likely, others perceive your sexuality the same way that you do, but that may not be the case
And there you have it, a theory of everything (so long as it’s related to gender).
1There is good reason to believe that these states of affairs are ultimately physical states of affairs, but measurement of them is limited at best, so we’ll stick to the physical vs mental/behavioral/affective distinction as generally accepted when discussing sex and gender.