What is gender? Part 3: Gender as subconscious sex

This post is the third in a series on What is gender? Click here to read the first post, or here to return to the previous post.


The conversation on “gender as subconscious sex.”


For transsexual persons, their assigned and determined sex are more straightforward. The doctors see a majority of sexed characteristics lining up one way, and so they assign gender based on that sex. For a male-to-female transsexual like myself, a rigorous medical evaluation of my body would probably conclude that my primary sexual characteristics at birth  – chromosomes and genitals – are male-typical. So I am, by most definitions of determined sex, a male. The doctors assigned my sex (male) without any consternation, and consequently assigned my gender (boy) without missing a beat.

I was born into embattlement because the doctor’s biological designation assumes something about my gender trajectory. She assumes that since my body has male-typical characteristics, I will embody those characteristics in a male-typical way and will experience them as normative. In other words, unlike intersex people where the locus of conflict begins before we even talk about gender, for transsexual people the locus starts with and encompasses all of gender and reflects back on sex.

Gender breakdown transsexual

For many transsexual people, their fight with gender is not merely social; there’s a deep physical component to it. The embattlement isn’t just with “you have a penis so you’re male so you’re a boy so you should behave in xyz fashion.” The embattlement questions whether having a penis makes one a boy, and sometimes even whether it makes one male, or whether one ought to have a penis at all. So even though the facts of sex development are at least mostly unambiguous, the interpretation of these facts is almost as problematic as for an intersex person. A conflict exists right at the point at which you start making assumptions about a transsexual based on their genital morphology.

To be clear, I’m not talking about all transgender individuals, but specifically transsexuals with serious body dysmorphia. I’m talking about people who feel and experience themselves very strongly as belonging to a particular sex, even when the physiological data of their sex characteristics would beg otherwise. I’m talking about transsexuality here as a phenomenon, not an identity. Some transsexed individuals identify as transsexuals, some as transgender, and others as gender non-conforming.

I use the word “belonging” very deliberately because I think it’s the most accurate word to describe the transsexual experience. Phrases like “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body” or  “I always knew I was a girl” are oversimplifications. Other phrases like “I want to be female” or “I desire to become a woman” are also oversimplifications. The reality is somewhere in the middle, with a feeling of belonging, of ought-ness, regarding the other sex. On one hand I grew up knowing full well what it meant to have a penis and be called a ‘boy,’ so I didn’t assert that I wasn’t male. But at the same time being female felt so right and proper to me that it wasn’t simply that I wanted “to become a girl,” but “to be as a girl.”

I’ll try to illustrate what I mean with a personal experience. Freshman year of high school I learned about intersex conditions. I heard that some girls are born with ambiguous genitalia, and that doctors surgically “fix” the genitals to be one way or another (see the previous post).  This caused an earthquake in my soul. I spent almost a full week completely convinced I was an intersex girl. I would do regular checks on my penis in an attempt to find evidence of a surgical intervention. I thought my penile raphe – a dark line extending along the penis shaft to the anus – must be a scar from when they surgically constructed my neo-phallus. I almost asked my parents if this was the case, but a quick google search told me that a penile raphe is male-typical. I almost cried. I’d finally found a word – intersex – that somehow fit the feelings I didn’t have words for. I was not happy to find out my genitals were “male-typical.”

I want you to reflect for a second on how visceral this experience was. The word “intersex” brought up feelings I couldn’t even begin to articulate. Not that I wanted to be a girl or express femininity, but that my body was a girl’s body that had been altered to look like a boy’s. That I was in fact a girl – a boyish intersex girl, but a girl nonetheless. The feeling wasn’t so much in my head as in my bones. When I heard about intersex conditions, it was like my whole body screamed YES at once.

The term gender identity is often used to describe this sense of belonging to the other sex. The problem is “gender identity” nowadays simply means what you “choose” to “identify” as, which does little justice to the transsexual experience. That’s why I’ve decided to distinguish gender identity from subconscious sex, a term coined by Julia Serano.

Serano unpacks this distinction in her book Whipping Girl:

Personally, I have always found the term “gender identity” to be rather misleading. After all, identifying as something, whether it be as a woman, a Democrat, a Christian, a feminist, a cat person, or a metalhead, seems to be a conscious, deliberate choice on our part, one that we make in order to better describe how we think we fit in the world. Thus, with regard to transsexuals, the phrase “gender identity” is problematic because it seems to describe two potentially different things: the gender we consciously choose to identify as, and the gender we subconsciously feel ourselves to be…

I am sure that some people will object to me referring to this aspect of my person as subconscious “sex” rather than “gender.” I prefer “sex” because I have experienced it as being rather exclusively about my physical sex, and because for me this subconscious desire to be female has existed independently of the social phenomena commonly associated with the word “gender.”As mentioned previously, my initial experience with my female subconscious sex was not accompanied by any corresponding desire to explore female gender roles or to express femininity… And my female subconscious sex was most certainly not the result of socialization or social gender constructs, as it defied everything I had been taught was true about gender, as well as the constant encouragement I received to think of myself as a boy and to act masculine. (78, 82)

There’s growing scientific evidence that this subconscious sex is hardwired in the brain – what I call brain sex. The evidence isn’t conclusive, and there are problems with how people approach the idea of brain sex. Most people think of it in terms of having a stereotypically feminine or masculine hard-wiring, like a ditzy cheerleader brain versus a dumb jock brain. Most of these stereotypes center on sexist, derogatory assumptions about men and women, but are not what we’re probably talking about with regards to brain sex. I don’t have a female brain because I’m bad at math. That begs the question why my many girl friends who are great at math aren’t transsexual or at least butch (or why this stereotype even exists when in high school many of the best math students were girls). When we talk about brain sex and subconscious sex, we’re talking about something that’s clearly there regardless of social norms of femininity or masculinity.

In 1965 a boy named David Reimer was born biologically male, but a botched circumcision left his penis horribly mutilated. A prominent sexologist John Money firmly believed that gender identity (and by extension, subconscious sex) was socially and environmentally created, and that any child could have any gender identity bestowed on them by upbringing and hormones alone. He performed a sex reassignment surgery on David to transform his mutilated penis into a neo-vagina. Money was certain that David would happily live as a girl. However, from ages 9-11 David clearly developed and identified with a male gender identity. The social experiment was a failure; David’s brain was hard-wired with a male subconscious sex that thwarted any effort to raise him as female. At age 13 he became suicidal and told his parents he’d end his life if he had to see Dr. Money again.

The typical transsexual embattlement with gender differs from that of an intersex person and is more similar to that of David Reimer because it’s mainly about the subconscious sex. I have a transsexual friend who has both xx and xy chromosomes, so she technically has a genetic intersex condition even though she doesn’t identify as intersex. Her experience is transsexual because she has a subconscious female sex but was assigned male because of her genitals; her chromosomes had nothing to do with how the doctors perceived her or how she perceives herself. Her embattlement isn’t between her genitals and chromosomes, but between her genitals and her subconscious sex. This is why even if subconscious sex is determined by an intersex condition in the brain (brain sex), it doesn’t really matter. Transsexual women aren’t embattled because a brain scan shows we have a female brain or a gene test shows we have female chromosomes – even if that turns out to be the case. We’re embattled because of how our brain identifies itself versus our sex characteristics and how society identifies us.

If brain sex determines whether one feels male or female, then it’s possible that just as one can be born with genitals that are a mix of feminine and masculine, a person could have a brain sex that is biologically undetermined. This means that in some cases, gender non-conforming people who experience themselves as a “third sex” could have an androgynous brain sex. This could also explain why some intersex people don’t experience an inherent subconscious “male” or “female” sex, but a third “bi-gender” or “undetermined” identity.

Regardless of whether subconscious sex flows from brain sex, or is determined by other factors, it’s a pervasive component of gender that affects everything from perception of oneself as sexed to perception of one’s proper social group. The notion of having a subconscious sex is foreign to cissexual (non-transsexual) people because they never notice they have one. If their subconscious sex perfectly aligns with their assigned sex, they have no reason to tease out the difference between the two, and the subconscious sex remains unconscious. However, if a cissexual person is asked if they would change genders (“No, then I wouldn’t be me anymore”), or if they’re questioned about what makes them a man or woman (“My penis”; “But what if your penis is amputated?”; “I’d still be a man”), their subconscious sex emerges at least into preconsciousness. They’ll still never be forced to notice subconscious sex in the same manner as transsexuals, for whom it’s a constant self-awareness if they don’t transition.

We can talk about gender identity broadly in a way that encompasses subconscious sex, just as we can talk about transsexuals as part of the transgender umbrella, but we also need to talk about these things on their own terms. When a transsexual talks about their gender, they’re often talking about this pervasive, all-encompassing experience of sexual embodiment.


Click here for Part 4, the conversation on “gender as a social grouping.”


6 thoughts on “What is gender? Part 3: Gender as subconscious sex

  1. Hi,

    Wow! And, the Philosophy? major enters and signs in. Recently, I ramped back into research, for a project I just finished. That I say is why your article is so impressive, as until Practical or Scientific Philosophy are incorporated into any new field, the answers are not as good. This means to me, there is error there, that needs to be removed someday. That error is invisible, until Philosophy enters in, I think.

    And even if no error is found, then the original workers in that field are merely equipped with better words, and a more firm certainty, of what they have discovered and proved.

    You go girl!

    You rock!

    Thanks!

    I love you!

    LOVE,

    …Mary., …. .

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. Pingback: What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible | The Catholic Transgender

  3. Pingback: What is gender? Part 2: Gender as determined sex | The Catholic Transgender

  4. Pingback: What is gender? Part 4: Gender as social grouping | The Catholic Transgender

  5. Pingback: Binary “Gender Ideology” Refuted: The Complexities of Gender | Queering the Church

  6. Pingback: Are Transgender People Gnostic? An Answer to Robert Barron | The Catholic Transgender

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