Gender Typing: Biological Views of Genetics & Hormones

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we explore gender typing while clearly differentiating between 'sex' and 'gender'. While acknowledging the force of culture on gender identity, we look more specifically at the effects of genetics and hormones on development and behavior.

Sex and Gender

Debates, protests and legal battles over gender identity and restroom use has brought many into full awareness of the complex world of gender. First of all, sex and gender are not the same thing.

Tons of forms and surveys have confused people over the last few decades, but feel free to cross out the word ''gender'' on that paperwork and replace it with ''sex''. If it's a test, give yourself a bonus point for a right answer that wasn't even asked.

  • Sex is a purely biological condition of being male or female based on genetics. There are only two sexes, male and female, with a few rare genetic disorders that complicate the distinction.

  • Gender, on the other hand, is how we express a sexual identity according to socially determined roles. If society declares that males should wear blue, you will see more young men wearing blue than pink, a color now associated with women in American society.

However, gender does not have the same binary settings like sex does; it has more than two options. Gender is measured as a continuum because of the varying degrees of masculinity and femininity described by a culture. Some may think of a male hairdresser as less masculine than a male construction worker or a female mechanic as less feminine than a female secretary.

The process by which children are taught how to express gender is called gender typing. This teaching begins at birth with the way parents dress their children, decorate their rooms, and select toys. Throughout the child's upbringing, people may comment with approval or disapproval toward the appearance and activities of the child, reinforcing what is expected of their gender expression in society.

Can you tell if this party is for a girl or a boy?
pink party

A Biological Component?

Performing gender according to culture's definition may be more complicated than just the social norms defined by gender typing. Biological theories of gender insist that our biological sex influences our gender expressions. Some theories insist biology has total control over gender expression while others claim hormones and genetics help influence behavior in concert with cultural attitudes.

Hormones

Hormones are chemicals that travel through our circulatory system to act on our various tissues and control our different bodily functions. One of the most influential hormones in determining sex characteristics and certain behaviors is testosterone.

Not just for men, this hormone is present in all human bodies, though men have higher levels of it than women. In the womb, testosterone causes a fetus to develop testes while its absence signals the fetus' gonads to become ovaries.

It also has an effect on the brain, creating small changes to the structures in clearly identifiable ways. Yes, male and female brains are physically different, but only in small ways that do not make one smarter than the other.

In adults, the presence of testosterone amplifies aggressive behavior and competitive tendencies, traits associated with masculine gender norms in several cultures. Make note though that high testosterone levels are not the cause of aggression; high levels amplify (make more pronounced) patterns of aggression already established. Therefore, aggression in a person cannot be predicted by their levels of testosterone.

Testosterone helps to keep a person's social status. In other words, if a person feels the need to be aggressive to maintain their social status, testosterone makes those brain signals stronger. However, if niceness is required instead, testosterone will make those brain signals stronger. This is why it can be so difficult to separate culture from biology.

Testosterone can amplify aggression and competitive tendencies.
testosterone

Genetics

Genetics is usually associated with the biological traits of sex, with two X-chromosomes making a female and one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome making a male. However, that is not always the case, as scientists have discovered a genetic abnormality on the Y-chromosome in some patients.

These individuals are missing a particular gene on that chromosome and the signal to create testosterone and become a male fetus is never enacted. The fetus thus develops as a female with male genetics, completely undetected without a DNA test.

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