Parenthood and Sex

Each of us has two biological parents. In my case, those parents are not my real parents, namely the ones who raised me. Nonetheless, according to the theory that everybody seems to accept, including myself, each of us has grown up from a zygote, which was formed by the union of two gametes. Moreover, one of those gametes was an egg cell; the other, a sperm cell. The gametes came from gonads: an ovary and testis, respectively. Ovaries are possessed by females of our species; testes, by males. Being female or male is called sex.

We are also distinguished, when children, as being boys or girls. Boys grow up to be men; girls, women.

It is usually assumed that men are male and women are female. Some of us may insist that this is always so, by definition of the words in question. In that case, I will argue,

  • the definitions can admit of exceptions, at least in principle;
  • an exception cannot be granted, merely at the request of the person who asks for it.

I distinguished between biological parents and real parents. The latter are moral or legal parents. Normally, one’s legal parents are indeed ones’s biological parents, but exceptions can be made. A person can be stripped of legal parenthood, or granted it. Anybody who assumes the responsibility may be a moral parent to a child, regardless of whether the relation is formalized legally. It is also possible to be raised so poorly that one does not consider the people who did it to be one’s parents.

We need a legal concept of parenthood, in order to settle disputes involving custody and inheritance.

Being a woman or a man is a moral or legal concept, which may be called gender for present purposes. By contrast, being female or male—having a sex—is biological.

It may be worth noting that the Latin word femella was not formed from masculus, although these two words have evolved into our words female and male. Perhaps this evolution was under the influence of a belief that the female person was derived from the male, as Eve from Adam. The word woman is derived from man: more precisely, it comes from the compound wife-man, where wife itself originally meant what we now mean by woman.

Biologically speaking, at least from this layperson’s perspective, the male would seem to be derived from the female. Individuals who are male, in the sense of having testes, but who have complete androgen insensitivity syndrome or CAIS, have bodies that look female. The female form is somehow the default.

CAIS is only one example showing that the sex distinction is not always easy to make. The distinction between egg and sperm is easy, but the rare individual has both a testis and an ovary, or has an ovotestis. Even if you have only testes or only ovaries, it may not be obvious which ones from the outside.

Neither is the gender distinction always easy to make. When I was a boy, I started resisting haircuts, and so I was sometimes taken for a girl. Apparently I was gender-bending, like David Bowie, Annie Lennox, or the New York Dolls.

There needs to be a legal concept of gender, to settle disputes, mitigate injustice, and inhibit crime.

When I was to be married, here in Turkey, I had the option (which I declined) of requiring a medical exam of my intended spouse. Presumably some men want to know that their wives will be able to bear children. This might be precluded by various conditions, one of which is simply being male.

It has been believed that a woman’s job is to bear and raise children, while a man’s job is to make a living. Women trying to do the latter have been paid less than men, if they are hired at all. Briefly, sex discrimination happens. One may prefer to call it gender discrimination; but as far as I know, the discrimination in question is based on the sex that a potential employer believes a person to have.

There are other kinds of discrimination too.

Here in Turkey, it is still possible to specify the sex of the person whom one wants to hire. I imagine that pretending to be of the opposite sex could count as fraud.

Sexual harrassment and rape are possible. In principle, anybody could be a victim. Somebody perceived as either sex could be a victim. In practice, the victim is almost always a woman, because she is perceived as female; and males are the perpetrators.

Here now is the source of a lot of controversy. There are males who want to be treated morally and legally as women:

  • to be referred to with feminine pronouns;
  • to use women’s changing rooms and toilets;
  • to enter athletic competitions for women;
  • to be housed (if they are convicted criminals) in women’s prisons;
  • to provide medical care for women who prefer treatment by females;
  • likewise for rape crisis counselling.

Perhaps all of this should be possible for biological males, in principle; but the case has to be made.

I am not sure why a male should ever be granted the legal status of a woman. The would-be adopter of a child may be assessed for fitness to be a parent; but being a woman is not a job that can be done well or poorly. Nonetheless, not being jurists, biologists cannot be given sole responsibility for establishing legal boundaries between genders. By the same token, the law cannot automatically grant womanhood to any male who asks, any more than it can grant parenthood that way.


Normally in this blog I give a lot of quotations and references. Such was my practice in other posts on the present subject, including:

  • Sex and Gender” (the result of my astonishment at the cancelling of J. K. Rowling);
  • Be Sex Binary, We Are Not” (on the Scientific American blog post, “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia”);
  • Words” (about lots of things);
  • Imagination” (on Nathan J. Robinson’s critique of J. K. Rowling).

Now I have tried to keep things simple. I have been moved to write by the recent debate, “Biological sex: real, immutable, and binary? With Colin Wright and Alice Dreger,” hosted by Corinna Cohn and Nina Paley. The discussion was interesting, but I don’t think it made a clear distinction between biology and law.

Perhaps Wright was clear enough on how sex can be binary while not being unambiguously assigned to every individual. I would emphasize what I started with here, that according to well established theory, human reproduction unambiguously requires a male and a female.

Nature also “tries,” so to speak, to make each of us capable of reproduction. Sometimes it fails, and thus there are disorders of sexual development or DSDs. In any case, whatever nature may be “trying” to do, it imposes no moral obligation on us.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By On Homer’s Iliad Book VI « Polytropy on January 2, 2023 at 5:04 pm

    […] previous generations is irrelevant to our history as such. I alluded to this in the recent post “Parenthood and Sex,” where I pointed out that my real parents were the ones who had raised […]

  2. By Biological History « Polytropy on January 9, 2023 at 9:39 am

    […] I didn’t expect to see the relevance of the last post that didn’t concern Homer, namely “Parenthood and Sex.” I hadn’t thought about how, contra Glaucus, the generations of humanity were not like those […]

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