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Culture and Biological Sex

How we judge the appearance of the genitals is purely a matter of cultural agreement. Our culture sees two sexes out of a spectrum of forms, because we have chosen to see two sexes out of a spectrum of forms.

Although most people’s genitals do cluster towards the far binary ends in terms of appearance, not everyone’s genitals are going to look the way our culture idealizes and expects. This cultural insistence that human beings must be (or must appear to be) sexually binary has left no safe place in society for those who are not, and in fact, places those with a sexual difference at great risk for medical abuse and erasure.

Our culture’s attempt to categorize sex is similar to how different cultures divide up and name the spectrum of colour. The Polish language divides the colour spectrum to include names for two shades each of both red and blue, which are seen as being significantly different from each other, whereas, we ignore this difference, and just call them both ”red” or “blue.”


 Some cultures lump orange and red together. Some cultures do not have specific names for colours at all. Likewise, some cultures do not have words equivalent to “male” or “female” to categorize people by their anatomy.

See: “Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language,” Anna Wierzbicka, Oxford University Press, NY, 2014, pp 7-24.

Pretend for a moment that we lived in a culture that saw and named as significantly different the colours “blue” and “yellow,” but did not see “green,” except for greenish-yellow, or greenish-blue.  In this world, we might consider the area where “yellow” and “blue” overlapped to create pure “green” to be disordered because “green” is neither wholly “blue” nor wholly “yellow.”  

Genitals, like colours, appear on a spectrum with no strict, objective-reality dividing line between them. In our culture, to be born with non-conforming genitals creates a social emergency, only because our culture insists that there must be two, and only two, sexes. Other cultures have been more realistic and inclusive.

In most cultures and time periods, sexually divergent, boundary-crossing individuals have been included, even given special status or revered. In our culture, however, intersex differences have been hidden or erased, the individuals who have them made to feel wrong, broken, freakish – and ultimately, erased. If other cultures have made room for and respected the basic rights and humanity of those in the middle, we believe that our culture can, too.

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