Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Talking and Thinking About Sex

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

One of our toughest challenges is ridding language itself of the apartheid of sex. Because sexual apartheid developed in tandem with the evolution of language, “male or female” terminology infects every aspect of our lexicon. Will we need to cleanse our language of sexual dimorphism in order to achieve gender freedom, or will the eventual crumbling of sexual apartheid automatically work an evolutionary change in language? Is language dual sexed because people are dual sexed, or was language intentionally made sexually dimorphic to reinforce an apartheid of sex on an unwilling populace? These are important questions, because it will be difficult for people to adopt a continuum of sexual identities if language keeps forcing them back to “him or her” and “she or he.”

It can be said with some certainty that while language is a natural, biologically bestowed, human ability, the use of genderized pronouns and genderized nouns is not. Noam Chomsky, the world’s leading linguist, discovered that some parts of language are learned and other parts are inborn. The inherent part of language is what he calls “deep structure,” basically the syntax, grammar, or noun-verb structure that we studied in middle school. Everything else is learned: vocabulary, gender, particular grammar variants. Chomsky’s discoveries have withstood decades of challenge through field tests in native languages worldwide. Without every being taught, children everywhere automatically create “noun phrase, verb phrase” grammar out of conversation they hear—proof of inherent “deep structure.” But words for things, and gender pronouns, vary widely among languages. Vocabulary and gender are taught.

Genderized language was probably taught as a way of reinforcing class distinctions. In a similar way, the use of different language forms when talking to familiar people or strangers, or when talking to classes of people far “above” or “below” one, is a common linguistic phenomena. We all know to say “Your Honor” when referring to the judge.

Sexually dimorphic pronouns likely began as a way to show more respect to men and less respect to women. Today sexually dimorphic pronouns operate as a way to respect those who conform to apartheid and to disrespect those who don’t. When people refer to a transgendered-looking person as “it,” they usually have a tone of disgust in their voice, as if to say “This is really not a person.” The bigot thinks, They don’t have a sex. That makes them a thing. An it. Language needs to evolve so that people can enjoy linguistic respect without having to declare a “male or female” sexual identity.

There are at least four avenues open to us in accommodating the freedom of gender within the strictures of language. One possibility is to have people advise others of their preferred gender tense, male or female, while still remaining free to express themselves as any possible sexual identity. This approach seems problematic, because it will be difficult to know beforehand, or to remember if told, the preferred gender tense of any other person. There will be constant problems with being afraid to offend people with the wrong gender tense. The natural response to such a dilemma is our second avenue, the avoidance of gender-specific terminology. Some examples:

Dimorphic: “Mike was lonely, so he went to his friend’s house.”

Neutral (awkward): “Mike was lonely, so Mike went to Mike’s friend’s house.”

Neutral (natural): “Feeling lonely, Mike went to a friend’s house.”

Generally it is possible to avoid a sexually dimorphic pronoun either by using a proper name or by using an indefinite reference such as “a friend’s house” instead of “his friend’s house.” The avoidance of gender-specific terminology takes some mental forethought, but that is probably because we have all been raised to use gender pronouns naturally. It is no surprise that the first question asked when a baby is born is “What is its sex?” Otherwise we might not know how to talk about the kid! One problem with avoiding gender-specific pronouns is that it removes some frequently used words from language, leaving us with less linguistic choice and more ambiguity.

A third avenue to dealing with sexually dimorphic language is to develop new gender-inclusive words, creating additional linguistic choice. While this approach entails the difficulty of using words that others might not understand, it has the benefit of adding rather than subtracting richness to language. An excellent option for gender inclusive pronouns are the following:

Replacing “his” and “her” with “eir” (pronounced to rhyme with “their”)

Replacing “he” and “she” with “ey” (pronounced to rhyme with “they”)

Replacing “him” and “her” with “em” (pronounced to rhyme with “them”)

The benefits of these particular neologisms are that they are easy to pronounce and remember (just delete the “th” from the plural form or start with the plural form until the singular form comes easily), completely gender neutral, and fully conjugated. Returning to our previous example, we might now say, in a postapartheid world, “Mike was lonely, so ey went to eir friend’s house.” Or, combining the second and third gender-liberated avenues discussed above, we might say, “Mike was lonely, so ey went to a friend’s house.” These sentences look funny, but so does Shakespearean English, which was used around the time of Plymouth Rock. Indeed, it is said that someone from Shakespeare’s time would understand less than 25 percent of what we speak today.

Yet a fourth possibility is that words that are sexually dimorphic today will develop broader, gender-inclusive meaning in the future. This has occurred with the phrase you guys, which is now readily understood as including any sex. With regard to pronouns, “he” may come to replace “he” and “she,” while “her” might replace both “his” and “him.” In other words, either the female or the male pronoun might come to represent all cases of liberated gender. In these cases our sample sentence might read, “Mike was lonely, so she went to her friend’s house.” Ambiguity is introduced by broadening existing sexually dimorphic pronouns to mean any gender, but ambiguity is ever-present in the words and grammar of language. It makes talking more interesting.

In addition to genderized pronouns, talking about sex also involves dozens of words that seem to be sex specific. Most of these words can be easily gender liberated. For example:

Sex Specific v. Gender Liberated
boyfriend v. friend
maiden name v. birth name
Mr., Mrs., Ms. v. Person (Pn.)
sportsmanship v. fairplay
husband/wife v. spice
yes sir/ma’am v. yes

Even sex-specific words for relatives have ready substitutes: “my mother and father” become “my parents, Les and Lynn,” “my sister and brother” become “my sibs,” “my son and daughter” become “my kids,” and “my uncle and aunt” or “niece and nephew” become “my cousins.” All of this is not to say that voluntary use of sex specific words cannot or should not live long after the apartheid of sex falls. If a relative who has a vagina wants to be called your sister or brother, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, and Mom or Dad—do it! Give them the same honor that you give anyone by calling them by their preferred name.

We noted at the start of this chapter that there was a close relationship between language and thought. Some would claim that no matter how much we liberate language, it will again become sexually dimorphic because people with penises think differently from people with vaginas. Those critics have not yet understood the evidence of chapter 5 — nobody has ever produced a comprehensive mental ability test that absolutely separates people with penises from people with vaginas. Instead these believers in sexual dimorphism are engaging in a level of gender generalization and stereotyping that would be considered outrageous if applied to racial or ethnic groups.

How can the sex stereotypers get away with their outrage? Because the apartheid of sex has existed for so long, and has become such an intrinsic part of religious orthodoxy, we have come to believe it is true. It is like making racist statements before civil rights. People thought they were just speaking the obvious truth. Sadly, we have forgotten that our genitals and hormone levels are only inadvertent genetic diversity tools in an age-old battle against parasites and genetic mutations. Just the way humanity forgot that its skin tone was merely an inadvertent radiation protection tool in an age-old battle with the sun.

Our minds are preciously unique and have nothing by nature to do with our genitals. Our ability to communicate using syntax evolved relatively recently, long after our genitals were firmly in place. From the standpoint of communication, male and female minds are made, not born.

Some would urge us to adapt to injustice, to go with the flow, for that is the way to get the most out of the status quo. For example, Deborah Tannen writes, in her book You Just Don’t Understand: “Pretending that women and men are the same hurts women, because the ways they are treated are based on the norms for men. It also hurts men who, with good intentions, speak to women as they would to men, and are nonplussed when their words don’t work as they expected, or even spark resentment and anger.” The “pretending” is not that women and men are the same, but that they are born to be different. The people being hurt the most are the ones who want to be seen and spoken to as persons, first and foremost, not as sex types. The solution here is not to perpetuate the “pretend” with male-or-female speaking skills, but to end the pretence of apartheid and let people learn to communicate with each other as persons, not as sexes.

Sex on the Mind

Tannen is not alone in making blanket generalizations that people with vaginas think one way and people with penises another. The field of psychology is so obsessed with mental-genital conformity that they consider it a “mental disorder” if a person wishes to behave according to a gender role “not appropriate” for their genitals. The leading diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, published in 1987, states, “Girls with this disorder regularly have male companions and an avid interest in sports and rough-and-tumble play; they show no interest in dolls or playing ‘house’ (unless they play the father or another male role).” Small wonder that persons with vaginas have not yet caught up to people with penises in sports—if the girls played too many sports as kids, they risked being diagnosed with “gender identity disorder of childhood.” Suppose a girl wanted to be a scientist, and all the scientists she saw were men. Would it be so unusual for the girl to insist she wanted to be a man? Would it not be a natural conclusion that she needed to be a man to be a scientist? Suppose a young boy loved children and wanted to be a mommy. Could that be a crime against nature? Aren’t there millions of unwanted kids who badly need mommies?

Modern-day psychologists inherited their views on gender identity from persons like Freud and Jung. Yet viewed objectively, the pronouncements of these men on sexual identity are so stereotypical and unscientific as to be laughable. Scarcely fifty years ago, Jung wrote:

"No one can get around the fact that by taking up a masculine profession, studying and working like a man, woman is doing something not wholly in accord with, if not directly injurious to, her feminine nature. She is doing something that would scarcely be possible for a man to do, unless he were Chinese. Could he, for instance, be a nursemaid or run a kindergarten? When I speak of injury, I do not mean merely physiological injury, but above all psychic injury. It is a woman’s outstanding characteristic that she can do anything for the love of a man. But those women who can achieve something important for the love of a thing are most exceptional, because this does not agree with their nature. Love for a thing is a man’s prerogative."

No one offers scientific evidence of differently natured minds, and hence by now we must conclude it doesn’t exist. Indeed, as shown in chapter 5, the mountain of test data all supports sexual continuity instead. So we may presume that there is nothing inherent in the mind that imposes sexual dimorphism in language. But with psychology calling gender explorers “mentally disordered” or “unnatural” (the church called them heretics or devils), it will be a tremendously difficult task to root out from language, which means root out from minds, the deeply held prejudices that underlie the apartheid of sex.

It undoubtedly would be easier just to fall into one of two sex roles and to speak appropriately to each sex. It undoubtedly would have been easier for Nelson Mandela to accept Afrikaaner superiority and to answer “Yes, boss” when called. But the right thing to do is rarely the easy way out, especially when injustice is afoot. We do not so much live on the accomplishments of the past as borrow from the freedoms of the future. Nelson Mandela owed it to the children of Africa to fight with his life for a just and fair society. We owe it to the children of tomorrow to free their minds from a linguistic prison of sex. The only way to do that is to stop perpetuating the myth of male and female natures and to start clearing out of our dialogue the verbal guardians of the apartheid of sex.

The Human Uncertainty Principle

When we think about sex, is it because our genes have told us to, or is it because our society has taught us how? While it is clear that our genitals don’t tell us how or what to think, chapter 5 explained how some set of genes other than the ones that direct our genitals may influence our thinking about sex. Such genes may influence our motivation toward the sexual elements of assertiveness, nurturance, or eroticism. Such genes may even influence our desires toward preferable lovemates. Noam Chomsky pointed out that while most of language is learned, some part, “deep structure,” is genetic. While most of our sexual identity may be learned, is there some part, a “deep structure,” that is genetic?

The consensus of gender science researchers today is that it is impossible to pin down whether any particular aspect of sexuality if genetically determined or environmentally learned. Almost everyone believes there is an inherited component, a kind of deep structure, that makes it possible to be a sexual being. But most researchers say that from that deep structure, any sexual identity and orientation are possible. It is like taking a newborn infant to any culture in the world. Because of its inherited “deep structure,” the infant will learn language. But the genetic direction slows down here. The child will learn Chinese if in China and French if in France. Later on in life the child can go anywhere in the world and learn other languages. A genetic predisposition for language ability may lead the child to become a polyglot. A genetic disinclination for language may result in a monolinguistic kid. And any genetic direction can readily be overwhelmed by real-world motivation. It appears to be much the same with sexuality. We will all develop a sexual identity, and our environment will influence us greatly. Some of us will evolve among several sexual identities, and others will stick with one.

In physics there is a famous law called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The law says that is impossible to know the position of an electron precisely because all electrons are both wave-like and particle-like in nature. When you focus on the wave, you lose sight of the particle, and vice versa; the two phenomena are measured in mutually exclusive ways. In a similar vein, gender science appears to have arrived at Human Uncertainty Principle. In this case it is impossible to know the origin of any behavior precisely because every behavior is both genetically and environmentally influenced, and these two influences are (1) measured in mutually exclusive ways and (2) interactive between themselves. No matter how tightly we pin down a genetic trait, we can never know how it would have been expressed in a vacuum. And even if we created an environmental vacuum, it would teach us nothing about how the gene expressed itself in the real world. Once we are in the real world, we can never really know the specific contribution of a gene, as compared with the environment, in shaping our behavior. No matter how tightly we pin down an environment, we can never know what the person would have done in that environment without their genetic predispositions.

We appear to be hybrid genetic/environmental creatures. We cannot be one without the other. So when we think and talk about sex, it is because our genes enable us to do so and our environment implemented the ability. What we think and talk about sex is inexplicably intertwined between genetic orientations and environmental experiences. The Human Uncertainty Principle ensures that the precise cause of our thoughts and talk about sex will forever be unknown. It may well be for the better. Recent discoveries of genetic markers associated with homosexuality have given rise to fears that parents might choose to abort, or be required to abort, embryos carrying such markers. The fear is not without basis. In the 1930s and 1940s Nazi Germany exterminated 250,000 male and female homosexuals. During the past decade an estimated thirty million to fifty million embryos will have been aborted, mostly in Asia, simply because they have a very obvious marker—a vagina.

This gynacide number is so shocking—and carries such ominous implications for future uses of biotechnology—that further explanation is warranted. On July 21, 1999, The New York Times reported as follows: “Normally, women worldwide give birth to about 105 or 106 boys for every 100 girls. China’s ratio last year was about 13 points off this international norm, meaning that more than 12 percent of all female fetuses were aborted or otherwise unaccounted for. Based on a population of 1.17 billion, that adds up to more than 1.7 million missing girls each year.”

Investigations by reporters and government researchers always turn up the same explanation: Ultrasound and amniocentesis technology is used to determine the sex of a child, and very often an abortion follows upon discovery that the sex is female. A study of six thousand aborted fetuses at one Bombay clinic revealed that only one was a boy. In China the parents tell reporters, “We don’t want to waste our one allotted child.” In India they say, “Spend five hundred rupees now [for an ultrasound test and abortion] to save fifty thousand rupees later [for a bride’s dowry].”

United Nations figures for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Korea report similarly skewed birth rates in the 1990s, totaling an additional 1.5 million missing girls each year. At the rate the abortions have been increasing since around 1990, and with the continued spread of ultrasound technology the gynacide rate will almost certainly climb to over 5 million fetuses per year from the current 3.2 million conservative estimate.

We are in a race against time when it comes to dismantling the apartheid of sex. The rapid growth in biotechnical capabilities makes it possible to think about designing any kind of baby and designing away any kind of trait. Placed in the hands of a sexist society, biotechnology is a most dangerous tool. Those who would limit the freedom of gender must be blocked form the genetic tools that impact our lives. Giving biotechnology to sexists is a prescription for gender death.

Thinking and talking about sex is unavoidable, because language is full of sex. The dialogue today is dimorphic, but we have the ability to infuse our language with gender-inclusive concepts that liberate all speakers, present and as yet unborn. We must be wary of those who would serve as thought police, demanding compliance with sexually dimorphic language and behavior. They never have proven that minds come in two flavors. In fact, they are working just to preserve the status quo.

The effort to tie sexual thought to specific genes is doomed to failure, for the environment will always intervene. But this will not prevent those with a pro-apartheid agenda from using inaccurate results to inflict great harm. We need to dismantle the apartheid structure now so that the tools of biotechnology will be used for sexual diversity and not for gender control.


Ensuring the ethical use of biotechnology will be as large a concern for transhumanists as it is for defenders of gender freedom. Think about the creation of an incomplete mind in a computer system. For example, suppose mindware reaches a state of development whereby it can create in software a convincingly conscious mind that is either horribly retarded, severely depressed, autistic or Alzheimer’s-like. Today, there are no ethical rules preventing the creation of such minds in software. Yet, most of us would consider such an experiment to be as ghastly as intentionally creating a human with one of those conditions. Indeed, most people would choose to abort a fetus if told the child would be horribly retarded or autistic. Many severely depressed people take their own lives. At the last stages of Alzheimer’s, most patients’ families are hoping for a merciful death. So, if the flesh version of such minds is usually considered worse than death, how can it be permitted to create transhuman versions? The answer is that society does not yet believe that consciousness is possible in software. Hence, even if such a mind was created, the prevailing view is that no harm would have been done because the software mind is just computer code without any internal feelings of angst and dread.

As computer programmers and neuroscientists work together they will make progress toward creating software minds that seem ever more human-like. A disbeliever in cyber-consciousness will claim that there is some threshold of human-like thought that no computer can transcend. This would be the threshold of self-awareness supposedly enabled only by biological neuroanatomy (one candidate are the microtubules inside our neurons). Taking this as a hypothesis to be tested, how would one know whether the hypothesis was confirmed? Panels of experts could interview the cyber-conscious being to determine its sentience as compared to a flesh human – these type of interviews, when conducted in blinded fashion as to the forms of each interviewee, are called Turing Tests in honor of the man who first suggested them in the 1940s, Alan Turing. The prospect of being the first to pass such Turing Tests is motivating many computer science teams. They are doing their utmost to build into their software the full range of human feelings, including feelings of angst and dread. Hence, the unstoppable human motivation to invent something as amazing as a cyber-conscious mind will result in the creation of countless partially successful efforts that would be unethical if accomplished in flesh. Can cyber-embryos be ethically terminated for much the same reason so many XX chromosome embryos are terminated – because of a belief that their costs of upkeep are not worth their value as adults?

By having a different form from males, women have undergone an unimaginable amount of suffering. The first point of this book is that these differences of sexual form are illusory and irrelevant. As far as sexual identity goes, every person is a unique being. The next application of this lesson is to cyber-conscious beings. The prevailing view is that because someone has the form of software or computer hardware they are unfeeling and can thus be disposed of at will. The second point of this book is that these differences of substrate form are as irrelevant as the differences of form in genitals. It is the mind that is salient, not the matter that surrounds it. So long as Turing testers or certified cyber-psychologists or perhaps just plain people come to the conclusion that a transhuman form has a human mind then bioethics should proscribe causing it harm. Bioethics would also require that Institutional Review Boards (panels of experts in specific medical fields) first approve experimentation that might produce a “wrongful life”, such as a tortured mind, so that such risks could be minimized if not eliminated.

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