Clarifying the terms of debate on sex and gender

Issue section: 

Mark O’Brien’s article on Freud and sexuality (“Freud, Sex and the Socialist Imagination”, December SR) is both unclear and wrong.

Consider a question he poses: "Is our mature sexual identification in some sense there at birth, awaiting its cultural triggers; or is the ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’ of the infant simply a matter of anatomical labelling, with no intrinsic meaning or later sexual attachment.”

By sexual identification does he mean the sex we identify with? Or, rather what is commonly referred to as sexual orientation? The distinction between sex and gender is very important when considering “maleness” and “femaleness”. Sex refers primarily to the anatomy of an individual’s reproductive system while gender can refer to either social roles based on the sex of the person or personal identification.

It is also crucial to acknowledge that both in terms of sex and gender there are more categories than just maleness and femaleness.

Mark insists that “the ‘norms’ of sexual...attraction are social — and only social.” It is simply wrong to claim that biology or genetics do not affect sexual attraction in any way.

Consider the fascinating research into animal sexuality, which documents that same-sex sex occurs in more than 450 kinds of animals worldwide, and is found in every major geographic region and every major animal group. If biology does not affect sexuality but rather only society or culture does, how does Mark explain the variety of sexual orientations in animals with little or no culture?

Those who reject biological or genetic determinism should not be forced into denying any role at all for our genes or biology in affecting human behaviour and sexuality in particular. Likewise we should reject environmental or cultural determinism, that is, the claim that it is the environment or culture alone or overwhelmingly that determines how we behave.

Rather the correct approach is to understand that our behaviour is typically the result of the complex interaction of both our biology and our environment.