Daniela Crocetti | Sex as a biological construction: Hormones, Genes, Sex and Gender


The twentieth century has assisted the conceptual and practical separation of the terms sex and gender so as to have better tools to address what are considered biological factors versus social factors. The biological construction of sex has delved deeper into the body, beyond the mere genitals, to expose not only reproductive organs and gonads, but molecular components such as hormones, chromosomes and genes. Since the scientific “discovery” of the sex chromosomes, XY XX have become quickly adopted as cannonic markers of biological sex, while at the same time it has been conceded that biological sex does not produce uniform gender identity. In this paper I will be instead looking at some of the components of the biological construction of sex, such as hormones and genetics.
Since the beginning of the discipline of endocrinology there has been debate about the gendered nature of hormones themselves, as highlighted by Julia Rechtor's work on lab research. The “sex hormones” continue to referred to as such in clinical practice, largely due to their role in reproductive organ development and regulation. Biological “fact” are continuously mitigated through the social process of dissemination. Represented through case studies, the imagery and discourses that surround hormones, genes and sex emerges itself as a  compound object, fusing biological and social theory of the gendered body.
In 2006 the new term Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) ate up the previous categories of Intersex and what was called prior to the 20ith century hermaphroditism. DSD not only encapsulates the previous categories but engulfs other anomalies that might not have been “seen” before there were technologies to visualize them. DSD are conceptually syndromes, representing divergences from a statistical norm respect to the gendered body, therefore pathological but not disease. DSD treatment often focuses on the psycho-social aspect of gender identity in cases of divergences between chromosomes, genes, gonads and genitals, using hormonal therapy and  surgery. The DSD treatment generally implements social standards in assessing potential gender identity, but also biological standards of what the sexual body is. These biological standards give way to discussion of what are the scientific expectations for the male and female body. Both hormones and genetics are linked to the performative script of the gendered body, such as sex drive and behavior to begin with.
DSD diagnosis no longer relies solely on the performative esthetics of the genitals, or chromosomal sex, but creates a complex map of genetic markers, hormonal levels and hormone receptors. In practice there is a tight relationship between molecular genetics, hormones and hormonal receptors. Hormones becomes envisioned as the messengers of sex, as highlighted by Celia Roberts work on hormones and biomedicine, weaving through the coding structures of genetics. Genetic markers supplant the determining role commonly attributed to the sex chromosomes.  The biological locus of sex, like gender, unfolds as a multiple object.