The Constructedness of Sex

James Aimers

One classification that most people probably consider unchallengeable is that of the two sexes, male and female. But, about 2% of humans are born intersexed, and Fausto-Sterling (e.g., 2000) and others have drawn attention to the range of variability in the sexual characteristics of human bodies. Biological sex is multifaceted, potentially designated in reference to chromosomes or DNA, hormones, breasts, genitals, reproductive abilities, or, in archaeology, skeletal characteristics. As Fausto-Sterling (2000:7) notes, “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision.”

These complexities have been acknowledged by bioarchaeologists who study human remains. In a discussion of ancient Maya human remains, Geller (2005, p. 598), noted that “Femaleness and maleness reside at opposite ends of a continuum with ambiguity situated in the middle. Thus, it would appear that a strict binary opposition of female and male is supplanted by a continuum of sexual difference.” Storey (2005) may have identified an intersex person in a royal Maya tomb at Copan, Honduras.

Perry and Potter (2006, p. 118) suggest approaching sex in a similar way to race, as a social construct: “The ways in which race is described as a social construct may be translatable to sex: what we understand to be a biological sex is composed of a diverse set of variables that may not invariably pattern out into what we socially comprehend as male and female.” In a 2016 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory dedicated to challenging “binary binds”, the editors heralded recent attempts “to resist predetermining the types of persons we expect to see” in the archaeological record (Ghisleni, Jordan, & Fioccoprile, 2016, p. 779). So, “[m]any scholars now approach sex and gender as a continuum…, emergent in practice…, and potentially variable throughout the life course” (Ghisleni, et al., 2016, p. 771). Some archaeologists now prefer to see identity in general as fluid and changeable; that is, “as a processual phenomenon, rather than a set of taxonomic specificities” (Meskell & Preucel, 2007, p. 122)

Furthermore, we cannot assume that physical sex differences were as important to people in the past as they are to us, and that they were given as much weight in identifying people. Even contemporary ideas about sex turn out to be, from the perspective of archaeology, relatively new. In his book, Making Sex, Laqueur (1990) showed that perceptions of the sexed body changed radically from antiquity until the 20th century. Up until the 18th century,

anatomical and physiological representations of male and female bodies in Western and Eastern medicine relied on a common, androgynous body with differently positioned but homologous reproductive organs in each sex, the vagina being an inverted and internalized penis and so forth. Physiological differences were explained by relative humoral balances, heat, or measures of yin or yang.” (Nye, 2004, p. 16).

Even when the physical differences between the sexes were recognized, they were not important until the end of the 1700’s when they became useful in arguments for or against the role of women in education and public life (Gilchrist, 1999, p. 55). It bears repeating that classifications are not neutral—they are created in specific cultural contexts in relation to specific questions.