Amanda’s got some thoughts on the latest round of the “weak Y chromosome” story at NPR. And I’ve got some counter-thoughts.

I’ve heard people lamenting for awhile that the Y chromosome is “too small.” Mostly, it’s men who say this. I think this has something to do with the male preoccupation with size. Let’s be honest: the Y chromosome doesn’t need to be all that big. This is why I don’t go in for the gloom and doom of the Y chromosome, though it does interest me in the fictional “what if” sense. But for now, the Y chromosome makes a female embryo male (yes, in addition to adding DNA to the mix, though never as much as the Xs carry, so really, getting rid of the Y would only take out the sex determiner and any mutations/traits specific to the Y). But really, all the Y actually has to do is determine sex and slap a few wild card genetics into the mix. Once it forms the male genitalia, the sex organs can take over and produce the testoserone that alters the XX template to an XY. Cut off the genitalia, and you’ll get a tall, not-so-hairy-as-uncut-man man, likely with a little more fat and maybe some fat accumulations that look much like breasts in old age. The reason this happens is because the testicles produce the sex hormones that make men men. All the Y chromosome has to do is alter sex. The resulting organs take over and do the rest. The template is female.

So the Y won’t go away until we get some mutations in the XX that teach the egg to divide on its own X amount of days after ovulation, or release two eggs that have to merge their genetic material in order to begin cell division. And that would be really inconvenient. Not because there wouldn’t be any penises in the world, but because we’d have to think up new and different means of contraception. And it would increase the risk of mutation, just breeding with yourself all the time.

For the record, there would likely still be “sex” and “sexual behavior.” Cause sex is very social, not just procreative. Obviously. But I thought I’d reiterate that. I’ve been reading too much from the wingnuts about how sex is all about procreation, which gets more and more ridiculous the more I hear it. If that was so… oh, nevermind. I’ve already ranted about that.

It’s more that we want to know–what would people be like if there weren’t two genders? Would we all suddenly lapse into a “true” version of ourselves once the idea of “man” or “woman” was stripped completely away?

The key phrasing, I think is “idea”. Man and Woman are ideas that include both biological and social roles/functions. Women have gone around dressing and acting like men while still retaining their uteruses, and people treated them “like men.” Were they men? Men go around dressing up like women and may even be called “she” by most people. Are they men, or women? What does that word mean? If we’re using strict biology, we get into trouble again, cause are we talking about visible or working penises making the difference between men and women? Are barren women men? If women don’t bear children, are they men? Can we call everybody a “man” until “he” bears a child? Why not? Why not call everybody “girl” until puberty? What’s the point at which a penis is too small for a man to be a “real” man? (don’t laugh. Hemaphrodites are still assigned sex based on how “big” the penis/clitoris appears to be, and whether or not it will be able to function for penetration, as we’re still really stuck in the idea of sex=penile/vaginal penetration/engulfment, whatever).

So, if there were only uteruses and no penises, would sex roles disappear?

Or, being such wonderful social animals who love little boxes, would we just create new ones? Perhaps based on something else this time. The breadth of a woman’s shoulders, her height, the color of her eyes, her hair. Maybe women who had higher testoserone levels and more body hair than average would be considered a gender all on their own, and anybody who wanted to be that gender would spend all their time and money trying to get bigger and taller and grow their hair out really long and buy questionable tonics to increase the amount of body hair they had.

Would we go around with four or five genders with their own social roles? Women with uteruses still have varying hormone levels, so you’d still get a range of butch/fem and all-the-gray-inbetween. As an aside: I do think that some of the posturing is a nature thing – I’ve always been able to sympathize with transvestites because I tried to imagine a world in which I wasn’t allowed to wear pants and had to dress fem all the time, and I found the idea terrifying. I have a deep and abiding fear of the 50s. Dress me up too fem and I feel like I’m in drag. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable as I did going with a boyfriend to his junior prom and mincing around in a terribly expensive white poofy dress and heels and elaborate underwear and stockings and a mask of cosmetics. He in his tux, me in my poofy fairytale dress, he found the idea of the theatre terribly engaging. I tried very hard to respond in kind, but I felt big and awkward and uncomfortable, though I couldn’t figure out why, at the time.

I spent most of the prom hiding in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror, and watching other girls fluttering around, thinking, “This is the way I’m supposed to look. Don’t I clean up well? So what the hell’s wrong with me? Why do I feel so weak and awkward and out-of-control?”

Hiding in the bathroom, I later learned, humiliated my date, who caught me and berated me as soon as I came out, “You left me out here with Joshua,” he said, naming one of the dorkier guys in our friends’ groups, a guy who’d asked me out at one point, and who I’d turned down because, well, he was boring. “You know how much I look like a loser, standing out here with him?”

My date then proceeded to go around showing me off to all of his friends, a bit like a prize heifer. It was one of those, “See! I have a girlfriend!” shows that I thought was mildly cute but troubling at the time, and looking back, I understand why it troubled me, and I’m pissed at myself for not allowing myself to be more troubled.

I spent a lot of time trying not to be troubled by things that bugged me. Among them, the fact that I’m really not comfortable with pointy shoes and makeup… and yet, I’m still mostly straight. How does that happen?

Well. It’s called being human.

There’s not a binary. And certainly not a strict sex/gender correlation. You can talk in averages and maybes, but not absolutes.

Why is it that in most versions of this intellectual exercise-cum-fantasy that men are the sex that suddenly disappears? I doubt it has much to do with the genetics of the X and Y chromosomes. My guess is that since the great bulk of the day-to-day work of exaggerating the differences between the sexes falls on the shoulders of women, then it’s just natural… Since we do the work of being a Gender, we are the ones who have a vested interest in the idea of a world without gender, which means that the standard we strive not to be like would be what disappears.

Women are really interested in worlds without men because they want to know if women would beat up on each other as much as men beat up on women. I’m cynical, and I tend to think that yes, the stronger will beat up on the weaker, for one reason or another, once you amass a society that has to fight for resources (Leguin’s The Dispossessed is an interesting what-if experiment that argues that scarcity of resources would actually aid in the continuation of an anarchic/communist society). Lots of people who’ve written female utopias/dystopias disagree with me. You don’t often see utopia/dystopia fiction full of men because… well, I think men freak out reading about all-male utopias because of deep fears of homophobia. You don’t get male utopias that don’t include women (the only one I’ve seen is Bujold’s Ethan of Athos, which is a Bujold-written-book [lackluster prose – NBL, Lois!], but really neat on ideas). In fact, male utopias would likely include harems and harems of fake women. Or, like the misogynistic slugfest of S&M, the Gor novels, they posit worlds where women get “put in their place” (author John Norman’s Gor books argue that the natural condition of women is slavery. Seriously. It’s got a “liberated” 1970s feminist transported to the slaveworld of Gor, where she’s enlightened about what her natural condition really is, and she learns to like it. Really classic stuff).

What I always found depressing about most female utopias/dystopias is that the women always “lose.” That is, the men tend to come in and change everything, or threaten to change everything (even Russ is guilty of this), as if there’s a “natural” status quo when it comes to relations between the sexes.

And I don’t buy that. I don’t think most of the women making all-female societies believe that either, but we all bring the biases we’ve been raised with into our fiction. There’s an astounding amount of misogyny that shows up in some of my stuff.

Anyway, I think the ideas above about how it’s put on women’s shoulders to be really different from men to create gender interesting, but it also forgets the big social push for men regarding masculinity, and what it is to be a “real man.” You’re far more likely to hear a boy being berated for “acting like a girl” than you will a girl for “acting like a boy.” I think men are made men by being encouraged to be “not-women.” Which is why the areas with the most rampant sexism are warfare and sports. These are the activities that have made “men” men since before we had skyscrapers, and suits and glass ceilings.

What I find most interesting about the latter, the “not-women” conception of masculinity, is the fact that, biologically, all eggs start out as female. And the groove that becomes the labia major sometimes doesn’t fuse in men, meaning you start out being formed female, and the Y sends out signals to alter that (I’m going to be jumping up and down about this one for awhile, because I just finished reading Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, and I learned all sorts of really fascinating stuff about the forming of biologic sex, which is just as iffy as I’d always thought). And women bear babies. You need a uterus to do that. Taking men out of the equation would be easier than taking out “women” – if you define a woman as a person who has a uterus.

So I think the tendency to think up worlds without men, in terms of biology, has more to do with interests in the very small biological difference between men and women – the sex determiner on the Y gene. So, what would be the easiest thing, biologically speaking, to get rid of and still have a human being?

The Y chromosome.

Without two sexes, there would be no humanity; it’s like asking what we would be like without language or opposable thumbs or something else that makes us human.

I just about choked when I read this one. I’m coming at this from a biased perspective, of course: I write social science fiction, that is, I concentrate on making societies with fluid sex and sexual characteristics. I’ve written about neuter and hemophroditic societies. I’ve postulated worlds of women with several different genders, and being a writer of such, I’ve also read a ton of other writers who’ve worked with these ideas.

You could have eight sexes and still have humanity. Sure, it wouldn’t be the one we see now (which is the allure of these thought-experiments – trying to figure out what would be really different), but it’d be humanity. A lot of my interest in writing SF/F is to find out what “humanity” still has once you strip everything else away. Change the gender roles, get rid of the gender, give them crazy settings, some organic tech, wars that never end, and what do you have left?

Well, you have what makes us human.

And I don’t think what makes us human is the fact that we have two sexes.

We have to work with what we got. The inequality between the sexes isn’t the natural consequence of the male/female binary, so intellectual exercises getting rid of it are limited in value. Oppression is what it is, and needs to be dealt with as is, and not as the consequence of the accident that “it takes two”.

I do agree that feminists and progressives working toward a different (hopefully, better) society do need to work with what we/they’ve got. And that’s two “pretend” sexes. And lots of pretend “races” and all the social bullshit that we’ve built up around differences in biology that are in fact so small as to be thought insignificant or dying out at the chromosomal level.

But I also think that examining the “what if”s give us a better understanding of the similarities among us. “What if” can shine a spotlight on some of our more absurd assumptions about what “really” makes somebody a “person,” or a “man” or a “woman.” If you can’t get yourself to think about how things can be different, you could get caught in the trap of “well, it’s always been this way. It will always be this way. There’s no other way.”

The reason I’m involved in writing what I write, and reading what I read, is because I see SF/F as having the possibility to show us something other than what we’ve got, to allow us to imagine a different society. If you can’t dream it, how can you do it?

I’m reminded of a website my buddy Jenn forwarded to me a week or two before the election. Despite being all rah-rah hopeful for a Kerry win, I think that most of us, deep down, were having trouble imagining Bush allowing himself to lose. Jenn sent me a site called “Visualize Winning.” It shows Kerry/Edwards winning, Kerry being inaugurated, Osama captured, the budget being balanced, and soldiers coming home.

The sad thing was that until then, I really didn’t have any kind of conception of what a Kerry win would look like. I just couldn’t visualize it.

Which may have been the problem.

So, all this hypothesizing, and dinking around with biology, and playing with the Y chromosome and thinking about societies where genders and sexes are different isn’t counterproductive. In fact, it’s what battling for a different society is all about.

If you can’t even imagine a different place, how can you work toward getting there?

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