The great sexual continuum: What Pinki teaches us all

When the very notion of two genders is suspect, when the labels of 'man' and 'woman' are self-created, why are we so obsessed with determining who Pinki Pramanik is?

Lakshmi Chaudhry July 11, 2012 16:50:09 IST
The great sexual continuum: What Pinki teaches us all

Girl or boy? It's the first question we ask when a baby is born. Or earlier, in this era of sex determination tests. The answer defines everything from which public bathroom we use to our position in society, which in some parts of the world includes our right to vote or drive a car. Our entire world is neatly ordered into two genders from the moment of conception and through our lifetime. Society insists upon it.

Nature, however, stubbornly refuses to be tamed, as Pinki Pramanik's medical test reveals. "Athlete Pinki Pramanik’s medical report says she is genetically male but anatomically not, bearing both male and female characteristics," reports The Telegraph, "Doctors associated with the tests conducted on the Asian Games gold medallist called her condition 'male pseudohermaphroditism' -- in which genetic males develop female configurations and identities."

She has 46 XY chromosomes and yet may not be a man, per se. “The report shows her chromosome pattern may be male but anatomically she has both female and male organs, some of which are incomplete,” says one expert. Aha, but a "male genotype need not mean a man as an ordinary person understands it. Psychologically their desires may be male, but that may not be borne out physically”, chimes in another.

The great sexual continuum What Pinki teaches us all

'She has 46 XY chromosomes and yet may not be a man, per se.' AFP.

In purely biological terms, Pramanik is not male or female, but intersex. And it's not quite as rare as we may think:

Physical gender is not always just a matter of XX or XY, girl or boy. In approximately one out of every 100 births, seemingly tiny errors occur during the various stages of fetal sex differentiation, causing a baby's body to develop abnormally. Problems in the formation of chromosomes, gonads, or external genitals can lead to a range of intersex conditions.

That range has led biologists like Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling to propose a five-sex system, which additionally includes herms or "true" hermaphrodites who have both an ovary and a testis, merms or male "pseudohermaphrodites", and ferms or female "pseudohermaphrodites" (A "pseudohermaphrodite" posseses either an ovary or a testis, along with genitals from the other sex.)

But what about all those folks who never exhibit external signs of their condition – and may not even know that they are intersex? Sex is complicated, indeed.

Biology becomes key only when it's becomes a matter of law. "Moreover, since her gender is not proved yet and, according to the law, only a man can rape a woman, she can be allowed bail,” declared sessions judge Nirmal Ghoshal in Pramanik's criminal case. And sports authorities have their own tests that draw a clear bright line dividing male from female -- lines they admit are arbitrary and often unscientific. Rules of society leave no room for fuzzy, intersex people. It is why doctors assign a gender to a baby within 24 hours of its birth – irrespective of the anatomical complications posed by biology.

Gender, which is a social and legal construct, ought to be more clear-cut since it's a matter of choice. Surely, we can choose to be male or female based on how we feel. And if our genitals or the doctor contradicts our decision, well, that just makes us transgender... though not necessarily intersex (See how complicated this gets?).

Or do we base our gender on how we think? Scientists have long insisted on the innate differences between the male and female brain, arguing that exposure to higher levels of testosterone before birth stimulates the development of the right hemisphere of the brain. It explains, they claim, why men are averagely better at reading maps and doing math, while women make excellent conversation and social workers. There's even a test that can tell you if your brain is more male or female.

In a number of cases, someone whose biological sex is male feels like a woman because his fetal brain received lower levels of testosterone. And vice versa. This is one explanation of transsexualism. Then again, there are up to 17 percent of men and women who have brains of the opposite sex – and a great many of them are straight.

And just to complicate matters further, not everyone buys into the idea of a female and male brain. Debunking most such research as "blatantly false," based on "cherry-picked" data, or "extrapolated from rodent research." neuroscientist Lise Eliot shows in her book, "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" that "infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time, as parents, teachers, peers—and the culture at large—unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes. Children themselves exacerbate the differences by playing to their modest strengths. They constantly exercise those 'ball-throwing' or 'doll-cuddling' circuits, rarely straying from their comfort zones."

Hence, a boy who is more irritable or independent than his sister is likely to be left to play by himself by a parent. The lowered verbal and physical interaction in turn restricts his baby brain's ability to develop skills of empathy and communication. The result: a "typical" guy who hates to talk about feelings.

When the very notion of two genders is suspect, when the labels of "man" and "woman" are self-created, why are we so obsessed with determining who Pinki Pramanik is? Perhaps it is because we prefer the security of treating our gender as a box we can securely check off on a form. It's far scarier to acknowledge that we are but specks in a shifting, fluid sexual continuum, or that our masculinity and femininity is just a matter of degree. The Pinkis of the world are merely the mortal incarnations of Ardhanareeshwara, flesh-and-blood reminders of the eternal ambiguity of our selves. Both/neither, male/female.

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