Tuesday, April 21, 2009

DRAFT OF A PHILOSOPHY PAPER OF THE SAME SUBJECT. Used as a basic structural tool for the film:

Gender Variance and Autonomy


In this essay, I will use the examples of gender and sex in society to explore

questions of personal autonomy and its interplay with the cultural projection of variance

as an abnormality, and how variance is perpetuated by science, and modern psychology

as dysfunction. Integrated throughout, the overarching importance of this study of

autonomy will arise out of the application of autonomy and common social views of

gender variance to issues of human rights.

To begin, I will present an overview of the concept of autonomy, followed by an

exploration of variances in sex and gender and its connection to the social distinction of

abnormal and the pathological status of dysfunction. The concepts of this study will be

applied to the examples of transgender and intersexed experience, for context and direct



The concept of freedom is a common topic of passionate debate in many circles.

It is explicitly written in Federal and State law, and often seeps into individual family

politics. There is one specific kind of agency, termed “autonomy”, that is akin to our

common interpretation of “freedom”, and it perhaps holds an even stronger relevance to

debates of human rights regarding personal expression. Autonomy is a term and a

philosophical subject with many diverse definitions and interpretations. The definition

that has been chosen for inclusion in this paper is only one isolated version of the

concept. The definition has been drawn from various sources including Judith Butler’s

“Undiagnosing Gender”, Margaret Walker’s “Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study

in Ethics”, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. For the chosen direction of this study,

the flowing definition for autonomy will be used: “the ability to act freely without the

presence of (unjustified) moral coercive entities”. Alternately stated, an autonomous

individual would be one who has moral independence.

While the concept of freedom requires the ability to act without physical restraint,

autonomy demands the ability to act without coercive moral influences. An obstruction

of freedom manifests itself physically, and an obstruction of autonomy manifests as a

social restraint of ones most basic internal thoughts or external expressions on a moral

level. An obstruction would influence ones ability to live by ones own moral laws and

beliefs. Community recognition is a necessary element to legitimize ones expression. Not

only must an autonomous agent be free from restrictive influence, in order for one to be

fully autonomous they must also be consistently recognized or accepted as such by their

community. In a specific instance when one might legally have the freedom to express

hirself in a particular manner, their actions or expressions however might become

socially coerced through the powers and influence of social groups, and the normative

rules that a group may enforce, which would effectively influence one’s agency for

autonomy. One critical attribute of autonomy is that it can be challenged or influenced by

cultural normative rules. In order for one to act as a fully autonomous agent, one must

feel that they can express their deepest and most inner-selves and beliefs, even when an

expression may differ from social constructions of normal. The problematic issue with

coercion here is not merely its presence, as coercion can have many important functions.

Some positive functions may be to insure that reasonable laws are upheld, or human

rights violations are discouraged. So basically you could say that a distinction can be

made between beneficial coercion and harmful coercion, the latter form being of focus in

this essay.

The Pathology of Variance.

Our scientific emphasis on categorization and simplification of the natural world

often leads us into binary views of concepts that are truly bigger than their categorical

measures can encompass. In regards to sex and gender for example, there are assumed to

exist a set of universal truths that roughly match our social realities. Studies in the

biology of human variation provide statistical evidence that genetic and social variance is

common and natural; yet the intimate interplay between social norms and the presentation

of scientific research can and does often act to distort the details and conclusions of

research which may expose natural variances of sex and gender. It is the social realities,

not the scientific ones, which create oversimplified systems that define and separate

normal behavior or biology from abnormal. These simplified schemas become second

nature in social settings. Simplified organizations of human possibility become

internalized. Social realities can become confused with biological truths, or the lack there

of. Natural variances that exist with sex and gender, for example, are subject to the

measures and boundaries of social dichotomies, even more so than scientific documents

or research. Sex and gender are measured in the binaries of male or female, and man or

woman. Individuals who fit well within their assigned or prescribed category will be

considered normal, while variant expressions will be attacked and labeled as


The two specific examples of moral coercion that will be addressed in this essay

are of special concern because they are directed to suppress statistically rare, but

biologically expected human traits. Intersexed conditions, for example, are not directly

harmful to the individual or society, yet individuals find themselves being coerced to

conform into social norms which systematically disinclude them. In many ways, the oversimplified

binaries that separate normal as something opposite of abnormal, as well as the

concept of health as an opposite of dysfunction, produce an unaccommodating

environment for some basic human rights of access to individual autonomy.

Sex Variation.

Key Example: Intersexed Conditions.

It is a common assumption that scientific research has empirically led us into

clear measurable definitions for sex, but in fact this is not the case. The assumption that

there is an empirical way to measure whether one is biologically male or female is

unsubstantiated. Biology in fact tells us that, in every possible measure of sex, a spectrum

of traits exists. Various areas of measure can be used such as primary sex characteristics

(such as genitalia or internal sex organs), secondary sex characteristics (such as breasts or

facial hear), hormone levels, muscle or cognitive development and abilities, or

chromosome sets, among others. No matter the measure, any given individual will have a

unique set of characteristic that will apply to various points of the spectrum for each of

the given sex measurements. Most individuals will find themselves somewhere in

between the two extreme ideals of what might be considered completely male or

completely female. Sex is a social decision based on scientific research, rather than a

scientific or universal biological truth. To quote Anne Fausto-Sterling, prominent

genetics and gender studies researcher “labeling someone as a man or a woman is a social

decision. We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our

beliefs about gender, not science- can define our sex”.

When an individual is measured as being a biological mix between the sexes, they

are diagnosed as intersexed. Intersexed conditions most often do not bare any negative

biological health concerns, and are statistically expected at approximately 1.4-2% (ISNA

2009). It is common for intersexed individuals to receive strong coercive pressures to

fully adopt one of the two most common sex categories. They are often socially asked to

repress or deny the parts of themselves that are unique, and adapt themselves into societal

norms. Although exceptions occur, intersexed individuals are often medically referred to

surgical specialists, which will suggest the physical adoption of only one sex, rather than

encourage or accept a biological combination of characteristics.

Sex Variation and Autonomy.

With specific reference to intersexed conditions, while recognizing that perhaps

similar arguments could be made for other sex-variant identities, I would like to argue

that the oversimplified and well-established social and medical views of sex can and do

obstruct access to autonomy. Social norms and medical definitions narrowly restrict sex

identity down to two options. With limited acceptance at times to biologically intersexed

individuals, many individuals with mixed biological sex characteristics are asked to adapt

their bodies and their identities to fit a social myth of health. Aside from the obvious

physical coercion of this example, psychological and moral coercion is also talking place.

Individuals are asked to adjust their sense of self to fit what others would prefer for them.

Coercion is clearly present from the medical angle, and is also experienced implicitly as

social pressures to assimilate into the established societal definition of sex. Societal

norms, in their current state, clearly deny intersexed experience.

Gender Variation.

Key Example: Gender Identity Disorder

Gender, in some ways similar to sex, is subject to social and scientific binary

oversimplifications. As an attribute that tends to be even more difficult to measure than

sex, gender identities and expressions also exist on a spectrum. And while these

spectrums exist, a polarized prescription for gender persists with social pressures, and

from the gender categorization methods of psychology, which pathologize variance.

Socially, individuals are asked to internalize one of the two options for gender identity,

and express themselves according to that gender. While a person may generally fit well

within their gender, social coercion suggests that extreme ends of the two polarized

genders are the ultimate ideals, thus requiring a never-ending effort to attain gender


There is an important circular interplay between our socialized conceptions of

gender, and the prescriptions of modern psychology. The Diagnostic and Statistical

Manual for the American Psychological Association outlines various criteria to measure

the health of ones gender identity and presentation. This criterion defines a diagnosis of

dysfunction for individuals who are gender variant and experience dysphoria about that

variance. At times when a patient may not feel dysphoric about their gender variant

behaviors, a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder may still be assigned (Karasic 2006).

Gender Variation and Autonomy

I would like to argue that the social and medical denial of the potential for one to

be both gender variant and in a state of health can be a harmful oversimplification. Social

realities clearly do not recognize variant forms of health. As defined earlier, autonomy

requires the ability to act or express oneself without the pressure of social coercion

against those expressions. While someone may feel relatively comfortable with their

gender, if pervasive objections to their particular form of gender are present, than that

individual’s autonomy is put into question. By obstructing ones ability to define one’s

own state of health in regards to their gender identity, a gender variant individual is

blocked from the gender autonomy that is granted to gender normative individuals.

Therefore, a pure experience of autonomy requires, at the very least, an exercise of selfdetermination

without coercive influences based on normative conceptions.


Autonomy and Human Rights in Relation to Sex and Gender Variance

There is a clear relationship between autonomy and human rights that I would like

to explore, in relation to this study of sex and gender autonomy. A moral coercion to

conform to unjustified social norms of sex and gender violates the individual’s personal

autonomy. A human right is right that can be justifiably applied to all human beings. My

argument here is that an obstruction on ones autonomy is an obstruction of that persons

ultimate access to human rights. Simplifications in sex and gender categorization exist to

aid a social cohesion of language. While categorical understandings and measurements

do help bring people together into common understandings, they also inherently discount

variations to those categories; thus inherently discounting healthy, statistically expected

individual bodies and identities from the basic rights of recognition and acceptance. As

fellow humans, individuals of minority status should be given an equal access to personal

autonomy than is afforded to the majority.


Bornstein, K. “Who's on Top?" 1998. In My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real

Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely, pp. 34-71. New York,

NY: Routledge Press.

Butler, J. "Undiagnosing Gender." 2004. In Undoing Gender, pp. 75-101. New York,

NY: Routledge Press.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body. 2000.

Intersexed Society of North America (ISNA). 20 December 2008.

Karasic, Dan, Jack Drescher, editors. Sexual and gender Diagnoses of the Diagnostics

and Statistical Manual (DSM): A reevaluation. 2005

Lips, H. (2008). Sex & Gender: An introduction. New York: McGraw Hill.

Merriam-Webster Online. 14 April 2009

Spade, D. “Mutilating Gender”. Spring 2000.

Walker, Margaret. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. August 2007.

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