Category Archives: Gender, Reproductive Biology, Sex

Is it about power? Or is it about Reproductive Succcess?

That is the question.

Probably both, but the latest powerful male stepdown argues for the latter. Check it out.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., is the third member of Congress to announce his resignation this week, saying that he had discussed surrogacy with two female subordinates.

“Given the nature of numerous allegations and reports across America in recent weeks, I want to first make one thing completely clear. I have absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff,” Franks said in a statement. “However, I do want to take full and personal responsibility for the ways I have broached a topic that, unbeknownst to me until very recently, made certain individuals uncomfortable. And so, I want to shed light on how those conversations came about.”

Franks’ announcement that he would leave Congress at the end of January comes on the same day that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he would step down and days after Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., resigned — both after allegations of sexual misconduct.

In his statement on Thursday, Franks detailed how he and his wife had “long struggled with infertility” and suffered three miscarriages. They had twins through a surrogate, but subsequent attempts to have another child by either adoption or another surrogate fell through.

Also, is it me or is this all progressing alphabetically?

Guys crossing the street, rabid dogs, and elevators

I feel it is time for a repost of an essay I wrote about five years ago during an earlier period of turmoil on the internet caused by women and men acknowledging that women are generally under constant sexual harassment and under constant threat of sexual assault.

There may be a few broken links here that I’ll just deaden, but otherwise, I’m not changing the essay at this time.

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I want to mention three separate instances of men acting inappropriately towards a woman that occurred to people I know over the last couple of months.

[Trigger warning: Sexual harassment and rape]

In once case, a man drove up to a woman who was just getting out of her car, in a relatively secluded parking lot, to ask her what kind of mileage she got on that model and make. There was nothing exceptional about the car that would cause special interest in this issue. In the second instance, a man skated (on in-line skates) up next to a woman who was skating on a long trail a mile or two into the woods where no one was around, and insisted on “teaching her” how to “draft” which involved him skating to a few inches behind her and holding his hand on the small of her back while he explained how great that felt. In the third instance, a stranger cornered a women in an enclosed space, tried to rape her, and in so doing hit her several times in the head while pulling off her clothing.

Continue reading Guys crossing the street, rabid dogs, and elevators

Is my penis too small, too big, or just right?

And by “my” penis I mean “your” penis, of course.

This is a perennial question. For some reason, which I do not understand, the feminist perspective (note: I’m a feminist) is often to belittle the question, but really, that isn’t fair. It is not that difficult to imagine how anyone would come to a question about whether or not a particular organ of the body, the head, the breasts, the butt, the thumb, is somehow out of proportion. The penis is just one of many body parts that people may obsess over, and the larger scale issue of the intersection between physical and mental health should not be put aside for the penis, even if it is the Organ of Continue reading Is my penis too small, too big, or just right?

Minnesota High school league votes to let transgender athletes pick their teams

From MPR News:

After months of review, the Minnesota State High School League voted Thursday to let transgender athletes play on the sports teams that best align with their gender identity.

The vote was 18-1. One board member abstained.

Three Republican state lawmakers told the board that the Legislature, not the high school league, should handle policy on transgender student athletes. State Rep. Barb Yarusso, DFL- Shoreview, countered that the transgender policy would only apply to a handful of students and urged the board to act.

Supporters of the policy say it will make transgender students feel more welcome in sports. Critics say it’s risky to let transgender girls, who were born as boys, play on girls’ teams.

Melanie Outcalt, a 10th grader, said she was worried transgender girls who were born as boys would have an advantage in her favorite sport, volleyball.

“I think it’s unfair that you’re giving boys the opportunity to proclaim themselves as girls just so they can play on a girls team and potentially take away our scholarships,” Outcalt said.

That’s the same argument made in a full-page ad placed by the Child Protection League last Sunday in the Star Tribune.

Advocates for transgender athletes say those fears are baseless, and have never been a problem in the two dozen states with similar policies already in place. Minnesota will become the 33rd state to implement a policy for transgender high school athletes, according to high school league media specialist John Millea.

Elliott Kunerth, [noted] “Transphobia and a simple lack of education regarding the transgender community are not an excuse to discriminate against transgender players … Nor will they be valid excuses to treat someone differently. Whether or not a player happens to be transgender is no one else’s concern.”

Critics of the policy aren’t sure what their next step will be.

“There’s going to be some very unhappy people,” [one opponent of the policy said] “This was obviously a very controversial issue and some folks are going to be very, very upset about this.”

The policy will go into effect next school year, but religious schools will be exempt.

Do genes make you gay?

Of course they do. To the extent that genes make you anything in particular, though the role of genetics in human behavior is pretty limited.

You’ve probably heard about the newly reported research in which a genetic link was found to homosexuality in a study of gay brothers. Kelly Servick has a good writeup on it here. The study looked at 409 pairs of gay brothers, and found a region on the X chromosome that was similar across the sample. This sort of shotgun approach, comparing a trait (in this case, gayness) with a bunch of DNA (I oversimplify) is very likely to get results that look real but are the result of random association. But, it is also possible to find real links. I am agnostic as to whether or not this study found something interesting. But I do have a few remarks to make about how you get to be gay.

Consider the following list of things:

<li>Sexual attraction (to whom you are attracted)</li>

<li>Erotic response (what is erotic, including physically, to you)</li>

<li>Attachment (with whom to you seek attachment, and of what kind)</li>

<li>Sex drive (do you have it and where is it driving too?)</li>

<li>Society norms (especially for your subset of society)</li>

<li>The details of social norms, i.e., what categories of sexual orientation exist around you.</li>

<li>Your relationship to social norms (your comfort level ... do you seek "normalcy" or prefer something else?)</li>

<li>Whom you know or encounter and where they are with all of the above things.</li>

<li>And many more things that ultimately may relate to sexual orientation.</li>

This list can be written in many different ways, and every item on this list really represents a number of other sub items. These things are not mutually exclusive and the list is not exhaustive of that which relates to sexual orientation. Feel free to provide your own lists in the comments, if you like.

Many, most, maybe all of these things have individual ontogenies for any individual. The ontogenies may start before birth. We are bathed (or not) in various maternal hormones in utero. We are bathed in our own hormones in utero. The effects the hormones have depend on the relationship between the amount of hormone and the abundance and distribution of receptor sites, and on the timing. The abundance and distribution of receptor sites itself is probably influenced by the process. It is very complicated. Differences between one individual and another may related to external or non-genetic factors. In fact that may be very common.

Hormonal effects and interactions continue after birth. Again, timing, relationships between kinds and relative amounts of hormones, and receptor sites, still apply. Causes may be numerous.

The above only applies to that related to hormonal changes, which may affect a number of somatic (body related) features including brain features.

Then there are the non-hormonal factors, including cultural and social ones. Again there are complexities to the ontogeny of an individual with respect to these factors. And, these complexities are dynamic; culture and society can change right underneath you. And the non hormonal and hormonal factors may interact.

Much of this can be thought of as a process of negotiation. One negotiates internally, one negotiates with one’s social groups, one negotiates with society, culture, even the law.

Here is a simplified model linking the DNA identified in this study to homosexuality. Various switches are turned on or off, buttons pressed or not, during a person’s development. They do everything in some individuals to “make a person be gay.” But there is one element missing. If you have the DNA profile associated with the sample of 409 brothers, you get to be gay. If not, you probably won’t be. But, the “yes-no” value (reminder: oversimplifying here) found in this DNA actually has another purpose. It has to do with how many hairs you have on the back of your hand. The variation across men in hand hair is accounted for by variation in these genes. But in some individuals (but not all) it also happens to be the final ontogenetic link in the chain to a particular sexual orientation that in the sociocultural context that the 409 pairs of men live in results in gayosity. In another society, another culture, at another time, it results in being more likely to be a blacksmith than a farmer.

Note: That was a made up example. But in the absence of a biologically, developmentally, sensible link between some DNA and a trait, we can certainly carry out amusing and instructive thought experiments.

This complexity of links between causes and effects is probably true for the vast majority of variation found in human behavioral traits. Not this exactly, but something like this. The steps involved can be characterized in a certain way with respect to a trait under study, but all or most of those steps actually relate as well to other things. Also, some of those steps might have multiple causes. A particular manifestation of sexual or erotic attachment may arise in one person for one reason, in a different person for a different reason. In other words, the list I provide above can take many forms, not just because I’m being vague about what is in the list. The list can simply be different for different people who end up with the same “trait” as we happen to define the trait for the moment.

There is a reason for this vague connection, or in many cases, lack of connection, between inherited genes and behavior. A strong link between genetics and behavior has been shown to be very highly adaptive in some organisms. Here’s an old example. In a particular species of fruit fly, the larvae have a gene with two alleles. One allele causes the larvae to forage tightly in space, making a lot of turns in its search for food. The other allele causes the larvae to forage widely, to make few turns, and cover a larger area. Each allele is adaptive in a particular context and the fruit fly species has diversity at this locus. So, the fruit fly female mates with multiple males, produces a diverse batch of offspring, and the ones with a particular pattern of alleles at that locus have higher fitness. For now. In a different environment, maybe a few generations later (as the orange juice they are feeding on changes its characteristics as it rots in that glass you left on your desk) the genetic arrangement with the higher fitness changes.

But, humans are different. Humans are like the fruit fly, needing different traits at different times, but instead of those traits being programmed by genes, they are learned. Added on to the individual by enculturation.

This applies to some extent to all mammals because mammals have brains that matter to behavior. It applies very much so to primates, especially apes, and even more to humans. We have diversity in behavior, but we get it from our cultures. We learn to be a functioning adult; it is not pre-programmed. There probably are some pre-programmed behavioral features, but those are the features that would generally apply. But even those may be largely divorced from genetic inheritance on the grounds that behavior generally does not emerge from genes coding for neural structures. Genes in humans can’t code for neural structures at the level of the cerebrum, because of the way cerebrum develops, and that is where most of the relevant behaviors exist.

We can be pretty sure this is the case because of the huge cost we pay for it. Childhood. Childhood may be the most important human adaptation, and it may be the most costly. Human females can die in childbirth. That is nearly unheard of among mammals, outside of humans and our domestic stock. The babies can die in childbirth as well. That is because of our oversized brainy heads. Human babies are born helpless and spend several years nearly killing themselves at an alarmingly high frequency, and only survive childhood because of the adult humans taking care of them (or in some cases, wolves or ocelots, I suppose). This is costly to the adults. It limits reproductive output in the adults. Childhood also limits the reproductive output of the child, because it extend the time before reproduction, and decreases the chance of survival until reproduction.

Childhood, a brain that learns, the heavy reliance on the things the brain learns, and the long time it takes to make all this work demands a brain that is not overly programmed genetically, and results in a species with an extraordinary characteristic found in no other species: we are a multitude.

If you look at numerous species in most mammal families, you will find a wide range of behavioral and ecological repertoire. Measure body size, sexual dimorphism, typical system of mating, food getting, diet, defense, inter and intra species competition, etc. across all of the geomyids or voles, across all the species of dogs or all the species of cats, across the antelopes, across the African forest monkeys, etc. and you’ll find many features such as those mentioned that vary very little within species, but vary greatly across them within that taxonomic group.

Then look at humans. They look more like a taxonomic family than a species. Human cultures vary in these and other features as greatly as larger mammalian taxonomic groups.

But, when you capture an infant at birth from one human group and have it raised by another group, the infant grows up with behaviors typical of the adoptive group, not its natal group. That pretty much falsifies the idea that variation in our behavior is linked to variation in our genes.

By the way, if you move new born antelope, rodents, primates, etc. between species you may get some of the same effect. Cross species adoption does result in a bit of a behavioral chimera sometimes. But, it is only possible between some species and tends to work when the interactive parts of the system happen to be aligned. A parent bird will feed mouth-gaping carp for a while if they’ve lost their mouth-gaping baby birds. Within mammals, we’d expect a fair amount of post adoptive learning across species, because, as I noted above, learning how to be typical member of your species applies to some degree to mammals in general, more so to primates, more so to apes, and vastly more so to humans. Vastly.

Imma let you get back to finding links between genes and behavior. But first, remember, culture rules.

Final note. Part of the reaction to this new research, and this has happened with all prior research on homosexuality, is in reference to the sociopolitical outcome. If you are born gay, Conservatives can’t legislate against you, but if it is a choice, you might be a criminal. That sort of thing. This is balderdash. The Nazi’s killed all those people because of their genes. Many value free choice. Some will see being born gay as being born broken. People who are born a certain way, in many sociopolitical contexts, are vilified for it. You can’t win the sociopolitical game by claiming a certain human behavior or trait is built in or choice. You win that game on its own terms. And, lately, we mostly are winning.

How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

Humans appear to have a great deal of variation in sexual orientation, in what is often referred to as “gender” and in adult behavior generally. When convenient, people will point to “genes” as the “cause” of any particular subset of this diversity (or all of it). When convenient, people will point to “culture” as the “cause” of … whatever. The “real” story is more complicated, less clear, and very interesting. And, starting now, I promise to stop using so many “scare” quotes.

Continue reading How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

Tonight: Delusions of Gender

We speak with academic psychologist Dr. Cordelia Fine. Her new book, Delusions Of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, challenges the assumption that gender roles are wired into our brains, and shows us how ubiquitous cultural stereotypes are mistaken for actual fact.

and

On “Everything You Know is Sort Of Wrong,” Greg Laden asks if modern hobbies are an evolutionary consequence of prehistoric gender roles.

Details here