A new identity for identity: Rethinking sex and gender with Anne Fausto Sterling

By Adriana Urbano

Professor Anne Fausto Sterling, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Brown University, delivered the 2019 Ursula Hirschmann Lecture on Gender at the EUI. In her talk, she laid out what she thinks developmental psychology is getting wrong and how we need to rethink gender and sex.


A mistaken approach to gender

Professor Anne Fausto Sterling has no doubts: when it comes to gender and sex ‘the standard way of doing science in regards to the body is flawed’. At the heart of the problem lies a false opposition between nature and nurture and a mistaken approach to identity.

Her work challenges commonly held assumptions in both science and popular discourse. She particularly takes aim at the separation between sex and gender, a distinction she called one of the breakthroughs of feminism in the 1970s. At that time, sex became to be widely understood as something biological and bodily, while gender was associated with socialisation and culturally learnt behaviour.

The stark distinction mirrors that of nature vs nurture – both of which are wrong according to Professor Fausto Sterling. According to her, sex and gender – just like nature and culture – are interwoven and continue to interact throughout individuals’ lives, in a process that starts in the womb.

Gender/sex and identity

In order to describe this process, Professor Fausto Sterling has adopted the term gender/sex, coined in 2007 by biopsychologist Sari van Anders so as to place the accent on the biological partner in this deeply imbricated couplet. The term indicates the inextricable contributions of both sex and gender in shaping human behaviour and is a central tenet of Fausto Sterling’s work.

To fully embrace the concept of ‘gender/sex’ it is necessary to change the very way we look at identity. ‘Identity’ – Professor Fausto Sterling explained – ‘has been traditionally thought of as something that you feel–something in your mind’. Instead –  she argues – ‘it should be seen as a life-long process that resides in the body and can evolve over time’.

The process of embodiment is one that starts in the womb, with cultural practices penetrating the walls of the uterus. It is not simply a matter of cultural practises influencing how mothers eat and exercise, or the way the language rhythms of a newborn’s parent(s) can be detected in that baby’s cries.

With the construction of identity so deeply tied to the body, it is not hard to see why gender and sex cannot be separated in shaping human behaviour. A closer look at scientific data further confirms this view, blurring the line between biological sex and what is thought of as culturally-shaped gender.

‘Many things that have been thought of as sex’ –  professor Fausto Sterling said – ‘are really gender/sex, as they exist at the intersection of body and culture’. Hormones are a prime example, as they vary daily according to circumstances, the time of day or whether the individual is a parent – a process that affects men too.

Not just two sexes

Fausto Sterling draws from a wide spectrum of disciplines to support her thesis, ranging across biology, philosophy and developmental psychology.

However, it is the latter discipline which Professor Fausto-Sterling most strongly challenges, specifically with regard to sexing the human body.

The author argues that developmental psychology must stop assuming that sex is binary. In her opinion, the discipline focuses excessively on individuals who do not fit neatly into either the traditionally-male or traditionally-female categories, implying that only what deviates from the norm is worth investigating.

This approach fails to acknowledge the huge variety present in human kind, a variety that Anne Fausto Sterling brought to world attention in 1993, with the publication of  ‘The Five Sexes’, a ground-breaking article declaring that there were at least five different biological sexes. Her study focused on the existence of intersexual people – individuals who have a blend of male and female sexual organs and secondary characteristics.

The numbers of intersexual people are not insignificant. In her 1993 article, Professor Fausto Sterling cited the research of Brown University psychologist John Money, who estimated that intersexual people constitute 4% of all births. The figure is hotly debated according to what definition of intersexuality is used.

The lives of intersexual people are scattered throughout history. Ancient Greek mythology believed that humans were born as two people fused together back-to-back, only to be split apart as a punishment from the Gods. Ancient Jewish legal texts also contain extensive legislation aimed at intersexual people, sometimes applying laws meant for daughters and other times applying laws meant for sons.

By neglecting the existence of variation, the underlying developmental processes leading to ‘sexing’ are obscured.

A more comprehensive theory of sexing

Professor Fausto Sterling pioneered the application of Dynamic Process theory to the field of sex and gender. The result is an approach that embraces biology, developmental psychology and even philosophy, by focusing on the phenomenological aspects of gender/sex.

Central to her approach is the infant-parent dyad. ‘In the beginning there was the dyad’- she says. In her research, Professor Fausto Sterling emphasises how the relationship between mother and child plays a role in the development of each individual baby’s gender/sex. For example, mothers speak to their infant daughters more than they talk to their sons; mothers of sons tend to encourage them in physical activity and movement more than mothers of daughters.

The results of the interaction between nature and nurture can be seen from an early age, as children start displaying a knowledge of gender-based behaviours from the age of 18 months.

Only by embracing how nature and nurture concur in shaping the unique variety of human beings can we improve our biological, psychological and even phenomenological understanding of human sex and gender.

A lonely pioneer

Despite the wide-reaching impact of professor Fausto-Sterling’s work, the interdisciplinary nature of her work is met with a lot of pushback.

‘It is hard to get these ideas published within the field -so I have a lot of rejection notices on my computer.’ The reason, she says, is to be found in ‘border defence’, the defending of the boundaries of academic disciplines.

The academic takes heart, however, in the fact that her ideas are being embraced and discussed by a broad group of academics, keen to examine the very foundations of how we have come to see sex and gender.