X-Phi and Sex Essentialism

Kevin Timpe at the Experimental Philosophy blog has put up some interesting results in response to a classroom poll:

When asked whether they think having sex chromosomes (either XX or XY, depending on whether the student is male or female) is an essential or accidental property, the male students generally replied the property was accidental while the females thought it was essential. Timpe is asking for additional studies or research along these lines–if any readers have suggestions, head over to the blog and contribute. While it’s a single sample and a small sample size, the results are interesting.

Any thoughts on implications of the results, if you think there are any?

17 thoughts on “X-Phi and Sex Essentialism

  1. This sounds totally pedantic, but his results aren’t *quite* what you’re reporting, because the men and women were asked a different question. They weren’t all asked ‘is it essential to a person that they belong to the gender to which they actually belong’, and then disagreed on the answer. Rather, the men were asked ‘is it essential to men that they are men’ and answered (mostly) ‘no’, and the women were asked ‘are women essentially women’ and answered (mostly) ‘yes’. There needn’t be a disagreement here – they could both be right. It might not be possible for any actual woman to be a man but it be possible for each actual man to be a woman. (Perhaps X chromosomes are harder to get rid of than Y ones.)

    Here’s why this isn’t *just* a pedantic point. If conventionalism about essence is true, this asymmetry in the facts might be explainable, if woman identify with their gender more. So the woman are truly saying they couldn’t have been men because they are holding fixed their gender when evaluating counterparts for similarity, but the men are truly saying they could have been women because different features are salient to them.

  2. Absolutely right. I didn’t get into that in the post, aside from my parenthetical, because I was hoping someone would notice the distinction…

    Apart from that small bit of self-defense, I’m going to hang back and let conversation continue. Check out the X-Phi website for the precise phrasing of the question.

  3. Ross,

    I agree that what you suggest could be the case, though I would be surprised if that were what the students were thinking. I’d have to ask more (or different) questions to find out if that were the case. But I would be surprised if very many students gave differing answers to the following three questions:

    -is it essential to a person that they belong to the sex to which they actually belong?
    -is it essential to a male that he belong to the sex to which he actually belongs?
    -is it essential to a female that she belong to the sex to which she actually belongs?

    And as a bit of background, the survey was just to see if students were understanding the difference between essential and accidental properties and what they thought were paradigm cases of each (e.g., being human [15 essential to 1 accidental] vs. year of birth [7 essential to 9 accidental]).

    On a related note, female students were also more likely to say that being a singleton (i.e., a non-twin or non-multiple) was essential than were male students. (6 female students said being a singleton was essential, only 3 said it was accidental; 3 male students said being a singleton was essential, while 4 said it was accidental).

    And of course Orlando is right that the sample size is very small. The main goal of the survey was pedagogical, not research. But I still found the assymetry interesting.

  4. I know that apparently when students are asked to list their key traits, black students will list race and white students won’t. This is often taken to show that those with the more privileged identity tend to ignore its importance, while the less privlieged are made aware of their identity constantly– and so have it at the forefront of their consciousness. I can’t recall whether the same happens with sex, but if so perhaps it plays a role– as people do pretty readily make a slide from thinking something’s important to thinking it’s essential (indeed, ‘essential’ is sometimes used in this way).

  5. Jender –

    In my experience (and I was a college-age man in the US not too long ago), reality is almost exactly the opposite of your hypothesis. Young men spend enormous amounts of time worrying about (heterosexual) masculinity and avoiding being remotely feminine (or gay, which seems to be regarded as a type of femininity). But they don’t do this because masculinity is `essential’; they do this because masculinity is fragile and vulnerable, and must be carefully and strenuously maintained.

    Understanding the property `being a male’ the survey-takers are working with here is important — more important (says the empiricist) than the modality per se. I suggest that the property is not physiological or biological. Rather, it’s performative, a matter of actions and behaviours.

    Some notes on this. First, the wording on the question was `being a male (that is, having XY chromosomes) essential ____ accidental ____’. Which pretty clearly identifies the property in question as biological. So, second, besides needing an account of the gender differences (do young women not see femininity as performative?), developing my suggestion would also need an account of how a pretty-clearly-biological property could be read as performative. Third, and most importantly, with a sample set of just seven young men, there’s not even any real reason to think that the explanadum is robust.

  6. Fascinating points, Noumena! It seems to me that one really interesting follow-up (other than a bigger sample) might be to ask students *why* they give the answer that they do, and see what sorts of things they cite.

  7. Noumena: “they do this because masculinity is fragile and vulnerable, and must be carefully and strenuously maintained.”

    That may be, but I think we can still ask the question of what men *think* masculinity is. The way it’s portrayed is often that it’s natural, stripped down, simply the way men are. However, I think careful analysis can show that’s false (I’m thinking of Judith Halberstam’s work here).

    So, putting aside the question of whether the survey takers were thinking of sex/gender–or if they even have that distinction–there could be some follow up questions to see whether their given response is actually successfully applied.

  8. Hi Orlando – any particular Halberstam piece you’ve got in mind? (Interested in reading…)

  9. She wrote a book called Female Masculinity which is what I’m thinking of, although I know she’s written on FTMs and Butch women in some other places. The book, though, isn’t about lesbians and transgendered persons per se, since her thesis is that masculinity is not an inherent property of male persons.

    (I’m hesitant to say that this is what’s going on in the X-Phi situation, though, since it would mean students understood gender to be related to chromosomes. Not impossible, but I wouldn’t want to start with that assumptions.)

  10. I like a comment by Paul Gowder from the X-Phi comments:

    Seems to me to confirm some feminist claims about the normativity of maleness — of course women would perceive their sex as an essential property more than do men, given that unusual attention is paid to the sex of women relative to that of men — that women are socially defined by their sex (as different from the perceived male baseline) in a way that men aren’t.

    BUT, I’m worried by the fact that not all men are XY and not all women are XX. There are “chromosonal abnormalities” that do not entail one is not of any sex – e.g., XO or XYY. Also, we don’t know whether there’s been any discussion about “essential.” The word shows up in a lot of ads meaning something pretty weak, and I’d expect that to influence students’ usage.

    If we hadn’t discussed modality or natural kinds and if I were to bet what would be going on in my students’ minds if they produced answers with this asymmetry, I’d bet that the women were asking themselves if they could exist without being the kind of creature that is biologically connected to being a mother and answering “no.” Whereas the men are asking themselves if they’d cease to exist if they somehow got that ability and are answering “no.” But that’s in large part because I’d doubt they’d be able to get much of an intuitive grip on whether a certain chromosonal configuration is essential.

  11. Here is the definition of the difference between essential and accidental properties that the students were working with in the survey (these definitions were part of what they read immediately prior to filling out the survey):

    The accidental properties of a thing are those properties that the thing in question has, but doesn’t have to have. That is, while the thing does as a matter of fact have properties, it could still exist if it didn’t have those properties.

    In contrast, the essential properties of a thing are those properties that the thing in question not only does have but has to have. In other words, the thing couldn’t exist without having its essential properties.

  12. Saw this on the x-phil site, where my first reaction was “Let’s see if there’s a real phenomenon here before we hoop down the path of offering explanations for something that doesn’t exist”. (My second reaction was, “Sheez, this is the sort of stuff that gives x-phil a bad name!, not because its a bad thing to do but because there are so many carts before the horse that one gets the impression that its carts all the way back. But don’t worry, I’ve completely suppressed THAT reaction. Oh yeah.)

    If there’s a difference here at all, it should show up with sample sizes that are at least as big as the minimal size needed in standard developmental and social psych articles–16 per group is pretty common. And that should be a sample drawn from a more randomized population, if we’re gunna kill the 2nd bird of sample representativeness with that same stone.

    So while this is a start, it’s a start on thinking about how to collect evidence for a possible phenomenon, rather than a start on possible explanations for an actual phenomenon.

    Interestingly, in Susan Gelman’s book on psychological essentialism, The Essential Child, there is, so far as I recall, NO attention to gender differences in childhood responses to third-person attributions based on things like gender labels or properties that might affect gender. Children, she reports, are psychological essentalists about gender (see pp.41-45 and pp.95 ff, for example). Not sure if she looked for these differences and didn’t find them, or if she simply didn’t analyze the data by sex of the responder–I don’t think this is in the book but if might be in the original research papers.

  13. Rob, I’ve read there’s also some evidence that young children think they can become the opposite sex by changing clothing, etc. At least that’s according to Fausto-Sterling’s citation of studies by Sandra Bem (see “Sexing the Body” pp247-248) and that once children learn about genitalia, they view gender differently. I’m not really familiar with the literature, though…so this could be explained in multiple ways.

    I think you’re absolutely right, though, that
    1. We need larger, representative samples
    2. There are lots of concerns with what exactly we’re studying when we ask these questions

  14. Rob,

    Just for the record, I wasn’t primarily trying to do x-phi, but merely using some of their methods to see how my students thought about a particular issue prior to our discussing it. (As I note in an earlier post on the same topic at Experimental Philosophy, I was incorporating some suggestions from Nadelhoffer and Nahmias’ “Polling as Pedagogy” article, which I think is quite interesting.)

    But when I saw this asymmetry (even from such a small non-randomized sample–but that’s my class), I thought that people might find it interesting and know what work has already been done on the issue that they could point me to as I think about it. That was the reason for my post–not to argue for any substantive philosophical thesis.

  15. Just for the record, there was a strong rumor among the neighborhood children (I was about 6) that one could change one’s sex if one could touch an elbow with one’s hand (elbow and hand on the same side, of course).

    I’m puzzled then by the idea that we were gender essentialists, since I think we all believed it. Further, this was a long time ago and the sex divisions was accompanied by VERY full gender stereotypes – e.g., women could grow up and get married or fail and disappear, bascially. Boys would have to have a career and earn enough money to support a wife and children. So there was quite an “it” to think could change.

  16. Orlando: thanks for the heads up on the Bem studies and their discussion in Fausto-Sterling’s book. I’ll check them out (again … it’s a while since I looked at that stuff, and if it’s longer ago than yesterday, I need to look again).

    Kevin: point taken. I realize from the x-phil post that these are the results you found from a small class sample. But then, this *was* posted on the x-phil site … My reaction is more to the reactions than to the report of asking a few class members how they would respond to a certain question. Maybe there *is* some kind of result lurking here. It’s just that we’re not really that far down the track to articulating what that result might be, or whether it is a spurious effect of some kind.

  17. A friend of mine apparently believed that there was some age (can’t remember what) at which everyone changed sex.

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