Is it a Boy or Girl?
As soon as a baby comes out of the womb, the doctor reassures the parents by saying “it is a healthy baby girl” or “it is a healthy baby boy.” From that moment on, the parents will rear the child according to the societal expectations of being either male or female based on the doctor’s sex assignment of the infant’s external genitals, though it is not always that simple. We will look at how a person’s gender identity, the sense of awareness that one is either male or female (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005), is effected by the complex interaction of biological and environmental influences; following this discussion, we will discuss the current arguments on sexual identity and how biopsychologists aim to resolve these issues. We will conclude with an analysis on the most influential factor, nature or nurture, in determining one’s gender identity.
Biological Influence on Gender Identity
From the time a sperm fertilizes an egg, the development of the zygote in the male or female direction depends on whether the sperm is carrying an ‘X’ or ‘Y’ sex chromosome. All female ova contain only an ‘X’ sex chromosome which requires the sperm to provide a ‘Y’ sex chromosome to begin developing the zygote as a male, or the sperm may provide an ‘X’ sex chromosome in which the zygote will develop as a female. Without the male sex hormones, all zygotes would develop into females; “the most important androgen, testosterone, spurs differentiation of the male (Wolffian) duct system” (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005, p. 173). All embryos have an undifferentiated duct system that can form into the male or female reproductive organs around the seventh week after conception, depending upon the level of male and female sex hormones that the embryo is exposed to.
A sufficient amount of testosterone activates the release of the Müllerian Inhibiting Substance, “a testicular hormone secreted during the fetal stage [that] prevents the Müllerian ducts from developing into the female duct system” (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005, p. 174). Women also produce testosterone, but at levels that do not normally cause the fetus to develop as a male. The absence of a Y sex chromosome and the androgen production that comes with it cause the male Wolffian duct system to regress and allow the development of the female sexual organs. The reproductive organs of all embryos are initially female which is apparent in the female appearance of those rare individuals with only one X sex chromosome instead of XX (female) or XY (male) (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005). Sexual differentiation does not occur only in the reproductive organs; the hypothalamus in the brain acquires sensitivity to estrogen which regulates the menstrual cycle in females and testosterone causes insensitivity to estrogen in males (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005).
However, complete sexual differentiation does not always occur; Rathus, Nevid, and Fichner-Rathus (2005) present studies of intersexuals, people that have the correct internal reproductive organs but have external genitalia that are ambiguous or common of the other sex, and hermaphrodites, individuals who have both male and female reproductive organs. Excessive hormones during particular stages of fetal development can cause internal and external sexual structures to vary in a single person.
Environmental Influence on Gender Identity
According to Rathus, Nevid, and Fichner-Rathus (2005), identifying ourselves as either female or male, or sex assignment does not decide the behaviors and roles considered masculine or feminine in our culture. The personalities and behaviors of men and women have extensive expectations within our society called gender roles (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005). By observing their parents and other people, a child acquires which behaviors are appropriate for his or her sex through the process of gender typing (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005). If a man exhibits the behavior and personality associated with the stereotypical female gender role he may be subject to sexism, a prejudgment that the sex of a person brings with it certain negative traits that disqualify him from certain jobs or inhibit his performance in some situations (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005). Sexism leads people to identify the same male and female behaviors in different ways through prejudiced attitudes. Being a sensitive man may attract some women, but other women and men may view him as a sissy since his behavior and personality are not in accordance with the stereotypical male role (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005).
Most people think of femininity and masculinity as opposite ends of the spectrum, but either a man or a woman can possess traits that are thought to be typical of the other gender-role stereotype in which the woman or man is said to exhibit psychological androgyny (Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2005). A man can exhibit the feminine traits of shy, understanding, and cautious while maintaining the masculine traits of opinionated, realistic, and rational—or vice versa; according to Rathus, Nevid, and Fichner-Rathus (2005), a person that does not maintain many of the masculine or feminine traits of his or her gender is considered undifferentiated in relation to the stereotypes of their gender role.
Current Arguments on Sexual Identity and Resolution
One of the biggest misconceptions is that people fall on one of two opposite ends of a gender continuum; one is either male or female. This paradigm left no way of understanding transsexuals and intersexuals. However, with the understanding that all fetuses initially begin as female and possess reproductive ducts of both male and female unless the appropriate hormones allow for one reproductive system to develop over the other, it becomes clearer how inefficient hormone production may cause the development of one gender’s reproductive system while allowing a part of the other gender’s internal or external reproductive system to develop as well. Insufficient androgen production may lead to the insufficient deterioration of the male reproductive ducts; for example, the female ducts develop as a result of a lack of androgenic hormones, but may have produced enough androgen to allow one section of the male reproductive system to develop in conjunction with the female duct system.
One of the ongoing debates as to the most influential factors in developing one’s sexual identity is whether it is nature or nurture; biological or environmental. Obviously, one cannot have one influence without the other but if I had to choose the most influential factor in developing one’s sexual identity, I assert that the environment has the most influence. A mother’s fluctuating stress levels and quality of her life cause physiological changes which can result in hormonal imbalances; if she is pregnant, this imbalance of hormones may not effectively develop the appropriate sexual reproductive system or the sexual and gender identity of the fetus due to inappropriate amounts of androgens during critical developmental periods upon which the biological process of sexual differentiation occurs. In other words, the environment affects the hormone production of males and females, and in pregnant women, the undifferentiated fetus as well.
My claim that the environment plays the most influential role can be seen in how many bisexual, gay, or lesbian people begin their early relationships as heterosexual, only to later discover that they have had unconscious feelings for the same gender all along, yet were too afraid to break the societal standard of heterosexual relationships for fear of being socially rejected by the cultural “norm.” In the history of our culture, any form of homosexuality was considered wrong and unnatural, as dictated by religious mandates and in society as a whole with its resistance in the past to allow television programming to include homosexuality; in fact, homosexuality was originally labeled as a disorder in need of treatment.
However, Mother Earth’s environmental influence is now providing our culture with natural evidence to disclaim the religious assertions that homosexuality is unnatural and therefore wrong. It has recently been discovered that over 1,500 different species in the animal kingdom display homosexual and/or bisexual behavior within group oriented animals, even in the presence of females (Sino Biological Inc., 2006). Someone needs to inform the religious leaders that they forgot to tell nature that homosexuality is unnatural. With homosexual behavior spread throughout the majority of complex and some simple species in the animal kingdom, we can begin to understand that this may be an environmentally adaptive behavior to promote inner-species harmonization for more peaceful rather than aggressive interactions. The validity of my claim can be understood when one considers that in order for we humans to create world peace, every man must love all women and men equally and vice-a-versa. Our natural environment is modeling the appropriate social and sexual behaviors to promote peace and connection through the many observations of instinctually adaptive homosexual interaction within the animal kingdom.
Rathus, S. A., Nevid, J.S., and Fichner-Rathus, L. (2005). Human sexuality in a world of diversity. (6th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Axia College’s Writing Style Handbook
Sino Biological Inc.. (2006). NewsMedical. Retrieved from http://www.news- medical.net/news/2006/10/23/20718.aspx