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From Phyllida's Desk

Anisogamy and the Problem of "Sex"

During her keynote speech at the IASPR (International Association for the Study of Popular Romance) conference last week, Laura Kipnis (Against Love) raised the issue of physical differences between the sexes. There are some, she said.

In the discussion that followed, this idea was disputed. We were constantly talking about "male" and "female" and "masculine" and "feminine," it was argued, without ever acknowledging that these are culturally-determined ideas, not immutable, physical conditions. This could be a serious problem for any group that spends its time studying romance—that is, people of various sexual identities and orientations falling in love.

In the course of that discussion, I was reminded of a recent book, The Evolution of Anisogamy, edited by Tatsuya Togashi and Paul Alan Cox (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). In almost all animals that reproduce by the exchange of genetic material between two individuals (as opposed to cloning or one organism dividing itself in two) this reproduction is "sexual." There are two different kinds of gametes, the cells that contain half of an organism's complete set of DNA: "egg" and "sperm," or "male" and "female." To form a new individual there must be one of each type of gamete, not two of the same kind.

Anisogamy means that these two types of gametes are different, physically and physiologically. (Isogamy means that all gametes are the same.) Egg cells are large, contain food for the embryo, are immobile, and are produced only a few or one at a time. Sperm cells are small, contain no food, are extremely mobile, and are produced in the thousands or millions.

This difference between gametes began long before mammals evolved. Like almost all animals and many plants, we humans have a biological difference of gametes that we call "sexual." However culture contributes to our understanding of what we call "male" and "female" individuals, at the level of egg and sperm there is a divide that goes back millions of years in the tree of life.

At some point in the discussion, the existence of hermaphrodite species and intersex individuals was used as an argument against the claims of any real sexual divide in humans. According to this argument, a relatively high percentage of human neonates, (perhaps 1 in 80?) can be called intersex, and therefore we have no reason to claim a biological basis for there being different sexes.

But I think we're actually saying the same thing.

We could not talk about "hermaphrodite" and "intersex" if there were not two different conditions: two X chromosomes or an X and a Y chromosome; an insertion device that produces sperm (penis and testes) or a receptor device that produces eggs and incubates the embryo (vagina, ovaries and uterus). What we call these two conditions ("male," "female," "masculine," "feminine"), and how we construct their adult, culturally-determined behavior and self-identification, can distract us from the important fact: there are two of them. They are not identical, or there would be only one type.

We can't be "inter" sex with only one sex, nor can we "combine" Hermes and Aphrodite if there's only Hermes or only Aphrodite.

It is essential to state here that I do not believe that because sperm and eggs are different, therefore social constructs of adult behavior and self-presentation are biologically determined. I am in no way arguing that individuals who define themselves as "female" must wear skirts or wax their pubic area, or that they have an affinity for picking up dust from furniture and the floor (my own hot-button issue); or that individuals who define themselves as "male" must wear neckties or grow their beards to repulsive lengths or have an affinity for occupations that involve using weapons and killing people.

The concept of "sexual" reproduction, the producing of a new individual by the combination of two different kinds of gametes, is so ingrained that we can't imagine another way. But there are a few organisms that reproduce by the combination of one gamete from each of two individuals, and those two gametes are the same (isogamy). These are still gametes: they have half the number of chromosomes of an adult cell. They must combine with another gamete to make a new, genetically complete individual. But they are the same size, the same shape, equally mobile or immobile. There are no sexes. All the adult individuals are the same type. They are not "all female" or "all male." They are simply adults.

Think of the difference between a point and a line. A point has no dimensions, no right and left or up and down. A line has one dimension, a side-by-side stringing together of points. It has two ends, this way and that way. Even if it is an infinite line, we can say that it goes this way forever and that way forever. There are two ways.

And that is the issue I'm raising with the concept of anisogamy. Many plants are true hermaphrodites. They have fully developed and functioning "male" and "female" sex organs and produce "male" and "female" gametes. They reproduce, sometimes by fertilizing themselves, but more often by a difference of timing or by using helpers like those proverbial birds and bees, so that the male gametes (pollen) fertilize the female gametes of a different individual.

There are a number of animals, notably some fishes and mollusks, which display a different kind of hermaphroditism. They change their "sex" during their lives depending on their state of maturation or conditions in the environment. They are fully functional "males" (sperm producers) at one time, and fully functional "females" (egg producers) at another time.

In humans, individuals are more likely to be intersex than hermaphrodites. Human intersex individuals rarely (as I understand it) have both fully developed "male" and "female" sexual apparatus. Instead, they are in between the two extremes. If "hermaphrodite" implies the existence of "both" male and female body parts, "intersex" implies something closer to "androgyny"—yet another term that relies on combining those two categories of "man" (andros) and "woman" (gyne).

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness imagined a world populated by true hermaphrodites, each individual possessing both sets of sexual apparatus in latent form, and matching up with another individual, one presenting as female, one as male, during the monthly rut. But there are still the two forms, the "male" and the "female," the inserter and the receptor, the inseminator and the incubator, and there are no same-sex acts. No two individuals interact sexually with both presenting as "male" or both presenting as "female." In this wonderfully inventive work, there is, nevertheless, no escaping the duality that is so much a part of our way of thinking about reproduction and sexuality.

Just as the Kinsey scale—a line—demonstrated that most individuals do not fall at the ends of the behavior continuum (the 0 of exclusive heterosexuality or the 6 of exclusive homosexuality) but are somewhere in the "middle" (anything from 1 to 5), so the existence of a minority of intersex individuals (even a large minority) does not negate the fact that there are two ends of the line. We may suspect that those two ends are more concept than reality; we may all feel that we're somewhere, physically, emotionally and behaviorally, closer to the middle of the line than to one end. But we exist in a biological, genetic setting that has the two directions.

Human evolution appears to be trending toward the middle of the line. The size difference between male and female individuals was greater in hominids than in early Homo sapiens and greater in Paleolithic humans than in twenty-first century humans. Some people argue that the "male" is truly reaching the end of the line. Not so far in the future, there may be no need of sperm for fertilization, since the combination of two female gametes creates a viable embryo while the combination of two male gametes does not; or of penis for insertion, since turkey basters and in vitro techniques can provide the same function…

Until then, we exist as animals with a linear biology of gametes and body form, of "this way" and "that way."
If we are unhappy with being forced to the far ends of the line instead of meeting in the middle, then that is an excellent opportunity for romance scholars to continue the discussion. But we can't ignore the two ends. We, all of us, exist somewhere along a continuum. We have multiple lines within us, of past and future, of fantasy and reality. The lines are infinite, and no one lives exclusively at the far ends.

All I ask is that we acknowledge that the line exists.
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