How Many Genders are There Anyway?
The answer is “it depends,” but generally speaking it’s five.
I started writing this article as an academic paper, but I figured it might be useful to open it up to more general audiences, in part because there’s so much confusion about the nature of gender. While to truly understand gender, it’s important to understand what something I call “eidos,” I think I can explain a few points here.
An Eidos is a social role that divide societies into distinct groups which establish the way in which people interact with one another, and which are closely related to, but which are distinct from, biological separations. There are a number of eidoi that I mention in my initial paper on the topic, including gender and race. While all eidoi are influenced by our biology, they are not themselves biological. And as a result, the way biological characteristics in our species, present within one culture, can be very different from how they present in another culture.
Differences in Gender Norms
In the United States, there was a significant period of time where only two genders were accepted. There were very strict roles that males and females could fill, and there were no allowances that would be made for non-binary gender norms. But there are many different gender norms throughout the world. And these gender norms do not simply vary geographically, but also with time. Such norms are in a constant state of flux. Yet, differences in the sexes have reinforced certain common features in gender roles of various societies. Because there are sex based differences between males and females, and because sex is mostly binary, two major gender groups have evolved. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Biological Origins of Gender Differences
One of the most obvious distinctions between males and females is that females bear children, while males do not. This distinction has major repercussions on division of labor and the evolution of gender roles. However, the advancements made in contraception and family planning have allowed females to determine if and when they have children. Other advancements have also allowed females to choose to have children later in life. These technological advancements have significantly impacted the natural division of labor.
One argument against the dissolution of gender idea might be that gender has already been quite fluid in many societies. However, it is not that gender was fluid, but rather simply that different gender norms existed. Western society relies heavily on the binary gender setup. Many cultures have a trinary or quaternary gender system. Some even have a quinary system. But even though these systems have more genders than western culture, the gender roles are fairly rigid and well defined.
Five Gender Classes
We can think of sexual dimorphism as establishing two dominant gender roles, call them M for masculine and F for feminine. Exactly what these two words would mean depends on the society’s gender norms. It is then very likely, given a number of environmental and genetic factors, that there would be males and females, as well as intersex individuals, who have more affinity towards one role or the other. And most males would have affinity towards one, while most females would have affinity towards the other.
When a person has a gender affinity which is not the same as the majority of the people of the given apparent sex, that would establish one or two additional gender roles, which we can call M’ and F’. But of course there are numerous biological differences which would still make these two roles different from their primes. For instance, males cannot give birth to young. So M* and F* would not likely be exactly the same as M and F. And so we have four gender roles, in total, that are likely to arise in society, as is the case in many Native American tribes.
The existence of sex ambiguity and intersex situations may also result in the common occurrence of a fifth gender. I will refer to this gender by the symbol ∅, which stands for “null.” The existence of a null gender seems to exist in a number of societies. One society that seems to include all five of these genders is the Bugis society. In the society, M and F are represented by oroané and makkunrai respectively, calalai and calabai align to M* and F*, and the null gender is known as bissu. In this society, affinity of the null gender is often often identified through ambiguous sexual organs.
Gender Fluidity and Gender Dissolution
But that again does not mean that gender was more fluid. It is simply rather that the primary and secondary gender configurations were established and that there were four gender roles. One might ask what would happen if a person in such a society did not conform to one of those four roles. To be honest, I don’t exactly know. There’s a lot of research to be done still. But the existence of additional recognized gender roles does not mean absolute freedom to express variation. The hijra, of India, for instance, have faced a lot of discrimination, and they aren’t free to do as they please. Sazedur Rahman wrote an insightful article on the hijras, in which he points out that the hijras are subject to various abuses and exclusion from society.
Violence & Discrimination against Hijra Community in S. Asia
Transgender is used to refer people whose identity, expression differs from their birth sex and who live between or…
But in modern society, for all the negative attention that gender discrimination receives, and rightfully so, we are actually seeing a lot of freedom in gender fluidity. Technological advancements are weakening the pressure on division of labor and making sexual dimorphism less important. Therefore the pressure reinforcing the separate prime gender roles is itself weakening.
As a result, we are not see so much an emergence of third and fourth gender configurations, but instead, we’re seeing people expressing numerous variations, often conforming to no standard. Thinking that these things are all genders that are being expressed, some people, and organizations, have tried to adapt to count for all of them. Facebook has apparently made a silly decision to try to include 71 different gender options in the UK.
It’s true that this result is often seen as the existence of numerous genders. But, an eidos assigns a person to a role and to a group. So, the move towards individual expression is therefore not expression of an eidos, but rather individual personality. Therefore, instead of the formation of numerous genders, we are simply seeing a decline in the expression of gender all together.
While this article goes over some of the more general aspects of gender, I also have an article which covers more specifics about commonly found characteristics of men and women in 20th — 21st century western culture, and why they seem to exist.