How much should sex matter?
Miss Universe competitor Jenna Talackova (right), shown here in 2010, underwent sexual reassignment surgery four years ago.
April 16th, 2012
10:30 AM ET

How much should sex matter?

Editor's Note: Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Agata Sagan is an independent researcher living in Warsaw. For more , visit Project Syndicate's new website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter

By Peter Singer and Agata Sagan, Project Syndicate

Jenna Talackova reached the finals of Miss Universe Canada last month, before being disqualified because she was not a “natural born” female. The tall, beautiful blonde told the media that she had considered herself a female since she was four years old, had begun hormone treatment at 14, and had sex reassignment surgery at 19. Her disqualification raises the question of what it really means to be a “Miss.”

A question of broader significance was raised by the case of an eight-year-old Los Angeles child who is anatomically female, but dresses as, and wants to be considered, a boy. His mother tried unsuccessfully to enroll him in a private school as a boy. Is it really essential that every human being be labeled “male” or “female” in accordance with his or her biological sex?

People who cross gender boundaries suffer clear discrimination. Last year, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force published a survey that suggested that the unemployment rate among transgender people is double that of other people. In addition, of those respondents who were employed, 90% reported some form of mistreatment at work, such as harassment, ridicule, inappropriate sharing of information about them by supervisors or co-workers, or trouble with access to toilets.

Moreover, transgender people can be subject to physical violence and sexual assault as a result of their sexual identity. According to Trans Murder Monitoring, at least 11 people were murdered in the United States last year for this reason.

Children who do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth are in an especially awkward position, and their parents face a difficult choice. We do not yet have the means to turn young girls into biologically normal boys, or vice versa. Even if we could do it, specialists warn against taking irreversible steps to turn them into the sex with which they identify.

Many children display cross-gender behavior or express a wish to be of the opposite sex, but when given the option of sex reassignment, only a tiny fraction undergo the full procedure. The use of hormone blocking agents to delay puberty seems a reasonable option, as it offers both parents and children more time to make up their minds about this life-changing decision.

But the broader problem remains that people who are uncertain about their gender identification, move between genders, or have both female and male sexual organs do not fit into the standard male/female dichotomy.

Last year, the Australian government addressed this problem by providing passports with three categories: male, female, and indeterminate. The new system also allows people to choose their gender identity, which need not match the sex assigned to them at birth. This break with the usual rigid categorization shows respect for all individuals, and if it becomes widely adopted in other countries, will save many people from the hassle of explaining to immigration officials a discrepancy between their appearance and their sex as recorded in their passport.

Nevertheless, one may wonder whether it is really necessary for us to ask people as often as we do what sex they are. On the Internet, we frequently interact with people without knowing their gender. Some people place high value on controlling what information about them is made public, so why do we force them, in so many situations, to say if they are male or female?

Is the desire for such information a residue of an era in which women were excluded from a wide range of roles and positions, and thus denied the privileges that go with them? Perhaps eliminating the occasions on which this question is asked for no good reason would not only make life easier for those who can’t be squeezed into strict categories, but would also help to reduce inequality for women. It could also prevent injustices that occasionally arise for men, for example, in the provision of parental leave.

Imagine further how, wherever homosexual relationships are lawful, the obstacles to gay and lesbian marriage would vanish if the state did not require the spouses to state their sex. The same would apply to adoption. (In fact, there is some evidence that having two lesbians as parents gives a child a better start in life than any other combination.)

Some parents are already resisting the traditional “boy or girl” question by not disclosing the sex of their child after birth. One couple from Sweden explained that they want to avoid their child being forced into “a specific gender mold,” saying that it is cruel “to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.” A Canadian couple wondered why “the whole world must know what is between the baby’s legs.”

Jane McCreedie, the author of Making Girls and Boys: Inside the Science of Sex, criticizes these couples for going too far. In the world as it is today, she has a point, because concealing a child’s sex will only draw more attention to it. But if such behavior became more common - or even somehow became the norm - would there be anything wrong with it?

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Peter Singer.

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Topics: Sex

soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. odinsgranny88

    Gender is important to differentiate whether you are 'coming' or 'going'.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Personality and character count more than the gender!

      April 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
      • Israel

        "Personality and character count more than gender" – Taking the article into consideration, that's a pretty contradictory statement. If gender does not matter, than why undergo all the trouble to change something that 'doesn't matter'.

        What's the real problem is to think that changing something external will fill that internal void.

        April 16, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
      • Janine

        girl, one said boy. The one you linked to said girl, but we are hainvg a boy...I guess when a prediction is 50/50 you're bound to have some people swear by them because they are right about half the time :)

        July 13, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  2. yum yum

    wow they are more beautiful than regular usa girls, most usa girls are fat, smoke, sarcastic and yuk

    April 16, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  3. J

    Why were they giving a 14 year old hormone treatment? They're still kids at that age, they don't know what they want. At age four she/he knew they were a girl? Rrrright.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • Liz

      You clearly don't know any transgender people.

      April 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
      • Amato

        What the hack is “transgender people”?
        Is transgender people =handicaps people? = physical challenge people? = mental disturb people?

        April 17, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Nikole

      You couldn't be more wrong.

      April 16, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Reply
  4. CJE

    Gender is something one is born with; it is encoded in your DNA. Jenna Talackova is a man by genetics. No amount of mutilation or delusion changes that.

    April 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • Nikole

      Gender is a social construct, any intro to sociology class will teach you that. DNA may decide your physical characteristics, such as genitals, but it also decides your hair color, skin color, ear size, all of which could just as easily define gender as you're suggesting. Clearly they don't.

      April 16, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Reply
      • Jim

        That's ludicrous. Coloring your hair pink doesn't make that your natural color, it's a facade, much like mutilating your genitals. You can pay a Dr to change how you look, but you'll NEVER be a woman. You can't change what you are, nature decides that. Doesn't matter what you call yourself, if you're born a man, you're a man. You've simply mutilated your body because of a mental defect.

        April 17, 2012 at 3:24 am |
      • eville_11


        April 17, 2012 at 6:11 am |
    • Aristocles

      Agreed. Denying one's gender is like denying that one is a human, or a mammal.

      April 17, 2012 at 12:16 am | Reply
  5. Ajodey

    I dont care who does what with whom, it is none of my business. But if you want a gay pageant, call it that. I wont be watching. Enough of gay this and gay that, let everyone get on with there own, there will always be skew people in the world and it is their business. But give me a beauty pageant with girls, no tricks allowed, i am a chicman.

    April 16, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
    • Liz

      That. Is. A. Girl. She identifies as a woman. She has gone through all the medical procedures to get her body feminized. You'd still watch a pageant with women who've had plastic surgery, I'm sure.

      April 16, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply
      • canadian-mountie

        thats no girl, liz. can he have kids? does he have a menstrual cycle? does he have XY Chromosomes? the answer is no, hes still a dude no matter how much surgery he gets or what he identifies as. if i decide to one day start identifying as a jelly fish or an african american does that make me one?

        April 17, 2012 at 12:14 am |
      • Jim

        That's a girl? Does she menstruate? Does she have female chromosomes?

        You're utterly retarted if you think for a moment that someone calling himself a woman makes him a woman. There are people who get tattoos and have horns placed on their bodies and call themselves Lucifer.. are they the Devil? What about people who file their teeth and wear Goth makeup and even drink blood.. I suppose they're Vampires?

        You're all mentally ill. Pure and simple. Go call yourself a tree next and shut up with the nonsense.

        April 17, 2012 at 3:27 am |
      • amber

        That is not a woman he is and will always be a man. He should not be allowed to compete in a WOMANS pageant. Just because he decided to play God and chop his genitals off does not mean he deserves womens rights. I surely hope none of you that agree with the transgender world call urself believing in god because god does not make mistakes your born Male or Female because he wants you that way!

        April 17, 2012 at 5:47 am |
  6. JimBones

    This will be more accepted once the older generations die off. Many of them are still living in this prude fantasy world that is a caricature of the 1950s.

    April 16, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • Nikole

      *hits the like button*

      April 16, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
      • Jim

        *Hits the 'ignore the deviant' button*

        April 17, 2012 at 3:28 am |
    • Chris

      Yeah, can't wait to walk up to a toilet door and look for the new symbols that show new genders.....

      April 16, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Reply
      • Nikole

        Good thing for you, you won't need to. Transgender isn't a gender, hence the "trans", and being transgender, I can tell you that I use the women's bathroom regularly, because I am indeed a woman.

        April 17, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • amber

      God does not make mistakes! all this science bs letting people play god. idc how much surgery u have youll never be a woman. And i am in my early 20s so please save the once the older generation dies off crap because there are plenty of people in the young generation that see how wrong this whole transgender mess is

      April 17, 2012 at 5:52 am | Reply
      • Anders37

        If you believe in a "god" watching over you,go see a shrink.

        April 17, 2012 at 7:11 am |
      • Amato

        If you do not believe in a "god" watching over you,go see a shrink

        April 17, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Amato

      These old people were once younger than you!

      April 17, 2012 at 8:34 am | Reply
  7. hoodinki

    All very PC. Nice-Nice.

    April 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  8. Chris

    Changing yourself physically doesn't mean anything. So if I feel like I should have been born a horse since I was four I should be transforming my self to look like a horse? We are born as girls and boys, that's it. We should be happy to live our lives like that and have fun. It's Gods plan to live our lives as we are born, changing our bodies that way is playing God ourselves, not being satisfied with what we have.

    Think about people who are struggling to survive in war zones, third world countries from diseases, cancer victims, and our main concern here is whether someone should be called a boy or girl. It's time the world grew up.

    April 16, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Reply
    • canadian-mountie

      i completely agree. i have no problems with gay rights but wanting to change your gender is a completely different thing. it makes me sick to my stomach to know that theres dude's walking around that look this similar to real women. if Jenna isnt up front about her real gender with people at a beauty pagent I'd imagine shes not unfront with unsuspecting men either.

      April 17, 2012 at 12:19 am | Reply
      • Nikole

        She doesn't need to be upfront about anything, because there's nothing to be upfront about, she's a woman simple as that. If that bothers you than it's you who has the problem, not her.

        April 17, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  9. ir

    utter non sense.

    April 17, 2012 at 12:48 am | Reply
  10. Russell

    Gender defines what type clothes we wear. Gender defines which restroom we go to. Gender defines which hairstyle my stylist will cut my hair into. Gender defines if a person's medical condition will need the attention of an OBGYN. Gender defines the name parents give their child. Gender defines whether a child is son or daughter. Have you asked parents if gender matters when it concerns their child or children?

    April 17, 2012 at 3:21 am | Reply
  11. bonghilario

    ok, go on what you want to do in ur life... there's God watching us...

    April 17, 2012 at 3:44 am | Reply
  12. Amato

    Simply yucky!

    April 17, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
  13. Rz

    Ok why have you shut me down ?? I'm not the guy stealing handles. It's the guy who stole mine and others. Shut him down. Please.

    April 17, 2012 at 8:16 am | Reply
    • ✠ RZ ✠  

      Thank you.

      April 17, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
  14. Sylar75

    I'm sorry. I'm all for gay / lesbian rights, marrage etc but unless a natural born woman can enter a transgender pagent, she shouldn't be allowed to enter Miss Universe. I feel the same way about golf. As long as men can't play in the LPGA, a woman shouldn't be allowed to play in the PGA. Why can she compete in both but a woman can't? Go ahead and bash me. Its how I feel.

    April 17, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  15. ChrisSpen123

    Is JenniTal he or she? I would think that honest answer will be... neither.
    It is "it".... But does it matter anyway?
    Apparently for some people like highly paid layer it's irrelevant, or is it? I would guess that that lady will sell her
    own mother if she would be able to make Name or Money on it.
    Things are going seriously wrong with society, bordering on madness. I think it all comes down to respect for
    nature, hundreds of millions of years in development of living creatures (or for religious people respect to G-d for that matter).
    Some "smart" and "high flying" people think that they can play with above things. I guess they are successful on
    making money on that, still they wouldn't be able to fool any thinking individuals.

    May 20, 2012 at 12:20 am | Reply
  16. ChrisSpen123

    Great and simple point was made in previous comment:
    is normal and mentally healthy person, who's body was not
    disfigured by highly paid surgeons, allowed to enter some kind of transgender people "contest".
    I guess the answer would be "NO".... and explanation would be simple, real he or she is not transgender, how he/she can compete???
    but wait a minute, why disfigured transgender "it" is allowed to enter contest of normal and healthy females? NONSENSE.

    May 20, 2012 at 12:30 am | Reply
  17. ruemorgue

    1) Genetically ... male.
    2) Mentally .. female (is the claim). I'm not a mind reader to know either way.
    3) Appearance ... female ... courtesy of sophisticated surgery.
    4) Does *she* belong in a *woman's* pageant? I don't think so.

    May 20, 2012 at 2:44 am | Reply
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    May 25, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  19. Lilah

    As a transgender person, I've asked God a lot about why He made me the way I am. The only answer I get is that it's part of my role to fight the closed-mindedness of the world. I don't think God made a mistake; He doesn't make them. But feelings don't lie, and whatever human beings want to do with their own selves in order to make themselves truly happy is, by my definition, God-willed. If you have a problem with it, then you're only sewing the seeds of hate, judgment, and misunderstanding, which by my definition is the opposite of what's willed by God.

    May 29, 2012 at 4:42 am | Reply
  20. Lilah

    The most dismaying thing I see in this thread is the people who accuse us of "playing God" by doing this to our own bodies. But what they don't realize is that they themselves are playing God by having the audacity to tell another human being that God would be ashamed of them for doing something that isn't hurting anybody. Who are you to tell me what's going on between me and God? To know for myself that He loves me is all the reassurance I need.

    May 29, 2012 at 5:11 am | Reply
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