SSSB 2018: Sexing and Gendering the Body

Posted on April 25, 2018

This blog post is a modification of a talk I gave at the Skeletons, Stories, and Social Bodies Conference in Southampton, on the 22nd of March 2018. Edits have been made, but the content mostly remains the same.

This talk focused on current frameworks of sex and gender, why these frameworks are (in my opinion) not adequate, and potential ways to edit or create frameworks in the future.


First of all, I’d like to define the term intersex. An intersex person is any person who has natural variation in sexual characteristics. This can include, but isn’t limited to, genital ambiguity, genotypes other than XX or XY, mosaic genetics (some cells have XX while others have XY), immunity to certain hormones, or hormone profiles out of the ordinary. While 1 in 2000 babies is discovered to be intersex at birth, others find out they’re intersex later in life, and the prevalence of intersex people in the general population is estimate to be around 1.7%.

Secondly I’d like to define the term transgender. I’m going to shorten it to trans during this talk to save time. Transgender people are people who are a different gender (so have a different gender identity) to the sex and gender assigned to them at birth. I am going to focus a lot on medical intervention during this talk because it’s far more easily observable in human remains and many trans people do want and seek out medical intervention, but not all do or want to. "Transgender" as a word and concept only really has meaning in a specific social and cultural context, but people who we would call transgender if they lived today have existed historically.

The Current Status Quo

In Theory:

When we talk about sex and gender in theory, most of the time we also assume that both gender and sex are binary, or rarer and at best a sliding scale. We assume that sex is a single coherent characteristic that doesn’t change over a person’s lifetime.

Within the parts of archaeology I have experience of at least, there is also a big insistence that we sex skeletons, and don’t gender them. While this is somewhat true on a technical level, I think it leads to a huge lack of self reflection. I’m going to talk about this a lot more later on.

In Practice:

In practice, archaeologists sex characteristics on a scale of 1 (very female) to 5 (very male). We then give an overall score to signify if a body is ‘more female’ or ‘more male’

There is currently no guidance on what to do with remains scored at a 3.

When a diagnosis of a body being ‘female’ is made, it is assumed by default that the body is that of a woman, and vice versa for ‘male’ bodies. Frequently the language of gender is used to refer to sex. What this means is, for example, a sexed skeleton is referred to as a 'man' or a 'woman' based on how it has been sexed.

Why the Current Status Quo isn't Adequate

Despite intersex people being nearly 2% of living populations, diagnosing remains as intersex is incredibly rare. There’s no real guidance on what to do with remains that aren’t ‘male’ or ‘female’

I understand that making an intersex diagnosis from skeletal remains can be difficult. In some cases, it is impossible, and many remains marked as ambigious are just that. But there are ways to potentially diagnose remains as intersex. For example, if a body has a ‘very female’ pelvis, but XY chromosomes, chances are the individual is likely intersex. Traits associated with intersex conditions, such as spine curvature or shorter stature are often also observable in skeletal remains.

Our current framework does not know how to deal with trans people who have medically transitioned. While this is understandable, as transitioned bodies aren't present in much of the archaeological record, they are present in more recent parts of the record, and prevelance is likely to increase in the future.

In the US, the minimum National Register age threshold for a site or artefacts to be considered archaeological is 50 years. Medical transition has been available longer than this- hormone replacement therapy for trans people happened on the record in the US from 1949, and in Germany a surgeon called Felix Abraham wrote a paper documenting multiple cases of genital reassignment in 1931. While trans bodies make up very little of the current archaeological record, they are still present

As the number of medically transitioning people in the general population rises, our current frameworks of sex will be unable to deal with it. Archaeologists in the future will have to rethink how they think about sex to deal with the changing realities of the archaeological record.

On a sadder note, current frameworks have a huge impact in forensics cases. Frequently, trans people are misidentified as non-trans people of the sex they were assigned at birth, or in some cases, a non-trans person of the gender the person identifies as.

One case is that of Julia Doe. She was a trans woman found in Lake County, Florida in 1988. Until Autumn 2017, she was thought to have been a cisgender woman who had given birth. She’d taken oestrogen and had breast implants, and was only found to be trans following a DNA test. Only now has there been any progress in identifying her.

Having strict ideas about sex that don’t reflect reality leaves us open to cases like this, with very real impact on people’s lives.

How Can We Improve Practice and Frameworks

I think dealing with the non-neutrality of sexing is going to be the most difficult thing to respond to when it comes to creating new and alternative frameworks. think because we all operate in a society where sex and gender are considered so linked, so we learn to consider them connected. I also think this environment means it can be hard to dis-entangle them and have our work still remain meaningful to people in general.

I think with the issue of sexing remains, the best we can do is be careful about how and where we apply language. If, as I think most people do, you default to referring to people as ‘men’ or ‘women’ based on how you’ve sexed them, that’s a pretty clear area in which you can improve.

I think there are some easier, more achievable things we can do as practitioners.

Firstly, I think we need to be more willing to treat something that isn’t a 1 or a 5 as a conclusion in itself, and not a lack of a conclusion. Intersex people, as I said earlier are 1.7% of the population, but they aren’t present in the archaeological record at all because none of us are willing to conclude that they are present. There will not be 1.7% of remains identifiable as intersex, as some intersex conditions only affect soft tissue, and some remains that are ‘inconclusive’ are just that. But there is still progress that can be made.

I also think we need to be more specific about what questions we’re asking when we ‘sex’ a body.

So for example, with Julia Doe, the trans woman whose case was cold for 30 years, her remains have now been identified as ‘biologically male’. But in this case, what does that mean? She was oestrogen dominant, she had breasts, she (to my knowledge at the time of writing) likely had a vagina, which was still a vagina even if it was surgically constructed. The only ‘male’ thing about her was that she has XY chromosomes, which is basically functionally meaningless once you stop being a foetus- if you changed all the Y chromosome to an X in every cell in a body, nothing about that individual’s phenotype would change.

When we look at the pelvis, what are we actually asking? Are we asking what hormone was dominant during first puberty? If somebody has given birth? What hormone profile somebody had close to death?

My third suggestion is to be willing to create new frameworks to recognise the complicated nature of reality and account for it. Currently, there are no forensic anthropological standards exist for the identification of trans individuals from skeletal material. but there is actually a lot of information about this, it’s just that it’s all medical data. There’s been a lot of studies of how bones are affected by hormone replacement therapy because bone health is something monitored when people go on HRT.

When it specifically comes to trans people, there’s also other ways you can look to see if a body has medically transitioned.

For example, there are ways you can identify facial feminisation surgeries on the skull, and you can discern marks made antemortem and postmortem.

With trans men, the implants used in phalloplasty (a type of genital reassignment surgery) can last a long time in the archaeological record, because the silicone, plastic, and metal they’re made from don’t really decay. Obviously they wouldn’t be present in cremation, because the silicone and plastic would melt and the particular metal used in these implants would be removed for recycling before cremulation, but that’s still a potential marker in burials.

Conclusion & Caveats

I don’t think our current frameworks of sex and gender are useless. When it comes down to it, almost all realities are too complex to fully account for. This is why we use models.

"Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” -George Box

I don’t reject our current models totally. I believe they are useful, and in some contexts they are more useful than an approach that tries to examine every individual for signs of intersex conditions. Any kind of examination of populations, for example, will rely on assumptions about sex and gender, and I think this practically makes sense.

However, I believe that models, even when wrong, are only useful where they are not harmful. And I also believe that, in some contexts, our current frameworks and practice harm our ability to make valid and accurate conclusions. This is why I am interested in discussing and creating potential frameworks for the future.