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Biological Theories of Gender


As you may or may not know from studying Biology, our DNA or genetic material is carried on chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs (46 in total) of these. One of them is different depending on your sex. In males it is XY and in females it is XX.

This is very often used as the definition of male and female and plays a huge role in determining the physical characteristics that you would associate with males and females. However, if chromosomes determine gender, what happens to your gender if does not follow the typical pattern. In the table we will look at two different conditions resulting from atypical chromosomes.

NameKleinfelter's SyndromeTurner's Syndrome
Who is affectedMalesFemales
CauseHaving an extra X chromosome: XXYNot having an X chromosome: XO (or just X)
Incidence1 in 750 males (0.13%)1 in 2500 girls (0.04%)
Most fetuses with Turner's will self-abort
Physical CharacteristicsSterile (not capable of reproducing), grow breasts, low levels of testosterone.Sterile, short stature, swollen hands and feet, no menstrual cycle.
Cognitive CharacteristicsLanguage skills impairment.Mild problems with spatial problems and mathematics.


Hormones are very important in the body, they control everything from sugar levels to growth of body hair.

In terms of how hormones influence gender. Whilst developing in the womb a foetus will naturally follow the route of being a female. However if it is exposed to higher levels of testosterone it becomes male (develops penis and testes, masculine brain). If genetic males aren't exposed to enough testosterone it can give rise to another condition called Testicular Feminising Syndrome, where the body does not respond to testosterone so become physically female despite being genetically male. For this condition there is the case study of Mrs DW.

She always thought she was female until visiting the doctor because she couldn't become pregnant. Here the doctor discovered the reason she couldn't become pregnant is because was bioloically male with no female internal organs. However, she chose to remain a woman and adopted two children. This suggests social factors are important in determining gender; but also highlights the importance of chromosomes in gender development.

Another study that would at first appear to point towards this idea was by Money and Erhardt (1972).

AimTo look at the case of someone who had their gender reassigned to see whether gender is down to social or biological causes.
MethodThey looked at the case of a boy who had his genitals badly damaged during surgery. The doctors suggested he would be given the identity of a female. He was given plastic surgery to have a feminine appearance and had hormones to promote breast development.
ResultsIt was reported that the child had normal female development.
ConclusionSupports the view that gender is social and can be changed regardless of the biological sex of the person since the child developed into a normal female despite being biologically male.

The truth of the situation is very different to what Money and Erhardt portrayed it as. The child in this study made their idenitity public many years later and said he had never felt like a girl and always displayed male characteristics; this is backed up by school reports.

When he discovered what had happened at 12 he refused to take hormones and so had a normal male puberty and lived his life as male. He then married and lives as a man and in 2004 he, tragically, killed himself.

This study, then infact shows that biological factors are more important, because the child had the gender identity of a boy (in line with the genetics) despite the parents doing their best to socialize the child into being a girl.