The Seven Sexes of Humankind
Adjusting the vocabulary of the discussion
David E Romm
The rhetorical constraints on bioethical issues are bound by the vocabulary available. As these issues become deeper and harder to grapple with, more specific concepts are introduced and debated, often using inadequate vocabulary. From the vile hate speech from the anti-abortion crowd to the sympathetic but often helpless rhetoric about keeping the elderly on machines, the terminology used for the discussion of many health issues is in its infancy. This paper will raise more questions than it answers, but I hope to help construct the dialog.
For legal and ethical purposes, I propose that there are seven sexes of humankind: Pre-adolescent males, pre-adolescent females, fertile men, fertile women, pregnant women, post-menopausal women, post-child-bearing men. Some current vocabulary recognizes these distinctions, but don't recognize all of them in language that helps clarify the debate.
Human DNA contains information that is used for different purposes during different stages of life. DNA must contain coding for the differentiation of cells during gestation, the growth during childhood, the changes during adolescence, the reproductive capabilities during adulthood, pregnancy and post-menopausal changes. We are all of a life form, but our humanity exhibits different physical characteristics at different times. None of these sexes are better or worse than the other: They are simply different arcs on the circle of life.
For the most part, we lump everyone into two sexes: Male and female. These are useful distinctions, but limiting. For further modifiers, we add adjectives: Pregnant woman, young man, etc. Some of these morph into nouns: Children, Teens, Geezers, etc. I contend that the issues facing us in the 21st Century require a certain refinement of the language, and I hope to identify where these new paradigms would be useful. Part of the legalistic problem is that people mature at different rates. It's difficult to write laws based on individual development; usually the laws just pick an age and declare a person above that number has certain applicable laws and a person below that number has different applicable laws. This works moderately well in practice, but doesn't inform the debate.
Children are physically different from adults. This is hardly news, and our society recognizes much of the difference. A child goes through developmental stages, and we recognize the inherent differences between nursing infant and pre-teen child. Still, the physical dividing line between "child" and "adult" is the ability to reproduce. But the physical change to adulthood is not always matched by the change in the rhetoric of bioethical issues in the US.
The physical maturation is recognized as an ethical maturation in many religions. In Judaism, you're Bar Mitzvah'd at 13 and, in theory if not practice, have all the rights and responsibilities of an adult. Christianity ties Confirmation (full membership of the church) to having been baptized, completing the cycle from birth to maturity. "Some cultures have the custom of confirming infants but the usual practice sets the age for confirmation in a 12-16 year old bracket.". In Islamic cultures, circumcision is the rite of passage between childhood and adult.
Many religions make the distinctions that the US legal system barely makes, which is why much of the ethical issues are phrased as taboos rather than spelled out in law. Some of these distinctions are already part of the culture: Child molestation is considered much worse than statutory rape.
A young adult may not be emotionally equipped for becoming an adult, but they have the physical capability and so the act is at least partly understood, though certainly not approved of. Having sex with a child who can't reproduce is appalling, on a cultural level.
At no point is the child considered responsible. The parent or guardian makes all the important decisions regarding medical treatment, education, safety, etc. In US legal terms, when a child becomes an adult happens much later than the onset of adolescence. You can't vote until you're 18; can't drink alcohol until you're 21. The age of consent, when you can legally have sex with a willing partner and aren't breaking a law, varies wildly from country to country and in the US from state to state.
Since children in our society are protected, some would say coddled, we already have sufficient vocabulary for two of the seven sexes: Boys and Girls. Boys and Girls are humans who have not yet reached the physical capability to reproduce, or make important decisions for themselves. In legal terms, the distinction is quite different, and an almost arbitrary age is set for the ability to reproduce, vote, drive, or decide whether you want life-saving medical treatment or trust in God's will.
We already recognize this period of uncertainty, between physical maturation and the ability to handle adulthood, as "adolescence". One of the reasons that adolescence is so turbulent, for many, is the dissonance between ability and responsibility. Resolving adolescent issues will not be easy: Some young teens are very responsible, and some adults are not responsible well into their life. Still, recognizing the physical distinction helps inform bioethical issues.
In much the same way that "Boys" and "Girls" already exist as terms, adult "Women" and "Men" exist as terms. And similarly, the definitions are sometimes fuzzy around the edges. I've examined the dissonance between the physical change from child to adult and the legal change, but there's also the change at the other end. When adults get past childbearing age, their role in society changes.
Women change during and after menopause. There is already a term, used proudly by many women past childbearing age: "Crone".. As with most of these definitions, the term must apply individually and any cutoff age is arbitrary. Women have given birth as late as 63 years old.. For crones, many of the changes are cultural: Free from any sexual connotation, they can get away with comments and attitudes that wouldn't be considered proper for a potential mother. "She may also enjoy a new freedom that she never had as a younger woman – the freedom to act in a way that, when she was young, may have been considered outrageous. If tongues wag when she has lunch with a younger man, will she blush for shame? Not likely. If she chooses to pierce her ears three or four times, need she feel self-conscious? I think not." The changes in physical characteristics change ethical concerns such as Should Health Care For the Elderly Be Limited?
Male menopause is not as well defined in physical terms but has a wide literature associated with it. There is already a word, used as a moderately disparaging term of endearment, that I think fits: "Geezer". Geezers, like their female counter part crones, enjoy a certain cultural freedom. Yet they're different than females in that the change to a post-childbearing time is not apparent and not at all certain. Though there are endless advertisements (and, presumably, sales) for Viagra and similar potency-enhancing drugs, a healthy male will be able to impregnate a fertile female at any age, but "healthy" is a pretty hefty qualifier. While older women are automatically considered to be beyond childbearing considerations (though not necessarily beyond sexual considerations), older men can be considered "dirty old men" or "robbing the cradle" and their flirtations are taken more seriously. Geezers and Crones share many physical changes, and the concomitant bioethcal issues associated with aging are similar. Yet in a cultural context, the ethical considerations of the Geezer have a different nuance than the Crone due to the potential for fatherhood and sexual interest that may be diminished but might not ever be completely extinguished in an older male. What is fodder for dirty jokes has implications for the survivability of the species.
So far, none of these terms have been too far removed from present language, though using them to talk about people with different ethical concerns is. I would like to offer yet a seventh sex, one for pregnant women. Pregnant women are different in their symbiosis, and should be considered a different sex. Their physical needs are different. Many of the most contentious issues in the country today are over precisely how to treat pregnancy and pregnant women. The rights as well as the responsibilities of pregnancy are under consideration. Some problems affect pregnant women uniquely, such as "Should Pregnant Women Be Punished for Exposing Fetuses to Risk.", which was recently decided on by the Supreme Court on the issue of privacy. Some consider the zygote to be a separate individual from conception on. Others consider the life of the mother paramount, when there's a conflict. I contend that using a different word for pregnant women will inform the issues; though merely changing the language won't solve any conflict, it will at least get people talking to each other, rather than past each other.
While there are undoubtedly terms already in use for pregnant women, I'm going to delve into science fiction to pick a term without emotional baggage. The short story, "Venus and the Seven Sexes", by William Tenn is a humorous treatment of a fictitious alien race, but I'm going to draw on one of the terms used: "Nzred", or the coordinator sex. In the story, all seven sexes are required for reproduction, but the nzred bears responsibility for bringing everyone together at the appropriate time and coordinating the birthing process. This isn't quite what a pregnant female does, but she does act as coordinator for herself and the changes within her.
"Women" and "Men" are the generic terms for female humans and male humans, while "Girls" and "Boys" are the slightly diminutive generic terms. More generally, everyone falls into the categories, “adult”, “child” or “pregnant woman”. I see no reason for that to change, though their precise definitions will be narrowed. Therefore, more or less in chronological order of physical maturity, the seven sexes of humanity are:
For rhetorical purposes, specifying people at different physical stages will inform several debates in several ways. The dissonance between the physical and legal stages will remain a major arguing point, eg: When are children capable of making decisions that affect them? Are morning after pills, such as RU-486, taken by women or nzred? Indeed, the whole issue of abortion and abortion rights will be cast into a different light. At the moment, we simply speak of “the elderly” as if age were the only guide. I contend there are physical differences to be considered as well. This will inform many of the debates on insurance and health care.
At the moment, I'm not going to worry about the pronouns associated with the seven sexes. The standard two-sex "he" and "she" and cases will suffice until the meme has spread and the terms are in wider use.
"Adolescence: Change and Continuity." Pennsylvania State University. <http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/n/x/nxd10/adolesce.htm>
Catholic Information Network. <http://www.cin.org/kc61-4.html>
"Common Physical Changes During Pregnancy." Health Partners. <http://www.healthpartners.com/Menu/0,1791,2888,00.html>
Cornforth, Tracey. Menopause, A New Beginning. Holistic Healing. <http://womenshealth.about.com/health/womenshealth/library/weekly/aa111697.htm>
Court: Consent needed to drug-test pregnant women. <http://www.cnn.com/2001/LAW/03/21/scotus.drug.test.03/>
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 2nd Ed. 1989 ISBN: 0192860925.
Evans, Maureen. Crone Pending: In spite of cultural stereotypes, menopause brings women new freedom. <http://www.life.ca/nl/59/crone.html>
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. "The Five Sexes, Revisited." The Sciences July/August 2000: 19-23.
"Growth and Development." Kid's Health "Growth and Development." Kid's Health <http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/growth/>
Maid, Mother, Crone <http://members.aol.com/ATOYA/crone.html>
Niven, Larry. The Protector. Ballantine Books, reissue 1992. ISBN: 0345353129.
Tenn, William. "Venus and the Seven Sexes." The Seven Sexes. Ed. William Tenn: Ballantine Books, 1968.
Toal, Jean and Capron, Alexander Morgan. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Bioethical Issues. Ed. Carol Levine. McGraw-Hill Dushkin, Ninth Ed. 2001
US Sentencing Commission Offenses re: Involving Prostitution, Sexual Exploitation of Minors, and Obscenity: <http://www.ussc.gov/fedreg/fedreg3.htm>
"What Is Male Menopause?" Male Menopause. <http://www.malemenopause.com/index1.html>
Why Give Birth at 63? <http://www.channel2000.com/news/stories/news-970513-013913.html>
 Some make further distinctions of sexes, but that's beyond the scope of this paper. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. "The Five Sexes, Revisited." The Sciences July/August 2000: 19-23.
 "Growth and Development." Kid's Health <http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/growth/>
 Catholic Information Network. <http://www.cin.org/kc61-4.html>
 Sexual taboos regarding children are often recognized in sentencing guidelines. According to a proposal by the US Sentencing Commission Offenses re: Involving Prostitution, Sexual Exploitation of Minors, and Obscenity: "(2) If the offense involved a victim under the age of twelve years, increase by 4 levels." <http://www.ussc.gov/fedreg/fedreg3.htm>
 "Adolescence: Change and Continuity." Pennsylvania State University. <http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/n/x/nxd10/adolesce.htm>
 Cornforth, Tracey. Menopause, A New Beginning. Holistic Healing. <http://womenshealth.about.com/health/womenshealth/library/weekly/aa111697.htm>
 Maid, Mother, Crone <http://members.aol.com/ATOYA/crone.html>
 Why Give Birth at 63? <http://www.channel2000.com/news/stories/news-970513-013913.html>
 Evans, Maureen. Crone Pending: In spite of cultural stereotypes, menopause brings women new freedom. <http://www.life.ca/nl/59/crone.html>
 Toal, Jean and Capron, Alexander Morgan. "Should Health Care For The Elderly Be Limited?" Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Bioethical Issues. Ed. Carol Levine. McGraw-Hill Dushkin, Ninth Ed. 2001
 "What Is Male Menopause?" Male Menopause. <http://www.malemenopause.com/index1.html>
 Only science fiction has dealt with the next step in evolution beyond children and breeders. See Larry Niven’s The Protector as part of the Known Space series. A brief overview can be found at Introduction to Pak. <http://www1.tip.nl/~t619162/pak.htm>
 "Common Physical Changes During Pregnancy." Health Partners. <http://www.healthpartners.com/Menu/0,1791,2888,00.html>
 Toal and Capron, "Should Pregnant Women Be Punished for Exposing Fetuses to Risk."
 Court: Consent needed to drug-test pregnant women. <http://www.cnn.com/2001/LAW/03/21/scotus.drug.test.03/>
 Tenn, William. "Venus and the Seven Sexes." The Seven Sexes. Ed. William Tenn: Ballantine Books, 1968.