Just What Are Men and Women, Anyway?

John William Godward, The Old, Old Story (1903)
John William Godward, The Old, Old Story (1903)

Sometimes, the most important questions are the basic ones. Back in 2011, I argued that the most important question in the gay-marriage debate was “What is marriage?” The next year, Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis published a book exploring just that question: What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense. But in the face of contemporary questions of transgenderism and gender identity, it turns out that we need to ask a yet more-basic question: what are men and women, and what makes them different?

To some of you, that question might seem obvious, even asinine. Nearly all of us have a working understanding of what we mean by “men” and “women.” Ironically, even people who believe that it’s possible to be transgender still affirm this: calling a man a “trans-woman” presupposes that we know what a woman is. In other words, what does it mean to say that a biological male is a woman?

I. Bad Answers to the Men and Women Question

Bear in mind, we’re looking for what it is that makes all men unlike all women. So here are some incorrect answers to the question:

  1. Using stereotypes to distinguish men from women: women may tend to be more nurturing and men more abstract-thinking, etc., but there are so many counter-examples to any stereotype that you can come up with that this is obviously not a workable answer.
  2. Using social norms to distinguish men from women: things like “women wear dresses, and men wear pants” are both stereotypes (suffering the same flaw as #1) and culturally-contingent: think Scottish kilts or female dress slacks as obvious counter-examples.
  3. Using hormones to distinguish men from women: men typically have higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of estrogen, than women do. But testosterone and estrogen levels vary from individual to individual, and change throughout your life.
  4. Using sexual organs to distinguish men from women: This is an obvious difference, but it’s not a satisfying answer. A castrated man isn’t less of a man, after all, nor is a woman any less a woman if she’s had a hysterectomy or mastectomy. Plus, a small portion of the human family is born “intersex” (a poor term) with ambiguous genitalia.
  5. Denying that such a difference exists: Obviously, the fact that we can speak coherently of men and women means that we’re somehow distinct.

Nevertheless, while all of these answers miss the mark, all of them also have an element of the truth, which makes them attractive. So what would a better answer look like?

II. A Better Answer

Here’s what I think a better answer might look like:

  1. The essential distinction between men and women is genetic. All men have a Y chromosome (typically XY, although in some cases XXY or XYY), and no women have Y chromosomes. In other words, men are adult male humans and women are adult female humans.
  2. This genetic difference tends to express itself in different sexual organs. In rare cases, something impedes this from happening as it is ought to, or something happens to the sexual organs. But even in the case of those borned “intersexed,” there is a genetic sex: it just may be harder to tell.
  3. This genetic difference also tends to express itself in different brain chemistry, different levels of various hormones, and differences (big and small) in cognitive and behavioral development.
  4. Society also plays a role, and environmental factors can even impact hormone levels. It is not always easy to determine which social behaviors are attributable to social roles, or environment, or innate genetics. But most societies amplify the differences between the sexes by creating a set of gender roles.

The chief benefits of this definition of men and women are threefold.

First, this is what we have always meant by men and women, even before we knew what genes were. There was a recognition that there were real differences between male and female humans, present from birth, and we expressed these different types of humans with the terms ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ for children and ‘men’ and ‘women’ for adults (and ‘male’ and ‘female’ on the whole). Genes explain why these differences exist (and why unusual things sometimes happen in how the genes express themselves). Second, this is how we speak about non-humans. We can coherently speak of male and female mammals using a similar genetic distinction. Finally, this definition avoids two obviously-false extremes: the idea that men and women are interchangeable, and a sort of “Rambo and Barbie” reductionism.

III. The Implications for the Transgender / Gender Identity Question

The points above are much bigger than contemporary debates over gender identity and transgender issues. A lot of the ink spilled over the last few decades on issues like feminism could be aided by everyone having a clearer understanding of women and men and the differences between them (and especially, of which of those differences are innate and universal, and which of those are socially constructed, etc.). But while it’s not reducible to that question, I think it’s helpful.

We can both affirm that there really are fundamental genetic differences between men and women, and affirm that (for example) some women act and emote in conventionally-masculine ways, and may even have higher-than-average testosterone levels, etc. So it’s no surprise that there are people who don’t “fit” the social expectations for what a man or what a woman is like. That, of itself, is nothing new – terms like “tomboy” exist to describe this reality. And our response ought to be one of compassion and support, particularly if we’re Christians.

But having a coherent definition of “man” and “woman” does show why transgenderism is a non-starter. What I mean is this. If the claim were just “I’m a man who likes feminine things,” that would be a coherent idea. But if a biological male claims to be a woman, what does that person mean by “woman”? They can’t mean that a biological male is biologically female, because that doesn’t make sense. And if their understanding of what it is to be a “woman” is rooted in any of the types of definitions we explored in Part I, you can see why those don’t work.

So there’s something a bit deceptive in all of this. A person who believes in transgenderism cannot say that men and women are the same thing (since there would be nothing to “trans” if the two genders are the same). But they also cannot affirm that men and women are essentially different, since affirming that fact would make their own claim nonsense. So “transgenderism” relies on the language of “man” and “woman,” and even relies on the idea that the two are somehow different, while emptying those words of any actual meaning and refusing to define what this new meaning of “man” and “woman” actually is.



  1. You are wrong that “The essential distinction between men and women is genetic. All men have a Y chromosome (typically XY, although in some cases XXY or XYY), and no women have Y chromosomes.” In fact one of the most common forms of intersex, Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome produces women who are YX. A less common one called Sawyers Syndrome produces XY women who can bear children. Further, it is also possible for a man to be XX by having an SRY gene on an X chromosome or by the more extreme forms of Congenital Adrenal Hypertrophy. There is not ANY biological distinction between male and female that does not have at least one exception. It is all very well to say they are too rare to bother with unless YOU are one of the biological exceptions. Then you have to bother with it whether you like it or not for the rest of your life and attitudes like the ones in this article do not make it a bit easier. I agree that men and women are different but the biological boundary between is complex indeed and those of us born into it do not appreciate ill-informed pronouncements about what we are or are not.

    1. Danie,

      You’re begging the question. I agree that these are the hardest and most confusing cases to determine what distinguishes men and women, but the very fact that we can say things like “intersex” or “produces women…” etc. reaffirms the reality that there are such things as men and women in biology.

      Regarding Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, these are people who are genetically male but phenotypically female (having non-functioning vaginas and testes where ovaries would normally be, if I’m not mistaken). So in saying that this syndrome “produces women who are YX,” you’re presupposing that what makes someone a woman is … apparently something phenotypical (you don’t actually say what). Same with Sawyers, and I think it’s important to recognize that these individuals cannot become pregnant naturally (already-conceived embryos can be implanted into their bodies).

      In other words, your whole objection to this definition of men and women presupposes a contrary definition of men and women which you’re not defining.

  2. One may argue that the realities of intersex people has little to do with transgender. However while they seem as distinct as male and female do at first glance, the boundary is just as complex. A significant portion are both intersex AND transgender and there is no more drawing a definitive line than with biological sex. How intersex must one be to be legitimately intersex” is a question that has no real answer. Religion tries too often to impose simplistic views onto very complex realities. Tolerance and humility are more appropriate than prideful judgement. Doctors have learned that the hard way that trying to “fix” an intersex child or dictate what sex they should live as creates more problems than it solves; it is a pity society cannot learn from those mistakes intead of stubbornly repeating them.

    1. DM,
      I agree. As you say, medical interventions upon ambiguous ‘intersex’ persons “creates more problems than it solves; it is a pity society cannot learn from those mistakes intead of stubbornly repeating them.”

      Question: Why, then, do you think society continues to allow the medical profession to intervene in cases of persons afflicted with intersex genetics or persons with confused psychological gender issues?

      As you say, we tend not to learn from mistakes. Why is that, do you think?

  3. “… if the two genders are the same). ” Joe, i think that the language angle is important enough to us the word that has been around for some time: two sexes i.e.. the sexes. Just my suggestion.

    1. Teo,

      I agree that language is important here, and it’s carefully chosen. In the sentence to which you refer, I’m talking about how the word “transgender” presupposes that there are (at least) two genders. The sentence doesn’t make sense if you change “genders” to “sexes.” I think your objection is that the people that I’m responding to use both “transgender” and “transsexual,” and don’t necessarily mean the same thing by them.

  4. And we must keep in mind that genetics do not determine the moral status of a behavior. People tend to believe that, but when you look at it, it falls apart. Genetics can say something about the culpability of a behavior, but it cannot say anything about the moral status.

  5. Great article!

    One thing was confusing me, though. You write:
    “We can both affirm that there really are fundamental genetic differences between men and women, and affirm that (for example) some women act and emote in conventionally-masculine ways, and may even have higher-than-average testosterone levels, etc. So it’s no surprise that there are people who don’t ‘fit’ the social expectations for what a man or what a woman is like. That, of itself, is nothing new – terms like ‘tomboy’ exist to describe this reality. And our response ought to be one of compassion and support, particularly if we’re Christians.”

    Why did you choose the word “compassion”? A tomboy-ish girl (or a more typically feminine boy, or what have you) is usually not suffering from her/his likes and dislikes, right? (Nor are they doing anything immoral.) Of course, when someone is feeling bad because they feel as if they would be happier if they belonged to the other sex, that would be a cause for compassion – and I’m not trying to make it sound as if compassion was a bad thing, like secular people often seem to perceive it. Is that what was meant? Or did you mean that one ought be compassionate when someone is suffering because of not fulfilling their society’s gender stereotypes?

    1. I had the same thought Crescentia. That sentence seemed to imply some judgement that such a ‘tomboy’ needs “compassion and support” because they are failing to fulfil a particular societal (or even divinely-ordained) role and need to experience a conversion of life. But they aren’t suffering in themselves unless they are experiencing the disapproval of Church or Society for their tomboy behaviour.

    2. Oh, that’s just bad editing on my part. I was trying to make two distinct points:

      1. It’s not news that there are gender non-conforming people (hence the existence of terms like “tomboy”).
      2. The “compassion and support” part was meant to refer to those gender non-conforming people who are suffering as a result of it: the suicide rate for those who identify themselves as “transgender” is terrifyingly high. We can debate why that suffering exists (the feeling of not conforming to one’s body, the bullying and negative social response, etc.), but that the suffering exists, and that we are called to compassion and support in response, is clear.

      1. Thanks for the answer, Joe! I guess the misunderstanding on my part was also because I didn’t think you were referring only to transgender people, but simply to all people who don’t fit some gender roles, also those who don’t feel as if they were born in the wrong body, which, surely, usually means suffering.

  6. Joe, you will remember from our most recent email exchange that I am trans and that I transitioned twenty years ago. For most of our email discussions over the past few years you’ve only known me as female and have always responded to be courteously as such (and you expressed joy when it seemed that I might be coming into the Catholic fold after I left my Anglican monastic novitiate five years ago). In fact for me this was the whole point of transitioning – that I might inhabit the female social role rather than the male, which I had come to find incompatible with my psychological wellbeing. Sadly when I revealed my gender history to you in a private email, you abruptly ceased communication with me, which I found very sad as I thought our conversation might have been fruitful for us both. Perhaps you saw no value in further discussion with someone as lost as I!

    I will offer you my perspective here anyway, as others may find it useful. I don’t have much to say about the biological arguments you raise, except to agree with Danie that there are individuals who have looked and believed themselves to be female from birth but nevertheless have XY chromosomes, which they may or may not discover later in life (eg when trying to conceive). It would be cruel of any theology to try to enforce a new gender role on such people based on their chromosomes if they are entirely comfortable with the role into which they were raised and socialised. There is, nevertheless, a need among some Christians to clearly determine who is a man and who is a woman – why? – because there are apparently divinely-ordained roles that stem from biological sex. Those of us who live counter to those roles must therefore either be condemned or forced to conform, otherwise the divinely-ordained pattern is broken.

    There is of course not just an ontological issue here, but also a pastoral one. You may argue with fine logic against ‘transgenderism’ and declare that I am still a man because I have a Y chromosome, but I have lived in society as a woman for twenty years – twice as long an adult woman as I was an adult man. Externally I appear female in every way. Even if I wanted to, I could not revert to a male role now. This was an irreversible decision I made in my twenties when I wasn’t Christian. Now that I am Christian, I cannot physically conform to your theology of gender. Yet surely God loves me. What would you say God asks of me and those like me? Even if I accepted that I have sinned grievously against the imago dei in myself by inhabiting the ‘wrong’ gender role, what could I possibly do?

    The truth is I am as content now as a woman as you obviously are as a man, but sometimes I do wish that our society, like some others, had more than two gender roles. If I had grown up in a society with a third role, perhaps akin to that of a eunuch (with whom I do identify spiritually, c.f. Isaiah 56:3-5), I probably would not have needed to find refuge in feminine socialisation. Indeed, one of the things that has changed significantly since I transitioned is that many of those uncomfortable with their gender role are now identifying as ‘non-binary’ rather than following the cultural stereotypes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. This is often more awkward for a society that still wants to know ‘are you boy or girl?’, but it does mean that people can find a role that doesn’t necessarily require irreversible and expensive surgery that leaves us sterile.

    Summary? Please don’t let your head theology get so far ahead of your pastoral heart that might leave trans people trapped in limbo with no way to find a welcome in the Church. You need to offer us a way into communion that doesn’t require an impossible reverse-transition which could only re-establish the nightmarish dysphoria that caused us so much suffering in the first place.

    As ever, I admire your ability to write perspicaciously on these complex topics. I have enjoyed your blog for many years as you know, and have always found it rewarding to engage with you. I hope you receive my words in the usual irenic spirit in which I offer them. Your sister in Christ, Tess.

    1. Tess,

      I’m so sorry. I owe you at least two apologies: first, for taking so long to respond to you when it mattered, and second, for taking so long to apologize for that.

      As you know better than most, I’m not always great at responding to e-mails in a timely fashion. This is true in a particular way for yours, precisely because they are so interesting. I want to devour them, ruminate on them, and then respond… and I usually get two-thirds of the way through that process and then get distracted.

      So if you go back and look at our correspondence, you’ll find that it took me five months to reply to your May 2012 e-mail; then we talked for a while, and I disappeared for another month. You sent me another e-mail in December 2012, and as far as I can tell, I didn’t respond until June 2015. And that terrible record of keeping in touch with you was before you shared with me about being transgendered, which (as near as I can tell from looking at my e-mail) happened after I e-mailed you in June 2015. So I’m embarrassed it’s taken me two and a half years to get back with you, and also embarrassed that this is the second time I’ve done that to you.

      There really wasn’t some decision to cut off contact. I meant to respond to you, and I even talked to a priest friend about how to approach some of the questions that you raised. I’ll admit that it’s not every day that you meet a transgendered Anglican nun (although you’d left the convent by 2015) inquiring about the Catholic Church, but I was more than happy to be in conversation with you (it was never just politeness – I really have enjoyed all of our missives). I don’t know if it makes a difference or not, but in my head, I’ve written you many more letters than I’ve ever managed to put to paper (or whatever the electronic equivalent of that phrase is).

    2. To respond to the content, I agree with a lot of what you say, particularly about the need for pastoral solutions. This post, in some ways, it taking the easy way out. I was trying to do four things: (a) establish that “men” and “women” exist, (b) point out that we need a clearer understanding of what distinguishes men and women, (c) show the shortcomings of many of the distinctions we might be tempted to use, and (d) highlight what appears to be a better way of understanding the two different sexes. That deals with, as you put it, the ontological question.

      Your question strikes me as the significantly more difficult question of what to do with people who find themselves in unusual pastoral situations, which raises questions in both the intersex and transgender context. For some of these cases (like that of genetic males with Sawyers Syndrome who were appear to be, and lived their whole lives until the present believing that they were, biologically female) I simply have no answer, and lack the pastoral experience or scientific understanding to know how to give good counsel. Thankfully, these cases are rare.

      More common are cases like your own, in which the individual is aware of their biological/genetic sex, but feels more comfortable identifying and living as the opposite sex. Here, I’d reiterate the point I made above about the need for compassion and support, as well as sensitivity. You didn’t choose that particular struggle, and the stats bear out that many people with this cross find it unbearable.

      A priest once shared with me that, from his experience with people who considered themselves transgendered, there were broadly-speaking two classes: (1) those for whom it was a sexual thing, in which the fetishization of femininity and all-things-feminine led to a desire to have female anatomy and/or attire, and (2) those who were raised in overly-strict houses when it comes to gendered roles. As a man who grew up with virtually no interest in sports or a lot of other classically-male interests, I can certainly understand how those who grew up in hyper-macho households might not feel that they were truly “men” (thankfully, my own dad was patient with me). How does this resonate with your own experience?

      So I think that the pastoral solution to this is going to necessarily be specific to the individual. The person who has fetishized femininity needs to be responded to in a different way than a person who didn’t feel “man enough” growing up. That second person likely needs to be charitably and gently supported in his masculine identity, with a recognition that masculinity is a broader spectrum than monster trucks and football. Growing up, that moment of insight came in a karate class when our instructor shared that many of the famous samurai, like Ōta Dōkan, also wrote poetry, a thing I had considered prohibitively “girly” theretofore (there’s a whole category of Japanese death poems that was associated with the samurai).

      This answer feels rambly already, which I think owes to the lack of “silver bullet” pastoral solutions in this area. I guess I’d just say that I think you are a male and not a female, but it’s perhaps more important that I think you’re a beloved son of God called to be a great Saint, and a person from whom I know I have a lot to learn about irenicism.

      In the love of Christ,


      P.S. In regards to some of the particular aspects that I didn’t cover, I second your view on the role of celibacy.

      1. Tess, you are God’s beloved child, and nothing you do can change that. Your rejection of your sex and gender, however, is a means of rejecting the man you were created by the Creator to be. Your appearance, dress, and behavior are secondary to reality, no matter how well you may “pass” as a female. I DO accept you as a member of the Lord’s family, but I cannot suspend belief, science [I am a health care provider] or reality to accept you as a woman. It is not hate, not fear, not disgust, but a desire to be someone you are not is not healthy for hearts, heads, or souls.

        1. Pattie,
          Joe’s statement on celibacy and your statement on suspension of reality/belief touches another consequence of transgenderism. What effect does transgenderism have on persons in a transgendered person’s social orbit? Is s/he now a woman seeking a male partner, or s/he a man seeking a male partner? Does s/he in fact seek any partner? It seems as if any version of intimacy, coupling, or even friendship would be terribly difficult.

          What is the effect on persons in one’s pre-trans past? Is there still a “dad” or “mom” type relationship with children? How do spouses in a past marriage view each other post trans? With love? However does such love correspond to the ideal offered by the trinity?

          Our sex goes to the core of our being and is straight out of Genesis, our beginning, where we are first commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Is there some fruit in transgenderism which I cannot grasp?

  7. This reminds me of one section that is usually necessary in any decent thesis paper — the “definition of terms”, which is of course required to avoid ambiguity in speaking.

  8. If the Y-chromosome is truly the only substantial difference between the two sexes, and not any innate behavioral characteristics, then can you explain why the Y-chromosome disqualifies one from receiving Holy Orders?

  9. For Jews and Christians sacred scripture is instructional. Y chromosome, or not, God created animal life with male and female differences. So, this in not just about humans. Consider the following way that males and females are described in the context of all of God’s creatures:

    “And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.”
    [Genesis 1:27]

    “He created them male and female; and blessed them: and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.”
    [Genesis 5:2]


    “Two and two went in to Noe into the ark, male and female, as the Lord had commanded Noe.”
    [Genesis 7:9]


    “And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him in on the outside.”
    [Genesis 7:16]

    “Of all clean beasts take seven and seven, the male and the female.”
    [Genesis 7:2]

    ….just sayin’.

  10. Have biologists studied the Y-chromosome as it affects other mammal species? It seems to me that the males of most mammals fight for mating rights with the corresponding females of their speciesl. Would not an effeminate natured mammals naturally lose such competition for mates, and thereby be less likely to procreate? And would not this also be noted to be a defect, by the very results it produces, that being a lack of ability to acquire a mate through the natural processes/competitions etc…..compared to the procreation abilities of healthy, strong, and dominant alpha males? And what does this teach about human mammals?

  11. In Thomistic terms, is being man or woman an accident or a substantial quality? And is this equivalent to your set of claims above:

    1) DNA is the proper accidental form of being man or woman (male, female)
    2) DNA is the instrumental(?) cause of other proper accidents (such as sexual organs), such that it is itself possible to not flow from a substantial or higher accidental form (chromosomal issues), but also that chromosomes (proper or improper) can again fail to manifest the usual proper accidents.

    How the language of substance and accident interacts with sex and “second natures” has been a bit opaque for me, although not in the sense that I doubt its congruence with the teaching of the Church on the matter.

  12. Perhaps, we have to retreat to a yet more basic questions – what is truth and can we know it. We can’t know what marriage is unless we first know what men and women are, but we can’t know what men and women are without answering some difficult metaphysical and epistemological questions. If culture is above stream from politics, philosophy (and thus theology) is at fountainhead.

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