Hormones, Sex, and Gender -individual readings

Worthman, Carol M. 1995. “Hormones, Sex, and Gender.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol.24, pp.593-617.

Hormones, Sex, and Gender


Over the past 25 years, the rise of feminism brought debate over the epistemological status of sex and gender, which debate has come to rely on moral order explicitly excluding the biological.

Definitions and Usage


Classical definition: chemicals secreted into the blood stream at one body site that exert effects at a remote site.

Greek roots: “endocrine”-to separate within “hormone”-to stir up

Neuroendocrine system was first viewed as a physically interconnected system using a small array of specific neurotransmitters released within the strict confines of the synapse.

Hormones play communicative, informational, and integrational roles in regulation of growth, development, and ongoing function

Antagonistic or synergistic effects may be exerted by different hormones on a given body part or function, or by one hormone on different body parts or functions.

Hormones do not directly cause specific biological or behavioral effects

            Hormonal action is mediated through other factors: circulating binding proteins, metabolic enzymes, cellular receptors, nuclear binding, sites, competing molecules, and presence of cofactors.

Hormones are involved in all physiological processes across the life span.

In the past 15 years, anthropologists have applied endocrine analysis to studies involving: breastfeeding practices and fertility, energetics and gonadal function in men and women, body fat patterning and risk for hypertension, stress and everyday life, stress and social change, variation and sex differences in maturation rates and timing of puberty, puberty and psychosocial development, growth regulation, high altitude adaptation, women’s occupation, and metabolic disorders.

Anthropologists have introduced new or improved methods that are less invasive and more portable than clinical techniques.

            Critics of this biological approach have examined the use of hormones to validate cultural beliefs about sex differences in the biology of reproduction, behavior, cognition, health, and aging.


Sex is a “fuzzy” set comprising first, forms of reproduction involving genetic reshuffling, and second, acts of gamete transfer.

Gender refers to intraspecific variants distinguished by (a) types of gametes contributed in reproduction (b) morphologies structures, distinctive associated attributes and (c) reproductive behaviors

Most biologists, including biological anthropologists use “sex” to mean gender status

Genital sex is reported as usual basis for sex assignment at birth.

Sex According to Cultural Anthropologists

“Sex” fluctuates in dynamic counter position to “gender”

Physical sex differences have been regarded as the universal biological background against which cross cultural comparisons of cultural constriction are made.

Like biologists, cultural anthropologists generally use “sex” to refer to both sexual behaviors and to sexuality and sex preferences and have given increasing attention to these topics.


Linguistics and philogy define gender as a set of mutually exclusive kinds into which a language categorizes its nouns and pronouns

The emergence of feminist studies in the 1960s and 1970s exposed major gaps in ethnography and anthropological theory and opened new avenues of conceptual and cross-cultural research into women’s lives, roles, statuses

Proponents of emerging gender theory defines “gender” as a cultural product in order to oppose the reductionism associated with biological sex and to counter the traditional limitation of women’s roles and status by reproduction and sexuality.

Distinction-the cultural of difference-constitutes a central theme for the anthropology for the anthropology of gender

Poor environments compromise child development and survival and highlight the role of cross-culturally pervasive sex-differentiated care in conditioning distinctive outcomes

The Status of the Body in Anthropology

The body has seen tough times in cultural anthropology, owing both to its banishment from or subordination in social constructivism and gender studies, and to its peripheralization in social theory

A recent comprehensive review of epistemological work on the social body documents a move to rehabitate the body from its treatment by culture theorists as symbolic representation or taboo pre-social entity.

Sex as a Construct

Sex-Specific constraints, tasks, demands, and options are a key aspect of adaptionist explanations of the evolution and functions of sex difference

Why Have Sex at all?

It is a major challenge for evolutionists to explain why sex exists at all, because the process of creating sexes and having them exchange gametes merely in order to make new organisms seems wasteful

Two proposed explanations for the evolution of sex: (1) Sexual reproduction enhances genetic variability among progeny and thus their potential to meet variable selection pressures. (2) Sex lowers population mutation load

The specific forms that each sex takes within species are also evolved phenomena, and no sexual form is universal

Sexual reproduction involves not only production of gametes, but also behaviors that bring the gametes together and those that accomplish post-conceptional reproductive tasks such as parental care.

Sex differences in morphology and behavior vary in kind and degree; Males of some species take distinct alternative bio behavioral phenotypes that support alternate reproductive strategies.

Sex is neither universal nor uniform across life forms, and may assume different forms within species.

Sex Differentiation

Hormones are central agents in sex differentiation and ontogeny of bio behavior=al polymorphism, but they operate within a moving field, the constantly developing individual

Testosterone furls endocrine pathways that are responsible for development of masculine internal and external genitalia and for masculinization and defeminization of target issues in the brain

Genetics and Sex

Identification and sequencing of the mammalian TDF gene, known as SRY, on the Y chromosome, has led to rapid expansion in concepts of early sex development.

Female sex differentiation proceeds when SRY is absent, Z is expressed and development as male is suppressed.

Maternal fetal conflict explains the presence of both suppressive factors such as Z and X linked genes, and of Y-linked growth factors and rapid SRY evolution

Hormones and Sex

The role of gonadal hormones in sex differentiation in early development has been termed organizational, because parameters of future function become established at this time

Effects of gonadal steroids later in life have been termed activational, insofar as their sex differentiated actions are mediated by early organizational differences

Testosterone production by the testes persists throughout adulthood: men maintain high levels of testosterone into their mid-thirties, after which levels decline at first slowly and then rather more rapidly after the sixth decade.

Activity of the fetal ovary is difficult to detect against the high background level of estrogen produced by the placenta.

Hormones and Sex Differences

The linkages between hormones and morphological and physiologic sex differences have been intensively studied and are fairly well established

Young American women have on average 42% more body mass as fat than young men, and men 23% more body mass as muscle than women: Gonadal steroids promote these differences

Specific genetic variants have revealed the importance of gonadal steroids in sex differentiation

Real vs. Meaningful Variation

Diversity, and similarity, arises through development of the individual in a sequence of contexts rather than directly through genetic causes (1) environments supply stimuli guide the developmental process (2) developmental adaptability confers strong evolutionary advantage in the complex and variable environments of humanity (3) Some genetic variation scarcely alters the functional outcome, and so is unimportant

Hormones, being environmentally sensitive entitles that can shift internal states and organize function and morphology, play important roles in the production of conformity, diversity, and adaptation

Culture, Gender, Hormones, and Sex

Altered physical activity, fertility patterns, and breastfeeding practices related to changed workloads, gender relations, and technologies also increase risk of reproductive cancer, as do diet changes including reduced fiber and increased fat intake.

Numerous natural and synthetic organic chemicals resemble gonadal steroids and can mimic or block their action

Ties of sex to culture and gender are evident

Culture, gender, hormones, and sex are driven by social transformations, altering maturation rates, chemical exposures, gestational environments, and adult gonadal activity

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