Speaker series on social constructions begins with discussion about biological sex

Cat Murphy, Associate News Editor

Quinnipiac University faculty members led a discussion on the spectrum of biological sex at a presentation hosted by the College of Arts and Science’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee on Nov. 29.

“While many recognize that gender and sexuality are on a spectrum, we often still discuss human biological sex as a binary,” a Nov. 18, MyQ announcement for the event stated. “In reality, biological sex is also on a spectrum, which has profound implications for the ways in which we administer healthcare, enact policy, and respect each other.”

Presented by Jaime Ullinger, professor of anthropology, director of the anthropology program and co-director of Quinnipiac’s Bioanthropology Research Institute, the “Biological Sex Is a Spectrum” seminar dismantled the social construction of binary sex.

Professor of anthropology Jamie Ullinger spoke about biological sex being a spectrum, not a binary, at the presentation on Nov. 29. (Aidan Sheedy)

“Biological sex itself is not as simple as we try to make it,” Ullinger said during her presentation on Nov. 29. “There are a number of factors that go into kind of the construction of how someone may identify biologically in terms of sex.”

Ullinger discussed several chromosomal conditions associated with intersexuality that defy the mainstream boundaries of binary sex. Approximately 1.7% of Americans are born with intersex traits that “do not fit binary medical definitions of male or female sexual or reproductive anatomy,” according to the Center for American Progress.

“Estimates in terms of individuals who may be intersex are around maybe 1.5% to 2%, which is kind of small,” Ullinger said. “Still — we think about the population of QU — 1.5% to 2% is a significant number of people.”

Although viewing biological sex as a continuum rather than as a binary has its advantages, Ullinger pointed out that a spectrum of social constructions “still privileges a binary.”

“We know that the underlying biology is relatively complex,” Ullinger said. “So, rather than a spectrum of deviations or norms, how can we look to developmental processes and pathways to represent a multiplicity of sexes?”

Dawn Colomb-Lippa, senior instructor of biology and co-chair of the CAS DEI Committee, told the Chronicle on Nov. 29, that the seminar on biological sex was meant to be the first in a series of “Undoing Social Construction” collaborations headed by the committee.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is dismantle ideas about definitions that were socially constructed,” Colomb-Lippa said. “And in this particular one, trying to take biology out of the notion of binary sex.”

The series “blossomed” from a separate initiative that aimed to foster classroom inclusivity, Colomb-Lippa said.

“It occurred to us that we hadn’t addressed gender inclusivity,” Colomb-Lippa said. “We recognized, wow, we’ve got a lot of ideas about how biology connects to categories that we put people into, and they’re not true.”

Marcos Scauso, assistant professor of political science and co-chair of the CAS DEI Committee, said the initiative strives to deconstruct other “biases that create frameworks that limit the perspective that we have.”

“To think in terms of biology in such a complex manner then allows us to rethink that maybe having a penis does not relate to behavior,” Scauso said during the question-and-answer segment of the presentation on Nov. 29. “The critique of the boundaries of thinking allows you to then undo those very boundaries in order to imagine things in different ways.”

Colomb-Lippa said that dismantling social constructions at the university-level will require “a lot of work” but added that “individual instructors with knowledge” are the key to making progress.

Although the next installments in the “Undoing Social Construction” series have yet to be scheduled, Remi Sheibley, a sophomore sociology major who identifies as non-binary, said they look forward to attending future presentations.

“I think Quinnipiac, in the future, needs to do a lot more publicity and support events like these to just spread knowledge to students,” Sheibley told the Chronicle. “I just know there needs to be more awareness and acceptance, especially from higher ups at the school.”

Genesis Paulino, a junior sociology and Latin American Studies double major who attended the presentation, said she viewed the series as an opportunity for the university to engage in a larger discussion about diversity.

“I think Quinnipiac is trying to have a conversation about inclusivity and diversity,” Paulino said. “In order to have that conversation, we need to include all voices.”