While rummaging around the noosphere this morning over coffee, ran across Alice Dreger's article, The Social Construction of Sex and Me. Dr. Dreger is involved with the Intersex Society of North America, and her article very nicely balances biology and social construction to cut through a lot of the fog generated in certain academic circles about the distinction between biological sex, gender roles and gender identity.
On biological sex she notes as have I (Sometimes I like it when people agree with me) that:
"Nature doesn't care that we humans tend to like discreet categories. The real world is messy."
So while most people fall into nice binary categories in terms of biological sex, not every one does. At the same time it is clearly a logical error to assume as some writers do that these categories have no biological reality. After all as she notes most human males have XY chromosomes and most females have XX chromosomes. Her work concerns the exceptions to these generalizations.
With respect to gender roles, she makes a clear distinction between gender roles, the parts males and females are expected to "play" in society and gender identity which she describes as ones internal feelings of "...Being a boy, girl, man, woman, or something else." She then asks if gender is something that is socially constructed, with no biological basis, or does biology enter in to gender roles and identity.
She concludes that both gender roles and identity are at least in part based on biology noting in part in reference to the social construction of gender:
"When I started doing intersex work, I thought so. I thought we were taught to feel, act, and behave like girls and boys. But I don't think that anymore. That is to say, sure we're taught these things, but many of us probably get our core gender identities as much from our biological origins as we do from our gender educations. I've met too many people who, in spite of careful gender educations, sometimes even intensive gender educations, just clearly felt the gender assigned to them was the wrong one."
I am reminded of an experience with my son when he was small. We had decided not to expose him to guns, but one day while we are eating (He was I think around 4), my son took a slice of bread and neatly chewed it into the shape of a gun and started shooting every one at the table. We gave up at that point. Needless to say he has turned out just fine.
As an aside, she argues that those people who think that gender is socially constructed really are extreme biological determinists in that the brains are "empty slates" at birth waiting to be filled. I seem to remember E.O. Wilson making a similar point during the flap over sociobiology in response to the charge that he was a biological determinist. As I recall, he argued that claiming that human behavior is due to environment is the same thing as saying that people are slaves to the environment.
Without getting in to the free will vs determinism flap, clearly as individuals our ontogeny involves genetics and external environmental influences. But there is more. We also have an interior environment of the mind which influences itself. Perhaps it is this interior environment, this interior life which makes us free.