June 20, 2007

Single-X education

I was struck by this sentence from Janine DeFao's "Single-gender education gains ground as boys lag", SF Chronicle, 6/18/2007:

There were three public schools nationwide offering single-gender instruction in 1995 and 262 today, still a small fraction of the country's more than 90,000 public schools, according to Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

Given the name of his organization, Leonard Sax probably used "single-sex" to describe the schools in question -- and apparently DeFao (or her editor) corrected this to "single-gender". Why?

One obvious hypothesis: she felt that gender is the more appropriate word, based on a distinction that the wikipedia explains this way:

The sex/gender distinction is a concept in feminist theory, political feminism, and sociology which distinguishes sex, a natural or biological feature, from gender, the cultural or learned significance of sex.

But this seems unlikely. As far as I can tell, the 262 public schools that segregate males and females divide their pupils by biological sex, not cultural outlook. I bet that tomboys don't get put in the male wing, for example.

Instead, it seems to be the practice at the Chronicle (and elsewhere in the media) to reserve sex for genital pleasure and its associations, and to use gender for the distinction between males and females.

Overall, DeFao's article uses gender 13 times, including in its headline:

... provided gender training to its entire staff and parents by the Gurian Institute of Colorado...
... trained 30,000 teachers in gender differences and learning...
... gender brain differences remain controversial...
...a review of studies on neurology and gender...
...race and class play a bigger a role than gender...
...brain research also is reigniting interest in single-gender education...
...three public schools nationwide offering single-gender instruction in 1995...
...make it easier for schools to create voluntary single-gender classes...
...author of "Why Gender Matters"...
...to see gender differences in action...
...the only single-gender public school in the Bay Area...
...hard to know how much is attributable to single-gender instruction...

The lexeme sex comes up three times, once in the plural, once in the name of an organization, and once in the legal term of art "sex discrimination":

...the two sexes learn differently...
...the National Association for Single Sex Public Education...
...Title IX -- which banned sex discrimination in schools in 1972...

A quick search of the paper's online site suggests that sex (in the singular) is generally used to refer to genital pleasure, e.g.

A veteran San Francisco police sergeant was charged Monday with having sex with an underage girl, authorities said.
A mother accused of arranging a sex pact to allow her boyfriend to have sex with her 15-year-old daughter while the woman recuperated from surgery was sentenced Monday to 12 to 22 1/2 years in prison.
Two-thirds of parents said they are very concerned about sex and violence the nation's children are exposed to in the media...
Seven convicted sex offenders with profiles on MySpace.com have been arrested ...

The only exception seems to be the phrases "same-sex union(s)" and "same-sex marriage" -- for some reason, these are not corrected to "same-gender" -- except in one quoted context:

Florida forbids "homosexuals" from adopting, Mississippi bans "same-gender" couples from adopting, Utah bans fostering and adoption by all unmarried couples and Nebraska has a policy prohibiting gay people from fostering.

The plural sexes retains the biological-categories meaning, not only in fixed phrases like "battle of the sexes", but also more generally.

As for gender, it's sometimes used for socially-constructed categories:

Freeplay plays fast and loose with gender roles: In Klipp's latest dance, guys grind against guys and girls against girls, and Klipp's ultra-feminine girlfriend, fellow choreographer Sarah Bush, does a solo dance to a song titled "If I Was Your Man."

However, it's also used to refer to the basic biological division:

Bradley, who was on his way to work in Antioch, told authorities he had stopped to stretch his legs when he spotted the gator, whom he called Maria after his granddaughter (although state Fish and Game officials aren't sure of the reptile's gender).

(It's true that sex in alligators is determined by different biological mechanisms than in mammals, but I don't think that the usage is different on that account.)

Historically, sex has been used since the 14th century to denote what the OED calls "Either of the two divisions of organic beings distinguished as male and female respectively; the males or the females (of a species, etc., esp. of the human race) viewed collectively":

1382 WYCLIF Gen. vi. 19 Of alle thingis hauynge sowle of ony flehs, two thow shalt brynge into the ark, that maal sex and femaal lyuen with thee.
1532 MORE Confut. Tindale II. 152, I had as leue he bare them both a bare cheryte, as wyth the frayle feminyne sexe fall to far in loue.

The use of sex to refer to genital pleasure is apparently much more recent -- the OED's earliest citation is to DH Lawrence in 1929:

1929 D. H. LAWRENCE Pansies 57 If you want to have sex, you've got to trust At the core of your heart, the other creature.
1952 S. KAUFFMANN Philanderer (1953) x. 174 Her arms went around his neck and his hand rested on her waist, and they had a brief moment of friendship before the sex began.

On the web in general, sex is holding its own in phrases "same sex marriage", but seems to be yielding ground to gender in phrases like "single sex education":

  sex gender sex/gender ratio
single __ education
single __ school(s)
same __ marriage
same __ union(s)
same __ couple(s)

Apart from such phrases, the media (and perhaps the culture at large) seem to be converging on a split between gender for the biological categories and sex for genital pleasure, with sexes being retained as an optional irregular plural for gender.

[Update -- Simon Tatham writes:

I don't know if I'm unique or in a large majority, but I thought you might be faintly amused to hear that at least one person was briefly confused by the title of this post. When I saw `single-X' my immediate thought was of chromosomes - i.e. I instinctively read the phrase as meaning _boys_-only education. This was close enough to the actual subject of the post that I got most of the way through before realising that in fact you were using the X as a placeholder for either `gender' or `sex', and didn't mean it literally at all!

Actually, I intended "single-X" as a sort of a pun, and I originally made that clear(er) in the body of the text by discussing the biology of mamalian sex in a certain amount of detail. But I didn't have time to finish the discussion and tie it back to the traditional sex/gender terminology, so I wound up postponing the biolexicography for another time, leaving the title semiotically stranded.]

[Randy Alexander writes:

One small idea that may contribute to the reason "gender" is becoming more popular in the context of same-sex education: the phrase "sex education" is included in "same-sex education". It makes sense to want to be removed from that association. "Sex school", would be an even worse association.

There are no phrases "sex marriage", or "sex union", and even "sex couple" would be very unlikely, so "sex" would pose no problem in those constructions.

This makes sense, but there seems to be a broader tendency to use gender as a sort of euphemism for sex, even when there is little chance of misunderstanding. Here's an example from the recent news:

It may be hard for parents to believe, but believe it or not science has developed a way to tell the gender of your baby even before morning sickness kicks in.

Since the test is based on lookng for fetal Y chromosomes in the mother's bloodstream, the quality in question here is about as biological as possible.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 20, 2007 06:59 AM