No, the idea that men and women are defined by two distinct biological sexes is not common sense

Jack Molay
4 min readJan 18, 2024


Not too long ago Europeans believed that men and women were variants of one biological sex. The idea that gender can be reduced to a static and unchangeable “biological sex” is far from obvious.

These days we often find transphobes and anti-LGBTQ activists talk about “biological sex” and the way genitalia, gonads or chromosomes determine our gender and the abilities associated with that sex.

This is a way of upholding traditional gender roles and force queer and trans people back into the closet.

Same-sex sexuality is, apparently, bad because it is unnatural and does not lead to procreation. Transgender people are wrong about their identity because a gender identity follows automatically from their biological sex.

Many transphobes see these statements as self-evident and eternal. It is “the woke mob” that is misleading our youth and destroying God and Nature given facts.

But if this was self-evident, we would expect this belief of extreme gender polarities to be found in the past too, right?

The pre-modern one sex model

No. In pre-modern Europe from Antiquity and up to the Enlightenment and beyond, we find completely different models of sex and gender.

In many parts of Europe you would definitely find strict rules and regulations for how men and women should dress, work, behave and have sex. These were not societies based on gender equality. But that did not mean that they had a model of sex and gender based on biologically rigid polarities.

The four humors

The humor theory of the time stated that a person’s personality and abilities were shaped by the balance between the four humors, blood (associated with the element air and dryness) , yellow bile (fire/heat), black bile (earth/cold) and phlegm (water/moisture).

Men were thought to be primarily hot and dry, while women were most often cold and wet.

But people also recognized that there were men and women with a different balance of the humors. Indeed different proportions of the different elements in the body combined with astrological influences was used to explain why persons behaved the way they did.

In Shakespeare’s plays a lot of choler (yellow bile/fire) is seen as valuable in male warriors but a problem in “choleric” women. Hence the need for laws to keep them in line. Men and women with too much black bile would become “melancholic”. So it is not nature that dictates the behavior and gender roles of men and women, but men.

The big shift

In the book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Thomas Laqueur’s argues that there was a huge shift in attitudes toward human sexual anatomy during the 18th and 19th centuries.

He argues that doctors before that time had seen the female body as a weak variant of the male one. The relative lack of fire and air caused the female reproductive organs to remain inside the body, but the vagina was, in fact, an inverted penis. Anatomists argued that the labia was a parallel to the foreskin, the uterus to the scrotum, and the ovaries to the testicles. There was only two variants of one sex, Laqueur argues.

There was also a clear overlap in other bodily functions. Doctors accepted that there were men who could lactate, because why not?

A Renaissance sex change

Indeed, as the 16th century story of Germain Garnier tells us, doctors might even argue that a woman called Mary could transform into a man named Germain. This change was induced by an excess of heat caused by some strenuous physical exercise, both Germain and the experts of the time agreed.

Both the doctors and the local Bishop accepted that Garnier had become a “real” man and that he therefore had to follow the laws for men from then on.

The important thing here is not whether this transformation was true or not, but that the “experts” of the time had a model of sex and gender that allowed for it.

What is different with is that some people today think that the extreme gender differences they believe in are “natural”, as based in biology, with laws given by nature, while the pre-modern approach argued that the differences were dictated by God and the authorities.

The point here is not to say that the pre-modern view of biology, sex and gender was the correct one. The point is to show that the traditionalist “biology is destiny” narrative is not self-evident or “common sense”. It is simply based on a different set of prejudices. For most of history Europeans have believed in very different models.

See also:

Illustration of the four humors from the National Library of Medicine.

Originally published at on January 18, 2024.



Jack Molay

Writer and news curator looking at everything transgender, nonbinary and queer.