Sex and Gender

I’ve gotten a few emails and /msgs about this so I really wanted to post a clarification.

When I put the color survey together, I was mostly interested in making maps and tables of color names; the opening survey was almost an afterthought. Elizabeth added a question about chromosomal sex, since it’s closely correlated with colorblindness (she’s one of the rare colorblind women).

We debated for a long time to find a wording of the question that would be answerable unambiguously by everyone, regardless of gender identification or any other issues.  In response to a friend who was suggesting we were overcomplicating things, she said, “I *refuse* to word the question in a way that doesn’t have a good, clear answer available for transsexuals, intersex people, and people who already know they have chromosomal anomalies.”  I felt the same way, and at the same time I didn’t want to assume everyone remembers what the hell chromosomes are. After hours of debate, everyone was happy with this:

Do you have a Y chromosome?

If unsure, select “Yes” if you are physically male and “No” if you are physically female. If you have had SRS, please respond for your sex at birth. This question is relevant to the genetics of colorblindness.

We didn’t add a question about gender identification, in part because I wasn’t really planning to do anything with the survey data beyond basic calibration and didn’t want to hassle people with more questions, and in part because gender is really complicated.  We recently programmed Bucket, the IRC chat bot in #xkcd, to allow people set their gender so he can use pronouns for them.  This ended up taking hundreds of lines of code, three pages of documentation, and six different sets of pronouns and variables, just to cover all the basic ways people in the channel with different gender identifications wanted to be referred to (even without invented pronouns like “xe”, which we vetoed).  And that’s just to cover the pronouns.  The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics.

So when I wrote the survey, I really didn’t have anything in mind for the data. After it went up, I saw the DoghouseDiaries comic, and immediately wanted to investigate.  I was really amazed by the results, particularly the top-five list of colors, which came as a complete surprise.  Everyone agreed it was the most interesting of my results (at some point, my friends were sick of hearing me talk about hues and saturations) and I couldn’t resist publishing it somehow.

Originally, my post had a big wall of text discussing how all I had was chromosomal data, and that what the comic talked about was gender identification.  I rewrote this post a bunch of times, and ended up with roughly the wording that’s there now:

[...] realized I could test it (as far as chromosomal sex goes, anyway, which we asked about because it’s tied to colorblindness).

I didn’t want to spend a long time boring people about sex and gender (I’ll talk forever if you let me), but I also wanted to clarify that this was something I cared about and was trying to pay proper attention to.  I ran it by some friends before posting, and they approved; one specifically thanked me for adding that note.  So I figured I’d found a good balance.

But a number of people were still offended or upset by my use of the chromosomal data in a conversation about gender. Now, there are always going to be people upset about anything; as Ford Prefect said, “Fuck ‘em. You can’t care about every damn thing.” But this is an issue I really do care about, and one I spend a lot of time trying to get right—and I genuinely appreciate the guidance. If people were offended or feel I didn’t handle this right, I’m sorry, and it’s my fault. But it wasn’t for lack of caring.

And to anyone writing software that handles gender or sex information, it’s a good reminder that these questions are not always straightforward for everyone, and a little courtesy can do a lot to make someone feel respected.

289 thoughts on “Sex and Gender

  1. “And to anyone writing software that handles gender or sex information, it’s a good reminder that these questions are not always straightforward for everyone, and a little courtesy can do a lot to make someone feel respected.”

    Very true!

  2. Pingback: Male/Female/Other/What? | TRiG's links

  3. A bit late on my response, but it would be nice if programmers would remember those of us in the trans community once in a while. I’m glad you do at least. Thank you.

  4. Actually, “Do you have at least 2 X chromosomes?” would have been a better wording.

    The reason: Karyotype 47,XXY produces a male phenotype (see Klinefelter syndrome), but should be considered female for the purposes of colorblindness. Same for karyotype 46,XX with an SRY gene on one or both X chromosomes, or on one of the autosomes. Karyotype 46,XY with a mutation causing CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome) is phenotypically (almost) female, but behaves statistically male when dealing with X-linked diseases.

    In fact, “How many X chromosomes do you have?”, with a place to enter a number, would be even better – karyotype 47,XXX is phenotypically female, but people with this karyotype have an even lower chance of being colorblind than typical (46,XX) women.

  5. Wow. You may just be the most politically correct person known to man. I’m even quite sure you twitched in gender-neutrality rage at me using the word “man” instead of some more post-modern gender-neutral demonym.

  6. Pingback: En Argentine, fais sexe qu’il te plaît | Carnet de notes

  7. Pingback: The Color Cloud: an interactive visualization of color names | Luminoso Blog

  8. Thank you for this! Do you have any information on how well your question was understood by people whose second language is English or who are browsing through Google Translate?

    Also, for those who wish more programmers were remembering those in the trans (or intersex) community, sometimes we are and you just aren’t seeing the results. For sex, gender and racial/ethnic background questions, sometimes we are asking questions because we need to return particular data for various red-tape reasons, and if we ask for the data we need to return (even if we know the answer choices are missing a number of options), at least we are letting the respondents decide which inappropriate option best fits them. And sometimes we are stuck with legacy systems (or lost an argument.) Also, I have asked about questions in the past that made what I thought were inappropriate racial, ethnic or gender assumptions and found that they had been carefully crafted by marketing people to get specific information from specific people.

  9. I almost never leave a response, but I browsed a few of
    the remarks on this page Sex and Gender | xkcd.
    I do have 2 questions for you if it’s okay. Is it simply me or
    does it seem like a few of the remarks come across like they are
    written by brain dead individuals? :-P And, if you are posting at additional places, I’d like to follow you.

    Would you list of every one of your shared sites like your twitter
    feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  10. Not that I expect anyone to still be reading comments on this, but for the record, NetRoller–the reason I didn’t do the chromosome question that way is that lots of people who have chromosomal anomalies don’t know it, which means the data from asking isn’t very reliable. It’s much, much more common to be aware of whether you have a Y chromosome, and both the “yes” and “no” groups are pretty large. I figured if Randall wanted to be more precise than the data really warranted with respect to plural-X anomalies, he could do that statistically without a significant loss of accuracy.

    Mullet, do you even know what “demonym” means? Because it has nothing to do with what you’re saying. Anyway, it’s a pity you feel so threatened by someone else taking the trouble not to be an asshole.

  11. Anecdote about fuchsia: Most famous Dutch musical writer Annie M.G. Schmidt was famous for her naughtiness. I imagine she may have had a bet with a friend that she couldn’t write the work ‘fuck’ into her television series in the 1960′s. So the story line in one episode centered around fuchsias, how these plants are easy to grow and universally loved. The refrain/chorus of the song about this wonderful plant featured the line “of the fuch-fuch-fuchsia” which sounds in Dutch like it sounds in English.

  12. It would be intersting to use this data to develop beter ways of histogramming or rotoscoping color into “common” or “human-perceived” colors. To more appropriately accomplish this, it would be nice to have whatever function you used to make the above map which maps an RGB value to a color name over the n most popular colors.

  13. tebi izgleda jos nije jasno da clanovi hdz-a popunjavaju, mozemo slobodno reci polovicu stranke, partije, kako hoces.. jugoslaveni, ostatak su hrvati i nesto ostalih mish-mash. slicno igranje brojki desava se u sdp-u, s time da su hrvati silom prilika prebaceni u mish-mash lonac dok su srbi ostatak! zdravo sumnjicavi

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  15. If I register for this blog, will I get to your real name, or simply just the blog name as here?

    I’m in the middle of writing a finals paper on gender and color terms (due on Monday). I would like to mention your survey and your results, so I need a correct reference for my reference list!

  16. That would preferably include an author And then I will provide the link to this page an possibly to the raw data as well.

    I did a survey similar to yours so it would be excellent for me to compare the two!

    If I won’t know you’re name by registering, I would be so grateful if you would be so kind to maybe email it to me or somehing. It would be very helpful!

  17. Annie M.G. Schmidt was famous for a number of things, including a poem called “I’m Deliciously Naughty”, but not for sexual innuendo type naughtiness. The song about the fuchsia is just: a song about sharing plant cuttings to make the neighborhood prettier. The Dutch syllable “fuch” didn’t mean then what the English syllable “fuck” means now, even though they sound the same. The “Naughty” poem is about a toddler not wanting to sit politely or say “Yes, sir”, nothing racier.

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  19. I keep thinking about writing but I never seem to have the energy or inspiration I used to. When at university I used to be able to write 5000 -10000 word essays in a few hours that would take others days. Not any more

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