Men and Women: The Same Parts, Organized Differently

Men and Women: The Same Parts, Organized Differently October 1, 2016

Destroy the gender binary. We’re all unique snowflakes that share a common origin (thanks, homology).

Photo in public domain (from Pixabay).
Photo in public domain (from Pixabay).

On both anatomical and sexual levels, men and women have more in common than not.

As Emily Nagoski writes in Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, until about six weeks after the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, all fetuses have the same genital tissue. In other words, they’re homologues, or traits with shared biological origins but diverging appearances and/or functions. After a hormone wash that most male fetuses respond to, they begin to differentiate.

Nagoski states:

Both male and female genitals have a round-ended, highly sensitive, multichambered organ to which blood flows during sexual arousal. On females, it’s the clitoris; on males, it’s the penis. And each has an organ that is soft, stretchy, and grows coarse hair after puberty. On females, it’s the outer lips (labia majora); on males, its’ the scrotum. These parts don’t just look superficially alike; they are developed from the equivalent fetal tissue. (20)

The really cool thing is that this means that we have to rethink the very concept of having external vs. internal genitalia as a differentiating factor between men and women. In Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure by Sheri Winston, there are diagrams of the internal erectile tissue that most women have, wherein the legs of the clitoris extend deep inside the pubic area, branching around the vagina. In other words, women have just as much erectile tissue as men do–it’s just not always visible.

Intersex folks, and trans or non-binary people on hormones, also have the same type of genital tissues, but remixed somewhat differently, and it’s all normal. As Nagoski writes, “There’s nothing wrong with their genitals, any more than there’s anything wrong with a person whose labia are uniquely large or small. It’s still all the same parts, just organized in a different way” (32).

This is why it drives me nuts when people – evolutionay psychologists, pickup artists, religious people, whoever – talk about the differences between men and women as though they are absolute, essential, and universal. They’re not. They’re really not. Apart from a handful of anatomical differences in hormones and what your genitals and reproductive systems can and can’t do, men and women are more similar than they’re different. And the differences that are really noticeable may well come from a lifetime of cultural conditioning for all we can tell, given that the sex-gender connection is super complicated.

When it comes to sexuality (orientation, prferences, sexual functioning, arousal, desire, etc.) I follow Nagoski in emphasizing homology above all else: while there are patterns in how men and women react differently to sexual stimuli, we’re all coming from basically the same place: “We also find overlap between the two groups, and we find folks who vary wildly from the ‘average’ while still being perfectly normal and healthy” (35). In other words, it doesn’t matter if your sexuality conforms more to what we consider masculine or feminine sexuality, so long as you understand and accept yourself.

This is also why genital shaming is unacceptable. People generally don’t have a lot of control over how their genitals look (though these days there are more surgical options than ever before). You really can’t infer anything about anyone’s sexual orientation or interests by looking at their genitals, so again, let’s get used to the idea that everyone’s genitals are normal, since we’re all made of the same parts assembled differently. Loving your body and cultivating a positive body image can have a beneficial effect on your sex life, so all the more reason to get on board with the ideas in this post.

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