Intrinsic Inclinations Model

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Julia Serano after speaking at the Mayo Clinic in 2018
It's a social construct
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Spectra and binaries

The Intrinsic Inclinations Model of Gender is a trans feminist theory of gender developed by the molecular biophysicist and trans activist Julia Serano. First introduced in chapters 5 and 6 of her transfeministWikipedia manifesto “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” published in 2007. Though the model was not developed as the result of scientific research and never published in an academic journal (and thus is not subject to peer review), it can be said that the model is not without supporting (albeit limited) evidence. The model offers an alternative to both the gender essentialist and social constructionist theories on gender. The Intrinsic Inclination model claims that everyone has a certain relatively fixed sense of their own psychological sex, sexual orientation, and an inclination towards specific forms of gender expression. In addition to these innate inclinations, socialization, and cultural standards largely influence how one's identity is interpreted and expressed.[1]

Subconscious sex and physical sex[edit]

Serano asserts the existence of what she calls "subconscious sex", which is a term she uses to describe "an unconscious and inexplicable self-understanding regarding what sex one belongs to or should be".[2] Serano believes the brain is hardwired to have a sense of one's own sex, and this sense doesn't necessarily always match up to one's physical sex. Physical Sex being used in place of what is typically called biological sex by other writers.

As her first line of evidence, she points to baby males who have experienced botched circumcisions or suffered from a genital defect at birth. In response, doctors surgically made them into "girls". Despite this, many children still had a sense of being male, regardless of how they are raised by their parents, debunking the notion that one's sense of their gender is purely socialized.[3][4]

Her second line of evidence points to other sexually dimorphic species. It isn't uncommon or unheard of in biology for some small minority of male organisms taking on female mating habits and general behaviors and vice versa. She references Bruce Bagemihl's book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity[5] as a reference to this claim.

In her third line of evidence, she refers to the typical sex differences in brain structure between cis men and cis women, and the neuroanatomy of trans people. Some research suggests that trans women, for example, have the region of their brain called the BSTc that is more similar to the BSTc region of cis women than it is of cis men, and trans men also have white matter patterns within their cerebral cortex that is more similar to that of cis men than of cis women.[6][7]

Though in her book only the BSTc region of trans women are mentioned, there has been increasing research into the neuroanatomy of trans people in recent years, and it's not as reductive, as it being simply a male brain born into a female body or vice versa. A meta-analysis published in 2016 concludes…

Untreated MtFs and FtMs who have an early onset of their gender dysphoria and are sexually oriented to persons of their natal sex show a distinctive brain morphology, reflecting a brain phenotype. These phenotypes are different from those of heterosexual males or females; the differences affect the right hemisphere and cortical structures underlying body perception.[8]

Unfortunately, such research tends to use needlessly stigmatizing language, but there is still value in what the data suggests about brain anatomy and physiology, problematic language aside.

For most people, their subconscious sex and physical sex are concordant with one another and tend to, therefore, identify as cisgender. For others, their subconscious sex and physical sex are dissonant to each other, and this leads to what Serano calls "gender dissonance" which may likely lead someone to identify as transgender and seek transition. Because this phenomenon exists cross-culturally, across history, and across species, at a rate that would be too high for it be a mere genetic defect,[citation needed] Serano argues that this phenomenon is just a natural occurrence and a normal part of the biological variation in the same vein as say sexual orientation.

Some of the research cited in the relevant chapters of Whipping Girl isn't of ideal quality, namely the Zhou et al (1995) study regarding the BSTc region, and the Reiner and Gearhart (2004) study regarding the coercive sex change surgery done on males born with genital defects. Both of these studies use small and inadequate sample sizes, though, to be fair, the nature of this kind of research makes it very difficult to find large random samples. The book by Colapinto (2006) could be described as a case study at best. Serano fully acknowledges these limitations within her book, though at the time of first publication there wasn't much for Serano to work with. Now that over a decade has passed a lot more research has been done regarding the underlying neuroscience of things such as gender dysphoria, and it's far from controversial in neuroscience to suggest that there are measurable statistical differences between the brains of cis men and cis women. If this suggests the existence of a subconscious sex like Serano claims, then her claim is not without supporting evidence.

Basics of the Intrinsic Inclinations Model[edit]

  1. Subconscious sex, sexual orientation, and gender expression are all separate inclinations.
  2. The nature of these inclinations is that they are at least on some level internal and innate, and remain largely the same throughout most of our lives; they exist at least on some deeper psychological level.
  3. Since there is no singular cause for any of these inclinations they are quantitative traits meaning that they are influenced by a multitude of factors whether it be genetic, hormonal, neurological, the result of observational learning, socialization, etc. This results in a broad range of possible outcomes.
  4. The fourth aspect is better explained in Serano's words herself.

Each of these inclinations roughly correlates with physical sex, resulting in a bimodal distribution pattern (i.e., two overlapping bell curves) similar to that seen in gender differences such as height. While it may be true that on average, men are taller than women, such a statement becomes virtually meaningless when one examines individual people, as any given woman may be taller than any given man. Most people have heights that relatively close to the average, but others fall in outlying areas of the range (for instance, some women are 6 feet 2 inches and some men are 5 feet 4 inches). Similarly, while women on average are more feminine than men, some women are more masculine than certain men, and some men are more feminine than certain women.[1]

What can result from these inclinations is the full range of queer folk and gender-variant individuals, though most people identify as cis and straight. Serano also brings up a good point about not being to tell much about individual people from groups averages, what she is indirectly talking about here is also known as the ecological fallacy. The focus, of course, is to illustrate the full range of these inclinations and how you may expect their frequency in the overall population.

Role of socialization and social constructs[edit]

Serano herself is suspicious of the claim that gender is purely a social construction, though she acknowledges that gender categories, roles, and ideals are historically and culturally contingent. She doesn’t reject the social constructionist theory because she believes it to be wrong, only that it’s only partially correct and that it possesses limited explanatory power. Serano believes that social constructionists tend to only look at the social influences of gender and the behaviors and ideals that result from them. Serano thinks of it as looking at gender only from a particular perspective that largely goes out of its way to ignore and dismiss conflicting claims from biological science. She also feels that many of the claims that social constructionists position come into conflict with her experiences as a trans person, and her experiences with Hormone replacement therapy. Serano believes that the social constructionist theories of gender (as well as the gender essentialist position) are inadequate to explain exceptional forms of gender expression. What she means, by exceptional gender expression, is usually in reference to gender-variant people, as in trans people, very effeminate men, and very masculine women, etc. Since exceptional gender expression (people that seem to resist socialization or defy the expectations of the culture towards their respected gender) are found cross-culturally she suspects that this is a natural phenomenon. She doesn’t reject the power of socialization of gender, however, and still believes that socialization has a large influence on how we choose to identify and express our gender, though she doesn’t think socialization is strong enough to completely override our intrinsic inclinations.

Serano admittedly thinks social constructs play a large role in how we choose to identify, at the time of writing the first edition of “Whipping Girl” Serano identified as a lesbian, dyke, woman, transgender person, and transsexual; which of course are all historically and culturally contingent social constructs. Serano now identifies as bisexual.[1] Depending on what time or place in history that she was born into such a condition would largely determine how she would express her intrinsic inclinations and how she would choose to identify. If you lived as a gay man in a hypothetical culture for example that had no concept of homosexuality or words to refer to it, you would still likely experience sexual attraction to men but you would not necessarily know how to interpret these feelings, how to identify yourself, or how to express it. Serano says, for example, that if she grew up in India, depending on what point in history, she probably wouldn’t have identified as a trans woman, she would more likely have identified as a Hijra. Alternatively, if she grew up in Thailand she may have identified as Kathoey, or in a Native American culture depending on what region she grew up in she would possibly have identified as Two-Spirit. With these differing cultural identifiers, it would be likely that one would take on different forms of expression as well. Serano believes that culture and society have a huge influence on how someone interprets their subconscious sex, and this cultural interpretation is what she calls gender identity. The general gender roles and expectations of the society, and how gender is socialized would also influence how that gender identity is expressed. She also believes interpreting one's subconscious sex with the gender identity of being non-binary or genderqueer is completely valid.

On gender essentialism[edit]

Serano mentions that oftentimes she is accused of being a biological determinist and a gender essentialist; even though she explicitly rejects both and believes that this is the result of a gross misinterpretation of her model. Serano characterizes gender essentialism as being the position that all people born with male physical sex are simply preprogrammed to act masculine and that all those born with female physical sex are simply preprogrammed to act feminine. Gender essentialists, as characterized by Serano, usually believe that some genetic or hormonal factor is the underlying cause of gendered behavior, which Serano believes to be a massive oversimplification and asserts that no such evidence exists that suggests any specific gene is tied to any specific gendered behavior. Again Serano argues that gender essentialists much like the social constructionists cannot account for exceptional gender expression and gender-variant identities. Serano also rejects gender essentialism on the basis that it treats men and women as two mutually exclusive discrete categories that are the opposite of one another. Serano believes that this is inaccurate that the mere existence of intersex individuals and gender variant people suggest that neither gender nor physical sex exists in a simply male and female binary. The range of variation that exists in terms of gender identity and expression is unaccounted or completely ignored by gender essentialists, making it fundamentally incompatible with queer and trans identities. Again Serano doesn’t reject gender essentialism because she believes it wrong, but rather because it is only partially correct. Serano explicitly believes the ongoing debate between gender essentialists and social constructionists is, in fact, a false dichotomy much like most of the debates regarding nature versus nurture in contemporary science. The fact that evidence can be asserted in support of gender essentialism and evidence can be presented in favor of social constructionism reveal in at least some respect that both views are in part partially correct, but both are not entirely correct. Gender Essentialists tend to argue that the exceptions are merely genetic anomalies, but Serano as a geneticist believes that gender variant people and exceptional gender expression occur too frequently in the population to be mere genetic mistakes. Serano also argues in part that socialization of gender is still a fundamental part of the development of gender identity and expression, and its often downplayed by gender essentialists much in the same way that social constructionists deny the biological science that supports certain propositions made by gender essentialists. As a trans woman, Serano doesn’t believe that males and females are necessarily opposite sexes and that someone can still change their physical sex in some capacity. Physical sex according to Serano can be broken down into multiple categories such as genetic sex, gonadal sex, genital sex, hormonal sex, and of course secondary sex characteristics. Different components and parts of one’s physical sex can be changed at least in some regard with the aid of things like HRT which can for example change one’s hormonal sex and secondary sex characteristics. Serano also points out that some people have aspects of their physical sex that is ambiguous or atypical to their physical sex overall, and these people are of course intersex. Serano believes that physical sex much like the intrinsic inclinations she describes also exists within a bimodal distribution and does not exist in the strict mutually exclusive opposite categories that gender essentialism seems to describe.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (2016) Seal Press, 2nd ed. ISBN 1580056229.
  2. Serano, Julia. "Julia’s trans, gender, sexuality, & activism glossary!". Accessed August 11, 2022.
  3. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by Colapinto (2006) Harper Collins Publishers. 2nd ed. ISBN 0061120561.
  4. Reiner, W. G., & Gearhart, J. P. (2004). Discordant Sexual Identity in Some Genetic Males with Cloacal Exstrophy Assigned to Female Sex at Birth. The New England Journal of Medicine, 350(4):333-341.
  5. Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl (2000) Stonewall Inn Editions. ISBN 031225377X.
  6. Zhou, Jiang-Ning, Michel A. Hofman, Louis J. G. Gooren, and Dick F. Swaab. "A Sex Difference in the Human Brain and Its Relation to Transsexuality." Nature 378.6552 (1995): 68-70.
  7. Rametti, Giuseppina, Beatriz Carrillo, Esther Gómez-Gil, Carme Junque, Santiago Segovia, Ángel Gomez, and Antonio Guillamon. "White Matter Microstructure in Female to Male Transsexuals before Cross-sex Hormonal Treatment. A Diffusion Tensor Imaging Study." Journal of Psychiatric Research 45.2 (2011): 199-204.
  8. Guillamon, A., Junque, C., & Gómez-Gil, E. (2016). A Review of the Status of Brain Structure Research in Transsexualism. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 1615–1648.