# What would society be like if sex couldn't be told apart until puberty?

Gender roles have been historically assigned at birth. As soon as parents establish the sex of their children, they are molded into certain social categories. But what if humans didn't display sexual characteristics until adolescence?

My story is set on a fictional world very similar to ours in the Late Middle Ages/Early Modern Period, and populated by "humans". The main deviation from human standard biology is that their reproductive organs don't appear until puberty. These young people have no sex, and once they reach puberty, they become either male or female and take on their respective roles in a (more or less) patriarcal society.

My question is primarily focused on how a medieval/early modern society would be affected by this, specially when it comes to education and an early stage of life. I've come to a few interesting points:

• Names: Would people only use unisex names like Taylor or Lindsay? Or perhaps would they adopt an "adult, gendered name" when they grew up, leaving their baby neuter name behind (maybe something related to nicknames or even posthumous names)?

• Heredity: When dealing with lands, material goods or even royal titles how could a cautious parent be sure of his/her true heir? (Think about the classic "Henry VIII dilemma"). Would he have to wait for 12 or 13 years until the kid "becomes" a boy or a girl? Would he secure his legacy by having many children?

• Education: I assume parents would prefer a boy and would educate the kid as so, in their particular craft for peasants or merchants, or for ruling and hunting if they are from a noble family. What would happen when the fittest kid becomes a girl?

• Gender neutral people: Let's say that external changes are caused by hormones, just like real biology does. What if, in some cases, certain people wouldn't be able to produce enough amount of hormones to develop as male or female? Would they be expected to behave as women, or maybe as monks, somehow related to religion and celibacy?

• Sexing: Even though I think this is more interesting if there's no way to tell if a child is a boy or a girl, I'm curious about methods of "sexing people". What do you think?

Would this society be more equal? Would there still be gender roles? Or, since this situation has existed since Prehistory, would they never arrive to a patriarcal society like that? I hope this question isn't too broad, I've broken down the question into smaller question in order to avoid that. Feel free of answer only one bit, and of course, you can bring up any other topic I might have left out.

Thank you very much!

• I'm a little confused, how does the member work? Does it like sprout out at a certain age, and the balls decend? And sometimes it sprouts in? Would it not be obvious by the extra 'ahem' hole girls have? Aug 17, 2018 at 17:16
• It could be that genitals are totally hidden until puberty with a different urinary output tube common to all genders. Aug 17, 2018 at 17:19
• @TrevorD You would be surprised how small the difference in physiology between a boy and a girl is, apart from the shape of the primary genitalia. When puberty hits there are huge changes (skeleton, muscles mass to name a few). And, it is estimated by experts, as much as 1 percent of the population has some ambiguity in the primary genitalia which may be discovered at birth or later when puberty is supposed to take place. Or even later still. Aug 17, 2018 at 19:27
• Interestingly there is a hereditary disorder that essentially functions exactly as this question proposes. 5α Reductase deficiency results in XY individuals appearing as outwardly female until they hit puberty. At puberty, these individuals then gain male sexual characteristics, including genitalia. In the Dominican Republic where the condition is most prevalent, it is known colloquially as güevedoce; a Spanish contraction of "testicles at age twelve". Very interestingly, these kids often have male gender identities before puberty. Aug 17, 2018 at 21:00
• Media reference for more information: telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/… Based on the real-world counterparts, it would seem that behavior and preferences may provide clues to what the child's ultimate sex will probably be, if it is predetermined and simply not physically expressed yet (as opposed to being environmentally determined at the age of puberty). Aug 17, 2018 at 22:00

I think it is actually quite simple. "Sex" does not exist until puberty is reached. Humanoids are quite lazy and don't invent names or categories for things which are undistinguishable.

I think the impact on the society would be as follows:

a) It will invite superstitous rituals to influence the outcome of sex. You must decide if there in fact is some factor which does influence the final outcome (e.g. the body detects pheromones and if a minority of men/women exist, switch to the sex with less members) or if the outcome is determined, just completely hidden. Neutrals who do not develop sex could be seen as punished by fate/gods/bad things done by the parents.

b) As many cultures have specific rituals once manhood/womanhood is reached, once the time has come, it will invite much celebration, perhaps the reach of adulthood, the choice of a new name etc.

c) As for society roles, this detail will have no effect. You can build your society a patriarchat, matriarchat or equal. You are also not obliged to make men stronger/more resilient: While men of Earth primates have stronger build, this is not a law; female birds of prey e.g. are mostly bigger and stronger than males. You must adjust it only to the biological roles men/women are playing in your world. You can also make either boys or girls more desirable: The boy's ability to father many children in parallel or the girl's ability to get children in the first place. I really think you are quite free to build the background as you like.

d) As said, "sexing" will be non-existent if there is no way to tell boys from girls.

• "Humanoids are quite lazy and don't invent names or categories for things which are undistinguishable." - This sounds as if you'd imply that that is unreasonable. Distinction without difference not only makes no sense, but is false (a fallacy). It's like saying 2+2 != 1+3. And be careful with such generic claims about "humanity" - usually the opposite can also be claimed: 'Humanoids are quite creative and productive and invent names and categories for things which are undistinguishable.' But only one claim can be correct at best... or none, which is the more likely. Aug 18, 2018 at 11:57
• @Battle Let me state that more precisely: Humanoids do (not) invent names or categories for things they think(!) are (in)distinguishable. Most real things are not abstract like numbers and cannot be handled that easily. For example, in taxonomy there were many species which were merged because people thought errornously they were different (size) although they were genetically identical (The observed difference was a sampling error). Or bonobos looked like chimpanzees, so only later they were divided into two separate categories. (1/2) Aug 18, 2018 at 12:47
• It also depends on the culture you are brought up. We Europeans are used to recognize streets, shops, signs etc for navigation, so in the woods many of us are lost. Native people are used to live in the forest, so they adapted by recognizing trees and see them as separate entities (but they are equally lost in cities without trees!). Chicken sexing is the ability to look at the cloaca (which looks completely equal for normal people) and divide the bird into male and female sex. Sanskrit has phonemes which sound completely equal for European ears. (2/2) Aug 18, 2018 at 12:53
• The most difficult problem is the problem of universals: There are (perhaps apart from fundamental particles) no equal things in universe. Any cat, dog, human, thing, even twins is unique. So the question why categories exist at all is a good one. Aug 18, 2018 at 12:57
• That seems all reasonable - however it's less about distinguishing individual elements for orientation (which may be different to recognizing patterns and categories on an abstract level) and more about making general statements about humanity. I was more about saying that while "Humanity is A" can also be easily turned around to "Humanity is ¬A," which may be exclusive statements. Humanity literally encompasses most, if not all the positive and negative things we can think of. So a true statement could also be that "Humanity is A and ¬A." We have vast differences throughout space and time. Aug 19, 2018 at 10:33

Your change is more complex than you realize. Biological sex is not just a shape of few ounces of flesh, there are hormones and behavior, musculo-skeletal differences, and internal organs that take years and years to develop properly.

A. If the only change is shape of genitals, and hormones and bones develop as in regular humans, then parents can make a pretty good guess at the future gender of the child, and raise them accordingly. Mistakes will be common though, and I while it is tempting to expect more tolerance for such mis-gendered children, I you can also end up with worse situation than LGBT people in medieval world.

B. If hormonal differences do not start until 12, the body has a lot less time to adapt to its role. Expect lots of literal growth pains as body rearranges itself, and less gender difference in adults (men are weaker, women are less fertile and caring).

Scenario A will lead to a world similar to our own.

Scenario B will dampen gender differences, but will not erase then, as limitations imposed by childbirth and caring for children are unchanged. I will answer your Qs only for scenario B:

Would this society be more equal? Yes, since there will be a lot more shared experience between genders. But not perfectly equal.

Would there still be gender roles? Yes. Maternal instinct will still force women to focus on children and household a lot more than men.

And yes, they will still arrive at a patriarcal society.

Names: there are a few cultures where you don't get a name until later on, but waiting until they're a teenager might be too long. They're gonna call them something. I reckon the idea of gendered names would be fairly redundant.

Herity: male primogeniture is not the default setting. If sex is indistuingishable until puberty, we might well treat both sexes equally as far as inheritance goes. This is how it currently works in the UK monarchy, for example, meaning Princess Charlotte comes before her younger brother in the line of succession.

Education: the assumption that the parents would prefer a boy is rather an odd one to make, and I have no idea why this would be the case. Boys are preferred in certain cultures where they're more likely to get work and thus better to provide for the family, but this doesn't have to be the case in your culture.

It's your culture, it does have to reflect the current human culture. It does not have to be patriarchal, you could easily explain it away as being matriarchal or neutral.

The gender neutral people could equally be treated however you want them to be. Them being accepted or reviled both make sense--in part it would probably depend on how common they are. More common means that people are more used to it and less shocked by the idea. Less common means less understanding and probably more hatred.

Would this society be more equal?

Probably not by much. Women would still be seen as the weaker sex as they would naturally develop less muscles and lighter bones. The men would still develop an evolutionary drive to protect women. So basically it becomes a gamble, probably a life altering crushing depression if you roll the wrong gender. Men would likely do more female roles, but females would still be discouraged from certain male roles. (I'm not advocating that this is how the world really works, or should work, just that it's how the genders were perceived back then before we knew better)

Would there still be gender roles?

This is a bit ambiguous. At a basic level, the male-female relationship would remain the same. Your best friend growing up might turn into your lover more often than it does now, but that's about it. Same sex relationships would probably also become normal.

Or, since this situation has existed since Prehistory, would they never arrive to a patriarcal society like that?

It's possible such an evolution would mean people do all their life decisions before puberty, and thus what they turn into isn't relevant. If a child trains to be a blacksmith, then turns into a petite woman, shes still a competent blacksmith.

This question is incredibly broad, so I expect it will be closed. It's a good question to explore, but it's just plain massive. Every part of society has some interaction with gender.

That being said, I think there's one major effect which a worldbuilder can use to explore these effects. It isn't quite the answer you are looking for, but it's more of a prototype from which you can explore. It's too large for a comment, and it's just related enough to qualify as an answer, so I'm going to put it here.

In this, I will try to be very careful to separate the male and female sexes from the masculine and feminine genders. Sex is a biological thing, and with some nuanced exceptions, it's a very easy to understand binary concept. Gender is a more complicated topic. It's a societal construct, dividing people into roles. Some people like to refer to the gender roles as "men" and "women," but I prefer masculine and feminine because they highlight the important detail here, which is that one person can exhibit both traits.

Consider a hypothetical situation where the "goodness" of a particular role from an evolutionary perspective could be put on a number line. Perhaps it's "agressiveness." Too high, and your society tears itself apart. Too low, and your society isn't assertive enough against the forces of nature and vanishes. There's a sweet spot. Nobody really knows where that sweet spot is, and it may even move. But we know, mathematically, that such a sweet spot exists.

How would you cope with this?

Well one approach is to divide the populace in half, and teach each to fall on one side or the other. That way the "best" answer is always available as some combination of the two. It won't be ideal (better to have everyone be "perfect"), but without knowing what perfect is, it's the best you can do.

Now how do you divide the populace in half. One approach is to wait and see what people's aptitude is, and divide them then. In many cases, this is how we do it in society. Whether its the US or a back-country native group, your status as a hunter or an engineer or a leader or a clerk is typically made after seeing what you're good at.

However, what if there are some tasks which benefit from many years of training. What if it takes 14-20 years to train someone up to do a task? As a general rule, humans don't tend to show their proficiencies all that reliably until around seven years or so (there's something funny about 7 years with respect to the central nervous system that keeps coming up). So if you start training then, you're quite far behind those who trained from birth. You might find that your indviduals achieve competency in something at the age of 20, when more strictly gendered cultures achieve said competency at 13, though some of those may be "wrong fits" because the gender was assigned early. It's a balance.

The solution: make an arbitrary decision at birth. And that's what gender does in most societies. It does an arbitrary decision based on something we can see. It can be argued that we do better than 50/50 with that approach because sex is a strong indicator of hormones, and hormones have a huge effect on us. But it is a guess.

With this model, you can see where things would go. Without a visible sex indicator, we would not have a strong indicator of hormones. If we needed to create an arbitrary distinction, we might flip a coin or consult yarrow stalks.

Such an approach would clearly be less beneficial than an approach which can at least say something about hormones. As such, we should expect to see it be less popular than gender today.

What happens in such an environment? Well, it depends. There's many options:

• You can push back the coming of age. Many native cultures have coming of age ceremonies around puberty ages. Modern Western cultures tend to have a coming of age around 18. There's talk that US culture may have moved the coming of age to closer to 26 (psychologists look at things like the behavior of college students when suggesting that age may have moved). You would see the age later because you would first have to identify proficiency, then train it afterward, instead of doing both in parallel.
• You can rely on less-skilled abilities. If training takes 3 years instead of 15, you can start training later and get away with it. If you make it easier to be a mother, by creating institutionalized systems of care, you decrease the minimum amount of training required to be successful. Crossbows were immensely effective in medieval times not because they were more deadly than bows, but because they could be trained in months or weeks rather than years.
• Tasks which still need to be taught from birth could be taught truly randomly
• Or they might be taught to everyone.

Teaching skills to everyone is a tricky business. It's only possible if you have a good sense of where the optimum is. It massively increases the cost of training the skills, especially when some are contradictory. (It's very difficult to find good ways to teach war which also help nurture a child).

Your society could explore any one of these, or many of them. The path you take can answer your questions.

For example, you mention naming. Would you see unisex names? Maybe. It's possible that the solution is a later coming of age, in which case a unisex name as a child is a very natural solution. However, if your solution is to randomly assign roles to people at birth, to get a head start, then you may choose incredibly gender-specific names to help people sterotype those roles properly.

Gender Neutral people is equally open. Your society may develop fully aware that gender is an artificial construct, and embrace gender neutrality. Or it may be that your culture teaches everyone everything as a child, and is fragile because it doesn't have the diversity. As such, one might have a culture which demands a snap change in direction when one comes of age, picking a sex and pursuing it quickly to "catch up" to societies nearby which did not use the same rules. In such cases, a gender neutral individual may be treated as a child the rest of their lives.

In the end, the answers to these questions are as fuzzy and complicated as they are in real life. We're still working our way through them. However, by modeling gender as a tool to permit role-specific teachings from birth, you can make sure that whatever system you come up with is realistic.

This question is extremely open ended, and I could think of many possible societies with this biological setting. It's probably safe to assume that many cultures with different views regarding sex and gender would evolve throughout the world in question.

I'm going to name at least one possible structure for a society that has this kind of biological mechanism, and meets your goals of a patriarchy.

If we assume that males are already held in higher regards, we can probably assume that when a child begins to develop male sex factors, there would be some amount of celebration. The only real difference between earth societies would be that you have to wait more years to find out if the child is male or female.

This can lead to two possible scenarios: Children are only birthed every 12-13 years, depending on if you're current child becomes male or not. Or more likely, many children are had to ensure a male heir. The second is more likely since many births were common in medieval times because of high infant and childhood mortality rates.

Let me start by going through your list, and then adding other developments I think likely in personal opinion.

Names: if I had to guess, I would think that most parents would choose masculine names for their children, in hopes that their child would become male. In the case of names with a feminine form, the feminine form could be added if the child becomes female. IE A Samuel/Sam would become Samantha.

In the case of Royalty or nobles, they may choose to bestow male names only to male heirs, an early sign of their right to inherit land or prestige. However, nobles often subscribe to some of the same superstitions as commoners, so they may also practice male naming.

Heredity: Your guess that Royalty would sire many heirs in order to ensure a male scion is most likely correct. It has been observed throughout human history that the more wealth a person has, the more likely they are to participate in Polygamous practices. Royalty would probably have many wives to ensure a proper heir was born.

The selection for the most proper male heir could happen in many ways, but the most likely answer is simply that the first Child to develop male characteristics would be the true heir, and the appointment would pass to the next child who had developed the traits in the event of their death.

In this case a younger child may become the true heir if an older sibling fails to develop sex characteristics first. This would only hold true if the development of sex had a distinguishing factor, such as developing a proto-penis, or having breasts form. If the change is more varied such as our puberty, birthrights might have to be decided by a contest instead, with similarly aged heirs competing for the birthrights. Perhaps they would have all heirs in the same calendar year compete in a contest when they come of age.

Education: Most likely many skills would become more unisex, with hunting and crafting being at first learned by both, and specializations going on after they hit their sexing period. This would mean that men and women are a lot more conscious of the sex split, despite the fact that children are treated more evenly. For children who learn together with their siblings and then suddenly get divided by sex, there would probably be a large emotional attachment to the event.

As for higher education, only nobles would get it in the middle ages, and they wouldn't start until they came of age at 12-13 anyways. Schooling would be another disjoint between the sexes, and a feminist movement may happen a lot sooner than typically expected because as children both sexes had the same rights, and women will want the same rights in adult hood as well.

But until that happens, while noble or wealthy boys went to school, girls would suddenly be given wife lessons in an attempt to marry them off to a man in their mid teens.

The split would be less apparent in commoners where the only major difference would be that girls would start spending more time learning craft, while boys spent more time learning field care and other outdoor activities. The main reason for this is that the wife will need to stay at home while pregnant, and crafts can be done inside. A boys knowledge of crafts won't go to waste of course, as he'll be able to use it during winter, storms, and other events that may keep him inside.

Gender neutral/Intersex: Gender neutral people would probably be regarded as a third inferior sex. It's even possible they would be considered cursed by god and may be scorned or even killed. Some cultures believed that third sexed people were special and were given praise, but it's far less common then condemning outcasts.

Sexing: I can only imagine the wonderful plethora of hogwash sexing methods people would come up with. There would be debates over what sex position gives the most boys, over what kinds of foods children should eat, probably weird practices like feeding a child the placenta from a newborn to help them grow into men.

There would be Shamans who would sex your baby based on earlobes or birthmarks, but it would obviously be bull. Maybe somewhere a scientist would suggest looking for ovums by cutting open a child's belly to sex them, but considering the risk of infection and the great chance that the doctor would be called a heretic for desecrating bodies or something, I doubt any reliable method would crop up.

Patriarchal society: There's actually one very good reason that a patriarchal society would develop even though children don't have sexes, and that is the fact that men don't get pregnant. Yes, in early cultures women were life givers and served as matriarchs, but as time went on men, who tend to have more aggressiveness, would be able to go out and conquer or whatever while their wives are pregnant. Actually, just the fact that men are more likely to fight could lead to power shifting to men. With men on the top, a patriarchal society develops as a side effect. IE: All these men are ruling countries, men must be great and special.

Extra notes: I think that covers a lot of the basics, but I do thing one thing is important to point out. In this type of world, I'm fairly sure the gender gap would be wider, not narrower. With men and women growing up separately from birth, there is underlying complexes, but the comparability between men and women shows them that they are more similar than not. But in a world where the sexes are indistinguishable until a certain point, and then suddenly they are divided into men and women, it would leave both inferiority and superiority complexes on respective parties, which are then reinforced strictly since there would be lingering feelings of "we're the same" from childhood, which need to be gotten rid of if the patriarchy is to continue on and society as well. (Or at least that's how they'll justify treating men like heros and women like objects.) (I know I mentioned this above, but it seemed important enough to make it its own point.)

I would imagine that a set of neutral names would develop and when puberty was reached they would be given a male or female name during some sort of coming of age process retaining their previous name as a middle or maiden name like fashion.

On Heredity I would suggest that a neutral sex monarch would have to have a guardian to rule in their stead until they came of age. The main issue would be when there were two neutral sex siblings the eldest reaching puberty and becoming a queen followed by her brother reaching puberty later. In this case there might be a special option for the brother to take over his sister’s throne.

Education would probably change considerably – a neutral curriculum for those before puberty and then 2 very different curricula after that.

Gender neutral people: probably would not be in a happy place. Unless there were very great numbers of them >10% they might well be seen as degenerate as homosexuals were historicaly and killed or put into some form or servitude or slavery.

Sexing: it depends on the development process. It could be as crudely simple as turning them upside down and having a look. It might be a matter of a minor surgical procedure or it might simply be impossible to tell until nature took its course.

Would this society be more equal: no especially not if there were a minority of adult neutral sex people. Regardless of that it should be possible for a “normal” patriarchal society to develop with adjustments for the changed circumstances.

My guess is that society should be more gender-equal than Earth's medieval one - otherwise it would have to deal with unique issues.

• Heredity/Inheritance/Succession For humans (with male primogeniture), it is easy to have a plan for succession since the birth of the first child. If people don't know, which child is going to succeed the father, we have a recipe for trouble. What if the eldest child, destined for the throne, turned up to be a girl? Suddenly, all younger children are in trouble - a much bigger trouble than traditional Western monarchy would have had. If the parent passes away before his children come of age - how the estate is partitioned between children? It has to be done regardless of gender, because later repartitioning may be impossible (and children's guardians would make sure it is so).
• Education/Training Human children receive a lot of gender role-specific training before coming of age. Noblemen's sons are getting a lot of practice with sword, bow and even lance before their puberty. Tradesmen's sons are raised as their fathers successors, meant not only to take over the trade, but to exceed their parent's skill. Life is short. No one would be wasting so many years of young persons' lives doing nothing useful. Children will receive full training and go on to become successful tradespersons, regardless of their gender. For noblewomen and soldiers' daughters, that is different, but - we just can't put Arya Stark to do embroidery. In real medieval history, we hardly would get any ladies raised as Arya. In this society, young girls will be equally skilled in armed combat. Of course, boys will grow bigger - but that wouldn't mean that much if a girl is more skilled with a blade.

## Names - Honorifics

I think rather than having clearly defined male and female names, such a society would be quite likely to develop honorifics similar to Eastern Asian languages, but applied after puberty rather than acting as a status indicator.

In Japanese, there are -kun and -chan, which are the youthful masculine and feminine honorifics, respectively. I suspect something similar would occur in many cultures, but for adults rather than for children, teens, and younger folks trying to be cute.

Basically, all names are gender-neutral, but when puberty hits, the honorific gets attached, which clearly indicates their gender and adult status.

I don't have any thoughts on the other aspects, but I wanted to share my ideas about names that nobody else mentioned.

• IIRC some societies had traditions where at least some children would take different names upon reaching adulthood, and I believe that medieval Japan was one of them. May 29, 2021 at 9:36