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Making Sense of Gender and Sex

aaclh's picture

Questions: What is gender? What is the importance of gender? Is it useful? Does it hinder people? What does this say about feminism?

On the one hand ‘gender’ seems crucial to feeling like a normal human being. "I can't even bleed without a wound, and yet I claim to be a woman. How? Why have I always felt this way? I'm such a goddamned freak." (Stryker, 251) On the other hand, it seems like people feel so strongly about gender simply because, starting as children, people learn to associate obvious gender to 'normal' human beings. "Kindergarteners ... hold the most rigid and stereotyped ideas about gender." (Kessler and Mckenna, 170) To add to the complexity, we have people on both sides of this question (gender is important versus gender is only as important as we make it) using biological 'facts' to support their arguments. Paul Grobstein says that "the biological process aims to produce variants" and uses this to argue that 'having' exactly two genders does not make sense biologically. On the other hand, "intersex conditions (or disorders of sex development) [happen] about 1 in 20,000 in total." (Haverford College New Room). Rephrased, about 99.95% of people fit into the gender binary we may (or may not) have constructed. Going with Grobstein's notion that biology is a story, the gender binary story works for a great portion of the time, in fact, some statiticians would say that the story does not work only on a not statistically significant proportion of the time, that is .05%. However, some people would say this is ridiculuous, if there are about 7 billion people on the world currently, there are 350 million people who are not born into the gender dichotomy (this is more than the population of the United States). One of the problems in trying to understand both of these statements at the same time is that they are really answering different questions. They appear to be trying to measure how good a story gender binary is: One explains how the story 'mostly works' and the other talks about how the story 'fails' on many people. This seems impossible to reconcile until you think about what the purpose of having a story is in the first place. If the point is to get a story that explains most humans, then sure, the story works. If the point is to explain humans (implicitly all humans), then no, the story fails too often. So perhaps the problem is, when teaching children we don't say "I'm going to tell you a story about gender binary in order so that you will be able to classify most human beings" or "I'm going to tell you a story about gender binary in order so that you will be able to classify all human beings." If only adults had told us their intent then we wouldn't have this problem!

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning. So far this has only reconciled sexual anatomy. According to pwrez2007's Gender Stereo, we still have gender identity, gender expression and possibly, sexual orientation. Delving into gender identity, the issue multiplies. Gender identity sometimes involves your anatomy and sometimes does not; it sometimes involves how you were raised as a child and sometimes does not etc. Perhaps it would be useful at this point to draw a metaphor that may shed some light on this issue. Before doing that however, considering the complexities involved in a single person's gender identity leads one to think about the complexities in recognizing and/or naming someone else's gender identity. If it is difficult to say precisely and fully how I define my own gender identity, naming other people's seems a near impossible task. Kessler and Mckenna attempt to study how people label other people's identity by having people look at a variety of slides of hand-drawn figures (of people) and asking them a set of four questions about the female/male-ness of the figures. They claim that the way Western people do this is by the schema "see someone as female only when you cannot see them as male." (176) In her article Re-shaping, Re-thinking, Re-defining: Feminist Disability Studies, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson offers the idea that thinking about feminism can help one think about disability and thinking about disability can assist one in thinking about feminism. In this vein, consider the quotation:

Disability demands a reckoning with the messiness of bodily variety... More important, in an era governed by the abstract principle of universal equality, disability signals that the body cannot be universalized...disability confounds any notion of a generalizable, stable physical state of being. [The study of disability offers] proof that the myriad structures and practices of material, daily life enforce the cultural standard of a universal human being with a narrow range of bodily and mental variation. (Garland-Thomson, 2)

Knowing that people's many practices support people seeing a narrow range of possible human bodies can help one understand why people have trouble accepting variation of gender. For example, people usually see bathrooms in pairs, one for men and one for women. This supports thinking about a gender binary because we assume bathrooms are for everyone and that from these signs it should be clear which person should go into what bathroom. As Stryker and Mckenna point out, "there are no concrete cues that will always allow one to make the 'correct' gender attribution." (176) To summarize, many societal structures (like bathrooms) are based on a gender binary when we can not, societally, define gender with any absolute rule or set of rules (meaning they hold for all people) and hence people who cannot 'be figured out' upset our society merely by existing.

Skipping trying to enumerate all of the societal structures based on a gender binary (for example pronouns that refer to one person: he or she, but not both), the immediate question becomes: what can we, as a society, do about solving this problem? This depends greatly on your goal. Assuming the goal is to allow for all variety of people to function in society there are several obvious options. The first is that we could arbitrarily define the terms 'male' and 'female' in an exclusive manner, label everyone by the rule and then make everyone scramble to make re-associations. For example, Hoese, Gibber and Wood offer two such possible definitions. One is 'every one with a Y chromosome is male and everyone who isn't male is female' and the other is 'every one with at least two X chromosomes is not male and everyone who isn't male is female'. (This is how they phrased it, in terms of male-ness). If we were to pick one such rule, we would have to make some adjustments. The first would be that, for a person to know her/his gender, she/he would have to know her/his chromosomes. Second, as they point out in their articles/notes, there are people who have XY chromosomes but do not have a penis. So we would have to learn to abolish the notion that all men have penises. Thus, this would continue to disrupt all societal structures that are based on a gender binary of male and female that assume that men have penises (for example, urinals). So some societal structures would still have to change if we picked this rule. As Stryker and Mckenna note, " People who are designated 'males' and 'females' vary within gender and overlap between genders on every social and biological variable." (168) So no matter what rule or set of rules we might pick to differentiate between male and female, we would end up having to change some notions. Not only does the seeming arbitrariness of any set of rules we could pick disturb me, doing this would upset people who feel very strongly that they are one sex or the other. Perhaps gender is a 'problem' simply because we place so much value in it. We derive so many meanings and implications from the 'fact' that one person is one or the other gender. This relates this gender 'problem' neatly to feminism. If it were essentially meaningless that a person were one gender or another (for example if we did have some arbitrary set of rules to determine a person's gender), then all we could say about a person's gender was that it satisfied that set of rules and really no meaning could be derived from that. Essentially, there could be no sexism. There would be no need for feminism.

            Another reflex ‘solution’ would be to simply accept the adhoc method of assigning gender as is (meaning with all its flaws) and try to modify society as issues arise. The point is, there are many many possible ways of trying to solve the question of what to do about gender, all with their own problems and good points, however, in order to come up with the best possible solution, people need to keep several things in mind: 1. What is the purpose of defining gender? Do we want something that people are happy about? If so, which people? Do we want a society that everyone can function in? If so, does our way of defining gender take into consideration that biology is ever changing and we may find new ‘types’ of human beings at a later date? 2. Some people feel very strongly about their gender; this may cause difficulties if we simply try to make a completely new definition. In other words, we are NOT working with a clean slate. 3. Should our model/definition allow people to choose what they want to be or should there be some set of rules or people who determine everyone?  



Baratz, Katie. Growing up 'Intersex' Going on Oprah. Haverford College News Room.

 Gender: In the Genes or in the Jeans? A Case Study on Sexual Differentiation. By William J. Hoese, California State University Fullerton, Judith Gibber, Columbia University, and Bonnie Wood, University of Maine Presque Isle. Copyright 1999–2008 Case Study Collection. National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

 Grobstein, Paul. “Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective.” Published in Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Spring 1989.

 Kessler, Suzanne J. and Wendy Mckenna. "Toward a Theory of Gender."

 Stryker, Susan. "My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix – Performing Transgender Rage." (1994): 244-255. Reprinted in The Transgender Studies Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. New York: Routledge, 2006.


skumar's picture

More thoughts on categorization

I am interested in addressing the concern you raise about categorization in your response to Anne. You introduced your hesitation to categorize individuals, especially since it leaves out other people. Ultimately, I agree that I would like to live in a society where everyone belongs and feels comfortable.

You are right when you say we are not starting with a blank slate. I wonder if we will ever start on a blank slate, especially since we will never stop categorizing. Cateogorizing, essentially, is a psychological temprament. Categorizing makes life easier, less hectic and complicated (ie, pants in a closet). Categorizing serves a commonality between two people, between society, between everyone. We categorize our spoons from our forks, our plates from our bowls, our pencils from our pens and our notebooks from our binders.

This ability to separate and to pick and to chose has been exercised since childhood, since we had the mental faculty and the language processing skills to distinguish between 'mom' and 'dad' and 'good' and 'bad'. Because nature has instilled in us a categorizing disposition, we have a naturally tendency to force everything and everyone into a gradation or a scale or a category.

It is more of a sensitive issue separating people than it is separating kitchen ware. While I will not say that categorizing people into gender is helpful (in fact, I think it causes more problems), I still acknowledge the benefits of categorizing in general. Like you said about your clothing categorization, "..[the] goal is to minimize exceptions but still have not too many categories..." I think that is the crux of gender categorization, as well. In other words, to try to consider everyone within the rigid gender binary is not necessarily a means to ignore the 'expections.' Instead, it is a way to minimize gender categorization because there is that biological (and social) variation.

Let's say you have light-weight capris, gym capris and heavy-weight capris. Still, however, there are all capris. They are fall within the umbrella category of "capris." Let me ask you a question: would you be alright if you had three separate piles for capris--light weight, heavy weight, and gym capris--with three piles with one garment each OR would you rather put them all in the same pile, even though you know all three do not belong together OR would you put everything together--capris, shorts, fancy black pants, jeans and label the assortment as 'bottoms' instead of as 'pants'? Which of the three is a better means of categorization? Can you think of any other ways?

skumar's picture

Clarification on categorization

I am not sure it was clear, my opinion of whether or not it we should live in an all-inclusive society. To reiterate, I think it is necessary to cultivate a society that include every individual. I think this will lessen the stigma of gender or sex differences, as gender or sex differences as "disabilities." My concern, however, is our natural psychological temprament to categorize that makes our ideal society an impossible challenge.
Anne Dalke's picture

Do we want a society that everyone can function in?

Well, aachl, you've just about covered all the bases...You begin w/ all the big questions about what gender is (and how important, how useful, how hindering, how related to feminism) and you end with another, not-so-dissimilar series that, I think, tries to dig down "under" the first series, explaining where it came from/where it might go: why define gender? how deal w/ the history of investments in its categories? and should the rules be followed voluntarily?

What strikes me, in following your thinking here, is two things: first, your focus on the matter of the rule-set, and how it functions: the problem that any set of rules we pick seems arbitrary, not universally applicable or enforceable, and so perhaps simply (or inevitably) over-valued, over-weighted. Is this a matter, then, of (inappropriately?) trying to appy the clarity of mathematical logic to the messiness of the real world? Of trying to make narratives into numbers, and always ending up with an "odd remainder"?

All that lies behind what I think is the real question your essay is asking, which is whether we want a society that everyone can function in. This is really a rhetorical question for me: it is of course what I want and am working for....

Is it rhetorical for you? Why would we have categories--along with all the rules and regulations necessary to enforce them--if doing so disables people? (More thoughts on this @ Culture as Disability, if you want to go on thinking in this direction...)

aaclh's picture

some thoughts on categories

I do want a society that everyone can function in, however I do not know if I think this is possible given the variety of people. What really bothers me both in writing this essay and reading your response is my inability to figure out why we categorize people so strongly. Perhaps we categorize so that we can think more clearly. To explain by analogy:

I was sorting my clean laundry today and trying to put my assortment of 'pants' away so that when I get dressed I can easily and quickly get the specific pair of pants I want without putting the rest in disarray. I say 'pants' because I have variety of lengths, (eg shorts, capris, pants). I usually sort them based on length, since the weather greatly affects my choice of length. However this isn't good enough, because what I am going to be doing with the 'pants' also matters (eg it is a cold day, but whether I'm going to be intereviewed or going for a bike ride affects my choice of clothing), so I also make another category of work out clothes. Anyway, I was thinking about whether this categorization was useful to me. First off, not all of my 'pants' fit into exactly one category, for example I have one pair of pants that has length exactly inbetween full length and capri-length. I tend to put it with the capris and just remember this exception. I also have a few clothes that I exercise in, but also wear for normal use or clothes that I would wear for an interview but aren't so stiff that I wouldn't wear them to class. Okay, I'm belaboring the point here. My point is that I have a rough categorization of my clothes to that I can find a specifc pair within them all, my goal is to minimize exceptions but still have not too many categories (I could always break down the categories so far that in each category is only one pair of 'pants') so that I can still find them. Yet it has flaws in it and there are also many other ways of breaking them into categories. 

What this makes me wonder is if other categories are similarly useful and similarly flawed. One other thing I forgot to point out is that having these categories and the fact that they align with socially defined ones (eg shorts, capris, pants) also allows me to talk to other people about them without them (the articles of clothing) actually being there and still being understood. I still wonder what the goal of having gender categories is. I mean,I can figure out why I categorize my pants, but why categorize gender? Is there some abstract sense in which when I think about a person I'll need to 'find' them in their gender category? Anyway, that is as far as I have been able to get with this question.