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Week 2: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

Anne Dalke's picture

We turn this week to the perspectives of two biologists on diversity, gender, and sexuality in nature and people. For Tuesday's class, please read Paul Grobstein's short essay, Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective, and  50 pp. (or so!) of the "Animal Rainbows" section of Joan Roughgarden's book. For Thursday, ditto in the "Human Rainbows" section. And then think out loud here about what you've read and heard in our discussions...what surprised, puzzled, pleased, angered you? What can you do w/ what you are learning? How does it challenge or change what you thought you knew?

w0m_n's picture

Language: a tool and road block

 Roughgarden's take on validating the spectrum of sexuality and gender through the language of biology is a really interesting argument. What stuck with me most while doing the readings was not so much the arguments themselves but language of these arguments, specifically Roughgarden. There were times while doing the reading that I was lost because of the jargon used was not accessible to me, because I am a sociology major. I feel like my experience with the readings can explain the reason why interdisciplinary relations are difficult and rarely happen. Paul Grobstein explained the various disciplines as different stories derived from observations of the world. The problem arises when those stories are told in a language we don't understand. It can become confusing and off-putting. Moreover, when disciplines believe that their stories are the best way to explain our world, it is harder to for us to believe each other.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Additional resource re sex/gender/biology

A student in this year's biology senior seminar has put together a nice background page for a discussion of sex/gender categories starting with Eugenides' Middlesex and the Caster Semenya case and ending with issues of single sex education.   We'll be talking through this material this afternoon and continuing the discussion in an on-line forum there.  You're more than welcome to look in on that conversation, and add thoughts if you're inclined.

Owl's picture

I have to say what I feel.

Recently I had a discussion with my younger sister about her issues with her class schedule. She just started her senior year in high school and already she is encountering issues with what is so commonly utilized in the educational system to separate the "smart" kids from all others: Categories and Labels. As she revealed her story about not being able to enroll in the class of her choice because she was not a 'magnet' student also known as the"smart" kids, I wandered back to a class discussion on the role that categories play in gender and sexuality. I found myself thinking, 'why is it that categories seem to be a wall between a so called 'normal' group of people and the "abnormal"'?--Why is it that magnet is somehow put on a pedestal, or heterosexuality made to look like the 'normal' thing in society. I mean, If gender were specifically made to be male or female, then why do all the rest exist, and if being smart was normal and not being smart was not, then why is it that 'magnet' does not encompass all students. My answer: categories are not there to be a wall amongst people, but rather to emphasize the unique characteristics of all types of people. However, having lived in this patriarchal society for centuries where even male is dominant and all others inferior, we cannot help but to use categories as separators that label people and force them into a minute descriptor of who they truly are.


I do not know if this relates to what I am stating in my comment, but to quote something I said in a group discussion, "we forget the heterosexuality is also a category."

holsn39's picture

"Language is a weapon"

During our class last Thursday when we were talking about category making and terminology used for sex and gender I mentioned a language I had heard of called e-prime.  I wanted to explain what e-prime is and how it's relevant to what we've been talking about here.  I think it's useful to refer back to our discussion with Paul Grobstein about science as a way to understand and apply this idea.  E-prime is a reconstruction of the English language that does not use the verb 'to be'.  We talked about thinking of science as the process of making observations and creating stories from those observations. Someone used the example of observing green grass and concluding, "the grass is green. " When writing or speaking in e-prime we might instead say "the grass appears green" or "that grass looks green". This is an example of language forcing you to carefully choose verbs and meanings to create a real story. The verb 'to be' has limiting connotations that make us define things unrealistically. By claiming, "the grass is green" we imagine uniformly green grass, but if we claim that "the grass appears green" then there is still room for variation, there could likely be one or more blade of yellow grass in the field that we didn't notice.  What I'm trying to explain is that e-prime is trying to account for variation by avoiding definitions with an ultimatum and leading us to find more wholistic perceptions of our world.
What does this have to do with gender and sexuality?  We've been talking about how we categorize and label people (including ourselves) with gender binary terms, and expressions of sexuality.  An important thing to realize about e-prime is that is it intended to change not only the way we speak and write but also the way we think. When I'm thinking about my own identity I find it difficult to describe myself in terms of "I am..." because I'm always a little nervous of claiming to be something I'm not.  I think other people share this reluctance as well. For example it might be more difficult to claim, "I am a lesbian" than it is to say "I prefer relationships with women".  The first statement feels like you are categorizing yourself as a certain 'type' of person and the second statement is simply stating a preference you have, it is a lot less loaded with connotations.  A typical reaction to this statement may be "does that mean you are only attracted to women?" but this kind of question abuses 'to be' by asking the person to respond with either "yes I am, no I'm not, or actually I am..." all of which are defining statements.   I think e-prime, or maybe some other kind of language reconstruction could give us the freedom to define ourselves on our own terms, not someone else's.  Eventually this elimination of 'to be' could go deeper by considering things like pronouns and their connotations/roots with 'to be'. She: the person who is female, or he: the person who is male.  
While researching e-prime I came across some interesting videos you might want to check out.  Robert Anton Wilson, a famous scientific philosopher, made this first video “E-prime”.  At about 1:15 into the video he talks about how as children we are taught to "put on this mask and act like everyone else." And then as 3:03 he begins talking about e-prime saying, "we're trapped in linguistic constructs, all it is is metaphor... "  I think this is an interesting way of looking at these concepts of 'defining' language, as metaphor.
I also found a video that shows a conversation between Urban Sout and Willem Larsen (who is the person who came to my theory of knowledge class in high school and discussed e-prime) about the difficulties of writing in e-prime and discussing its practicality. At 7:05 Willem says, "Language is a weapon. It's [e-prime] a loss of a weapon that this country has used to destroy the world." I like this quote because it makes us see how much our language influences every experience and that we have and that we can make the kind of changes we want to see through language.
For more information about e-prime check out this site:


Paul Grobstein's picture

detoxifying language?

Thanks for the E-prime links and thoughts.  Yep, its all relevant to sex/gender and to a number of other things beside.  Cf

Anne Dalke's picture


(from wikipedia: an image of the random process known as "Brownian motion")

I am writing from a conference on "genre" @ the English Institute @ Harvard this weekend (yes, I am interested in category-making--and category-revision--of all kinds, including literary kinds as well as gender-kinds) and am smiling again in pleased surprise @ the notion of this language-altering movement. The first speaker @ the conference is a specialist in the form we call the lyric, which he repeatedly defined as "the interruption of a narrative," "an event that is not in time, but stops time," that relies on the device of the present tense. So I told him about e-prime, and asked if--given new theories of knowledge about the mutability of perception, and the always-movingness of the world-- the lyric is just a nostalgic gesture, an attempt to claim (to pretend?) that we can stop the motion, fix the world "as is."

He didn't much appreciate the suggestion. But that's just to say you've gotten me in thinking in all sorts of productive (and very pleasing) directions....

ebock's picture

gender stereotypes

I was intrigued by one of the group's suggestion that we shouldn't necessarily be thinking about destroying categories but removing the stigmas or value differences between categories. That made me think about the theorist Riki Wilchins that I mentioned earlier. A huge part of her claim in her book "Queer Theory/Gender Theory" is that a lot of gay/lesbian/trans/queer issues are rooted in gender stereotypes. So - like the group in class suggested - categories can still be useful especially without counterproductive stereotypes that create unfair expectations of particular categories. If you think about it, in many cases of discrimination or injustice, a stereotype or misconception is often a key factor in the fear/anger that motivates a hurtful action or behavior.

Thoughts? Is this a good place to start? Not a good place? How do we think gender stereotypes interact with categories?

cantaloupe's picture


Today's class left me questioning what we were really talking about.  Roughtgarden's book is stating that diversity is endless in animals and people.  She gives zillions of examples to show us how we are all different and can't conform into categories society gives us.  In class, we discuss such groups and the pros and cons of having set groups like male/female, masculine/feminine, gay/straight, etc.  We all seemed to think that getting rid of such groups would be the best solution.  Besides being impractical, I'm not sure it's the best social construction either.  Since we all agree that humans naturally seperate and organize everything in their brain, why do we think we could function in a society that has no groups?  It might sound nice in theory, but how would we identify ourselves.  I really like identifying myself as female, more feminine than masculine (but hey, I like my jeans from the men's department too), quite a bit more gay than straight, nontransgender and nonintersex.  I may not fit directly into one category or the other, but I like placing myself on the spetrum between the two regardless.  I find strength in these groups.  I think what society needs is more groups to better include everyone.  If someone feels that male or female isn't a proper group, then make a new group.  Sure, that person and others like that person will probably be discriminated against by the masses - that's human nature too.  But belonging to a group gives a person strength, which is more desirable than hopelessly swimming in a mass with no way to distinguish oneself.

Anne Dalke's picture

playing with categories

As I mentioned in class, the last iteration of this course was actually called "Playing with Categories: Re-doing the Politics of Sex and Gender," and the whole class was designed around

  • the inevitability of our making of categories,
  • play as a way of unsettling them, and
  • politics as a way of making them useful, as we put them into action in re-making the world.

So, I agree: we cannot but make categories.
AND/BUT we cannot but critique their costs and limits, and so continually RE-make them. Some of those old groups might go!
(Shall we discuss the "group" that is the women's college....???)

kayla's picture

of the "abnormal"

I was reading through the Feministing blog a couple days ago and came across this ( story about Caster Semenya. If you aren't already familiar with this controversy, she is a South African runner who had to prove that she is actually female by undergoing "sex-determination" tests in order to keep competing as a woman. It seems at the end of all that, she additionally had to (not really, but still did) have a makeover to prove her femininity as well. A subtitle on the magazine cover reads "We turn SA's power girl into a glamour girl--and she loves it!" as if this were the only way for her to mend her relationship with the public, by conforming to their expectations of what it is to be female and appearing publicly in something other than her running clothes.

She made some statements about not being bothered by the public outcry against her, but you can't always believe what you read, right? It's hard to say how she actually felt--she's only 18 and has probably dedicated most of her life to running if she is the 800m world champion. It's disturbing to read a story like this, and I think it's a good example of how the categories that govern our lives are potentially very hurtful to anyone in any walk of life. We have these ideas of positive and negative drilled into our minds based around what is considered to be "normal" and once one falls out of line with that normalcy, they are shunned unless they fight to justify their differences (or just give in and conform). Why can't Caster Semenya just be a gifted athlete? Why does being a gifted athlete have to imply a male trait? If we didn't have these categories, or even normalcies within these categories, or athleticism wouldn't have been questioned. Likely, she would have been a dedicated runner that worked her body to perform efficiently the way she needs it to on the racing track.

In class today I mentioned that when there are so many different possibilities of "brain-body combinations" (as Roughgarden says on page 240), it is hurtful when there is only one or two that are considered normal and the rest are supposedly abnormal. Positive and negative ways to label people result from this mode of thinking. If we didn't have positive/negative (good/bad, normal/abnormal) implications of categories and types, we could continue to use categories in the more productive ways that have developed (like preserving experiences and histories of different groups of people). Then maybe no one would have to "prove" their personal identity to the rest of the world.

And wow, a follow-up if anyone is interested:

twig's picture

another strike against keeping gender categories?

i had also heard about this athlete (not about the makeover part, that's an interesting twist that, like you said, reeks of conformity politics), and the situation seems to be a good real world application of all our abstract talk of doing away with gender categories. when i originally heard about the situation, i was stumped, and i have to admit, even as we have been talking in class about the relevent issues, i remain as stumped as before, if not more so. as an athlete of many sports, over the years i have actually tried to figure this out to no avail - i like competing against and being on teams with women, however, i have often found myself feeling excluded that i don't get to play with the guys. realistically, if we did away with all gender groupings for competitive activities, we would be all inclusive and competing as 'humans' with no other distinction (except perhaps age? unless we try to do away with all categories...). however, after looking at performance records for most sports, the men's speed/score/weight/time/etc does tend to be better than the women's, which is why we made women's sports separate in the first place (?). so we have different categories, but where do we draw the line? genetics, appearance, social gender...each of these has problems of their own. basically, i still don't know, but its interesting that this public global discussion parallels what we are discussing in class.

Anne Dalke's picture

And now: the four-legged version

Paul Grobstein's picture

diversity, categories, and change

Thanks all for a rich and engaging conversation last Tuesday, and for continuing conversation here.   My original notes are here, if anyone wants to get back to them.  And here a few general thoughts that have been bubbling around in my mind from our conversations, with a few more specific ones in response to other comments below ...

"Affirming diversity is hard" (Roughgarden) indeed seems to be so: 

"Diversity is a threatening idea" ... cmorais

"Being the (somewhat) perfectionist that I am, I like to have things in their place- with each pen in a pencil case and marker with the right cap, so I get why society wants to create these categories. I feel like without categories there would be this sense of chaos as if people would no longer know how to interact with each other." ... Alice

"It’s far more convenient to believe in a permanent truth, a set of facts, then to take a conditional approach to reality and always be ready to adjust to a shift ..." ... Karina

"people aren't always ready to accept that they are in a mould in the first place. Because accepting that they are in a mould would mean that there is a different world out there, a different way of being, living and existing which is possible. That makes people uncomfortable sometimes, because it shakes their beliefs of 'right' and 'wrong'. We compartmentalize ourselves, our society, our thoughts - it’s just neater that way." ... skindeep

What's particularly interesting to me is that the problems being pointed to are not at all specific to sex/gender.  The same problems come up in a host of other contexts, including ethnic identities, politics, and mental health.  For more along these lines, see Culture as Disability, a very rich paper arguing, basically, that  cultures necessarily create categories that make some people feel good about themselves and, in doing so, inevitably disadvantage other people.  The paper doesn't specifically address the issue of sex/gender categories, but it might well be worth thinking about them in this broader context.

There's also an interesting parallel between thinking about sex/gender categories and thinking about "science"

"we learned that there cannot exists any (T)ruths or facts, because science is constantly disproving and finding new observations and creating new stories" ... Terrible2s

"Who knew science was so interesting?  ... 'Nothing a scientist says is true' (I wish I could go to my 10th grade biology teacher now and shove that in her face, but I will refrain). ... I like to think of myself as a free thinker, always open minded. I sure am glad I am this way because "Evolution's Rainbow" is taking my mind to places it never thought it would go" ... Elephant

"I do feel like we are definitely taking a step in the right direction by asking questions ... that make us problematize the very foundation of society's structures" ... Alice

"ours and other societies could use more edgy work like Roughgarden's to start to dismantle the idea of "gender" and "sex" as natural." ... ebock

"we cannot be moved to skepticism and reevaluation of ongoing stories without also becoming skeptical of the very observations that compelled us to that skepticism in the first place. The choice of which story to keep and which story to throw out is ultimately up to us, although what is really being asked of us is to piece together our own version of the story." ... Karina

Science  creates "categories" all the time.  But, arguably, it creates them not as fixed and eternal verities but rather as tools that can be used to "problematize" not only the "foundations of society's structures" but our own deepest understandings of ourselves and our relations to everything around us.  Maybe the key to a non-"disabling" culture, with respect to sex/gender and lots of other things as well, is not to eliminate categories altogether but rather to always treat them skeptically, valuing them insofar as they help us in "taking my mind to places it never thought it would go" and discarding them otherwise?  And we could perhaps learn to value diversity in the same terms, as the grist that makes it possible to conceive new ways of being?  Yes,  "things can get really confusing when people exist (or attempt to exist) outside of binaries," but maybe we don't have to "choose between one side of a binary or the other."  Instead we could use the poles of binaries to imagine and try out ways of being that might not otherwise have occurred to us? 


CCM's picture

Threatened by diversity?


Diversity is a threatening idea. 
Roughgarden and Grobstein are both successful in highlighting the differences inherent in our gender binary while presenting an argument that’s focused on genetic diversity. Diversity however is still seen by many as threatening. As a society we tend to seek conformity. When socializing we are usually drawn to those individuals that are most similar to us. In the end we are comforted not by the differences we share with our peers but by our similarities. Consequently, diversity within a given population is viewed as a threat by those of us who have trouble leaving our bubble of conformity.
How do we move away from viewing diversity as a threatening ideal? Is Roughgarden’s attempt to simply make us aware of these differences enough to ease our fears? If not would it be best for us to utilize another tactic other than awareness to encourage more widespread acceptance of diversity? 
Overall we must use caution when approaching the topic of diversity between the sexes. When emphasizing difference between the sexes we are simultaneously strengthening the constrictive system of a gender binary. Instead of advocating for a system that polarizes the sexes it would be best to move towards a system of inclusion. Adopting a new system of inclusion would prevent us from continuing the restrictive practice of comparing differences. It would make more sense to identify differences for what they are instead of using them as tools for comparison. Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance that we treat these differences as their own individual entities. By this I mean that we should focus on the uniqueness of each difference while making sure not to emphasize the polarity between both objects of comparison (i.e. differences between the sexes). 
All things considered, difference is natural, especially when it comes to our gender binary. However, despite the progress we have made thus far in welcoming diversity, we must continue to deconstruct the very system that limits our understanding/acceptance of difference between the sexes. 


LizJ's picture

On Being a Scientist

Paul Grobstein is one cool dude. Who knew science was so interesting? Who knew I was a scientist myself? I didn't, but Paul did. One of the many great quotes I heard in Tuesday's class was "Nothing a scientist says is true" (I wish I could go to my 10th grade biology teacher now and shove that in her face, but I will refrain). Anyway, I would love to see Grobstein and Roughgarden just duke it out sometime. Roughgarden obviously has many stories to tell, and I think she tells them quite well. I know people felt slightly offended by her occasional defensiveness, but I thought she was refreshing. She is writing from her point of view and she let's her audience know that, so good for her.
I like to think of myself as a free thinker, always open minded. I sure am glad I am this way because "Evolution's Rainbow" is taking my mind to places it never thought it would go. I don't think I'll ever be able to look at the word "category" ever again. It seems like such a dirty word now. Why would anyone want to categorize something? It just doesn't seem worth it to limit diversity by categorizing something. Humans are diverse. Why try to hide that?
My favorite example Roughgarden gives in her book is about the "Lesbian Lizards" or whiptail lizards. Even though, they are an all-female species that clonally reproduces, they still go through courtship. The all-female whiptail lizards court almost exactly the same way ordinary sexual species of American whiptail lizards do. That's so cool! So why do I like this example (aside from the fact Roughgarden titles this section "Lesbian Lizards")? I like this example because it further proves the fact that the ideas of "gender" and "sex" are human created categories. Knowing this, it gives me hope that in the future (maybe the far far future) these categories could be changed. Humans made the categories and therefore they can change them.
Alice's picture

Tuesday's lecture...among other things

 So since Tuesday's class, what I have been thinking about a lot is the question that Paul Grobstein finished his lecture with: why do we have categories of sex/gender?

As we talked about in class, the categories of gender/sex were established way before science (as we know it) existed. We talked about male/female pronouns in languages and the bible as examples. Not being very knowledgeable in linguistics or the bible, I can't really say why these "stories" were created, but I have a feeling that it had a lot to do with order.

Being the (somewhat) perfectionist that I am, I like to have things in their place- with each pen in a pencil case and marker with the right cap, so I get why society wants to create these categories. I feel like without categories there would be this sense of chaos as if people would no longer know how to interact with each other. Things as simple as bathroom signs would get really complicated. I remember once over the summer, I went to use the bathroom and it was co-ed. Not only was I somewhat shocked to see men wandering around the bathroom, but I also felt a bit uncomfortable. We have become so accustomed to these sex/gender binaries that imagining a world without them is pretty hard to do. I think as a society we have this tendency to want to account for our differences- to know why we are the way we are and how we relate to each other. Sex/Gender binaries are a way of accounting for differences by saying, "Despite differences in our appearance personality, etc. we are all bonded together by the fact that we are all women/men." 

In an utopian world, obviously sex/gender binaries wouldn't exist. While establishing a sense of order, they also create social/gender norms that are exclusionary. They tell us that we need to act, dress, behave a certain be "masculine" or "feminine". And if you try to go against these norms, you will always be the outsider, separated from the rest of society. At this point, I feel like it would be incredibly difficult to change these binaries, especially when discussing topics of gender and sexuality can still be viewed as taboo. I do feel like we are definitely taking a step in the right direction by asking questions such as Paul Grobstein's that make us problematize the very foundation of society's structures. 

rae's picture


Just as a quick note, this year and last year, I lived on a hall where the bathrooms were gender-inclusive. Instead of being called co-ed, the signs say "everyone welcome" so as not to exclude anyone who doesn't firmly fall into the man or woman categories. As far as I've been able to tell, things have worked just fine. 

I agree with your idea about order, and I agree that things can get really confusing when people exist (or attempt to exist) outside of binaries. I would also say, however, that I think it's ultimately better for everyone when people aren't forced to choose between one side of a binary or the other. Anyway, I'd just thought I'd comment.

Anne Dalke's picture

bathroom signs

Okay, so let's think/talk some more about single use and gender-neutral/flexible bathrooms--and signage:



some alternatives....?

How abstract, how specific,
how evocative should/might these signs be?

More important than representation is
the question of how much effort we should put into
maintaining "urinary segregation"....

rae's picture

My Thoughts on "Human Rainbows"

I was really taken back by the comments about Roughgarden’s defensiveness in class today. Apparently, I completely missed that. I think maybe I was so thrilled at the representation of trans folk in class that I got distracted. I had just sorta complained about the lack of representation of people who aren’t cissexual/cisgendered in my paper, and then she appeared. So that was really great.

And maybe I didn’t read it as defensive because I agree with her. Or because I’m also defensive about gender. I realized that after class today; I get super defensive about gender, especially when it relates (or might possibly relate) to trans/transgender issues. So maybe the defensiveness is there, and I just didn’t notice it because that’s also how I see things. Maybe it’s because I identify more with her than with the people she’s responding to.  

….And then I read Chapter 14 (Gender Identity). And I guess I was a little disappointed by it. She seems to have four distinct gender categories (men, women, transgendered men, transgendered women), and I kinda thought that she might see more. I mean, with the whole “rainbow” idea, I had thought (hoped?) that maybe she’d see more diversity in human genders. I feel that Leslie Feinberg’s book Trans Liberation treats gender as a rainbow in a way that Roughgarden does not. (Incidentally, if anyone’s interested, Bryn Mawr does have a copy of Trans Liberation on the 3rd floor of Canaday.) I also feel like she didn’t really address the possibility of a person not identifying as either gender (or rather, any of the two/four she listed, depending on how you count them). Other trans folk and genderqueer people just don’t seem to be represented. Granted, I didn’t fully read all of the chapters, but I read all of the relevant chapters and skimmed the rest, and from what I could see, they weren’t really mentioned.

I also feel like the terms “transgendered” and “transsexual” are used rather interchangeably, and I kind of object to that. I feel like it gives a really narrow definition to the term “transgender”/“transgendered,” and there are a lot of people who identify as transgendered (or transgender or trans) who would not identify as transsexual. It just makes me a little uncomfortable that it seems at times that she is giving a kind of narrow account of transgendered people (to use her term) and trans experiences. Granted, it’s way more broad than a lot of the people she references, but I think it still relies pretty heavily on the gender binary in some form. I’m not, by the way, trying to say that trans women or trans men reinforce the gender binary (because I have heard that argument, and I disagree). I’m all for allowing people to identify however they identify and respecting that. I’m just not in favor of limiting the word “transgender” to only those who identify on one side of the binary or the other and thereby leaving out those who choose both or neither.   

Anyway, this is perhaps a bit off topic, but it’s my thoughts for the moment.


justouttheasylum's picture

Diversity and Categories

Isn't it interesting that we were reading a book about diversity and for the reading, we were all given the choice to read the chapters we wanted and we all read different sections?

I went home on the Blue Bus, after Tuesday's class, struggling with why we categorize? Why does Michael have to be our guy friend and Susan have to be nice? I kept saying that it was because it helps us simplify things but isn't it just more complicated? While I may think Susan is nice, her mother may find her inconsiderate.

However it does simplify things. If we didn't have the category of food/edibles, I might have to spend 5 hours in the kitchen tasting the cookbooks, the seran wrap, the cutting board, when I could have pulled up the category "food" in my head and knew what to stick into my mouth to overcome my hunger.

But people aren't food. We don't fit into a specific category and more so, if we do try to put ourselves there, we usually don't fit all the requirements for that category. Better yet, we don't always stay in that category. How many of us were considered 'tomboys' only to start dressing like 'a lady'?

I just don't know if I can part with categories just yet. It's easy thinking about the term 'writing utensils' and knowing to look for either a pen, or pencil or marker. However, I don't want categories to limit us. I want things and people to be able to change, and evolve, and just be complex. Yes, a pen can be used to write but couldn't it equally be a good tool for keeping your hair off your back? Yes, a lot of men are known for not being 'emotional' but when Jack is, does he have to risk not being considered a man?

Which leads me to ask, why do we even want to be in some categories? Why do we even want our men to act like men? And who the hell decided what a man was? I'd like to meet this person.



Terrible2s's picture

Black and White or Shades of Grey?

So I'm a little confused about the Gender Binary.

In Grobstein's lecture we learned that there cannot exists any (T)ruths or facts, because science is constantly disproving and finding new observations and creating new stories. So I guess her statistics could lead to many different stories/summaries of observation/hypotheses.  It seems that Roughgarden reflects this idea of science in other areas of her book, too. When she speaks of the Gender Binary she brings up the idea that there is not and should not be only two defined genders.  This makes sense. The way I see it it's a spectrum just like anything else; there is no black and white. But what I am confused by is how we bring that into practice. I guess I'm not really wondering to disprove and/or question her work, but instead to help my own understanding. Is it wrong to categorize people into two genders? Is it that she's "against" the gender binary, or that she thinks it is limiting? What changes would she propose? Is Bryn Mawr's all-womens aspect wrong? Should we go "gender neutral"? Should we not use words like "male" and "female"? What should we use? Is calling someone "masculine" or "feminine" wrong?

(This is more of a side issue that has been bothering me about her writing... She seems to be basing her facts on narratives and many psychologists reports. She gladly uses her research to prove points she deems important but then will justify the lack of evidence for one of her points by saying things like the subjects of the topic of conversation might "not regularly consult with therapists, and so don't figure in the narratives compiled by therapists" and "often live in 'stealth' " (269, Roughgarden). So does she want us to believe her proof or not? Obviously it is partially flawed, so how much of her statistics and resulting "facts" can we believe?)


Paul Grobstein's picture

proof, belief, and ... alternatives?

Maybe the issue isn't "proof" but rather new observations/alternative stories, and the degree they do (or don't) open new possibilities in our minds? 

ebock's picture

the idea behind the work

Why does it matter if she's being defensive or not? Honestly, what she's showing us is something that we should all be invested in, in my opinion. I find that it feels quite liberating and refreshing to hear about all the examples of life that Roughgarden provides us with. Whether or not her personal investment in the work goes beyond some idea of "objectivity," I am a firm believer in that the mere concept she is supporting (that of the illusion of gender) is powerful and I find solace in it. I'm a firm believer in the fact that the gender binary creates and perpetuates systems of inequality all over the world, and ours and other societies could use more edgy work like Roughgarden's to start to dismantle the idea of "gender" and "sex" as natural.

Terrible2s's picture

I think when she gets

I think when she gets defensive she also sort of seems to twist facts and defend points that are weaker and/or go against the proof she bases a lot of her theorizing on. See my post? It's not terrible to be defensive, but it is if you're not being consistent. But yeah I also think some of the time she's just being strong-willed.

skindeep's picture


Thinking back on the class we had and everything I read in Joan Roughgarden's book, my mind is still swirling with concepts like 'free will' 'diversity' and the need to break out verses the need to compartmentalize. These concepts are at the moment colliding with each other in my head and giving birth to a stream of thoughts, some of will I will share here.

It is my firm belief that diversity - be it physical, mental or any other kind, is a virtue, not only to the future but to our present. Gaining human perspective is imperative to growth, and if something makes you rethink a concept that was once firmly rooted in your mind, I believe that that something is worth exploring - to strengthen your own belief if nothing else.

Free will on the other hand is a tricky concept as far as I know. When we 'choose' something like our gender, sexuality or something basic like which ice cream to eat, we are rarely ever exercising free will. Our choices are always influenced by events, thoughts and experiences that were once prominent in our past. However, if an individual manages to break away from the mould he has allowed himself to sink into and steps away, he will be able to define himself and his beliefs on his own terms - free of any influence. Then, he is exercising his free will.

As you can imagine not many people bother with this type of free will. In fact, people aren't always ready to accept that they are in a mould in the first place. Because accepting that they are in a mould would mean that there is a different world out there, a different way of being, living and existing which is possible. That makes people uncomfortable sometimes, because it shakes their beliefs of 'right' and 'wrong'. We compartmentalize ourselves, our society, our thoughts - it’s just neater that way. So when one thing jumps out of its little box and into another, we are taken aback. This is new. Can we accept it? Should we?

According to roughgarden, not only should we accept it, we should encourage it. Variability is not, as she categorically states, 'a screw up'.  It is her opinion that diversity is a gift, and I have to say I agree.

Although she does get a little defensive when she states her point of view, her need to be that way, consciously or not, is understandable. If, as a reader we manage to get past that, it’s evident that she has some interesting points to state.

It’s like she says 'all butterflies are perfectly good butterflies, even if the abilities of some don’t match the opportunities currently supplied by the environment'


Paul Grobstein's picture

Free will and "influences"

"free of any influence. Then, he is exercising his free will."  That may be asking too much.  No one is ever "free of any influence."  The question is instead, it seems to me, whether one is able to act in ways that are not "determined" by outside "influences,"ie whether one can add something of one's own to the mix.  With "influences" being valuable starting points. 

Owl's picture

Roughgarden/ Free Will?

        As for Tuesday's discussion about Roughgarden's defensiveness, I think that by stating that her book is a trade book and the class acknowledging that it is her opinion, we do understand that we cannot simply agree with what she says just because  it is a new perspective on things. One cannot deny however, that it is a book on new observations upon already established observations and it does drive one to expand on his or her own knowledge.

        As for the discussion aside from her defensiveness, a comment that lingered on me was the that a contributor to diversity is free will. If diversity reflects free will, then does that mean that as individual's we choose to be the way we are in terms of gender? If so I do not think that I would be able to concur with this idea. I do not choose to be straight and I do not believe that others choose their gender either. I believe that gender is unique and natural to an individual; and to whom it may not be evident from birth, that is when personal experiences, sex, genes, culture and etc. reflect upon diversity. That is when one allows their surroundings and experiences to strengthen who they are within.



Paul Grobstein's picture

gender and choice

"I do not choose to be straight and I do not believe that others choose their gender either."

I too don't think I ever "chose" to have whatever particular sex/gender identity I exhibit.  But some people clearly do, Roughgarden being a case in point.  My guess is that there is more "choice" for more people than it might appear at first glance.  And I'm not sure I'd call sex/gender without a choice "natural."  Maybe its more influenced by genes/hormones/experiences/culture, and we could all learn to make choice a greater part of it?  In which case that would be more "natural"?

Karina's picture

in defense of Roughgarden


Needless to say, the combination of Tuesday's lecture and Roughgarden's book has been blowing my mind for the past few days. Unlike (what appeared to be) a good portion of the class, I do not think that Roughgarden is doing little more than pushing a biased personal agenda and has strayed almost entirely off the scientific path. As we mentioned in class, she does openly admit to being rather invested in the observations she's managed to gather and has specific beliefs, but just because she openly states her presumed lack of objectivity does not mean that the observations she's made are false; it only means that the way they piece together a particular story might be questionable. I think even as she injects new observations into our preconceived versions of certain stories, urging us to reconsider their usefulness, a good reader would inevitably understand that the same skepticism should be applied to her version of the story as well. In other words, we cannot be moved to skepticism and reevaluation of ongoing stories without also becoming skeptical of the very observations that compelled us to that skepticism in the first place. The choice of which story to keep and which story to throw out is ultimately up to us, although what is really being asked of us is to piece together our own version of the story.
This brings us to the question of why we continue to keep the story of a gender binary. The notion of convenience is what first comes to mind. I do not simply the mean the convenience of black and white categorization, but also the convenience of constancy and consistency as far as the ongoing story is concerned. It’s far more convenient to believe in a permanent truth, a set of facts, then to take a conditional approach to reality and always be ready to adjust to a shift, to embrace paradigm shifts. Predictability is valued and defended to the point of obstinacy. It is far more difficult to live with the notion of a relative and temporary truth.