One of the things that most intrigued me in my feminism course was the role of gender and sexuality in society. I wrote my paper about it, in fact. Here's an excerpt (edited for more pleasurable reading):
Society, that of North America in particular, seems bent on excluding some people according to deeply ingrained rules that do not follow the reality of human diversity in regards to sex and sexuality. Gender is a socially constructed dichotomous concept, based on sex classification and sexuality. Sex classification and sexuality, however, are false dichotomies, which do not adequately represent the full range of human biology and experience. It is necessary to dissolve these dichotomies in order to allow all people to participate fully in society without the requirement of moulding oneself to what is, for some, an impossible model. Since gender is based on sex classification and sexuality, it will be shown to be an inadequate and limiting social construct that requires at best amendment, if not complete deconstruction.The term “gender” is used to refer to the social roles, characteristics, and behaviours that outwardly express whether a person is biologically female or male. “Man” and “woman” fall under the umbrella of gender. “Sex” refers to the biological, physical sex characteristics that a person possesses, including chromosomes and sex organs, which dictate whether a person is a female, male, or hermaphrodite. “Sexuality” refers to the feelings of sexual attraction a person feels toward another person. “Dichotomy” is used to describe systems that acknowledge only two options and place those options at opposing ends of the spectrum.
Sex classification involves examining a person’s body to determine what biological and physical characteristics are present, and naming the person as male or female based on the presence of particular chromosomes, internal sex organs and external genitalia. There are two legally recognized categories of sex classification – male and female. However, in approximately 4% of live births, there is some uncertainty involved as to the person’s sex due to the presence of ambiguous genitalia. The uncertainty arises from the dichotomy involved with sex classification; intersexuals do not fit into either of the categories female or male and their sex is seen as a medical abnormality. Intersexual people are usually “treated” or “managed” with a combination of surgery and hormonal treatment to force them into the current sex classification system. This powerful adherence to the idea of only two biological sexes forces intersexuals – or more commonly, the parents of intersexual infants – to choose: either assimilation or marginalization.
Sexuality also involves a dichotomy within our society, based largely on sex classification. There is widespread recognition of heterosexuality and homosexuality, with marginal consideration to bisexuality (I say marginal, because bisexuality is largely both invisible and misunderstood; more on this later). Homosexuals are defined as having feelings of sexual attraction toward members of the “same” sex category as the one to which they belong. Heterosexuals are defined as having feelings of sexual attraction toward members of the “opposite” sex category as the one to which they belong. (Even these definitions reinforce the dichotomy of sex classification; I cannot discuss sexuality without referring to “same” or “opposite” sex.) However, this dichotomy is also problematic because it ignores the existence of bisexuals.Bisexual people are attracted to both sexes, which is largely misunderstood; bisexuals tend to be defined by their current romantic relationship – if it is a relationship with a person of the “opposite” sex, the bisexual is seen as heterosexual, and vice versa. Because of this invisibility, bisexuality as a category of sexuality is not recognized on a large social scale. There is also the notion of compulsory heterosexuality, a social construct that wrongly presumes all people to be heterosexual, implying all others are deviant from this “norm”. Compulsory heterosexuality, in addition to presuming everyone is heterosexual, subtly presumes that a person can only be attracted to one sex category. This clearly does not leave room for bisexuality, both marginalizing bisexual people and reinforcing a sexuality dichotomy, which, in turn, reinforces the sex classification dichotomy.
Gender is a way of outwardly identifying to which biological sex category a person belongs. Gender is primarily concerned with placing people into one of two categories, which correspond to one of two sex classifications: gender names male humans as men, and female humans as women. Gender has requirements: men and women must behave in certain ways and exhibit specific characteristics, many of which are placed in opposition to each other whether or not the terms are linguistic antonyms (i.e. men are considered to be rational, while women are considered emotional, though the two terms are not mutually exclusive: it is possible to be both rational and emotional). On this view, gender is a dichotomous system governing social behaviour based on and reinforcing a classification of two sexes, male and female.
Gender involves a restrictive set of expectations that does not allow for either biological sex differences from male and female or deviations from the outward identification of the sex category to which a person belongs. We do this by way of a wide array of behaviours in which people engage in order to clearly exhibit their biological sex category: by proclaiming one’s biological sex to others, by way of physical, social, and behavioural cues (which are gender-related rather than sex-related), and also by reading the cues provided and identifying the biological sex of another, then demonstrating the correct assimilation of the information provided by acting and reacting to that person in specific ways. The socially ascribed behaviours suitable for dealing with a person are based not only on the sex of the person who is doing the announcing, but also on the sex of the person who is receiving that announcement; if I were a man, I would be expected to act toward a woman in a much different way than I am expected to as a woman.
These social practices have a double meaning: on the one hand, they display to others the gender-specific, “correct” way to approach an interaction; on the other hand, they are a way of keeping tabs on who inspires one's sexual feelings. This is a manifestation of our society’s demand for a universal sexuality – heterosexuality. Thus, gender is based not solely upon sex classification, but also upon sexuality; the ways in which a person acts is meant to denote not only his/her biological sex, but also his/her sexual preference, and the presumption is of heterosexuality.So, then, gender is a social construction, built on the dichotomies of sex classification and sexuality. However, the dichotomy of sex classification falsely ignores the existence of intersexuals, and the dichotomy of sexuality largely ignores the existence of bisexuals. Gender, then, is a discriminatory social practice that is oppressive for those who do not fit into the narrow dichotomies of sex classification and sexuality, as well as for all those who do not wish to behave in the ways gender ascribes.
If this is truly a society committed to equality of all individuals, inclusion of all sexes and sexualities is necessary. I believe the first step is to officially and legally recognize intersexuals and bisexuals as legitimate categories of sex and sexuality. This will allow intersexual and bisexual people to be exactly who they are, without having to conceal their true identities and mould themselves (literally and figuratively) to fit into narrow socially constructed conceptions. If the dichotomies of sex classification and sexuality are deconstructed, gender will surely follow: when the foundation is removed, the structure cannot stand. The process will undoubtedly be slow and will experience resistance, but I believe gender deconstruction is one necessary piece of fully realizing the concept of equality.
(Although this piece has been heavily edited, including specific quotes and references, I want to acknowledge the inspiration drawn from the work of Marilyn Frye, Karin Baker, and Anne Fausto-Sterling.)
Read Full Post »