I think it’s time. I think I can get back to it now. It’s been a while, but I think I’m ready. This might be long…
I talk a lot on this blog about the social construction of gender. But, what does that really mean? It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially for this one course I’m taking, the History of Sexuality. It’s mostly based around Michel Foucault’s book of the same name (Vol.1), and some of the myriad responses to it. Foucault wrote another couple of volumes in this planned series of 6, but didn’t get to them all before his untimely death. Vol.1 is definitely the most widely-read, and serves as an introduction to ideas he wanted to later expand upon in the rest of the series. I’ll probably pick up the others at some point, but this first one is fascinating.
The main point of the book is that sexuality, and in particular homosexuality, is historically and discursively constructed. He argues that as forms of disciplinary control rose up in society (things like medicine, prison, school systems, and the church), sexuality became something rigid and binary. In the 18th century, a discourse about sex and sex acts had begun with the christian pastoral tradition that emphasized talking endlessly about sex in order to find out the TRUTH about oneself. Sexuality was placed at the core of one’s identity, the most private secret self one has, and so it began to be that what one did sexually was constitutive of who one was. Confessing this truth was paramount, whether to one’s priest or one’s doctor, and the regulation of sexuality began, whereby people began to be treated by their doctors and psychiatrists, prosecuted by the law, and children monitored in schools and at home, for their sexual behaviour. The word ‘homosexual’ was coined in the late 1800s by a psychiatrist, and ‘heterosexual’ followed some decades later (after WWI). And so here we are, with a discourse about sex that has created two sexualities and privileged one over the other. I’m not sure when bisexuality became part of the mix, but today almost everyone identifies as one of homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, and holds that label to be something natural that lies at the very centre of their identity and tells the deepest truth about them.
(That’s not all Foucault has to say in this book, but that is the main argument from which all others flow, and that’s as much as I want to talk about today to inform the rest of this post.)
So, what can we think about this argument? It’s pretty convincing to me. The ramifications of this argument are pretty deep and interesting for me, and spread beyond sexuality to other classifications of identity. I think we are all comfortable with the idea that class is socially constructed – when we speak of someone being ‘born poor’, we don’t mean it in a biological sense, but a social one. But what about other determinants of identity? How about disability – socially determined? I would argue a resounding ‘yes’ – if the environment was right, including ramps and low access tables and desks and public transportation that easily accomodated wheelchairs or walkers, would anyone really be disabled? Obviously, no. What about race? Again, a definite ‘yes’, especially as studies show minimal genetic and biological differences between people of different races, and the long-held knowledge that all races of people came out of Africa. (Did you know that people of all skin colours have the same amount of melanocytes – the cells in our skin that produce skin pigment? The difference is only in how much melanin is produced by those cells.) Knowing this, can anyone really justify such bitter hatred and marginalization of non-white people? I mean, SERIOUSLY.
I want to turn now to gender, and give you an argument about the discursive nature of not just ‘man’ and ‘woman’ but also ‘male’ and ‘female’. People are much more resistant to this idea, that gender/sex is not naturally or biologically constituted – even those who are familiar and accepting of the idea that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are socially constructed. Even in my course, where most of the students have studied gender theory before and undoubtedly come up against this argument, people had a hard time with the idea that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are not natural categories – or at the very least, they didn’t know quite what to do with that information.
Can someone tell me exactly what a ‘man’ is? A ‘woman’? I’m sure you’ll know I won’t accept the answer that men are people who display masculinity and women are people who display femininity. We can simply look to not only obvious counter-examples, like transvestites, but to simple examples of people who just don’t play those roles, ‘normal’ everyday people who aren’t such extreme examples, women who don’t act in feminine ways and men who don’t act in masculine ways. It seems silly, doesn’t it, that the identity of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ something so very basic, would be defined only by things like clothing, mannerisms, and activities – things that any person could readily adopt and display. These social behaviours are often classified as “gender” rather than “sex” – we like that distinction, right? We like to think that there is something more basic upon which we base these social arguments.
Don’t we need something more solid, something rooted in science or nature – biology, perhaps – to explain what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is? Does it have to do with genitalia or reproductive organs? Chromosomes? Well, sorry, but no. Genitalia is an uncertain peg on which to rest gender/sex identity. A fair percentage of live births are intersex or have ambiguous genitalia. (numbers vary, it’s hard to tell exactly because of the nature of the problem, but one stat I read was about 1.7%.) Experts say there are 5 types of genitalia: female (vagina and ovaries), male (penis and testes), male pseudo-hermaphrodite (penis and ovaries), female pseudo-hermaphrodite (vagina and testes), and hermaphrodite (penis and vagina, with either ovaries or testes, but not usually both). Most parents, on the advice of their doctors, have ambiguous genitalia surgically altered, which can present problems later on in the form of identity crises due to imbalanced hormones or the child actually finding this information out, but some “conditions” – such as undescended testes, or the presence of both a penis and ovaries – cannot be easily detected. And this is a totally “natural” “condition” to be born with. Also, what do we do with people who have to have part of their genitalia or reproductive organs removed? Do people who have had hysterectomies stop being “women”? Do people who have had testicular cancer stop being “men”? What about transsexuals, who have surgically constructed genitalia? Where do they fall?
Chromosomes are no easier a signifier. Chromosomal variations do occur – there are, in my understanding, many combinations (NOT 2!): XO (female with Turner’s Syndrome), XX (female), XXXY and XXY (male with Klinefelter’s Syndrome), XY (male, plus two other types of XY with either complete or partial gonadal dysgenesis). So we can’t exactly count on chromosomes to be our signifier, either.
While it is true that most people born do have typical characteristics of male or female, it is also true that these categories are very much socially – and medically – constructed. This is also not really a recent historical trend – before the advent of surgical “correction” of these “conditions”, hermaphrodites were given the option of which gender they wanted to live as, or they were left alone to determine their own behaviour.
The definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ has changed over time. It is common in conversation: “women these days are more independent”; “men nowadays don’t want to settle down.” (A conversation I had with a friend the other day. And, by the way, she blamed the second on the first.) Interesting when you think about it, it’s so obvious that ‘women’ have changed since even just a generation ago, but we still try to define ‘woman’ in a biologically stable and ahistorical manner.
I think some of the trouble my classmates had with this concept was that they then wanted to “get rid of” or dissolve gender – they saw gender as something that didn’t really exist, and were quite upset about this. How fascinating! If we can’t pin something on biology or science, then it doesn’t truly exist! Once again the ugly habit of modern western society to put all its chips in the basket of science. At best, the role science has in determining gender is one of identifying biological trends, nothing more. Society does the rest. But that doesn’t mean that just because something is socially constructed, it doesn’t exist in a very real way that has implications for real people’s lives. And so none of this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for solidarity. In fact, it kind of means there is room for more.
I think the usefulness in identifying the socially constructed nature of gender – and sexuality, race, disability – is that there IS nothing concrete about it, no biological destiny we are tied to. While we may not be fully free to determine the social categories to which we belong, we are free to resist them and cross borders and boundaries into other spaces – even create new spaces, third and fourth and fifth and sixth spaces by which new discourses and new identities and alliances can be formed. I find this information liberating! Don’t you?
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