Sex and Gender

"As far as I'm concerned being any gender is a drag." -Patti Smith

            Gender is often used synonymously with sex. In the Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus the second definition of gender is "a person's sex." When one looks up the word gender on the third definition is "the condition of being female or male; sex."
            In the Oxford English Dictionary the third definition is simply "sex." If we accept the broad definition of gender as being a person's sex then obviously, we must also define the word sex. And if we accept the common definition of sex as being one of the two divisions into which organisms are placed, either male or female, based on their reproductive organs and functions, then we must also define what it means to be male or female. Initially this may seem to be a fairly simple task.
            If one looks up "male" in any dictionary the definitions all say the same thing only in different words, and that definition more or less is: of the sex that has organs to produce sperm. And for the definition of female a similar condition applies: of the sex that can produce eggs. So it would seem that our work here is done and that we have successfully defined what it means to be male or female. Our definitions fall into purely black and white categories and there isn't much room left for debate. Let us proceed then to a test case and see how our definitions hold up.
            A child was born with the appearance of external female genitalia, her parents had no reason to believe she was not female and she was therefore raised as such. Up until adolescence, the girl had no reason to question her gender and fully identified as a female. At the age of fourteen she was sent to a gynecologist regarding her amenorrhea and lack of mammary development whereupon she was told "that she 'might be a boy'" (Stoller, p. 24). Upon further examination it was discovered that the girl had Turner's Syndrome, a case in which the individual has only one x chromosome and there is no presence of gonadal hormones, "for it's gonads are primitive streaks of tissues instead of being fully formed and differentiated" (Money p. 105). Subsequently, the girl's gender identity was totally shattered and she was said to have "gradually become psychotic" (Stoller p. 24). One can only imagine the ensuing confusion: "I had fears of being male....[The doctor] told me I was an it...I don't want to be a girl. I wish I were a boy. I like being a girl sometimes when men pay attention to me, but I feel I would be more wanted by my parents. My breasts aren't real. Only my vagina is, because it was there before. My breasts were given to me for a time. Who knows when they will be taken away? That is my fear. My terrible fear. Not to be like a woman...." (Stoller p. 27). After the subject underwent therapy she was eventually able to reestablish her gender identify as being female and consequently her psychotic symptoms disappeared.
            So is this person male or female? According to our rigid definitions the subject does not fit into either of the two sex categories, since the individual has neither testes nor ovaries, organs which are necessary in order to produce sperm or eggs. And even if we were to expand our definition to include the multitude of other biological factors that are characteristic of typical males and females, such as chromosomal structure and internal and external genitalia, the subject would still fail to satisfy all of these conditions. So what is this person's sex? And more importantly what is their gender? It is now necessary to differentiate between the words sex and gender.
            We have already defined sex as being one of the two divisions into which organisms are placed, either male or female, based on their reproductive organs and function. A more accurate definition for gender than the ones found in dictionaries, is one found in an anthropology textbook, the definition is as follows: "The elaborations and meanings assigned by cultures to the biological differentiation of the sexes" (Havliand p. 489). So while a person's sex is biological and can be experienced tangibly, a person's gender role and identity is entirely cultural and does not necessarily correspond to their sex. And because gender takes the form of an identity and/or a role rather than a set of physical characteristics it is by nature more fluid and less fixed than sex is. What is considered masculine or feminine is constantly in a state of flux, these notions vary from culture to culture and throughout time.
            Sexually the individual in the previous test case could be said to be neither male nor female and for lack of a better term can only be classified as neuter or intersexed. Considering the subject for a majority of the time identified and perceived herself to be a female and was eventually able to establish a fixed gender identity as a female, her gender would be classified as female. Let's move on to another test case.
            Linda Roberts was born with the sexual anatomy of a male and a female. She not only had a penis, but also a womb, vagina, and clitoris. Linda's father decided she should be registered as a boy and when Linda explained at the age of eight that she felt like a girl, her father reacted violently and told her never to raise the subject again. Linda, like many intersexuals, experienced severe psychological and emotional damage due to being thoroughly confused as to what her sex and gender were. While Linda's physical features are quite masculine and her voice deep, her mannerisms as well as her dress are feminine, because of this she is the target of much violence and hostility in the small town she lives in where people do not understand her condition and label her a "pervert."
            While earlier we said that sexually, the girl with Turner's Syndrome was neither male nor female, in a sense, Linda falls into the opposite category. Linda is sexually both male and female, with the ability to produce eggs and sperm, but only identifies with the female gender. While in both of these test cases the subjects' gender identity disorders had a biological basis, this is not always the case; it is possible for a person to have no biological abnormalities and still identify with the gender opposite their sex, or for that matter, to identify with neither or both genders.
            Based on these test cases and numerous others, it seems that it would be quite advantageous for our society to not only dispel of the outdated myth of sexual dimorphism but also to work towards a dissolving of the gender boundaries and ascribed gender roles that based on biological sex. The reason for acknowledging more than just two sexes should be obvious after considering the test cases, since interesexuals can be perceived as either failing to fit into either of these two categories or as fitting into both.
            An individual learns whatever gender role is thought to be appropriate for whichever sex he or she has been assigned based on his or her external genitalia. This learning of the gender role happens through the process of enculturation and starts from birth. In many instances of intersexualism and transsexualism, individuals behaved in ways considered to be psychotic and maladaptive, but in all cases once their gender identity had been resolved, the psychological and emotional disturbances simultaneously disappeared. The reason these individuals were experiencing psychological and emotional problems was due to the fact that their own subjective gender identity did not correspond to the gender role that society had forced upon them.
            If we adopted a more lenient attitude towards gender we might be able to prevent such emotional displacement and dysphoria from happening in the first place. If we stopped raising children with the intent (conscious or unconcious) of boxing them into specific gender roles based on genitalia, maybe they would be less inclined to experience so much confusion in the areas of sex and gender. Not only would there be less confusion, but also less limitation. They would not be forced to identify with only one gender and would not be criticized or viewed as abnormal if they had a gender identity that was opposite their sex. People would be more well-rounded, healthy individuals and encouraged to pursue whatever interests and behaviors appealed to them intellectually or emotionally regardless of their genitalia. There are no benefits to raising boys and girls to behave in different ways: "...apart from differences directly related to reproduction, whatever biological basis their once was for gender role differences has largely disappeared" (Haviland p. 35).
            For example there is no reason that a man, heterosexual or homosexual, should not be allowed or encouraged to wear make up and dress as a "typical woman" if he so desires. And conversely there is no reason that a woman should be required or encouraged to shave her body hair if she does not wish to do so. The fact that many people would find this behavior extremely strange and unnatural is entirely due to what our culture deems to be appropriate behavior for males and females. There is nothing inherently wrong or backwards about a man choosing to wear make up or a woman choosing to have hairy armpits, it is merely our cultural biases that would lead us to believe so. "...differences between the behavior of men and women in North American and Western societies today, which are thought by many to be rooted in human biology, are not so rooted at all. Rather, they appear to have been recently elaborated in the course of history" (Haviland p. 35). Perhaps we could benefit from adapting some of the beliefs many Native American societies held about sex and gender: "...individuals were permitted to assume for life the role normally associated with people of the opposite sex....In effect, four different gender identities were available: masculine men, feminine men, feminine women, and masculine women. Furthermore, masculine women and feminine men were not merely accepted, but were highly respected" (Haviland p. 39,40).
            This is not to say that we should altogether abolish the idea of male and female or masculinity and femininity, but that we should allow more freedom of movement between genders and not assume that males should always be masculine and females always feminine.

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