Sex and Gender: An introduction.
|One of the phrases that folks type into Google only to find themselves here by mistake is:|
Or more charmingly,
(To which the answer is surely, a gentleman fish always holds the pond-weed to one side while the lady fish swims by.)
The reason such searches lead people here as opposed to more sensible resources on biology or fish-keeping is that there aren’t any boy fish or girl fish, lady fish or gentleman fish. There are merely male fish, female fish and ambiguous fish. The goldfish has sex. It does not have gender.
Sex is biological. It is not strictly binary, but a question of typicality; the typical male of any given species of animal has goolies that look roughly like this (that’s your mental picture, not mine), is about this size and shape and has this kind of chemical and physiological activity going on at the various stages of its development. Similarly, the typical female. Sex is determined in biology according to which group of typical attributes any given organism most closely resembles. In humans and other mammals, there is a focus on the external sexual organs; whether an organism has an inny or an outy. Of course some organisms, in all species including human beings, have both an inny and an outy, some have one or the other but carry sex chromosomes that don’t match and there can be all number of other ambiguities. But these exist naturally; mutations happen, need to happen. Sometimes this means an organism cannot reproduce.
However, goldfish don’t have innies or outies – in fact, a female goldfish’s vent or cloaca (the all-purpose exit) sticks out a bit whereas the male’s goes in. Similarly, most birds don’t mate by penetration; if you are in Europe, are reading this in daylight and look out the window just now, you will be probably be able to see what they get up to, the feathery little fornicators!
Thus, the widest defining criteria of the sexes is the reproductive role; females produce eggs and males fertilise them. What happens next is hugely various – in goldfish, the entire business takes place outside the body and my observations seem to suggest that it is followed by profound embarrassment, resulting in an attempt to eat up all the evidence.
However, big trouble with this is that sex depends on reproduction taking place. Many organisms are not actively reproducing for long periods of their lives – humans being an obvious example. If a person does not or cannot reproduce, cannot produce eggs, cannot fertilise eggs, are they technically sexless?
So you see, although sex is biological fact and facts are immovable, we are looking at something fairly messy, something which is not easy to put into a few neat sentences which summarise the situation of all life on Earth. Just be grateful I didn’t get onto plants.
Gender is something quite different. The first place most people come across the word gender is learning non-English European languages. You use different articles according to the gender of the noun. French nouns, for example, have two genders, masculine and feminine, whereas nouns in Spanish and the Teutonic languages have the addition of neuter. In English we still sometimes treat ships, vehicles and countries as feminine. And that’s what gender is; the quality of being masculine or feminine. In language there are historical rules about which is which. In society, it is more complicated.
Obviously, when applied to people, there is a supposed correlation between gender and biological sex, but there are some major differences.
The first is that gender is completely and rigidly binary; you are either a man or a woman, either a he or a she and it is other people who make this initial determination. Obviously, you arrive in your Birthday suit and everyone present can assess your inny/outy status. This determines whether you are dressed in pink or blue and for the first few years, this is how other people will decide what you are. People really don’t like being uncertain, even when you are far too young to care. Later people will judge you partly by your body shape, skull structure and voice, but also your gait, the clothes you wear, your hairstyle and other behavioural traits that have nothing at all to do with biology.
Thus it is more accurate to ask for someone's gender when finding information about them. It is far easier to determine, and it covers the possibility that someone has chosen to embrace a gender other than the one that corresponds with their sex. It is also the case that if you ever put the word Sex on a form, a proportion of the populace are compelled to answer "Yes please!"
However, despite the immovable concept of two genders, the parameters of the two genders are always changing. Clothes and make-up are obvious, if very superficial, examples; who plays the peacock, which gender should be ornamented, has swung back and forth throughout history. But it gets much sillier than that.
For example, a feminine body-shape. Again, it’s kind of superficial but for that reason it’s very easily understood. With sex, there are some typical characteristics associated with being female, but gender demands an archetype where there is none. Western fashions of the twentieth century alone have seen the feminine ideal be petite, then supermodel tall, boyishly straight, then curvaceous, stick-thin then big-breasted. Folks use the word natural to talk about hairlessness, make-up, shaping underwear. Similarly, different cultures in the world today idealise completely different shapes and sizes and focus on all sorts of different areas of the body to define what is feminine.
Of course, part of this is about aesthetics, but that’s the whole point; gender, our very expectations – as well as our idealisations – of femininity or masculinity, are effected by the aesthetic tastes of a particular time and place. And everything else that’s going on.
And thus we have the tremendous quandary of nature versus nurture. Or sex versus gender.
People start treating you like a boy or a girl from birth, sometimes even earlier. And this effect is not to be underestimated. There have been studies performed which demonstrate that women will usually treat even the smallest babies differently according to their beliefs about their gender; allowing babies supposed to be feminine to cry for significantly longer before feeding and comforting them. Why this happens is immensely complicated and the effect it has is probably quite subtle, but it is there all the time. By the time children can be observed exercising choices, it is already impossible to determine to what extent those choices have been already conditioned by the world around them.
Thus when behavioural difference arise in men and women – again, we must speak of typicalities, typical differences in behaviour and aptitude – it is almost impossible to say which traits are conditioned and which imply a difference in wiring, in hormone levels, in brain architecture. Indeed, our wiring, our hormone levels and our brain architecture as adults have been influenced by our life experiences. If you have never been asked to perform a mathematical task, then you may arrive at adulthood with that area of your brain somewhat underdeveloped.
Ultimately, it’s all a big mess and muddle and nobody really has a hope of dissecting it.
However, it is important to be aware of. It is important to be aware of this very fundamental way in which we are shaped by society and to actively resist it whenever it causes a problem, particular in ourselves. Many people enjoy gender; it helps to enforce a certain order on things, define a role – especially for women. That’s why, in my humble and highly controversial opinion, women have a far greater investment in gender, just as women dominate the opposition to it. Different women, obviously.
But resistance for resistance's sake is no good either. There is a great danger that resistance can wind up with us just swapping our baggage for the baggage of the other gender. Masculinity and feminity are both silly and restrictive in their different ways. However, they also have their good points.
Mary Wollstonecraft was dismayed by her particular society where all the virtues worth having were believed to be the property of men alone; bravery, justice, strength and wisdom. Women weren't expected or encouraged to be these things, and indeed, their restricted lives and lack of education meant that few of them were. These days, there are also certain virtues with which are often accredited to women, such as empathy and compassion.
It is therefore far better to attempt to combine the best bits of both these constructs in deciding who we're going to be, rather than attempting to throw off what we've been given in its entirety.