Friday, April 20, 2007

Sex and Gender: An introduction.

One of the phrases that folks type into Google only to find themselves here by mistake is:

How do you tell the gender of a goldfish?

Or more charmingly,

How can I tell if my goldfish a boy or a girl?

And even

Is my goldfish a lady fish or a gentleman fish?

(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.


Radio said...

Wow, profound post :) Gender and language is a particularly interesting issue; for example in German, a girl is das Maedchen which is neuter and therefore has to be described using the neuter personal pronoun es = it. Lemonade (die Limonade) is, to pull a word out of thin air, feminine, and thus described via the feminine personal pronoun sie (her/she). So a sentence like "Das Maedchen trinkt die Limonade" (The girl drinks the lemonade) can easily become "Es trinkt sie" (It drinks her) which can initially be difficult to get your head around. In an essay called something like "The Really Awful German Language" (I'm too lazy to google it, but it's all over the net), Mark Twain gets a lot of humorous mileage out of this quirk of grammar and questions how masculine a man is, when half his body parts are defined as feminine...

Genderless languages are the way forward i feel. Although one wonders if there are any truly genderless languages. The international language Esperanto, to get on my personal hobby horse, was constructed to exclude grammatical genders for simplicity's sake. And yet in some ways it is the most sexist language i know; the word for man is "viro". The word for woman is "virino", formed by adding the feminine affix -in to the male root. Similarly patro (father) and patrino (mother); filo (son) and filino (daughter); bovo (ox) and bovino (cow)....

Okay, me go know before comment becomes longer than post! *blushes*

ben said...

"To which the answer is surely, a gentleman fish always holds the pond-weed to one side while the lady fish swims by."

Lmao. And i needed to laugh. Thank you. :)

Ashok Kizhepat said...

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Anonymous said...

Although I agree with the Goldfish about the profound effect of early social conditioning, can I just remind everyone of the case given publicity because of the victim's suicide: that of a young boy whose genitalia were mutilated by accident very early in babyhood; the paediatrician advised the parents to complete the castration and also remove the penis entirely and bring the child up as a girl, reckoning that social conditioning would take over.

Even before puberty the child (who was not aware of his history) began to feel that there was something badly wrong or unnatural about his situation.

Eventually when old enough, and in possession of the truth, he obtained reconstructive surgery and went on, in fact, to marry.

But, sadly, that didn't work out either, and he killed himself.

The general feeling is, now, that some aspects of gender are hard-wired into our makeup and cannot be changed by any circumstances.

Smiffy said...

Thank you for a very interesting post. I have to confess that I was unaware of the distinction between terms and have tended to use the words interchangeably, in those rare times that I use either.

So, gender is just another way of saying "you are different from me", which seems to be a key theme in society, rather than looking at our common humanity. Or pisceanity, whatever.

The Goldfish said...

Flipreversal, it's interesting what you say about Esperanto - I was aware that it was gendered, which as an English-speaker, seemed a bit daft for a brand new language that was going to aim to simplify things. But I didn't realise it was that bad.

The essay you mention is The Awful German Language by Mark Twain, so you were very close.

Charles, I think you've missed the point slightly. For one thing, that chap's example is of someone who did not grow up in the absence of gender-conditioning - on the contrary, he would have received more emphatic conditioning that most little girls.

However, in any case, this is not an example which suggests that gender is innate, but that his sex, his maleness and sexuality was innate. Which of course it is - it may manifest in different ways in all of us, but that is to do with that wiring and hormone levels, brain architecture and all the rest of it, independant of conditioning.

If this wasn't the case, nobody would be gay in a homophobic world, because we would have all been conditioned not to be.

Smiffy, yes, most people use these words interchangably, and most of the time it doesn't matter a great deal. But yeah, you're right, gender is a way of instantly pigeon-holing people.

Marcelle Proust said...

Er, actually, Spanish doesn't have neuter nouns. Same two choices as in French. I believe this is the case for all Romance languages, despite the presence of neuter nouns in their common source, Latin. (But I don't know Romanian or Romansch, so can't actually be sure of them.)

Queen_Mum said...

The book "Middlesex" fictionalizes this subject but lacks Goldfish references. Pity. But it did win the Pulitzer Prize.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Goldfish, my fault for being obscure. What intersted me about that case was precisely what you say - the chap, despite presumably intensive conditioning, ended up totally confused because of a war between his innate and implanted reactions (reactions isn't the right word but can't think of a better). He was not able to reject either.

Although it appears that sex is innate and gender is a construct, it's far more subtle than that.

Radio said...

i think Marcelle Proust is right re neuter nouns in Romance languages. I don't know Romanian but once took a basic course in Romansch and don't remember any. have only ever seen them in Germanic or Slavic languages.

Re Esperanto, it doesnt have grammatical gender as such. The idea is just for simplicity's sake there should be as few words as possible. Thus there is a word for man and woman is derived from this by the addition of the feminine affix. From a linguistic point of view this is probably quite clever, it's just whether psychologically women mind being defined as female men. In the interests of fairness, the word for female is ina with the word for male being malina where mal is an affix which gives the opposite of the root to which it is attached. Hence the state of being male is defined as being un-female.

The Goldfish said...

Apologies about the misinformation about Spanish and thanks for the correction - I did attempt to check that before I posted, as I am not a Spanish-speaker. I would edit it but then the comments wouldn't make sense.

Queen Mum - Hello there and thank you.

Charles - yes, no doubt it is immensely subtle - it is, as I say impossible to comprehensively dissect nature from nurture.

Flipreversal - thanks for the information. It is very interesting the way these things are handled in different languages.

I know some feminists who blog write "womyn" as opposed to "women" which I find mildly amusing (sorry), because you really would have to rewrite the entire language to elliminate anything which could be construed as upholding patriarchy. And that's English which doesn't have nearly so much gender in it as many others.

Anonymous said...

goldfish gender! reading this was the highlight of my day; thanks for such a fun post.

And, you're quite right about the differences between sex and gender.

As far as I can tell, the main differences between male and female sexes (of any species of animal or plant) is that the male's gametes are in small, frequently mobile packages (sperm) whereas the females gametes are in large, frequently immobile packages (eggs). Then you get to weird stuff like some fungi, and even in the sexual stages of their life cycles we can't even distinguish males and females, so we just call them + and - .

As for languages, I'm still trying to figure out why the f--- the vagina is masculine in French: le vagin. Too passing strange to make sense of.

Anonymous said...

Sitting here in Europe and wondering about the gender of the words I'm learning here and came up with a system that gives me a better than 50 50 chance of getting it right, closer to 80% right, and it's this: I judge if the the word is for something Important - or Not Important. If it's important, I gave it the masculine gender. If less so, I give it the feminine. It works a lot, sad but true.

RYand avis said...

wow i looked up the fishes butt and i say i saw a penis lokking thing so i said female and a vagina looking thing and i said male sweet. htmak uyo diary

FindingVicky said...

.... i totally learned alot from reading this, but as you mentioned at the begining i ended up here by googling "what gender is my fish." and i still dont know how to tell if my 2 gold fish have xx or xy chromosomes, which is why i read the whole thing.

To all of you who are obviously good with grammer, sorry. I am not.

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