Is it time to scrap the entire concept of ‘gender’?
All of a sudden, you wake up one day to find yourself possessing God-like powers. What sort of things might you do to change the world? Eradicate global poverty? Stop further destruction of rainforests? Erase national borders and airport immigration queues?
In my case, apart from the usual and obvious items, one thing I’d want to address is the notion of ‘gender’. What purpose does it serve in the modern world and should we get rid of it entirely?
A. Sex? Yes Please!
By proposing that we scrap gender – or at least reduce its potent force – I am not suggesting that we turn ourselves into androgynous beings, ending up like the Gethenians in Ursula La Guin’s novel ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’. Although I happen to like science fiction, the ‘Running Mutty’ philosophy requires you to critique the world as it actually exists.
In that real world, we have lots of boring things to do that constantly remind us of gender. A prime example is filling in application forms. These forms typically ask us to state our ‘gender’ or ‘sex’. Most people would understand what is being asked of them without caring about the exact word used. Although the two words are often interchangeable, the word ‘sex’ seems to be falling out of favour on forms and questionnaires, possibly due to the mischief-making it can incite, especially in a university setting. ‘Yes please.’ ‘At least ten times a week.’
For now, a person’s ‘sex’ will be defined in a more prosaic way, by considering the biological traits a person has been born with. Are these the traits of a human female, a human male, or a combination of the two?
No amount of SF speculation will get around the fact that there will always be biological differences between the sexes. Since women and men have different roles to play in the act of reproduction, different physical cues for ‘fitness’ have developed over thousands of generations. Thanks to sexual selection, a ‘fit man’ is assessed in quite a different way to a ‘fit woman’. (According to sexual selection, fitter organisms stand a better chance of finding a mate and passing on their genes.) It is pointless to pretend that biological differences don’t exist, which is why ‘female vs male’ type sporting contests – where one sex has a clear advantage due to biological make-up – do nothing to bolster the cause of either sex.
As part of nature’s biological package, people also come equipped with an inherent tendency to be sexually attracted to one sex or the other or both or neither. Any attempt to change a person’s natural inclinations would return us to the realm of science fiction and hideous, Clockwork Orange-style therapy.
B. Sex? I’m Not Sure…
At this point, it might seem then that we have managed to come up with a solid enough definition: ‘sex’ is the common biological traits that identify someone as ‘female’ or ‘male’.
But this has its problems. Not every new-born baby can be neatly identified as either female or male. Even based on its usual standards of ignorance, the human race has failed stunningly when it comes to giving proper recognition to non-binary gender states. Describing such a state as a ‘birth defect’ or ‘condition’ implies there’s something wrong with it. What we do know is that those born with an ‘indeterminate’ gender have faced incalculable amounts of abuse and neglect. Not for the first time, the problem is exacerbated by bigots and simpletons who like to see the world as ‘black and white’.
Even if we can’t agree exactly on how to officially label the ‘non-binary’ or ‘intersex’ category – Facebook for instance provides a list of over fifty options – it’s time to accept that at the very least, some form of ‘alternative’ sex is needed for people born with a mix of biological traits. ‘Sex’ cannot be reduced to a simple binary equation.
If we manage to accept and embrace non-binary people, biological ‘sex’ can remain a strong identifying characteristic of an individual. The police can continue telling us that the suspect on the run is male and twenty-five years old. The medical profession can continue performing research on conditions that affect one particular sex only. The sporting contests where biological make-up is a factor can continue as separate events. But it shouldn’t go much further than this. Any other difference based on whether a rather unattractive organ dangles between your legs is as fatuous as that particular depiction of male human genitals.
C. Gender? No Thanks
‘Gender’, on the other hand, is a way of describing your primary role in society. Do you play the role of ‘the female’ or do you play the role of ‘the male’?
In the vast majority of cases, people don’t make any conscious decision about their gender. They simply adopt the gender that matches their biological sex. Or more accurately, their home culture assigns them the appropriate gender at birth.
The momentous occasion of announcing a new-born to the world isn’t just a simple declaration of biological sex then (‘it’s a boy!’). It’s an initiation ceremony, permanently shackling the new individual with an entire raft of responsibilities and expectations, most of which will endure for a life-time. The more traditional a culture, the more stringent and restrictive the gender roles are likely to be.
If gender is indeed a social construct, it can’t be said to exist in any tangible sense. It’s a fiction to help create an ordered society. Those in charge of societies have always desired to shunt people into ready-made categories, for this helps to keep the toiling masses in their place. What better category to use than something which nature has already provided?
Once we realise that gender is just another category of social control – on par with ‘ethnicity’, ‘class’, and ‘religion’ – we open ourselves to exciting, new levels of freedom. It’s now up to the individual to choose how to present her- or himself to the world.
But why stop there. Why not go one step further by asking a more fundamental question: do we need to choose any gender at all? Why can’t we be a bit of both or even neither? How does categorising an individual as ‘female’ or ‘male’ help that person to flourish? For most aspects of modern life – such as education, the workplace and raising a family – what real difference does it make whether you are female, male or non-binary?
Proponents of gender segregation will argue that verifiable differences really do exist between the genders. Men, for instance, are better at spatial evaluation, women are better at communication and reading emotions. Teenage boys are more likely to be aggressive and get into fights, teenage girls are more likely to be worried about their bodies and have low self-esteem. In other words, if you’re planning on introducing a boxing class at your school, don’t be surprised if mostly boys turn up.
But here’s the clincher: they won’t all be boys. Even when the activity in question is heavily biased towards one gender, you will always get one or two ‘outliers’ from the opposite gender. This is the main drawback with reading too much into a person’s gender. Even if the propositions are true, they are generalisations at best, a statistical average that applies to the population as a whole. If Ian and Barbara are standing in front of us, there’s no reason to assume that Ian must be the scientist while Barbara must be the school teacher.
For many years, women like Barbara have been discouraged from entering professions such as maths, science and computing, supposedly due to the fact that their brains were too ‘delicate’ to handle harsh challenges. But there’s no evidence to suggest that female brains are any less suited to these professions than male brains. The ‘women are bad at maths’ line is a classic example of the patriarchy at work, men whose only interest is to keep those toiling masses in their place. Very few of the ‘leading elite’ have trusted the human body – any human body, male or female – to take on a serious challenge, without wanting to offer some sagely advice as to whether the challenge is ‘appropriate’.
The subsequent gender indoctrination has been responsible for discrimination on a seismic scale. Young girls grow up under the illusion that science is not for them. Instead, they are encouraged to do ‘girly’ things from the moment their little hands can pick up a hair brush. Suitable tasks are pretend cooking, dressing up in mummy’s clothes or playing with dolls. Boys are more likely to be given Lego or other similar building blocks, allowing them to develop those much vaunted spatial skills, a keystone in starting a life in maths or engineering. A subtle but powerful message arises here, even if care-givers don’t actually say anything one way or the other: you as a girl must play the role of the ‘nurturer’.
This is beginning to change as parents, and society in general, see the benefit of exposing children to a variety of toys. Some major department stores have gone one step further and introduced gender-neutral clothing. This seems like a perfectly reasonable idea, for when it comes to clothes, boys and girls are not so different in composition. It’s also a positive step for giving children no preconceived notions that gender is some irreversible condition that will plague their lives forever. Whether you are female or male or non-binary really shouldn’t be an issue. You can do whatever you want.
As I said, some people might not agree with such a derisory view of ‘gender’, preferring to see their gender – their passion in clothes or sport – as the defining feature of their life.
Well to those people, please go ahead with your shopping or your sport. Do whatever you want. I know many women who hate clothes shopping. I know many men who detest sport. But that doesn’t make them any less a woman or a man. Even if we do manage to come up with some useful functions for gender to perform, are these functions not counter-weighed by all the adverse consequences? It’s similar to the debate on gun ownership. Don’t the cons of people dying in their thousands outweigh the pros of making a few gun owners happy?
In the case of gender, if we’re going to continue with the female / male obsession, are we willing to also continue with the belittling jokes, the harassment, and the discrimination? How much unnecessary human misery has been caused by pointless ‘principles’? The primary goal of every thinking individual is to encourage other people to flourish.
D. Mind Your Language
In recent years, I’ve tried to make a more concerted effort to reduce the impact of gender in my own behaviour and thinking patterns. This is a surprisingly difficult task, helped in no way by the English language.
Some language constructs are easy to avoid. I don’t see any need to use such terms as ‘policewoman’ or ‘chairman’ or the truly cringeworthy ‘lady doctor’ when perfectly fine alternatives exist: police officer, chair, doctor. Even when gender specific terms don’t exist, it also seems daft to describe someone as a ‘woman writer’ or a ‘male nurse’.
Other niggles with the English language are more difficult to resolve. The perennial problem faced by writers is the lack of a suitable third person pronoun. The generally-accepted rule is that you must use ‘he’ or ‘she’, meaning that the following sentence is not grammatical correct: The driver of that car needs to have their eyes checked. This is grammatically correct: The driver of that car needs to have his or her eyes checked.
While there is a modest push in some quarters to use ‘their’ as the third party pronoun, this is still a little slow to catch on. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to make more of an effort to use ‘their’ myself. It’s better than ‘his or her’ or the truly diabolical ‘s/he’.
Observant readers might also have noticed that I’ve twisted the usual constructs of gender as part of this post. Instead of saying ‘he and she’ for example, I’ve said ‘she and he’. Did this usage stop you in your tracks, forcing you to interpret words that didn’t flow so neatly across the page? I certainly felt an element of jarring language as I wrote, but luckily, the English language is less about rules and more about actual usage. Once more writers start embracing these alternative forms, familiarity will breed acceptance.
E. Why We’re Stuck with Gender
But who am I trying to kid. It’s never going to happen. We’ll be stuck with gender for some time yet, thanks to that rather unattractive dangling organ.
Humans are instinctively driven to procreate, which means humans are instinctively driven to choose the best mate possible. People feel the need to present their most attractive face to the outside world, making it blindingly obvious that they are male or female. Any form of asexuality in one’s behaviour or appearance will simply confuse potential suitors.
And then the moment will be lost forever. That person you fancy has left the building for good, attracted by that pretty young thing showing far too much skin for their age.
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