Monday, April 22, 2013

Gender and Sex 101: There's No Such Thing as Male and Female

Gender is constructed
The single biggest idea that blew my mind in college was the notion that not just gender, but sex, too, is socially constructed.  I had been previously well-versed in the now familiar idea that sex is biological and gender is social.  This idea is simple.  People are born with a biological sex, male or female.  They are then socially conditioned in ways that reflect cultural expectations about how male people (men) and female people (women) should act.  Certain behaviors and characteristics are associated with masculinity, and some with femininity.  These behaviors are not necessarily biological or the same across cultures, but are absorbed by virtue of growing up in the place we're from and around the people in our communities.  I was developing a clear sense that gender was quite fluid, possibly existing on a spectrum and that anyone who said there could only be two genders was either lying or didn't know any better.  Still, I believed there were only two biological sexes.  I had no reason not to.

Sex is constructed, too
During my senior year of college, I took Sociology of Gender and learned that biology is just as complicated and confounding as all the expressions of gender and self that the human mind can produce.  I learned that while we may interpret our bodies as representing a biological binary, nature has other ideas.  Science has associated certain physical traits with biological maleness and femaleness.  When babies are born with penises, we call them male.  When they're born with vaginas, we call them female.  But that doesn't mean that everyone comes ready-made with the exact "right" set of those physical features that places them squarely in one category or the other.    What floored me most was what happens when science, or medicine - which is stuck like a stick in the mud on the notion that binary sex is a biological fact - is confronted by people whose bodies defy the sex binary.  The idea that all people are either male or female, and that these categories are strictly defined by specific body parts, is so ingrained that even when the medical field is faced with a newborn infant whose penis is "too small" or whose clitoris is "too big," doctors will surgically alter those infants to make them fit in one or the other category.  There's no room for a third (or fourth or fifth or sixth...) option.  There's no waiting for the infant to grow up enough to state its own preferences.  These are medical doctors presented with what appears to be a medical problem - a child that is not clearly male or female.  Instead of responding by considering whether we were wrong about there being only male and female sexes, we make those children become male or female.

I recently read a news article about small children, gender, and play in which a psychologist was quoted as saying that boys are "born with stronger connections in the area of the brain where visual spacial abilities are centered, and girls have stronger connections in areas where language and fine-motor skills are centered."  That statement struck me as both problematic and just plain wrong.  I happen to have spent a fair amount of time looking at studies on early childhood brain development and actually felt pretty confident that babies are born with most of their brains' neurons in place, but not the synapses - which are in fact the connections between neurons that form as we grow and allow us to engage in complex human behaviors.  My understanding was that while tons (actually, most) of a child's synapses, or connections, are formed very rapidly in the first few years of life, they're not really on the radar pre-birth or even at the moment of birth.  In other words, I wondered what the eff this psychology woman was talking about.  What did she mean that boys were born with more of certain connections and girls with others?  I started to doubt myself, since after all, this was a trained psychologist being cited in a major national newspaper, so I looked up some of the newborn brain stuff again, and not to toot my own horn, but from all I can tell, I was right.  Some synapses are in fact formed at birth, but very few - mainly the ones dealing with basic new baby functions - breathe, eat, sleep, poop.  I'd say it's a stretch to say all boys are "born with" more brain connections related to spacial abilities and all girls are "born with" synapses related to language and fine motor skills.  Maybe the psychologist means that baby boys' brains and baby girls' brains have different measurable capacities for certain skills, but I'm pretty skeptical about that.   But this idea persists - that boys and certain "natural" tendencies and girls have others.

"You know it's all around you, but it's hard to point and say, there"
Around the time they begin preschool, many - though not all - girls start demanding head-to-toe pink outfits, princess Barbies, and all things related to kittens and unicorns, while many - though not all - boys demand trucks, blocks, sports gear, whatever...  Even the most gender-conscious parents sometimes throw up their arms at this stage and wonder if biology really does play a role here.  They see all of the things they've done to challenge gender stereotypes and can't understand why their children haven't followed suit.  Gender is socially constructed, but it is a powerful construct and it permeates our every interaction and relationship.  Children don't just interact with their parents - they are exposed to gender norms everywhere they go and everywhere they look.  They absorb all of this.  Sex and gender norms are pervasive, but nearly invisible to most folks most of the time.  The point is that people witness the phenomenon of young children acting these norms out and chalk it up to biology.  That psychologist from the news article is probably right that there's evidence that later on, young boys do have more synapses related to spacial awareness and girls more synapses related to language, etc... but since synapses are formed (or not) as a direct result of infant and early childhood experiences, couldn't we also conclude that boys have greater spatial skills because we encourage boys to play with a lot of blocks and balls?  Couldn't we conclude that girls' greater language and fine-motor skills are the result of encouraging them to play with dolls and arts and crafts rather than some biologically-determined capacity they were born with?  

"Natural" Facts
Facts are not the only things that shape science.  Social pressures and norms shape science, too.  The subtitle of this post is misleading because there is such a thing as "male" and "female" - but these categories exist because we have named them so, not because they are biologically undeniable categories.  All throughout history, we have believed things that we now dismiss as awful - things that  were once accepted by the medical community as scientific "facts" - that women are less intelligent than men, that removing the uterus cures "hysteria," that people of color have smaller brains than caucasian people, and that African-descended people are "naturally" better athletes than people of other ethnicities.  For our generation, and maybe another few generations left to come, perhaps it's the idea that there are only two biological sexes, male and female, that one day our great-great-grandchildren will remember with shock and disbelief.        


1 comment:

  1. "doctors will surgically alter those infants to make them fit in one or the other category. "

    That doesnt happen you hippie.

    There are no babies born that "defy the gender binary" besides hermaphrodites, and those are rare.


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