December 3, 2010

What is feminine and masculine anyway?

On this blog I have been using words like masculine and feminine quite liberally. After all, that should make sense, given that crossdreaming is a transgender phenomenon, and boys who dreams about being girls should have a pretty good idea about what that entails.

I have gradually come to the conclusion, however, that I have no longer a clue about to what these two words really mean.

Femininity defined

Dictionaries are of no help, as they have a tendency of defining

a term like "feminine" as "associated with women and not with men", or -- if they are very advanced -- giving it a culturally relativistic definition: "Femininity (also called womanliness) refers to qualities and behaviors judged by a particular culture to be ideally associated with or especially appropriate to women and girls."

There are several reasons for my problem.

Gender equality

One is the fact that I have grown up in Scandinavia.

I have seen the "qualities and behaviours" of women change before my own eyes. Women not only have the right to vote, they practically run the place. Four out of six Norwegian party leaders are now women. The Conservative Party and the right wing Progressives are both run by what was once the "weaker sex". When Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundland ran the place, we had worried young boys asking their mothers if it was possible for men to become Prime Minister.

Women were traditionally supposed to be non-intellectual, emotional, passive and caring and completely unsuited for leadership. Men, on the other hand, had apparently no aptitude for child care.

It is strange to see how Norwegians now consider the willingness to take care of your kids to be as much a masculine trait as a feminine one. Fathers are expected to spend time at home with their new born child during the first year of its life. When I grew you rarely saw a man push a stroller.

The flexibility of language

Still, this is not only about changing gender roles. This is also a question of perception and language.
When I grew up, the traditional core family continued to be the norm. Middle class women stayed at home in a Mad Men kind of way.

That being said, people were pretty flexible when it came to determining to what extent one could call a man a man.

I remember my uncle Thomas and aunt Ragna very well. Thomas was a very small man with a weak disposition. He never talked loudly (if he talked at all) and was very nervous among -- well -- anyone. He was a businessman, although not a very successful one, as he lacked the kind of aggressiveness and stamina required to succeed.

He might have been the boss back home, but every body knew, to quote Woody Allen, that mom made all the decisions. Ragna was a formidable woman, a big and strong primary school teacher who faced no disciplinary problems what so ever. She had a strong willed personality and a lot of opinions about anything. She was the aggressive boss. He was the submissive partner.

But they clearly loved each other, an no one doubted the fact that she was a

woman and he was a man. No one would call her masculine or him feminine. And I believe the reason for this was they had four kids. They were as heterosexual as you get.

I am sure may uncle and aunt both faced problems when growing up. He was probably teased for his "effeminacy", while she was reprimanded for sticking her neck out. But in the end they were both accepted.

The eternal bachelor had it much harder. He was considered feminine even when he was not.

Here's my point: If you had asked them about what feminine and masculine meant I am pretty sure they would have repeated the stereotypes of the day: "Women are emotional and caring, men are aggressive and dominant." And they would do so even if they themselves behaved differently.

And as for the gay bachelor: He was turned on by men, wasn't he? And if you were turned on by men you were feminine by definition, even if you had the body and beard of a fisher man.

My mother definitely believed that women had a natural capacity for infinite love, but the fact is that the only person that had this quality in our house was my father. He was the caring introvert. She was the aggressive power player.

Hence there seems to be no connection between what people believe they believe and how they actually act.

Hell hath no fury

This also applies to history. We are repeatedly told "in the old days" women were expected to keep quiet and let men rule the world.

Moreover, women were apparently non-aggressive and loving in an asexual kind of way. They were supposed to be more focused on putting on that "absolutely gorgeous" wedding dress than on what would happen when they finally took it off.

Anyone who has read Shakespeare knows that this is a myth created much later, in Victorian England. We know now from studies made of Victorian women that they did not close their eyes and think of England. And Queen Victoria herself was, of course, in no way as meek and mindless as women of her time were supposed to be.

Again the idea of femininity and masculinity collides with reality.

Transgender wars

In the debate on the nature of transsexualism there is a lot of talk about looks and manners. In fact, some transwomen beat each other up in the most viscous (and unfeminine) way when it comes to not not being able to pass as feminine women.

I find this rather bewildering, as I cannot understand how they can expect a person who has grown up in a male body to suddenly look like Audrey Hepburn. I mean, if you are lucky and have a small body with a non-dominant

bone structure, I guess it is easier to get away with it, but in no way says that anything about your gender identity.

Again reality hits me in the face.

Do all women look feminine? No, they do not. They come in all shapes and sizes.

I have seen big Bulgarian women with mustaches and the muscles and the manners of body builders. They are still women.

Closer to home I have a lot of women friends who wear the latest fashion, spend hours at the hair dresser, but still behave in ways that were considered masculine only a few decades ago. They are ambitious, aggressive, strong willed, and -- yes -- promiscuous. They are still considered "feminine".

And the current obsession with botox and face lifts tells me that this is not so much about being a woman as it is about being young. An older man appears more masculine than a younger one. An older woman may not look feminine at all. That does not make her less of a woman.

Would Mrs. Doubtfire pass as a woman? My grandmother looked like that. But that Robin Williams dude...I don't know... he looks feminine to me!

The stereotypes of science

Given all this confusion, we should probably go to objective science for clarification. Unfortunately, the scientists are as hung up in stereotypes as the rest of us.

Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young has written a very fascinating book on the gender understanding of brain scientists looking for an explanation for sex differences in prenatal hormones. The book is called Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. I recommend strongly it to anyone who is interested in the question of sex research.

Jordan-Young notes that biologists seldom bother to question their own ideas about what feminine and masculine mean. When asked they say it is obvious. "Everybody knows!"

Which is exactly what my mother told me as well. But then again, she was not a scientist.

Jordan-Young has gone through all the literature in the field and interviewed a large number of researchers. Her conclusion is that "brain organization theory is little more than an elaboration of longstanding folk tales about antagonistic male and female essences and how they connect to antagonistic male and female natures."

She definitely believes that biology is part of the explanation for gender identity development, but the current obsession with testosterone leads nowhere, according to her.

She finds that the understanding of masculinity and femininity among these researchers changes in accordance with the changes in the culture around them. This means, for instance, that research conducted before the 1980's is based on a different understanding of sexual traits than the research done more recently.

I have made the following illustration on the basis of figures found in the book. The first one sums up ideas about gender specific sexual traits reflected in relevant research publications published from 1967 to 1980.

At that time the scientists seemed to share a large number of ideas of expected sex behavior, and they all fit well with the stereotypes of the aggressive, virile, promiscuous man and the passive, romantic and sentimental woman. (Click to enlarge!)

When we reach the 1980's, however, I guess there were enough ambitious, dominant and sexually aggressive women on campus to make it impossible for the scientists to determine the "natural" sex development of -- let's say -- intersexual people on the basis of such a list. The fact that an interesex woman masturbates no longer means that she is "masculine".

What happens now is that many of the traits that were originally considered exclusively masculine or feminine have found their way to the center column. They are traits shared by men and women alike. The only sex specific traits the researchers now seem to agree on is that a sexual orientation towards men is to be considered feminine and an attraction to women is masculine.

This is, of course, pure nonsense, given the existence of both gay men and lesbians. I guess some of the scientists cling to the understanding that gay men are feminine and lesbians are masculine. In real life, however, there is as much variation among homosexual people as there is among heterosexuals, which leaves us with no fixed point on which to decide on what is masculine and what is feminine.

Nature and culture

Which brings me back to my confusion.

As I have noted before, I am not a social constructivist. I do not believe that crossdreamers deliberately choose to become crossdressers. I am convinced there is a biological basis for the gender identity of transwomen and transmen. You do not choose this kind of suffering voluntarily.

Moreover, if gender identity is shaped by society alone, there would be no transgender people. Because close to no one encourages such identity building among kids.

There can be no doubt, however, that most of the psychological traits we associate with masculinity and femininity are cultural, not biological. And to the extent there are statistically significant differences between the two sexes, these differences are marginal and make only sense on an aggregate level.

Men can have a  parental instinct that is as strong as the maternal one found among women, and women can be as good at running companies and countries as men.

Then what does it mean when a transgender person says that he or she identifies with the other sex? I'll come back to that in later posts.


  1. Hi,

    I have met plenty of caring women, but it's probably due to their maternal instinct or their submissive behavior toward people who they find attractive. Women tend to act submissive and "nice" towards men who they like.

    Some people act nice to others because they are afraid of being disliked by others, so it's not genuine kindness. Weak men are prone to acting nice when they don't mean it because they are afraid of confrontation from stronger people.

    Also, women are prone to acting "nice" towards others because they fear confrontation more than men. Also, their maternal instinct and submissive towards people who they lust also plays a big part.

    More women than men are vegetarians because their maternal instinct find little animals "cute" so they don't want to eat them.

    Here are the traits that I had written down before.





    Biologically, I believe that male crossdreamers are as masculine as "normal" men. Clothing that is tight, restrictive, or protective are associated with weakness.

    For example, bracelets resemble handcuffs. Knee-high boots are restrictive to the movement of your feet. Heeled shoes retards your ability to walk. The straps on your sandals gives an impression that your feed is "bound" to your shoe. Earrings resemble "ear tags" found in helpless livestock. So those kind of restrictive clothing makes women to seem weak and submissive. Therefore, that's why you are turned on my it.

    But male-to-female crossdreamers are aroused by those aspects of restrictive clothing NOT because of some biological femininity, but because they find restrictive clothing attractive on women, so they find it attractive on themselves.

    That was all I was saying in my previous comment.

  2. "Men can have a maternal paternal parental instinct that is as strong as the one found among women, and women can be as good at running companies and countries as men."

    Just to clear up some potential confusions, I agree with you on this quote.

    I agree that men can be good parents as women do, and I agree than women can be good executives and men do.

    There's a study that have shown that women are NOT more skilled at men at reading emotions. Women are just more MOTIVATED to read others emotions than men.

    So men can be good parents just as women. It's just that men don't have much of a preference to care about children as women do. Given a choice, men would prefer more masculine activities such as running a company rather than parenting. But if he has no choice except parenting, then men would do just as well as women do, as mentioned above.

    I think the same thing happens with women too. Women aren't too motivated to run companies. They find children cuter so they choose to take care of their children more. But if women are forced to run a large company, they will do just as well. They just aren't motivated to make money rather than parent as much as men do.

    I believe that the sex difference as more based on difference preferences rather than difference abilities. Another example is that men are more violent. It's not because men are immoral, but men care less about morals than women do. I'm not offending the moral men, I'm just speaking in average terms.

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  4. I think most of the confusion stems from conflating gender (masculine, feminine) with sex (male, female). For instance, you wrote about "gender equality" in Scandinavia. There is no law in the world that can make aggressiveness - a masculine trait, equal to passivity - a feminine trait. A law can, however, give both sexes equal legal rights. Another source of confusion comes from conflating specific behaviors with gender traits. For instance, nurturing may be a feminine trait, but pushing a stroller is not the same thing as nurturing.

    I suppose that masculine and feminine traits are rooted in biology (genes, hormones, etc.) That doesn't mean that there isn't tremendous overlap between men and women with respect to gender traits. It just means that, like you said, in aggregate men will tend to have more masculine tendencies than women. But because there is so much overlap, there will always be some disagreement beyond the obvious about exactly which traits are feminine, which are masculine, which are shared equally by both and which are something else. I guess I'm not a lot of help here because with respect to masculinity and femininity I'm like the judge who, when asked to define pornography, said, "I can't define it but I know it when I see it." But, the first step to sorting it all out, I think, is to not equate gender with sex or specific behaviors even while recognizing that there is a relationship between them. We should think of gender more as a set of traits and tendencies.

    Of course, we could try to abandon concept of gender altogether and pretend that personality traits are randomly distributed between the sexes. But sooner or later someone is bound to notice that certain traits cluster around men and others around women. We have to get beyond the silliness of saying that just because some women can be dominant all the time and all women can be dominant some of the time that the tendency to be dominant is neither feminine of masculine. Men are still more likely to exhibit that tendency – not that I'm one of them.

  5. I would be interested in how Organism explains the rise in female violent behavior over the past 30 years here in the US.

    More specifically, you talk about motivation being different between the sexes. I agree that it is, but I don't think this is inherent, any more so than things like sexual promiscuity was or aggressiveness in initiating a relationship was.

    You are stating traits that are socially rewarded from an early age. No different than learning culturally significant table manners in more ways than not. If men were socially rewarded from an early age for caring for others would they be so different in desire to parent?

    You list Honest as a male trait. I can tell you that is not the case anyplace I've lived.

    Half your traits under men are based on power relationships. If the woman makes the money, is acknowledged as the powerful person in a way that doesn't demean her partner, she will be the one who is Secure, Assertive, Authoritative, Energetic, Decisive, Adventurous.

    Just saying you list could have been drawn right from a 1950's basic psych book. All the changes we've seen as women are raised entirely under and equal opportunity approach has shown that most of the traits you list under women are a result of being raised in a society hostile to assertive women.


  6. I don't want to argue the extent of how culture modifies behavior. That should be discussed under cognitive and evolutionary psychology.

    Sean, thanks for sharing your opinion. Yes, my list of traits were confusing.

    Many of my traits were idealistic. For example, dishonest men do exist. But women see honest men as "ideal" for some reason. Perhaps because it takes courage for one to be honest, and only strong and dominant men can afford to be honest. Those are the same men which women are attracted to.

    Yes, nearly all of my traits were based on the assumption that men are stronger and more powerful than women. It takes strength to be courageous, to be honest about yourself, to have the guts to reject someone, and to be active, and to be decisive.

    If you're physically weak, then you must be nice to others even if you don't mean it. This is essentially a behavior to protect the weak from being hurt by stronger people. In the animal kingdom, for example, if you're a physically weak male, then you must submit and be "nice" towards the alpha male or else you will be attacked. So niceness is a form of weakness.

    Only physically strong organisms can get away being dominant towards others. So dominance is a form of strength in the animal kingdom. Contrastingly, submissiveness is a form of weakness. Submissive organisms are "nice" to their masters.

    Because submissive individuals don't have much resources as dominant individuals, they may have to lie and cheat to their masters in attempt to steal some of their resources. So lying and cheating are strategies practiced submissive individuals in to obtain resources from their master.

    Actually, "malandragem" helps the weak. Some would argue that the ancient Greek were quite fond of "malandros," in their own way. Odysseus (aka Ulysses) was not really weak, but still was no match for the hideous and one-eyed Polyphemus.

    So social status is associated with honesty. Social status is also associated with confidence and power.

    I think confidence is also a indicator that you're strong. Women are attracted to confident men, but only the strong and powerful can get away with being confident. If you are weak or powerless, for example, then being confident may be dangerous because it may make you vulnerable for stronger and more powerful men. So only the strong and powerful men can get away for being confident, so confidence may also be an indicator that you're strong and dominant.

    Niceness, submissiveness, and passiveness is associated with innocence. The epitome of innocence can be demonstrated by the human infant. Infants smile frequently, thus making them appear more friendly. They have big round eyes, making them look innocent. And they always cry when another insults them, blames them, or accuses them of a wrong.

    In general, traits generally associated with innocence include:

    - Large, round eyes
    - Youthful facial features (including small nose, small cheekbones, lack of a brow ridge, and round face)
    - Crying in face of danger or the risk of danger
    - Niceness to others
    - Conflict avoidance

    As a general rule, children appear more innocent than adults. Children are smaller, have larger eyes, and cry more than adults. Children are thus more innocent.

    This rule also applies to men and women. Women, in general, are smaller, have rounder eyes, and have more youthful faces than men. Women are thus more innocent than men.

    So you're somewhat correct. Nearly all my masculine traits are based on strength and nearly all my feminine traits are based on weakness.

  7. Powerful athletes lie constantly about their affairs, their intentions to stay with a team or city, their finances. These are both physically powerful and rich men, under your system they have no reason to lie and should be examples of some of the most honest men.

    Financially successful people are some of the most dishonest.

    You continue to equate ideals of physical power with strength of character. There is no evidence of this, anywhere. The strongest have throughout history been the most corrupt.

    Niceness is not associated with weakness. The weak scheme and attack whenever they can, striking from behind, stealing, etc. They are often reviled for their lack of niceness and lack of empathy for others.

    As you say, no sense continuing this in specifics. I understand the template you are drawing from. I have a Russian friend who preached very much the same thing. We had a long discussion and tried to validate our opinions by through published studies. What we found was where/when the study was done largest factor in who was supported. The old WEIRD issue psych studies often have.

    Good luck, feel free to respond, but I'll drop it now.


  8. I have a Russian friend who preached very much the same thing. We had a long discussion and tried to validate our opinions by through published studies. What we found was where/when the study was done largest factor in who was supported. The old WEIRD issue psych studies often have.

    Sean, could you give me the study? Thanks.

  9. I am not sure that arguing about what makes a typical woman or a typical man will resolve this issue of what transgenderism is about.
    Transgenders feel more like the typical opposite gender. Transgendered individuals (of whatever sexuality) feel trapped in wrong body or atleast secretly wish they were the opposite gender. This is because society calls their inner traits and feelings to be associated more with the opposite sex.
    Niceness is not really associated with women, aggressive sexuality is not something all or even many men like.
    From my experience of transgenderism,I often notice that one can be feminine yet tough and aggressive at the same time. I feel that way. Someone might not believe me when I say I feel girly inside, because I am assertive and independent, both of which are manly traits. But,what I tend to like is the feminine outlook rather than the masculine man outlook.I feel I would be happier as a masculine intellectual but pretty woman, but I am certainly not happy as a masculine handsome man because the male body makes me kinda look freaky or ugly than the female body would.
    But that does not mean I have all womanly traits. I am masculine, yet, my feminine energy is above average which makes me gender fluid and makes me suffer from gender dysphoria.
    The same goes with sexuality as well. I am bisexual and I have met many other bisexual men. If a bisexual masculine man is passive, he will still see himself as a desirable masculine man and not as a feminine person although he is taking the stereotypical feminine role. He would like his penis to be fondled, or his body hair to be caressed etc.
    However, the same does not go with me though my sexual orientation is same as that of the masculine bisexual. When I am passive, I like my femininity to be adored. I want to be desirable as a feminine person (or as a woman) and not my masculinity. Even when I am active, I would like to be seen as a feminine person though I am taking the sterotypical manly role at that time. During sex with a woman hence, I sometimes imagine msyelf to be a lesbian rather than a regular guy.
    Makes a lot of difference really.

  10. @ Organism

    I don't think I can find the specific articles, as that conversation was a decade ago, when I was in college and had greater access to pay for use data bases. I will look though for modern equivalents.

    @ James

    Yours is not an uncommon experience, but is under reported in studies as they tend to self select for more overtly expressing trans folks.


  11. Anonymous,

    It is true hat people of my type are under-reported. But what mainly gets under-reported is the fact that there
    are a number of individuals calling themselves as "straight" yet having sex with same gender. Whereas a lot of
    highly feminine males are actually heterosexual rather than gay. Unless these things are reported by science in a
    more dense fashion, I think our awareness of sexuality and gender is just going to be very narrow.
    We have already reached a stage in this blog where we can safely say that sexual orientation and gender identity
    are totally independent factors, something not yet reported or believed by experts in mainstream science.
    And a science which does not consider this basic aspect is indeed just faking up things to suit popularity.

  12. In Iran here, they accept transsexuals with ease, but have a full fledged rage on homosexual men and women. Also,they don't seem to get us as well.
    They seem to get transsexualism, so long as the trans woman or man is straight exclusively.
    But a transfemale attracted to females is as half dead as a lesbian woman.

  13. @Rohilla Yunus

    I seem to remember to have read somewhere that one of the leading ayatollahs strongly supported sex change for transsexuals, but that the underlying premise is a strict traditional heterosexual dichotomy between the sexes. In other words: As long as the transwomen accept the traditional gender roles, they are OK. And as you point out: Gynephilic transwomen would not be accepted.

    Could you say something more about this, and do you have any references to English language articles?

  14. @jack

    I can only relate to my story. I have been refused sex-changes by my clergy twice in my own mulq, before my family luckily got transferred to western Europe, following which I started making the necessary arrangements.
    I was denied solely on the grounds that I was a bisexual.I am sexually attracted to men, but emotionally would want a relation only with women and not men.
    This makes me technically a lesbian post-op if I don't choose to pursue sexual relations with men. And that necessarily meant that I was not following the gender role of female which in turn meant I was a 'man' in their eyes.
    The fact that I am feminine from the inner depths of my soul does not hold any ground for them.

  15. @Rohilla

    Thanks for the article!This was exactly what I was looking for.

  16. Jack,
    Also do remember that we lesbian and queer transwomen aren't really going to be comfortable in even the lease homophobic cultures, as people simply find us 'weird'.


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