May 2, 2011

Gender Reloaded 1: What makes us men and women?

A new series on how our understanding of sex and gender affects us all.

This has been a strange journey. I started this blog in order to find a language and a story that could make sense of what I and others like me feel. In the process I have come to doubt nearly everything I have been told about sex and gender. 

It is clear that what crossdreamers (people who get aroused by the idea of being the opposite sex) and other transgender people experience does not fit into the dominant world view.

In this journey I had had great help form my readers and online pen pals. One of them is Natalie, the sexologist from Thailand. She gave me extremely valuable input in the development of the Slider Model of gender and sexuality.  We have had an email discussion going on our understanding of sexuality and gender that I have found very illuminating. I am going to share some of the main points with you now.

What is the dominant understanding of sex and gender in this day an age? First of all: There is more than one. Most of my readers come from Northern Europe and North America, which colors our idea of what is considered normal in the area of sex, sexuality, sex identity and gender roles. Looking into what others believe are “self evident truths” may help us get a better understanding of ourselves.

Sex and gender relevant dimensions
In order to understand these alternative views of reality, we have to keep in mind that what we may consider one and the same, others may consider different categories. When discussing sex and gender, it is therefore important to have an as nuanced net of categories as possible before diving into alternative scenarios.

I believe the following are useful:

Biological sex: Refers to the sex of your body, which is normally male or female. Sex may be determined on the basis of genitalia (penis or vagina) or on the presence or the absence of a Y chromosome. Yes, it is in fact more complicated than this, something the various intersex conditions attest to, but all in all it is fair to say that we are born with either a manly or a womanly body.

Cultural gender: Gender refers to the behavior that is considered appropriate for people of a particular sex. There is a lot of discussion going on regarding the number of genders in different cultures. There are cultures that have separate categories for  people who are not easily classified as exclusively male or female (like the two-spirited persons of the Navajos), and some refers to this as a third gender. It seems to me these categories might just as well be that these cultures recognize that it is possible to bridge the gaps between the two main genders, male and female, in various ways.

Body image: We all have an internal image of how our bodies look like. I think we all have experienced that the way people feel about themselves does not necessarily align with what others see. They may be far more better looking than they believe and vice versa. Extreme cases of misalignment between the body image and the actual body is found in anorexia and the existence of “phantom limbs” after amputations.

Sex identity: I use the word “sex identity” to refer to a persons sense of sex. Some may have a male body, but their inner experience is that the body should be female. This feeling seems to be anchored in some kind of in-congruent body image. Both crossdreamers and transsexuals may experience a mismatch between what they see in the mirror and what their mind tells them should be there.

The is much disagreement as regards the cause of this incongruence. It makes sense to me to use the term “sex identity” if you believe it has a biological basis, and “gender identity” if you believe it is purely a cultural phenomenon. Others refer to what I call “sex identity” as “core gender identity”.  

Gender identity: The use of the word “gender” varies a lot among scientists and activists. It was originally a grammatical term in English, before some researchers started using it to describe male and female relevant behaviour caused by cultural and social factors. Now I see that many mix in biological causes as well. In biology the word gender refers to behaviour that is specific for one of the two sexes.

I prefer to let gender refer to the social construction of the social roles of men and women. This is the part of male and female behavior that is not based in biology, but in personal psychological experiences and on social and cultural conditioning. Gender identity therefore refers to a the part of your identity of being man or a woman that is caused by upbringing, social pressure and/or personal choice.

Whether this can apply to all of our sense of being a man or a woman or just a part of it, remains to be determined. Personally I find it hard to explain transgender conditions as the result of upbringing or psychological trauma alone. Very few raise their sons or daughters to be the opposite gender, and there is too much variation among the transgender to pinpoint one set of psychological traumas they all have in common.

Gender expression: Most, if not all, cultures have identified practices, dress codes and social manners that is expected of one, but not the other, gender. These are also called gender roles. However, what is expected of men on the one hand and women on the other varies a lot between different cultures and different historical periods. The overlap in behavior between the two genders also varies widely.

I have not been able to identify one single behavioral trait that is exclusively male or female in all cultures at all time. Scottish males were skirts and it was the Romans that introduced the crew cut among generally long haired men. It is therefore reasonably to conclude that at least most gender expressions are social constructs, not based in biology.

Femininity and masculinity vs. femaleness and maleness: These terms refer to qualities and attributes that are considered specific for one and not the other of the two genders. Gender expressions may be considered masculine or feminine, but it seems to me that these terms not only refers to culturally defined behavior, dress codes and mannerism but also to the physical body itself (cleavage, curved hips, broad shoulders...).  To call a man “feminine” may therefore refer to his behavior, mannerisms, dress-code and physical body shape. The derogatory term “effeminate”, however, mainly refers to his behavior, in the same way as “tomboy” signifies a girl with boy-like manners.

So, in both science and everyday speech the words “masculine” and “feminine” are used to (1) refer to cultural specific gender traits, but also (2) the physical and legal attributes of men and women.

This is causing a lot of confusion, because it means that a woman can be feminine in the sense of being recognized as a woman and having a female sex identity, but at the same time be called “masculine” because of looks, mannerisms, behaviors or interests. I am amazed at the number of scientific articles that fail to take this into consideration. Often the scientists take their personal understanding of what is “masculine” and “feminine” for granted.

It seems to me that given that the terms “masculine” and “feminine” have strong cultural connotations, they cannot be used to describe sex identity or our judgment of whether someone is a “proper” man or woman. We normally find it easy to recognize a “masculine” woman as a woman. A rough non-transgeder lesbian butch is also a woman. We therefore need another set of terms to describe this basic pre-cultural  “womanness” or “manness”. Terms like “manly” and “womanly” have the same connotations as “masculine” and “feminine”, I am afraid, so I will use “femaleness” and “maleness” instead.

Dominance:  There is a wide variety of research on personality types. Carl Jung, for instance, believe the axis extrovert vs. introvert was fundamental in human beings, and that the basic orientation of a human being in this respect was inborn. This did not mean that an introvert person is unable to act in an outgoing and public manner. It just means that his or her strength lies elsewhere. Jung’s personality types were gender neutral.

A related dichotomy is found in dominance. Some people dominate a meeting, others keep themselves in the background. Some are “natural leaders”, others feel more comfortable gaining power and  influence by assisting the leader.  

The theory of dominance hierarchies  tell of a constant struggle among animals for food and sex. These theories do not in themselves that some individuals are born submissive, though.  According to gender stereotypes men are dominant and females are submissive. Having known a lot of dominant women and many non-dominant men, I know for a fact that this is not true. Dominance may still be an important component of transgender conditions, though.

Sexual orientation: According to the Wikipedia sexual orientation describes “a pattern of emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to men, women, both genders,neither gender, or another gender.”

That is actually a pretty wide definition, and there are scientists - especially within evolutionary biology and psychology -- that would like to limit this term to sexual attraction to male or female bodies only.

Ray Blanchard, who coined the term “autogynephilia” operates with two large groups: homosexuals and non-homosexuals, and it is clear that he considers all non-homosexuals as being heterosexuals. Homosexual means being attracted to persons of the same sex as your own. Heterosexuals are attracted to the opposite sex.

As soon as you start discussing transgender conditions this becomes very confusing, as it is hard to determine whether the term “opposite sex” is relative to a persons biological sex or his or hers inner sex identity. The terms gynephilic (“attracted to women”), androphilic (“attraced to men”) are therefore easier to understand. The term bisexual (“attracted to both sexes”) does not cause the same confusion.  Asexual  refers to a person who feels no or little sexual attraction to anyone.

Sexual practice: As will be made clear, the strong focus on sexual orientation is a Western trait. In other cultures this concept does not play any important role at all. In many cultures having sex with people who are not in your sexual orientation target group is quite common. You do not even have to understand yourself as bisexual in order to do so.

In Ancient Athens around 400 B.C. adult free men (as opposed to slaves) were expected to find themselves a young boy lover, even if they were also expected to get a wife. In the 1940’s Kinsey found that close to 50 percent of American men admitted to having reacted sexually to a man, and that some 40 percent had had a same sex experience. This does not mean that they were “wired” for men, just that human sexuality is much more fluid than many would like to believe.

Traditionally male same sex relationships have been considered more normal than female ones. Recently researchers have argued the exact opposite, i.e. that women get aroused by both sexes, while men do not. I strongly suspect that this difference is caused by a stronger social conditioning of men, i.e. that they are more severely stigmatized  for same sex relationships. If that is the case, this will also indicate that sexual orientation is not as important as we tend to believe.

This means that when we discuss the sexuality of men and women, we have to keep both dimensions in mind: the basic sexual orientation and what they have done sexually. Some would argue that there is no basic sexual orientation, only social conditioning leading men and women in a heterosexual direction. I am not so sure about that, but this is certainly a complex matter.

Copulation instinct: Based on what I hear and read in transgender circles, there seems to be a need for making a distinction between sexual orientation and the copulation instinct. In mammals we often observe two basic copulation instincts: a receptive instinct and a mounting instinct.

Some biologists will have you to believe that the males are the only ones mounting and the females the only one being mounted. This is not the case, not even among lab rats. But given that even rats do have instincts that lead to them mounting and being mounted, I guess it would be a fair guess that also we have such instincts. Some feel a strong urge to penetrate, some a desire to be penetrated and some go for both.


  1. I'd recommend the works of Judith Butler

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  3. For me, we are in a state of always becoming gendered; identifying with a socially constructed ideals. Idealization in the form of two genders makes possible an idealization of two sexual orientations. I think genitalia must be primary, and then cultural gender idealization must be correlated with the evolutionary gendering process in puberty.


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