On Gender Part 1: Dear Gender Binary, Why Are You Obsessed With My Genitals?
Gender is a topic I've tangled with for years. I definitely don't have all the answers. I'm still exploring what it means to be a body that participates in human cultures and society. But these are my thoughts and feelings so far.
This is Part 1 in a three-part series On Gender. The other articles are:
Part 2: Why I Am Not A Woman or a Feminist
Part 3: Plucking the Web: Witches, Queers & Finding Community
(You can download a pdf of all three parts here: On Gender: The Complete Essay.)
It seems to me that as a society, we are obsessed with each other’s genitals.
And I can understand why. Bodies are how we know who we are and where we belong. Bodies are how we communicate with each other, connect, share, and innovate. And bodies are how we create new generations of humans.
But I think our institutions (in science, religion, and politics, especially) place a disproportionate amount of importance on that last point: reproduction.
In the USA, you emerge from the womb and someone looks at your tiny little body and puts a mark on a piece of paper that will determine the future of how people will name you, dress you, speak to you, play with you, feed you, and determine what type of toys you need and what kind of bathroom you will use.
They will teach you lessons about what people who look like your body do/think/feel - and they will teach you lessons about what people who don’t look like you do/think/feel.
Nurture, Nature and Beyond
But when you are born, you are not a blank slate. In addition to being socialized by your environment, you also come into this world as a complex, unique creature with your own ancestry, inherited and also shaped by your own organism.
You are a creature that is constantly affected by your own body and by the environments that your body is exposed to. You learn about your sex, skin color, shape, and abilities both actively and passively, co-creating your experience from the landscapes around and within you.
In short, as you age, you learn lessons and you create stories about your identity as a person.
So by the time you’ve reached your teens, you’ve already learned an infinite number of lessons and created an infinite number of stories (some of them contradictory…) about what it means to be a human in general and also about how your body specifically relates to everything around you.
And that process continues throughout your life.
One of the primary lessons that most of us learn in mainstream American and European society is that things exist in pairs of opposites. Up-down. Hot-cold. Hard-soft. Right-wrong. We’re raised to think in dualisms.
I’ve already mentioned this a little bit in the EV Podcast episode 1, The Art of Descent, but dualism is a philosophical and religious worldview that we’ve inherited predominantly from Europe.
Dualism is just one way of viewing the world; it is not an absolute truth.
But in our society, this dualism reigns supreme. And it is heartily applied to what we also learn about sex (male-female), gender (man-woman), and personality (masculine-feminine).
The Gender Binary
This system - of male/men/masculinity on one side and female/women/femininity on the other - is called the gender binary. Two poles. Two identities. Two opposite (but supposedly complimentary?) ways of being a sexed body.
And in this gender binary, the equation works like this: assigned male at birth, is raised as a boy, dresses/behaves like a man, is sexually attracted to women versus assigned female at birth, is raised as a girl, dresses/behaves like a woman, is sexually attracted to men.
But there are many problems with this binary system, the least of which is that what defines “dresses/behaves like a man” or “woman” has changed so much over time, depending on the cultural, religious, and philosophical values of the place and time.
And even in one snapshot - one moment of history - there are infinite manifestations of what “manhood” or “womanhood” really is, depending on your race, religion, nationality, wealth, and so many other factors.
There have also always been people who seem to defy the conventional definitions of manhood and womanhood, existing in another category (or categories) altogether.
This essentially renders the words “man” and “woman” as universal, dualistic identities almost useless, as their definitions are so subjective, changing and shifting from culture to culture.
But even more problematic than a universal definition of "manhood" and "womanhood" is the fact that the gender binary rests on the core idea of gender essentialism.
Gender essentialism basically asserts that your sex (typically determined at birth by external genitalia and classified as either male or female) determines your personality, tastes, and preferences. It completely ignores the fact that we are a complex organism that both shapes and is shaped by our environment.
Instead of viewing the human experience as co-creative - a complex web of nurture and nature - the gender binary asserts that certain traits, behaviors, preferences, or styles “belong to” a particular sex and are therefore biologically determined at birth.
So before you can even communicate, it has already been determined what you will like, want, and desire, how you will feel, dress, and behave, and how everyone else will relate to you.
For the rest of your life.
In other words: biological determinism.
But what's even more problematic is that the gender binary ignores the fact that sex itself (the idea of male or female) is not as neat and tidy as most people assume.
Sex is not just about external genitalia, but is a complex combination of internal organs, chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics (like body hair, voice pitch, hip to waist ratios, etc). There is an infinite number of ways a body can manifest all of those elements. They all combine in various ways, mixing with our ethnicity and unique ancestry, to create unique bodies of all different shapes, sizes, and abilities. And while there is definitely overarching similarity in function and appearance, there is also immeasurable diversity in the way each of our bodies look and function.
Because of this diversity, the dominant medical (and religious, political, and social) system focuses on categorizing our bodies into a dualist model (male and female) based on constructed "averages," just for the ease of streamlining our understanding of biology. It makes it easier on some levels to talk about bodies by grouping them into categories based on perceived generalities.
The gender binary uses this constructed, dualist medical model of male/female as the central determining factor in our gender identity. And more specifically, it places our genitals at the center of the human experience, using our perceived sex at birth as the prescription for our gender role: male=man; female=woman.
In some cases, if a body does not fit into these created categories of male or female at birth (intersex), many doctors will even conduct surgery on the baby's genitals (often without permission from the parents, and definitely without the baby's consent) in order to conform the baby's body to these medically and socially recognizable categories of male and female.
This obsession with confining bodies to some socially constructed idea of "normal" just in order to maintain a binary model is really shocking.
And it begs the question, why are our medical and governmental institutions so invested in the gender binary that they would go to the extreme of practicing genital surgery on babies in order to maintain this dualism?
Back to our obsession with reproduction.
I think that sexing our bodies (that is, assigning a dualist model of male or female to our baby bodies) and then raising us within binary gender roles is done with the purpose of centralizing procreation.
In other words, it is assumed at birth that our primary role as a body is to make the next generation of humans.
From the moment we're born, we're primed for procreation.
Our dominant religious, political, and scientific institutions all participate in this. From evolutionary theory to religious doctrine, from prescribed social roles to media messages about our bodies, we’re taught that reproduction is the main purpose of our species.
And who can blame them? We are searching for the meaning of life, trying to understand why we're here, and really scared about mortality and death. So what better way to give our lives value than to place us at the center of a procreative imperative? (Go forth and prosper!)
Even some new age and pagan spiritualities participate in this, emphasizing the role of "the great marriage," mother earth and father sky, or fertility celebrations. (How often has someone implied that we must be an equal balance of "masculine" and "feminine" energies - supposedly the "ultimate" of spiritual equanimity?)
There's nothing inherently wrong with this.
But this persistent obsession with our genitals and how they should function as reproductive agents also affects the way we receive (or are denied) access to housing, healthcare, tax benefits, and legal protection. It affects the way our institutions police our sexuality, regulate birth control, criminalize abortion, sanctify heterosexual marriage, and politicize gender identity.
And it's very problematic because not every body makes babies. Some bodies are too young or too old to be reproductive. Some bodies can't make babies. And some bodies don't want to make babies.
Are we to assume that all those bodies are anomalies, without inherent value? That only baby-making bodies are the ultimate and truest expression of the human experience?
Plainly put, I do not like that our society uses the gender binary - nor the way it centralizes reproduction - as the dominant social and political model.
It is used to normalize only two, binary genders (which are considered "complimentary" only because male and females bodies are supposed to "join together" to create more babies) while labeling all other nonconforming gender identities as abnormal, unnatural, or somehow detrimental to the project of social progress (ie: procreation).
It makes heterosexual, gender normative bodies with reproductive ability the preeminent embodiment of human potential. And it relegates all other bodies to a supportive, inferior, or even deviant role.
I see that exclusionary approach as damaging and limiting to the potential of human expression. It blatantly ignores individuality, destroys the nuance of our lived, human experiences, and above all, mechanizes human bodies and interactions - reducing us to our procreative utility.
You Are a Body
So how does all of this fit into my feelings that we are a body? I mean, if I believe that the body is the way we experience and interpret reality, doesn’t that mean that the body we have determines our identity?
Of course it does. That’s the whole point. ALL of your body - not just your genitals, not just your race, not just your size or sexuality - but all of your organism determines your identity (or identities, because we have many, intersecting identities). And those identities shape and are shaped by your physical experience, your ancestry, your cultures, and your society.
We don’t exist in a vacuum, so your identities are going to be a co-creative process, acting upon and reacting to the world around you. They will change and shift over time as you experience new things.
But I believe that the value of your body should not be based on your reproductive utility to society.
OK, But Are You Female, Or Not?
For the record, I do not feel any distaste or shame about my genitals. But my sex organs - how they look, how they function, or how I use them - should not really be any of your business unless I want them to be your business.
Maybe you're just curious.
But why? Is it going to change the way you treat me? Whether you flirt with me, trust me, or want to be friends with me? Whether you want to have sex with me? Whether you let me rent your apartment? Or you give me a job? Or allow me access to affordable and equal healthcare?
The only reason you should know anything about my body is because I told you or I showed you. Not because you looked at my clothes or my name or a mark on my birth certificate or my genitals and decided how I should behave, feel, or think.
And it certainly should not determine the value of my place in society, nor what kind of rights I have.