The other night, Lorraine asked if folks would be interested in an ongoing gender theory discussion group.  Foolishly, I was the first to express an interest, and thus the first to post.  (I’ll get you Lorraine…)  While I originally discussed putting it up on Friday night, I might be heading to a protest tomorrow evening, so I don’t know if I’ll be around–I’m posting it tonight.

Before I start, a note.  Some of these conversations might get into some heavy-duty theory, and technical and abstract language–we’ve got some theory geeks here (me included).  If you haven’t read up on or aren’t into academic theory, don’t worry.  Instead, ask us what the hell we’re talking about.  Those of us who work in the academy, who do this for a living, have a tendency to get stuck speaking academese.  One of the things I’m concerned with–and I know others are as well–is how to translate highly abstract and technical language into English.  There are some powerful ideas out there, but they do no good if nobody understands `em. Dig in everybody.  Share your thoughts….please.

That’s the other point of this: we’re doing theory.  Take this as an opportunity to ask, challenge, agree, or even laugh.  And be careful…one of my friends recently commented that she’d never seen anyone who could write so academically while at the same time dropping multiple F-bombs.  Theory can be fun…and funny.   Below the fold we’ll get this party started.

In science, just as in art and in life, only that which is true to culture is true to nature (Ludwick Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, p. 35)

Today, I’m gonna talk a bit about gender, knowledge, and the body.  The discussion will take a few detours along the way, but I think they’ll all make sense in the end.  At least, I hope so.

I’ll start with some basic assumptions laid out by the slacker who got me to write this thing:

And it’s gender studies that have allowed us to see these things. Gender as defined by Joan Scott:

Scott’s definition of gender has two parts and several subsets; they are interrelated but analytically distinct. Her definition rests on two propositions:


1.   gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes;
2. gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.

It is the perception of difference that I want to focus on, particularly as it relates to biological knowledge.  I guess, what I’m talking about is the way sex is gendered (and, no, I’m not talking about doing the nasty).

Well, getting to the nasty, it was recently reported that scientists had bred “lesbian” fruit flies…on purpose!  (Scientists were able to do this with male fruit flies several years ago.)  This sent some gay folks into a tizzy, “See?  That’s further evidence it’s genetic.”

I don’t know what kinds of causal mechanisms have made it such that a male body sets me atingle while a female body does pretty much nothing for me.  I also don’t care.  I do, however, find the search for a biological cause to be fascinating.

At this point I’d like to return to the Fleck quote above.  In a culture such as the Sambia, where adult males force boys to perform fellatio and ingest semen as a part of their initiation rituals, (see Gil Herdt’s Guardians of the Flute) the idea that we would need to find a cause for the desire to engage in ingestive male-male fellatio would be ridiculous.  It isn’t desire, but necessity: the ingestion of semen allows the initiates to build up a store of it in their own bodies.  It is necessary to become a man. Our desire to find a “cause for homosexuality” comes from a different definition of homosexual behavior–for the Sambia, it’s a necessity for becoming a man, for us it is based in desire and helps define who we are as people. We’ve created a whole social type around it. (People in our society might also call the Sambia behavior child sexual abuse, which would lead us into another category of people-pedophiles….) Western biologic has conditioned us to look inside the body to determine why human behavior occurs.  Our cultural stock knowledge provides a base for scientific knowledge.

Often, when discussing male/female-related stuff, we make a distinction between sex and gender.  Sex is biology, gender is the social stuff that gets attached to sexed bodies.  However, what I want to bring into this conversation is something I learned from Anne Fausto-Sterling:  Sex is gendered.

The more we look for a simply physical basis for “sex,” the more it becomes clear that “sex” is not a pure physical category.  What bodily signals and functions we define as male or female come already entangled in our ideas about gender….Choosing which criteria to use in determining sex, and choosing to make the determination at all, are social decisions for which scientists can offer no absolute guidelines.  (pp. 4-5 in the hardcopy edition of Sexing the Body)

Most societies tend to recognize two sexes, while others have created more categories.  “Male” and “female” are categories imposed upon nature.  Nature itself has failed to make these categories exhaustive and exclusive.  Fausto-Sterlilng, in an “order-of-magnitude estimate” has calculated that about 1.7% of live births produce intersexed babies (pp. 51-3).

“So, what?” you might ask.  Well, for many folks born in these sexual interstices, the “so what” becomes surgical “correction”:

Enough is known about each of the four categories (true, male pseudo, female pseudo, and gonadal dysgenisis) to predict with considerable, although not complete, accuracy how the genitalia will develop as the child grows and whether the child will develop masculine or feminine traits at puberty.  Given such knowledge, medical managers employ the following rule: “Genetic females should always be raised as females, preserving reproductive potential, regardless of how severely the patients are virilized.  In the genetic male, however, the gender of assignment is based on the infants anatomy, predominantly the size of the phallus.

Doctors insist on two functional assessments of the adequacy of phallus size.  Young boys whould be able to pee standing up and thus to “feel normal” during little boy peeing contests; adult men, meanwhile, need a penis big enough for vaginal penetration during sexual intercourse.  (p. 57 in Fausto-Sterling).

If the phallus isn’t predicted to be large enough for those activities, off a part of it comes and a “clitoris” is constructed.  Note how the determination of which sex to make these folks is based on social considerations, particularly associated with pee-pee size.

It might be argued, however, that their gender is altered, their sex isn’t as they will remain genetically one or the other.  My only response would be this: depends which criteria you’re using to define sex. This brings us back to Lorraine’s original post and point Number 1–perceived differences between the sexes.  Which parts of the body matter?  The answer to that will vary as conditions merit.  Doctors may not be able to create a genetic female from a baby born genetically male, but they can make a genital one…sort of.

The dichotomous gender system we live with has other implications.  For instance, we often discuss such things as “sex” hormones as male (testosterone) and female (estrogen).  What we forget is that men and women both have these hormones circulating through their bodies…in varying concentrations.  Their association with sexual development may obscure the fact that “they can best be conceptualized as hormones that govern the process of cell growth, cell differentiation, cell physiology, and programmed cell death.  They are, in short, powerful growth hormones affecting most, if not all, of the body’s organ systems” (Fausto-Sterling, p. 193).  Likewise, when a new study comes out highlighting some difference between the sexes, “men, as a group, are more likely to be __ than women, as a group” becomes “men are more ___ than women.”  Statistical normality becomes categorical unity.  Variation among men and among women is rendered insignificant in relation to variation between men and women. Indeed, the focus on difference as a result of sex may obscure how those differences flow from other sources.  

Nature is more complex than our explanations of it will ever grasp, and the order we see in it is often an imposed one.  It may be impossible to untangle the ways that our gendered preconceptions affect biological explanations.  Can’t hurt to try, though.

Any thoughts?

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