Readings in Sex and Gender

There have been plenty of people who appear to want education and/or debate on the topics of sex and gender recently. I’m not going to give you debate, in part because this isn’t my field. I don’t know enough to make any debate produce anything useful.

Education, however, I can help with. If you want to understand sex, gender, and how debates over both have been used against trans people, you’d do worse than to read these free, online resources. And even if you do want debate, you want to be debating from a place of education, right?

I suggest starting with a couple of posts at Skepchick written specifically to educate in the current situation. They’re aimed at giving you specifically the background you need for current events.

Let’s Talk About Gender, Baby” by Will is a primer on some of the terms you’ll see in this debate and what they mean in the context of gender theory. See “essentialism” and “social construction”, for example:

So we have these two camps that view the world in very different ways. How does this play out with gender? The example I use when teaching this distinction in anthropology courses is “gays in Ancient Greece.” An essentialist would argue that there were gays in Ancient Greece because there have always been men who are attracted to/have sex with other men, and we can see the evidence of these relationships in the archaeological record. Here, “gay” is used as a self-evidently simple word to describe any male-male same-sex relations. A social constructionist, on the other hand, would argue that “gay” is a historically and culturally specific term and that its meaning is not so self-evident; further, the forms of same-sex relationships between male-bodied people in Ancient Greece were not the same as they are in contemporary Euroamerican contexts. Those relationships were based on an active/passive understanding of sex and centered around age and status rather than gender. Thus, under a social constructionist view, there were no “gays” in Ancient Greece even if there were romantic and erotic relations between male-bodied people.

There’s a reading list attached to this post as well, though the recommended reading there is in book form. For more on common misconceptions/outdated ideas about sex and gender, you may also want to check out a couple of older posts from Will, “Why Gender Differences Don’t Matter (and Other Myths)” and “Gender is Complicated (and Other Breaking News)“. They’re both written in response to specific articles, but they do a good job of catching people up on the difference between what “everybody (educated) knows” about gender and the actual research and academic theory of the last few decades.

From Veronica comes “The Troubles with Gender“. This covers a small amount of the same turf as Will’s post, but its focus is on how misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the current theoretical understand of gender interact with prejudices against trans people.

In terms of transgender people – who at the time were forced to conform to the ideology of a largely heteronormative and patriarchal medical community – many feminists viewed trans women as the embodiment of gender stereotypes and gender construction. Trans women became a convenient target, being a highly marginalised group with little opportunity to respond. The deliberate demonisation of transgender people from feminists like Janice Raymond have had disastrous consequences for the availability of necessary medical care in especially the US.

There are a number of good links on how the complexity of both sex and gender far outstrips anything our labels can deal with in Veronica’s post. For example, there is “Sex redefined” by Claire Ainsworth in Nature, which goes into ways that people’s sex can be less than straightforward, even for people who would be in no way considered intersex. One fun example:

Microchimaeric cells have been found in many tissues. In 2012, for example, immunologist Lee Nelson and her team at the University of Washington in Seattle found XY cells in post-mortem samples of women’s brains15. The oldest woman carrying male DNA was 94 years old. Other studies have shown that these immigrant cells are not idle; they integrate into their new environment and acquire specialized functions, including (in mice at least) forming neurons in the brain16. But what is not known is how a peppering of male cells in a female, or vice versa, affects the health or characteristics of a tissue — for example, whether it makes the tissue more susceptible to diseases more common in the opposite sex. “I think that’s a great question,” says Nelson, “and it is essentially entirely unaddressed.” In terms of human behaviour, the consensus is that a few male microchimaeric cells in the brain seem unlikely to have a major effect on a woman.

There is also this interview with philosopher Judith Butler about the way her examination of the performative nature of gender has been used by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) to pit cis women against trans women.

If she makes use of social construction as a theory to support her view, she very badly  misunderstands its terms.  In her view, a trans person is “constructed” by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct.  But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions  – or norms – that help to form us.  We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones.  For instance, gender assignment is a “construction” and yet many genderqueer and trans people refuse those assignments in part or in full.  That refusal opens the way for a more radical form of self-determination, one that happens in solidarity with others who are undergoing a similar struggle.

While that interview quotes some TERFs on their views of gender as it relates to transgender people, it doesn’t go over the uses their theories have been put to. For a good overview on that, I recommend Juliet Jacques’ “On the ‘dispute’ between radical feminists and trans people“. Part I of the article is personal. The history starts with Part II.

It might be tempting to read the above, think that identity politics are ridiculous and write it off as an interminable spat between two minority groups. Inclusion within feminist spaces is not the most pressing issues for trans people – access to medical services, relationships with family, friends and co-workers, institutional and social violence, and housing discrimination remain more important today, as in the 1970s – but it becomes a bigger deal when debates about trans people which exclude trans people are then allowed to influence related health and social care policies. In 1980, the National Center for Healthcare Technology commissioned Janice Raymond to write a paper entitled Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery to help them make evidence-based decisions on the efficacy of treatments.

It’s always a good day when I can pull out and share an old essay from Natalie Reed. She’s moved on and is further complicating many of the idea she shared when she blogged here, but her older stuff still strikes a great balance between complexity and accessible for people looking to be educated on a topic. For example, take this post on male and female socialization from a trans perspective.

Growing up amidst male socialization when one’s gender identity is not consistent with it is a horrifying and traumatic experience. Nothing about it is in any way a privilege, and one does not internalize or adapt to it in a manner at all similar to how a cis man does. Rather than it being a means through which one develops confidence and a sense of power and entitlement, eventually taking one’s vantage point for granted, it is instead a painful, self-erasing performance one has been forced to adopt. One has a constant inner checklist of the behaviours and mannerisms you’re supposed to display in order to avoid being seen as girly and consequently ridiculed or beaten up. Instead of gaining the benefits of being the “superior” class within our cultural gender dynamics, you’re instead experiencing an extremely harsh, constraining prison of gender’s unspoken rules and regulations. Instead of internalizing a sense of being the default, favoured, normal gender, you internalize scripts, shame, self-hatred and the need to police your own gender- police your expression, your personality, your interests, the ways in which you interact with others, anything that could end up with you getting “caught” and revealing how you’re not normal, you’re inferior, broken and wrong.

By the way, if anyone has a good link critiquing the “shared girlhood” trope from a non-white perspective, I would love to add it here. My favorite, from Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous, is now only available in book form.

Back on the question of what gender is, Zinnia Jones has been running a great series of videos (all with transcripts), called Gender Analysis. Particularly relevant to this topic is the latest, “How Do You Know What It’s Like to Be…?

It turns out that many are looking for exactly that excuse. When trans children come out as girls or boys, they’re often met with the most bizarre objections – from conservatives who lazily retort, ‘oh, well some kids want to be firetrucks when they grow up’, and so-called ethicists who blather about children who like to pretend to be train engines. Now, if you’re aware that half the human population isn’t firetrucks, being a woman isn’t really like being a freight train, and children have examples of boys and girls all around them, the analogy kind of falls apart. But I guess not all cis people can wrap their heads around that.

That seems like a good start. What other specific, related topics would people like resources on? I’m not going to post anything on the “transracial” question because the dialogue on that hasn’t even started to settle on terms, much less had a chance to test any of the resulting theories, but I can probably find decent resources for a lot of other relevant, recent questions on this.

Readings in Sex and Gender

6 thoughts on “Readings in Sex and Gender

  1. 1

    “Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children” – Diane Ehrensaft PhD

    Fantastic book for parents (I’d recommend for even new parents; our lives would’ve been easier with this information on hand from the get-go).

  2. AMM

    Wow! That Natalie Reed quote really says what I’ve always felt.

    The only differences are (a) I didn’t have a female gender identity. I didn’t have much of a gender identity at all, and (b) getting “caught” was a moot point — I couldn’t make myself do all the shit that I was told I had to do anyway, so I mostly lived with being continually told what a freak, a queer, and a failure at being a boy I was.

    I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the people in whose power I grew up had said, “you’re a boy, now go on playing and liking and acting whatever way you like.” Maybe I wouldn’t be trans — which is to say, that who and what I was would have simply been yet another way to be a (cis-)boy.

  3. 5

    I did this little thing about sex and gender back in the day, but unfortunately I decided to focus more on intersex instead of trans* people. Still, I don’t mind raiding my citation list for some goodies on sex and gender, in general.

    Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, 1990.

    An excellent historic overview of how we viewed sex and gender, though I hear it’s a bit of minority viewpoint.

    Woolley, Helen Thompson. “A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex.” Psychological Bulletin 7.10 (1910): 335.

    Yep, 1910. Helen Woolley was a pioneer in this field, though certainly not the first (Havelock Ellis is earlier but worth checking out, if only because I just noticed he did early work on homosexuality and trans* people). It’s interesting to compare and contrast historic views of sex to our own, hence these two citations.

    Hyde, Janet Shibley. “The gender similarities hypothesis.” American psychologist 60.6 (2005): 581.

    Hyde’s somewhat conservative, as she buys into the sex/gender divide, but there’s a reason I keep quoting her work over and over and over again. This paper is her most famous.

    And while they folded in 2008, the Intersex Society of North America has a fabulous FAQ covering the issues around intersex people.

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