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delirium happy

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In which rho plays amateur biologist and amateur gender theorist
delirium happy
This was originally a comment that I left in reply to another comment in a third person's (friends only) LJ entry, but I figured that it would work as an LJ entry too. I was replying to the statement "Gender is a social construct."

Not really.

You're confusing two different things here. Societal gender roles and innate internal gender. The former is things like "boys like blue and wear trousers, girls like pink and wear skirts". These sort of things are entirely made up by society and anyone who tries claiming that they're just the natural order of things needs a swift slap in the face.

But then there are parts of gender that are "real". Men and women are different. That's a somewhat politically controversial statement these days, but it really shouldn't be. People took the message "men aren't any better than women" (good) and managed to twist that into "men and women are the same" (bad).

If you just think of it from a biological/evolutionary standpoint, then of course there are going to be differences. The physiological differences are clearly going to lead to different selective pressures. For instance, in reproduction, women spend 9 months pregnant, whereas men spend 2 minutes getting their load off. Women therefore have a lot more invested in the child than men, and therefore tend to be more nurturing.

Sure, society now is set up so that there's pair bonding, and men have a large investment in their children too, but there's millions of years of evolutionary weight behind things. And sure, there are exceptions to the rules, but statistically speaking, male and female brains are distributed about different means.

If you're interested in this sort of thing, I recommend the book The Red Queen by Matt Ridley, which is a popular science account of how sex has influenced the evolution of human nature.

As for how this fits in with transgender issues, just remember that the brain is a very complex organ. As I understand it (and I'm not a developmental biologist) there are small structural differences between a male brain and a a female brain, and these are caused by in-utero hormonal balance, rather than by the foetus's genes. That there exist people where that balance is disturbed slightly, and they end up with some behavioural characteristics of the other gender is not surprising.

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Julia Serano dealt with this fairly well in "Wipping Girl", and rather conveniently she happens to be a biologist by trade :P

Rather than talking about "biological differences" between male and female, she focused upon the effects of the various sex hormones. From a trans perspective, this is by far the safer route to follow (since whilst brain differences could exist, the evidence actually points against it being highly visible and the whole area is potentially highly dividing), and it is often the effects of these hormones that certain feminists wish to talk about (rather than inherent differences, since they can deny those but they then have to deal with hormonal differences). Julia talks about how anyone who has been on hormones can tell that they do make a difference, but also how other aspects of gender are socially constructed (e.g. colours - pink used to be manly, btw) or reinforced (compassion and emotionality).

I'm less concerned with what's safe than with what is. I'm not claiming that what I'm suggesting is necessarily right, mind. I'm far from an expert, and I think there's disagreement even among people who are experts, so what chance do I have? that said though, I'm not the sort who would look to hide away from a possible explanation just because it's potentially awkward. If it's true, it's true.

It's like the issue of whether homosexuality is a choice or something that people are born with. Some people tend to push for the second option, not because of any scientific evidence, but because they fins it politically expedient, and I think that that's dangerous. If the gay rights movement is built on the premise that gay people should have rights because they can't help who they are, then there'd be massive problems if it later turned out that that wasn't the case. (Not that I think that's likely, but that's the sort of risk you take if you value expediency and safety over truth.)

It's the same with transgender issues. People should have the right to do what they want to their body, and to identify as they see fit, not because of any particular scientific reason why that sort of thing makes sense, but just because that's what people should be able to do, damnit.

The reason your passing mention caused me to criticise was because of the whole mess that the HBS people are causing. They base their own little crusade upon the brain differences theory, you see, and use it as an excuse for their hypocritical and occasionally transphobic actions ¬.¬

I'm not familiar with any of that. I don't tend to follow the trans community and related goings on. I mean, I see bits of it from time to time, but I don't go out of my way to keep up with it, so I miss a lot.

The problem I have with the statement "men and women are different" is that it excludes those whose behaviour and neurology don't adhere to that prescribed to their gender, but who in no way identify as the opposite gender. If there are a significant number of women who through this in-utero hormonal imbalance end up with certain behavioural characteristics, then why are these characteristics inherently "male" and vice-versa? Why are they simply not "testosterone-based characteristics" and "estrogen-based characteristics"? I think trans people are the last who would claim that biology is identity.

To me it's analogous to claiming that I must be black because I have afro-textured hair. Yes, the majority of those with afro-textured hair are black, but there is a population with that characteristic who are not - and a population of black people who do not have it. Therefore, while you can certainly make generalizations or set up a mental construct in the form of a spectrum, if you say: "Black people are white people are physiologically different; black people have nappy hair and white people don't", there's a little bit of right and a whole lot of wrong.

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Yeah, I like this. As far as transgender stuff is concerned, I don't think the "gender is a social construct" argument really holds up. If it is, then why would you want to change sex? I do believe there are subtleties about men and women that the other can't entirely grasp, no matter how many hormones they take...

Are you familiar with the case of David Reimer? I think that that has an awful lot to teach us.

Well, sure men and women are different. Men are taller than women, for start.

Except, of course, that as you're dealing with large groups, you'll find that many men are smaller than the average woman, and many woman are taller than the average man. Which doesn't exactly blow the statement "men are taller than women" out of the water, but it does mean it's totally unreliable for predicting the height of any individual man or woman.

And when it comes to make statements like "women tend to be more nurturing" - those are very difficult statements to make. We don't *know* how much of this thing is because of innate difference, and how much is because of culture. And people will swear until they're blue in the face that they don't treat their sons and daughters differently, but the fact is that people *do* lift blue-dressed babies up more and swing them around more, and they *do* talk more and use a large vocabulary with pink-dressed babies. And while I don't know about any studies on the subject, I can tell you that my own observation is that they notice their girls playing with dolls, and encourage this - but they don't do that with their boys. And you can sit there and point out to them that their son is, in fact, playing with dolls and bottlefeeding them and acting just like any girl, and they just don't see it.

This is true. We don't know. I don't know of any proper, controlled, scientific studies on this, with a large enough sample size for the results to be significantly significant.

I'd be exceedingly surprised if there wasn't some element of nature and some element of nurture involved, because there always is with everything, but the exact ratio of one to the other is pure speculation. My own personal speculation, though, is that nature plays a large role. It's only anecdotal, admittedly, but I find the David Reimer case remarkably instructive, for instance.

I know of the David Reimer case. I read his book a while back.

As I recall, though, not only did he have his penis cut off but he spent his childhood in very questionable "therapy" designed to teach him how to be a girl. (Seriously, when I read the book, what he described as therapy struck me more like child abuse - and wikipedia confirms this.) Now we're back to wondering how much of his life was strange because he was really a boy, and how much of his life was strange because of the very strange circumstances he grew up in. I mean, quite honestly, going in for "therapy" to make me act like a girl before it even becomes evident that I might *not* act like a girl seems to be the sort of thing to really reinforce feelings that maybe I'm a boy. (As, of course, he was.)

Wow... that really would have messed me up. My gender issues were fairly minor, but I wasn't convinced I was really female until I started menstruating. Had people been trying to teach me to be female, then I probably would have had huge issues with it. And I am, as far as I am aware, a biological female who prefers being female and self-identifies as... nothing gender related. I can't bring myself to self-identify as a woman, but man is even worse. I can sort of self-identify as female.

Therapy to push me into being more feminine... yuck!

You can't ethically do a proper controlled study. You'd need to raise humans from birth in controlled environments kept away from society. Even then, it'd be hellishly hard to find a way to keep the experimenters from knowing what they were doing to keep them from biasing it. You just can't study it as rigorously as you'd need to to get definitive answers.

We make do with the bits and pieces we can obtain in an ethical and practical matter.

As I recall David Reimer was raised as male for 18 months before John Money's 'treatment' began, then basically institutionally abused. So the whole thing is a really bad case study for either side of the nature/nurture debate, especially given the clear evidence that people treat babies significantly differently depending on what gender they think they are.

All the studies I've seen about gender are horrendously poor science with clear bias. It's really annoying. I also doubt studies that find no difference between genders tend to get published (or at least publicised).

To be honest, I'd suspect that studies that find no difference would be more likely to get publicised, since they go against conventional wisdom. A scientific result that questions the status quo tends to be more interesting than one that says "yep, still right".

By contrast, I suspect that studies that support the status quo are more likely to get published. People say they want news, but what they really crave is olds, and all that.

It's telling that articles about these brand spanking new studies always tout that they're "overturning conventional wisdom" or that these results are "despite feminism" and such and fuch.

To be honest, I'm really not sure what the culture around social sciences is. I know that in physics, new results are much more interesting, exciting and prestigious than old ones, which is what I was basing my assumption on. Psychology could be completely different, though.

I was mostly referring to the popular press, I have a saved search on Google News that dredges up new senationalist reporting of 'a study' that confirms that men and women are very different just about every day.

The tabloids exist to confirm people's prejudices not to challenge them, and they say a lot about gender in our society (and lots of other things for that matter).

Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

Gender is a social construct in as much as the presumed relationship between [socially defined] gender [roles/behaviours] and biological sex is a fantasy. However, gender identity, as constructed on a personal internal level is an entirely genuine experience, and whilst social notions of what gender *is* informs how we define that gender identity society does not create a gender *in* us.

You can't talk about this without invoking Judith Butler and the assertion that "there is no gender, there are only gender performances", but that often gets misinterpreted/taken out of context, when all she means is there is no self-representation which can exist outside of the gendered system of classification which society has defined. IMO, individuals do have a 'core' or 'innate' identity, but it is society which imposes the classification of that nature as masculine, or feminine. With that innate identity comes a notion of what body is 'right' for how your brain sees itself, the fact a bio female body is the 'right' one (i.e. the one that feels right, not necessarily the one you are born with) for most people who have a [socially defined-]feminine gender identity is almost incidental.

Society defines what is femme, what is masc, it places emphasis on that being connected to the 'correct' biological body and it attempts to socialise male children as masculine and female children as feminine but that social pressure doesn't change an individual's insitinctive feeling of one body being right, and another being wrong - it (society) simply describes the trans experience by citing gender, if gender didn't exist we'd be describing it by looking at chemicals in the brain or something else entirely.

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

Don't apologise, I find it all fascinating. I've never studied gender theory on a formal basis. My entire knowledge comes from arguing about it on the Internet.

What you're saying makes sense to me. I think that gender is a convenient label for a bunch of different traits. Our personalities and natures are made up of a bunch of different aspects, obviously, and I see gender as being about how these different aspects correlate with each other. "Maleness" is a shorthand way of saying that promiscuity, aggression, spacial awareness, etc. tend to come together. That's not to say that they always correlate and that if someone has good spacial awareness then they must be aggressive, but that it's statistically more likely that they will be.

We have our innate internal identities, as you say, which are what they are, independent of gender. We then have the societal concept of gender which tries to group a list of similar natures together, in an attempt to be able to convey a lot of information in a short description.

It's all very complicated, though like I said, fascinating.

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

It is absolutely fascinating. The best thing I can recommend to read is Butler's Gender Trouble, but it is pretty hard going/very high end theory. I'm well into my MA *on* this and I still struggle to read her stuff. Indeed, when she published Gender Trouble some key points were widely misinterpreted by academics, prompting her to write a new preface and a second book looking almost entirely at trans issues - something that was particularly misinterpreted, it's called Bodies That Matter and is slightly easier to read.

There is a reasonable overview of Gender Trouble on this page; http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-butl.htm But Butler's book is very tight *and* very complicated so no summaries really cover everything/explain it as well as she does. It's definitely worth a read, but if you do decide to, take it really slow - 5 pages a day is more than enough if you are reading for fun!

The thing with Butler is that to really start talking about the social construction of gender, you need to read her, because most of the contemporary debates around gender stem from her text. A lot of people do say 'gender is socially constructed' and assume that means gender doesn't exist, which is just silly, because you can *see* that gender exists in examples like the ones you cite - blue is for boys. A really concise example of gender as social construct is in an examination of the song lyric "you make me feel like a natural woman". The condition 'like a' is the key thing, you can never be a natural woman because 'woman' is a composite of lots of socially inscribed modes of behaviour, appearance and ideals - there is no natural gender, there are only lots of ways of being feminine, or even more generally - ways of being human. We can all act in ways which mark us as female - we could all wear a skirt, for example, but those ways of acting do not make us, at our core, the same, if we can't be the same then nobody can fully embody what 'woman' is supposed to be.

Judith Halberstam has also written some interesting, easy[/easier] to read books - Female Masculinity in particular is a great text.

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

*there is no natural, coherent and whole gender [gender, in this case, being the unified male/female dicotomy of socially defined gender]

Ugh. There are always so many conditionals when talking about this stuff!

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

A lot of what Butler seems to be doing here from your description is inappropriately collecting into a single identity several separate concepts. It appears that clothing preferences, behaviour, feelings, and so on are all being merged into a single term 'gender'.

It is unclear if your talk of innate identity encompasses only internal physical identity (including body shape and coordination), or also natural behavioural patterns. From your second reply it seems like anything aside from the flesh is surmised to have to originate solely from society, a concept which to me is quite baffling (for both body and society must obviously play a part).

Furthermore, I'm once again alarmed by the apparent focus on deconstructing femininity. Whilst this may not be the intent, the choice of language implies an underlying influence.

I would strongly recommend you read Julia Serano's "Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity". Whilst it does focus upon trans theory (and is a must-read for any trans woman in particular), it does have some excellent chapters looking at gender theory and feminism.

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

Furthermore, I'm once again alarmed by the apparent focus on deconstructing femininity.

While I only speak for myself here, I suspect that much the same would be true of smallblakflower as well.

I would tend to refer to myself, somewhat tongue in cheek, as a snobby pretentious intellectual. When I was young, I was always one of those obnoxious little children who was always asking "but why?" Every answer that I heard just brought up another question I wanted to know the answer to. I haven't really changed at all since.

I like to deconstruct things because I get a huge intellectual kick out of it. Knowing how things work is pretty much my single biggest driving force in life.

There's a phrase that Richard Dawkins likes to use a lot: "You can't get an ought from an is". When I deconstruct things, it's because I like to figure out how they work, and definitely not because I want to use that knowledge to dictate to other people. If someone says to me "no, that doesn't tally with my experience at all" then I won't say "the you must be doing it wrong" or "then you're not a real $whatever". I'l more likely say "can you explain your experience to me so I can modify my model?" or "well if that works for you and makes you happy, then that's great".

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

I'm sorry, perhaps I should have been more clear...

In the vast majority of publicly known gender studies work, the only aspect focused upon is femininity. Masculinity rarely gets considered.

The manner in which many such works investigate gives us the other meaning of "deconstruct" - to destroy. It is often the intent of the deconstruction of femininity to find within it flaws and reasons it is 'unnatural'. Femininity has in every respect became a scapegoat for the gender studies community and certain branches of feminism.

Rarely do you ever hear about how Masculinity is deconstructed, and it is rarely used for such examples. Note how the expression "feel like a natural woman" was used, for example, or how smallblakflower talked about lots of ways of being feminine. Although they then clarified it to "lots of ways of being human", no specific mention of masculinity was made.

Julia Serano said this all far better than I could. The dislike of femininity by the academic and radfem communities clearly shows the ironic extent of misogyny within modern society. Seriously, read her book, it is a must-read!

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

It's a tricky one. Masculinity is, in many ways, the "default" in our society. There's been a lot of talk recently on LJ about male privilege and how it can manifest in subtle ways, and this isn't a bad example. The fact that the male perspective is the default one is a type of male privilege, I think.

However, going from there is tricky. If people are pointing out the ways in which femininity is different, then it could be for any one of a number of reasons. It could be that you're trying to promote the virtue of those changes, and establish a stronger shared feminine identity. It could be that you're being dismissive and saying "this is different and hence worse". Or it could simply be an academic exercise.

I don't think that the problem is with people picking out femininity to analyse; I think the problem is the underlying structure of society that leads to that being the easier option.

(Disclaimer: I really don't actually know what I'm talking about here.)

I'll probably check the book out at some point; I've seen others speak well of it too.

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

Oops, quite late to the party here, but...

Rho is absolutely correct, I also deconstruct things for the joy of seeing its workings. Moreover, I think there is so much to be gained from a feminist and queer perspective in that by exposing how notions of femininity and masculinity are maintained it is possible to present new ways of thinking about gender, and by extension sexuality, which are targeted at the heart of

I disagree quite strongly with your statement that masculinity is rarely deconstructed/considered. I write this from a queer theory background and a huge focus is on all constructions and performances of gender. A big reason for this is that socially defined 'incorrect' masculinity is often a big reason for homophobia and general discrimination against 'effeminate' men. Moreover, within the heterosexual matrix, it is 'incorrect' masculinity that is most frequently sought out and attempts made to 'correct' it. Masculinity is in as great a need of deconstructing as femininity and Butler and others do not ignore it, I apologise if my previous comments were misleading in that sense. My comments also focused on feminity and its deconstruction because when I wrote these comments I was midway through writing a paper on the female Sublime so I was intellectually very invested in looking at why femininity is not given the same status as masculinity in the Romantic period.

It is unclear if your talk of innate identity encompasses only internal physical identity (including body shape and coordination), or also natural behavioural patterns. From your second reply it seems like anything aside from the flesh is surmised to have to originate solely from society, a concept which to me is quite baffling (for both body and society must obviously play a part)
Just to clarify in response to your comment above, the innate identity I was talking about is an incomplete idea I have myself, I can't explain it better than I did and I am more than happy to have challenges/suggestions to develop the definition I have in my head. The second reply is more based on Butler/gender theory, what I was trying to say is that gender is inscribed on the body by society, to say that notions of gender wholly originate from the 'fact' of biological sex is problematic as biological sex is not an unbiased system of classifcation - not that I am saying biological sex is a lie, but there is more going on with medical classifications than it first appears (see Laqueur's 'Making Sex'). There is a complex interplay between the sexed body and gender and my comments are quite reductive, what is key, in my opinion, is that how we view gender, how we view people who 'transgress' gender roles in anyway, and how we view what - for example - a penis means for who the person is attached to it - is influenced heavily by the socially inscribed definitions of femininity and masculinity.

Re: Sorry, I can't resist talking about gender stuff...

Thanks for the book recommendations. I'll check them out at some point, I think. And thanks also for putting up with my uneducated fumblings at the issue. :)

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