Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sex, Gender, Sexuality: A Primer

We noticed that some people have a little trouble keeping some of these sex-and-gender things straight. So we went to a nice, succinct document, a professor's notes for a class on Gender and Language at Indiana University.
Sex

Sex is biologically founded.

A human female has 2 X chromosomes
A human male has 1 X and 1 Y chromosome
All embryos are identical for the first 8 weeks of gestation
Prenatal production of male hormones produces the male pattern

Absence of these male hormones produces the female pattern.

OK, that's easy, we can all go home now. Male and female, and never the twain shall meet.

Oh -- but wait, there's more:
Hermaphroditism or intersexuality

Definition: state of a person or animal whose sex is neither male nor female or both at the same time

Cause of intersexuality can be chromosomal or hormonal:
  • Some infants have a “mosaic” chromosome pattern: XY/XO
  • Some infants have XY cells but cannot process testosterone
  • Hormonal imbalances can masculinize the genitals of XX children
  • An inherited condition called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency triggers an apparent female-to-male sex change at puberty
[There's more in this section]

("Concerned" parents might note that the MCPS curriculum doesn't say anything about hermaphroditism.)
Gender

Definition: a socially-constructed notion of what is feminine and what is masculine

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1952, p. 267)

Sex is typically considered to be a binary category
...

Gender is a continuous category: a person can be more or less feminine or masculine
  • feminine
  • more feminine
  • most feminine
  • less feminine
  • least feminine
In our western societies, we tend/try to impose a binary categorization of gender

Now it seems to have gotten a little complicated. You are either a man or a woman, or in rare cases, a hermaphrodite of one or another sort. But whether you're a man or a woman, boy or girl, you can be more or less masculine, or more or less feminine. Really, it didn't take a professor to tell us that.

That last line might sound like one of those liberal-academic things, but it seems true, we tend to try to encourage boys to be more snips and snails, and girls to be more sugar and spice [stupid error edited out: JK], we do encourage the correlation of sex and gender. No big deal, not passing judgment on it, but, yeah, we do that here.

It's probably also worthwhile to note the "socially constructed" wording. In our society, it is feminine to wear make-up and carry purses, but there have been other societies where that was the masculine thing to do. They're saying these are not innate behaviors, but are taken from social norms and cues.
Sexuality

Definition: sexual attraction toward and activity with other human beings

Homosexuality: attraction toward members of the same sex

Heterosexuality: attraction toward members of the other sex

Bisexuality: attraction toward members of both sexes

All right, we can handle that. Three things. Even people who don't "believe in it" can understand that these things exist.

Finally, put 'em all together and whaddya got?
Sex, gender, and sexuality are 3 independent dimensions

All combinations are possible:
  • gays: effeminate vs. macho
  • lesbians: butch vs. femme (or lipstick)
  • heterosexual women and men can be more or less feminine, more or less masculine
  • how masculine or feminine a male or a female depends on which groups they belong to (e.g., working class vs. middle class, age)

It's not the only way in the world to look at these things, but really, it makes sense. I don't see any big gaps in it. Straight guys can be more masculine or less, and so can gay guys. Same thing for women, more or less feminine, straight or gay. It's all independent.

But look, according to this scheme, it's still impossible for a guy to be a lesbian.

(I don't know where this professor is going with that last part, maybe you have to take the class to find out.)

Some people find these three dimensions just totally mind-boggling, too much to understand.

What can hard about this?