„One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.“
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
In nature, male and female are distinct. She-elephants are gregarious, he-elephants solitary. Male zebra finches are loquacious – the females mute. Female green spoon worms are 200,000 times larger than their male mates. These striking differences are biological – yet they lead to differentiation in social roles and skill acquisition.
Alan Pease, author of a book titled „Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps“, believes that women are spatially-challenged compared to men. The British firm, Admiral Insurance, conducted a study of half a million claims. They found that „women were almost twice as likely as men to have a collision in a car park, 23 percent more likely to hit a stationary car, and 15 percent more likely to reverse into another vehicle“ (Reuters).
Yet gender „differences“ are often the outcomes of bad scholarship. Consider Admiral insurance’s data. As Britain’s Automobile Association (AA) correctly pointed out – women drivers tend to make more short journeys around towns and shopping centers and these involve frequent parking. Hence their ubiquity in certain kinds of claims. Regarding women’s alleged spatial deficiency, in Britain, girls have been outperforming boys in scholastic aptitude tests – including geometry and maths – since 1988.
In an Op-Ed published by the New York Times on January 23, 2005, Olivia Judson cited this example
„Beliefs that men are intrinsically better at this or that have repeatedly led to discrimination and prejudice, and then they’ve been proved to be nonsense. Women were thought not to be world-class musicians. But when American symphony orchestras introduced blind auditions in the 1970’s – the musician plays behind a screen so that his or her gender is invisible to those listening – the number of women offered jobs in professional orchestras increased. Similarly, in science, studies of the ways that grant applications are evaluated have shown that women are more likely to get financing when those reading the applications do not know the sex of the applicant.“
On the other wing of the divide, Anthony Clare, a British psychiatrist and author of „On Men“ wrote:
„At the beginning of the 21st century it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that men are in serious trouble. Throughout the world, developed and developing, antisocial behavior is essentially male. Violence, sexual abuse of children, illicit drug use, alcohol misuse, gambling, all are overwhelmingly male activities. The courts and prisons bulge with men. When it comes to aggression, delinquent behavior, risk taking and social mayhem, men win gold.“
Men also mature later, die earlier, are more susceptible to infections and most types of cancer, are more likely to be dyslexic, to suffer from a host of mental health disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and to commit suicide.
In her book, „Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man“, Susan Faludi describes a crisis of masculinity following the breakdown of manhood models and work and family structures in the last five decades. In the film „Boys don’t Cry“, a teenage girl binds her breasts and acts the male in a caricatural relish of stereotypes of virility. Being a man is merely a state of mind, the movie implies.
But what does it really mean to be a „male“ or a „female“? Are gender identity and sexual preferences genetically determined? Can they be reduced to one’s sex? Or are they amalgams of biological, social, and psychological factors in constant interaction? Are they immutable lifelong features or dynamically evolving frames of self-reference?
In the aforementioned New York Times Op-Ed, Olivia Judson opines:
„Many sex differences are not, therefore, the result of his having one gene while she has another. Rather, they are attributable to the way particular genes behave when they find themselves in him instead of her. The magnificent difference between male and female green spoon worms, for example, has nothing to do with their having different genes: each green spoon worm larva could go either way. Which sex it becomes depends on whether it meets a female during its first three weeks of life. If it meets a female, it becomes male and prepares to regurgitate; if it doesn’t, it becomes female and settles into a crack on the sea floor.“
Yet, certain traits attributed to one’s sex are surely better accounted for by the demands of one’s environment, by cultural factors, the process of socialization, gender roles, and what George Devereux called „ethnopsychiatry“ in „Basic Problems of Ethnopsychiatry“ (University of Chicago Press, 1980). He suggested to divide the unconscious into the id (the part that was always instinctual and unconscious) and the „ethnic unconscious“ (repressed material that was once conscious). The latter is mostly molded by prevailing cultural mores and includes all our defense mechanisms and most of the superego.
So, how can we tell whether our sexual role is mostly in our blood or in our brains?
The scrutiny of borderline cases of human sexuality – notably the transgendered or intersexed – can yield clues as to the distribution and relative weights of biological, social, and psychological determinants of gender identity formation.
The results of a study conducted by Uwe Hartmann, Hinnerk Becker, and Claudia Rueffer-Hesse in 1997 and titled „Self and Gender: Narcissistic Pathology and Personality Factors in Gender Dysphoric Patients“, published in the „International Journal of Transgenderism“, „indicate significant psychopathological aspects and narcissistic dysregulation in a substantial proportion of patients.“ Are these „psychopathological aspects“ merely reactions to underlying physiological realities and changes? Could social ostracism and labeling have induced them in the „patients“?
The authors conclude:
„The cumulative evidence of our study … is consistent with the view that gender dysphoria is a disorder of the sense of self as has been proposed by Beitel (1985) or Pfäfflin (1993). The central problem in our patients is about identity and the self in general and the transsexual wish seems to be an attempt at reassuring and stabilizing the self-coherence which in turn can lead to a further destabilization if the self is already too fragile. In this view the body is instrumentalized to create a sense of identity and the splitting symbolized in the hiatus between the rejected body-self and other parts of the self is more between good and bad objects than between masculine and feminine.“
Freud, Kraft-Ebbing, and Fliess suggested that we are all bisexual to a certain degree. As early as 1910, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld argued, in Berlin, that absolute genders are „abstractions, invented extremes“. The consensus today is that one’s sexuality is, mostly, a psychological construct which reflects gender role orientation.
Joanne Meyerowitz, a professor of history at Indiana University and the editor of The Journal of American History observes, in her recently published tome, „How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States“, that the very meaning of masculinity and femininity is in constant flux.
Transgender activists, says Meyerowitz, insist that gender and sexuality represent „distinct analytical categories“. The New York Times wrote in its review of the book: „Some male-to-female transsexuals have sex with men and call themselves homosexuals. Some female-to-male transsexuals have sex with women and call themselves lesbians. Some transsexuals call themselves asexual.“
So, it is all in the mind, you see.
This would be taking it too far. A large body of scientific evidence points to the genetic and biological underpinnings of sexual behavior and preferences.
The German science magazine, „Geo“, reported recently that the males of the fruit fly „drosophila melanogaster“ switched from heterosexuality to homosexuality as the temperature in the lab was increased from 19 to 30 degrees Celsius. They reverted to chasing females as it was lowered.
The brain structures of homosexual sheep are different to those of straight sheep, a study conducted recently by the Oregon Health & Science University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, revealed. Similar differences were found between gay men and straight ones in 1995 in Holland and elsewhere. The preoptic area of the hypothalamus was larger in heterosexual men than in both homosexual men and straight women.
According an article, titled „When Sexual Development Goes Awry“, by Suzanne Miller, published in the September 2000 issue of the „World and I“, various medical conditions give rise to sexual ambiguity. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), involving excessive androgen production by the adrenal cortex, results in mixed genitalia. A person with the complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) has a vagina, external female genitalia and functioning, androgen-producing, testes – but no uterus or fallopian tubes.
People with the rare 5-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome are born with ambiguous genitalia. They appear at first to be girls. At puberty, such a person develops testicles and his clitoris swells and becomes a penis. Hermaphrodites possess both ovaries and testicles (both, in most cases, rather undeveloped). Sometimes the ovaries and testicles are combined into a chimera called ovotestis.
Most of these individuals have the chromosomal composition of a woman together with traces of the Y, male, chromosome. All hermaphrodites have a sizable penis, though rarely generate sperm. Some hermaphrodites develop breasts during puberty and menstruate. Very few even get pregnant and give birth.
Anne Fausto-Sterling, a developmental geneticist, professor of medical science at Brown University, and author of „Sexing the Body“, postulated, in 1993, a continuum of 5 sexes to supplant the current dimorphism: males, merms (male pseudohermaphrodites), herms (true hermaphrodites), ferms (female pseudohermaphrodites), and females.
Intersexuality (hermpahroditism) is a natural human state. We are all conceived with the potential to develop into either sex. The embryonic developmental default is female. A series of triggers during the first weeks of pregnancy places the fetus on the path to maleness.
In rare cases, some women have a male’s genetic makeup (XY chromosomes) and vice versa. But, in the vast majority of cases, one of the sexes is clearly selected. Relics of the stifled sex remain, though. Women have the clitoris as a kind of symbolic penis. Men have breasts (mammary glands) and nipples.
The Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 edition describes the formation of ovaries and testes thus:
„In the young embryo a pair of gonads develop that are indifferent or neutral, showing no indication whether they are destined to develop into testes or ovaries. There are also two different duct systems, one of which can develop into the female system of oviducts and related apparatus and the other into the male sperm duct system. As development of the embryo proceeds, either the male or the female reproductive tissue differentiates in the originally neutral gonad of the mammal.“
Yet, sexual preferences, genitalia and even secondary sex characteristics, such as facial and pubic hair are first order phenomena. Can genetics and biology account for male and female behavior patterns and social interactions („gender identity“)? Can the multi-tiered complexity and richness of human masculinity and femininity arise from simpler, deterministic, building blocks?
Sociobiologists would have us think so.
For instance: the fact that we are mammals is astonishingly often overlooked. Most mammalian families are composed of mother and offspring. Males are peripatetic absentees. Arguably, high rates of divorce and birth out of wedlock coupled with rising promiscuity merely reinstate this natural „default mode“, observes Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. That three quarters of all divorces are initiated by women tends to support this view.
Furthermore, gender identity is determined during gestation, claim some scholars.
Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii and Dr. Keith Sigmundson, a practicing psychiatrist, studied the much-celebrated John/Joan case. An accidentally castrated normal male was surgically modified to look female, and raised as a girl but to no avail. He reverted to being a male at puberty.
His gender identity seems to have been inborn (assuming he was not subjected to conflicting cues from his human environment). The case is extensively described in John Colapinto’s tome „As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl“.
HealthScoutNews cited a study published in the November 2002 issue of „Child Development“. The researchers, from City University of London, found that the level of maternal testosterone during pregnancy affects the behavior of neonatal girls and renders it more masculine. „High testosterone“ girls „enjoy activities typically considered male behavior, like playing with trucks or guns“. Boys‘ behavior remains unaltered, according to the study.
Yet, other scholars, like John Money, insist that newborns are a „blank slate“ as far as their gender identity is concerned. This is also the prevailing view. Gender and sex-role identities, we are taught, are fully formed in a process of socialization which ends by the third year of life. The Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 edition sums it up thus:
„Like an individual’s concept of his or her sex role, gender identity develops by means of parental example, social reinforcement, and language. Parents teach sex-appropriate behavior to their children from an early age, and this behavior is reinforced as the child grows older and enters a wider social world. As the child acquires language, he also learns very early the distinction between „he“ and „she“ and understands which pertains to him- or herself.“
So, which is it – nature or nurture? There is no disputing the fact that our sexual physiology and, in all probability, our sexual preferences are determined in the womb. Men and women are different – physiologically and, as a result, also psychologically.
Society, through its agents – foremost amongst which are family, peers, and teachers – represses or encourages these genetic propensities. It does so by propagating „gender roles“ – gender-specific lists of alleged traits, permissible behavior patterns, and prescriptive morals and norms. Our „gender identity“ or „sex role“ is shorthand for the way we make use of our natural genotypic-phenotypic endowments in conformity with social-cultural „gender roles“.
Inevitably as the composition and bias of these lists change, so does the meaning of being „male“ or „female“. Gender roles are constantly redefined by tectonic shifts in the definition and functioning of basic social units, such as the nuclear family and the workplace. The cross-fertilization of gender-related cultural memes renders „masculinity“ and „femininity“ fluid concepts.
One’s sex equals one’s bodily equipment, an objective, finite, and, usually, immutable inventory. But our endowments can be put to many uses, in different cognitive and affective contexts, and subject to varying exegetic frameworks. As opposed to „sex“ – „gender“ is, therefore, a socio-cultural narrative. Both heterosexual and homosexual men ejaculate. Both straight and lesbian women climax. What distinguishes them from each other are subjective introjects of socio-cultural conventions, not objective, immutable „facts“.
In „The New Gender Wars“, published in the November/December 2000 issue of „Psychology Today“, Sarah Blustain sums up the „bio-social“ model proposed by Mice Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and a former student of his, Wendy Wood, now a professor at the Texas A&M University:
„Like (the evolutionary psychologists), Eagly and Wood reject social constructionist notions that all gender differences are created by culture. But to the question of where they come from, they answer differently: not our genes but our roles in society. This narrative focuses on how societies respond to the basic biological differences – men’s strength and women’s reproductive capabilities – and how they encourage men and women to follow certain patterns.
‚If you’re spending a lot of time nursing your kid‘, explains Wood, ‚then you don’t have the opportunity to devote large amounts of time to developing specialized skills and engaging tasks outside of the home‘. And, adds Eagly, ‚if women are charged with caring for infants, what happens is that women are more nurturing. Societies have to make the adult system work [so] socialization of girls is arranged to give them experience in nurturing‘.
According to this interpretation, as the environment changes, so will the range and texture of gender differences. At a time in Western countries when female reproduction is extremely low, nursing is totally optional, childcare alternatives are many, and mechanization lessens the importance of male size and strength, women are no longer restricted as much by their smaller size and by child-bearing. That means, argue Eagly and Wood, that role structures for men and women will change and, not surprisingly, the way we socialize people in these new roles will change too. (Indeed, says Wood, ’sex differences seem to be reduced in societies where men and women have similar status,‘ she says. If you’re looking to live in more gender-neutral environment, try Scandinavia.)“