Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Sunday, April 19, 2009

“Opposite” Sexes?

There is an ancient myth in our culture that men and women belong to "opposite" sexes. Based on this myth, our culture assigns men and women – and masculinity and femininity – to opposite qualities and characteristics. Under this paradigm, because men and masculinity are strong, women and femininity are weak. Because men and masculinity are rational, women and femininity are irrational.

This model is not only flawed, it is completely wrong. If masculinity and femininity were opposites, why (and how) would they be expressed in differing degrees in each individual? Most men have some feminine traits to some extent, and most women have some masculine traits. The reason these traits are assigned a value according to sex is that they are expressed more often and to a more intense extent in one sex than the other. Many of these traits are influenced by hormones, and everyone has them. For example, men usually do have greater physical strength than women, thanks to the upper body muscle mass induced by greater amounts of testosterone. However, it takes great strength to give birth, not to mention the other aspects of strength women show – endurance, flexibility, courage, etc.

The "opposite sex" model is not biological, it is political. Notice that in every case, masculinity is assigned to a higher value. It is a means to support and perpetuate a patriarchy that disempowers women and enables a monopoly on power for men. It's time to subscribe to a new paradigm. Men and women, masculinity and femininity, are complementary and equally valuable aspects of our humanity. Both are necessary to be completely human. And femininity should be celebrated and enjoyed by feminism and feminists, just as masculinity is in our culture.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


Who started the "opposite sex" idea in the first place?

*above comment edited for language.

Seda said...

Mysogynistic men who wanted to disempower women. Who else?

David Carrel said...

I think you are right about being equally valued and complementary. But I do think that we do have separate roles that have been given to us.
Also, I think that the role of mother has been devalued in our society. This role is just as important as any job and I do not think that a woman should be looked down at if she stays at home as a mother; it is equally needed.

anne said...

Hey girl!

Whoa--I'm keen to put some distance between me and the "opposite" sex. Kristin and I both agreed that we liked beards (found them attractive.) I like beards because I like men for men. It has nothing to do with individual men, but I find beards attractive, but children and women don't have them. To me, a clean-shaven man looks fem or like a boy.

Most men like stuff about women that is different from the men they know: hips, breasts, smaller shoulders and hands, etc. Or so they say.

But I think what you mean is where the stereotypes? We tend to put other people in boxes, too. Irish redheads have tempers. French people are sensual. Spaniards are macho. Intellectuals are whimpy. Rich people are greedy. Beautiful people are vain. Loud people are boors, etc., etc. Children should be stupider than adults, but many of them are not. Women should be weaker than men, but many of them are not.

Fashions in what is womanly change from country to country. In the Mid-East is is male to have strong emotions and cry and such and feminine to be stoic. It's also a class thing--the Victorian ladies were supposed to faint and be all weak and soft-spoke, but Victorian farm women were none of this and not expected to be.

But the opposite sex thing is a sticky meme (social idea) and we tend to look for traits in the opposite sex that confirm their sexuality if we are looking for a sex partner of the opposite sex! Men might like women of all sorts but only be attracted to a certain kind of woman who fits their idea of the "opposite" sex. But this breaks down pretty fast.

Actually, I think the whole thing is driven by education. When teaching a young child, you say "this is a cow: moooo." And there is a cow, recognizably a cow. And this is a dog: bark, bark! And this is the mom and this is the dad and this is Johnny and this is Mary and to distinguish between them, mom has an apron and dad has a briefcase and Mary a dress and Johnny shorts and a fishing pole.

Only the babies are just babies. If we ran around naked, boys and girls would know men and women from their "opposite" genitalia, regardless of that person's persuasion or where they were going with sexual issues.

No man ever mistook me for another man, but kids often fought about whether I was a man or woman.

I don't think it's the misogynistic men who wanted to disempower women, Seda, I think it was the governesses and moms who wanted to teach their children the difference, as if it mattered. But it mattered to the kids if a man was a cop or a fireman or a farmer, too. I think it's a matter of teaching children the boxes rather than reality. I also think it comes from books rather than reality.

If a mom is out on the street and the kid says, "who is that?" mom says "that's a fireman." But pointing out in a book, the illustrators have to make things stereotyped even more.

But straight people tend to look for the current stereotypes in their mates, too. As well as other things, like I don't feel comfortable with men shorter than I am unless they're just friends. I don't find them attractive, but I do find men attractive if they are taller than I am. Go figure.

I think it's a can of worms, Seda. But I suspect it starts with that Richard Scary book where all the people are animals and can only be distinguished by costume.

Well, women can wear pants now. So it's not as bad as it might be. But can men wear skirts? Maybe the gender boxes are to trap the men rather than disempower the women...

food for thought,


Seda said...

You're absolutely right that we have different roles assigned, David. Women bear children and nurse them; men don't. Everything else is pretty much cultural or on a continuum. I know a few men who are better mothers than some women, and it goes on and on. That doesn't make the sexes opposites.

I also agree that the role of mother has been devalued, and that's a shame. It's a function of our dysfunctional, consumerist economy, I think, as well as cultural misogyny and patriarchy, the double standard that says men are superior to women. Women (& men)should be supported in their efforts to raise children. They get very little help from society, and single mothers especially are thrown in a bind - "Go out and get a job, you lazy b*#^h!" is the message society gives them. When they do, it's "You're neglecting your children! Take better care of them." When they don't, they're "lazy welfare queens." Yet that stay-at-home mother (father) role is, I would say, MORE important than most of the jobs in our society. That's why Kristin stays home work, and I go out to work. But we pay a price for it. I have a really good job, but many months we go paycheck to paycheck.

How are things in sunny Brazil?

Fannie said...

"Men and women, masculinity and femininity, are complementary and equally valuable aspects of our humanity. Both are necessary to be completely human."

What is important, that many conservative people who subscribe to the notion of gender complementarity (meaning opposites) miss, is that every human has aspects of masculinity and femininity within themselves. In order to be fully human, men should be able to express traits associated with femininity and women should be able to express traits associated with masculinity. That so many prohibitions exist surrounding what is "gender appropriate" behavior causes a lot of harm to people.

Ellen de Bunchastu said...

Personally, I blame Mr. Spock, what with his talk of the universal 'Male' and 'Female' dichotomy.



Tit for Tat said...

Opposite, Equal......I think the problem starts when we think in terms of "Sameness". Because for the most part we are different in regards to our biology we need to find ways to define each sex without demeaning the other. This happens from both camps. You need look no further than the educational system. For the most part the teaching style favours the average girl, not the average boy. I know there has been many justified grievances from the female side, but they too can sometimes be the perpetrator.

Seda said...

Actually, for the most part we're the same in regards to our biology. There are a few general differences - sex organs, obviously. Also sex hormones, which affect the way we think and act and react. I think the problem comes more from blowing those differences out of proportion - thus, instead of sharing different aspects of strength, men and women are "opposite" sexes.

I do agree, however, that we need to find ways of defining each sex and gender that do not demean people of other sexes and genders. I use those plurals intentionally, 'cause it seems to me there are more than just the majority "man" and "woman."

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our