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

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Seda’s Theory of Gender

A couple of events recently got me to thinking about gender, and inspired me to come up with a revision of the concept of gender. First, reading Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano, introduced me to the concept of "subconscious sex," which makes so much more sense to me than "gender identity." And then at an LGBTQQIA panel (how's that for alphabet soup? More letters than people on the panel) recently, a feminist lesbian with a rather masculine gender presentation commented that gender is a "social construct," not inherent in individuals but created by culture. As a trans woman who has experienced both male and female hormone balances, I do not believe that is true. So, here is my personal understanding and belief of gender and the relationship between sex and gender.

To begin with, different aspects of sex and gender exist on a number of different continua. Nothing original here.

First there is biological sex, which includes several different aspects. Everyone has a genetic sex – most people have one of the two most common chromosomal combinations, XX or XY. A few fall in between, with XXY, XYY, or other combinations. Then there is body morphology – most people clearly exhibit primary and secondary sex characteristics, such as penis, testicles, broad shoulders, big feet, and hairy faces and torsos in males and vagina, ovaries, uterus, wide hips and breasts in females. Again, some fall in between, as intersexed people with ambiguous genitalia and people with AIS.

Then there is subconscious or instinctive sex, often (erroneously, in my opinion) termed "gender identity" – again on a continuum from hyper-male to hyper-female, with two-spirit or genderqueer in the middle. Subconscious sex is how the instinctive, primitive brain understands your body to be. In my case, my subconscious brain, or self, or whatever, has always thought I have a female body. When I first learned to throw, I threw "like a girl." The relationships I seek and treasure are female in nature. My sexual instincts are female, and in sexual situations the contrast between my instincts and desires and the nature of my body is sharp, intense, and painful. Everyone has a subconscious sex, though most people go through life unaware of it, as there is no conflict and no reason to access it consciously if your subconscious sex aligns with your biological sex.

The next continuum is gender expression. This is the natural inclination one has in expressing one's masculinity, femininity, or androgyny, and again, the continuum is related to the first two but independent of it. Someone might be male-bodied and male-gendered (in the subconscious sex sense of gender), and yet adopt feminine dress and mannerisms. Frequently folks refer to people who express gender strongly as "butch" or "femme," depending on which direction they are expressing. This is what people talk about when they speak of gender roles; it's what I believe feminists refer to when they say that gender is socially constructed. However, everyone has innate gender. I firmly believe, based on my study of philosophy, science, gender, and my own experience of both male and female sex hormones, that gender is innate – and that it is also influenced by society and social constructs.

The last one in my list is sexual orientation, reflecting one's innate attraction to one of the two primary sexes, both, all, or whatever.

So for each individual, there are four aspects of gender or sexuality, and each of these aspects is expressed somewhere on one of four corresponding continua. Each of these continua can be described as a double bell distribution curve, with the typical binary genders (male and female) each representing roughly equal "humps" and the rest spread out in between or way out on the fringes.

Female ------------------------ Male

(Imagine four of these, each separate and unique)

A typical man, for instance, would land in the center of the male hump (no pun intended) in all three internally-focused continua (genetic/body morphology, subconscious sex, and gender expression), and in the center of the female hump on the sexual orientation continuum, while a typical woman would land in the corresponding and opposite humps. My personal distribution used to be: a. center of the male genetic/biology hump; b. center of the female subconscious sex hump; c. extreme side of the male gender expression hump; and (on a conscious level – there was definitely serious subconscious conflict going on!) d. somewhere on the female side of the trough between the sexual orientation humps. Now, I've moved into the trough on the body morphology continuum (genetics are the same, but I've grown breasts and lost body hair, which puts me in that androgynous place in the middle), and my growing awareness of my real heterosexual orientation has moved me to the male side of the trough on the sexual orientation continuum.

Now, add the influence of our patriarchal culture and social constructs, including and especially the gender binary that says there is only one scale – the heterosexual male/female, opposite-sex dichotomy – and here's what you get:


(Only one of these – where on the line do you fall? Chances are you don't)

Is it any wonder that feminists think of gender as socially constructed, and not innate? Especially since women have traditionally been given the short end of every opposite/binary stick (weak, irrational, emotional, etc.), they intensely feel the restrictions and limitations of cramming everyone onto one curve and making the curve a straight line. But it also hurts men. It hurts everyone. Gender is innate and natural, but society warps it into a cruel travesty.

The opposite-sex gender binary that supports patriarchy is wrong. It is limiting, harmful, inaccurate and untrue, and it's past time to bury it in an unmourned, unmarked grave. Everyone deserves the birthright to find their own places on the multiple levels of their own respective gender continua, and the respect of society to be recognized and honored there.

(Okay, I got off the theory and into my personal rant. Sorry, but it seems important.)


risa said...

I think it's helpful -- haven't been thinking about these things for awhile -- my head is full of veggie starts -- but I think my version of the first chart would show two hills lower and closer together, because I don't experience males and females as very different classes of people at all -- with the exeptions that one notes under very high natural or induced concentrations of testosterone or estrogen, which are powerful psychotropics.

So when I see a group of seventeen-year-old boys or twenty-two-year-old jocks coming down the sidewalk, I'm apt to cross the street to avoid them -- sure, self-preservation, but also I feel somewhat repelled by something that seems to emanate from them, as if it were a "bad" odor.

On the other hand, I fend mature, self-assured, strong, well-mannered men -- whether liberal or conservative -- umm, "interesting." Seasoned testosterone? [Nervous laugh].

But aside from this chemically enhanced differentiation, to me, people are people ... and where I myself am on that spectrum, I have no idea. Ask me on Friday and I might have a different answer than Monday. And cleaner fingernails ...

risa said...

"read find" for "fend" ... oh, for an edit button ...

jesse said...

This is a very good way of looking at things, thanks for the new image I can show other folks. I was worried you were talking about a single bell curve at first, making me think the bulk of humanity would be genderqueer in the center, but the double curve works very well.

I'm curious about the male bodied/male subconsious who presents female. Is it a kink? Do the curves allow for kinks? Do kinks belong on a sexuality spectrum? Is it a Halloween costume? Hiding from the authorities as in Nuns On the Run? This is not your point at all, but where my mind bogged down with questions.

Besides that I can't find any holes, but I'm no academic. Which is not to belittle your achievement here just an excuse not to have more insight.

Tit for Tat said...

Interesting post. It definately has given me many new insights into sexuality. I do agree that much of it is inate. Though our culture is still predominantly a patriarch, it is changing. But trust me when I say this, its no fun being a man in a custody hearing. Seems in that case the inequity certainly goes the other way.

Seda said...

Thanks for your input! and enjoy the sun!

Thanks. Intriguing question. I think whether that man's feminine expression is a kink would be defined by the motives for doing it, and whether doing it causes stress and disfunction in his life. I don't have the sense that Stu Rasmussen's (mayor of Silverton, OR) female presentation causes him any distress. (My apologies, Stu, if I got your pronoun wrong.)

I can see that it's not fun being a man in a custody hearing. It would be really nice if all members concerned were able to put aside their baggage and work together for a solution that works for everyone. Guess that's what I love about Nonviolent Communication.

Fannie said...

I'm a big fan of nuance so I really like your theory Seda. While my gender expression, chromosomes, and body morphology are definitely female, I have always felt that my gender identity (or subconcsious) has always been somewhat androgynous. I don't know what it's like to be trans, but it has been my experience that it's been difficult in my life to reconcile how people treat me (as an obvious female person) versus how I see myself (not girly/weak/feminine).

Thanks for this post, I'm always interested in other people theories about gender!

anne said...

Hey girl,

Having a more androgynous body, but expression very "femme" this is a great map. I have to be careful not to dress butch or cut my hair short even though I am so thin as to be "from the moon" and not on the human side at all! Hah! It always made me mad when guys I met and liked dated my roommates, treating me as an "it" despite my femme attempts.

But when I am around my people, I suddenly look femme, so it is a family look that I have, not a true androgyny. What seemed hard to me was the women who wanted to be butch looking but were saddled with enormous breasts, so that no matter what they wore, they still looked like femme sex types. I know a lot of men who are true men (body mind match) who do femme things like hold their elbows inside out and thus got labeled "whimps" or gay in school.

I'm lucky to be such a strong racial type--that seems to overpower the non-femme body. I'm also really lucky to live in an age when my racial type is not evil like it was only 100 years ago. But still I only appeal to about 1 man in 1000, so I'm really, really sympathetic to any person who doesn't fall in the middle of your bells.

As a consequence, I never went with men who were, as Risa says, of "bad odor" but hung with the weirdos. Which I why I think you're so squeezy, girl. I love weirdos, their so aware of things unlike the slavering couch potatoes or high-heeled bed teases.


hugs from me, too.

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