What I believe about sex and gender: part 2


10. The oppression linked to sex begins at birth, operating through the social imposition of gender. Gender is the label that feminists use to describe the value system that prescribes and proscribes forms of behaviour and appearance for members of the different sex classes, and that assigns superior value to one sex class at the expense of the other. (That’s the same link as the one I said to bookmark in the previous post. I really, really want you to read it.)

11. Gendered socialisation is a lifelong process of inculcation into the gender role for your sex. It begins at birth, is imposed and enforced consciously and subconsciously by us all, in myriad ways, large and small, and operates to enforce certain forms of behaviour deemed desirable for members of the different sex classes and to prevent those deemed undesirable. This is what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she told us that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. To occupy the position of woman is to be socialised over the course of a lifetime into membership of the inferior sex class. Gender prescribes submissionweakness and passivity as desirable female traits, and dominancepower and aggression as desirable male traits. The way in which gender is expressed will vary according to culture and context, so different times and places will impose different norms of appearance, behaviour and comportment for males and females. But the underlying values are the same: females are supposed to perform gender in ways that signal their inferiority and submission; males are supposed to perform gender in ways that signal their superiority and dominance. The function of this system of oppression is to make female weakness and dependence on males seem natural and inevitable, and therefore to facilitate the exploitation by males of female emotional, sexual, domestic and reproductive labour.

12. It is perceived reproductive capacity, not actual reproductive capacity, that determines the sex class you will be assigned to, and therefore the form your gendered socialisation will take and the oppression you will experience. It doesn’t matter if you are actually infertile, and therefore incapable of performing the reproductive function of your sex. Nor does it matter whether or not you are inclined to perform that function. The fact of sexual dimorphism means that you will be socially read as belonging to one sex class or the other, and will henceforth be subject to the gendered socialisation, and sanction for non-compliance, deemed appropriate for your sex. Women in their twenties and thirties will experience workplace discrimination on account of their appearing to be potential mothers, even if as a matter of fact they could not conceive or have no desire to conceive.

13. Crucially, gendered socialisation and gender oppression happen regardless of how the individual happens to feel about herself or her identity. The injustices that are inflicted on girls do not occur because those individuals happen to know that they are girls and to think of themselves as girls. They occur because those girls inhabit female bodies, and so were placed into the inferior sex class at birth. To deny this fact is not only to fail to understand how gender operates; it is also to engage in a form of victim blaming, where girls and women who suffer gender-based violence and oppression are assumed to have identified with this subordinate social position, and to recognise and endorse their own inferiority and submissiveness.

14. Many individuals of both sexes are uncomfortable with the constraints that gender places upon them. All women who call themselves feminists are. The reason we come to feminism is because we feel that gender is an oppressive hierarchy that limits our potential, and we want to be liberated from the demands of femininity, which just is the expression of female submission. Similarly, many men feel uncomfortable with the norms of masculinity, which requires the expression of dominance, often in the form of aggression and violence. Males who find masculinity painful and intolerable, and who choose to rebel against its strictures, face prejudice and discrimination, and we should want to end this. But it’s worth remembering that gender punishes females whether they conform or not. Non-conformity is punished and socially sanctioned for both sexes, but for females, conformity is also a form of punishment, since compliance with femininity is in itself submission and subordination.

15. The degree of distress and discomfort individuals experience trying to conform to the appropriate gender norms will vary from person to person. There are very few, if any, persons who conform perfectly to the gender ideals prescribed for their sex. We all of us make compromises to survive, and to flourish as best we can, under the constraints that gender imposes upon us. We all of us actively endorse some bits, passively acquiesce with some bits, and positively rail against some bits, and the balance we eventually settle on will be an individual, personal matter. While we should be prepared to critically examine and reflect upon our choices, and to scrutinise our complicity in the perpetuation of gender, no individual is to be blamed for the choices she makes in order to survive living under an oppressive system.

16. Wanting to abolish the oppressive and limiting effects of gender does not mean that radical feminists want to stop anyone expressing their personality in the ways that they enjoy. Feminists do not wish to ban make-up or high heels, or to prevent girls from playing with dolls and dressing up like princesses. All feminists want is to liberate all of this stuff from perceived reproductive capacity, so that boys and girls, men and women, can dress however they like, play with whatever toys they like, perform whatever jobs they like. Men and women would be free to develop their capacities and reach their full potential, free from the constraints imposed on them by powerful social norms prescribing submission and passivity to females and dominance and aggression to males. The ideal world would be one in which one’s perceived reproductive capacity has as little bearing on one’s social treatment and expected achievements and outcomes as blood group or dominant handedness currently does.

17. The behavioural choices that any individual makes, their tastes and preferences about dress and appearance, and how they choose to express their personality, are independent of biological sex and – quite obviously – have no impact on it. People can dress however they choose, behave however they choose, modify their bodies however they choose, as long as these choices do not harm non-consenting others. This is to be encouraged, and indeed is an important part of the project of liberating humans from the oppressive constraints of gender. But none of this alters the underlying biological fact of their maleness or femaleness. No amount of challenging and modifying gender norms – or “queering” gender – will make a male person female, because to be female just means to be a member of the class of humans capable of gestating a child. Challenging and playing with gender norms in one’s behaviour and presentation, so that one appears androgynous, is a valid and useful tool in dismantling the structures of gender; but on its own it can never liberate females from the oppression that accompanies living in a female body. You cannot identify your way out of an oppression that is material in basis.

(Part 1 is here; part 3 is here; part 4 is here; part 5 is here; part 6 is here.)