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Sex or Gender

Sex or GenderBy Sam VakninAuthor of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited""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 aregregarious, he-elephants solitary. Male zebra finches areloquacious - the females mute. Female green spoon worms are 200,000times larger than their male mates.

These striking differences arebiological - yet they lead to differentiation in social roles andskill acquisition.Alan Pease, author of a book titled "Why Men Don't Listen and WomenCan't Read Maps", believes that women are spatially-challengedcompared to men. The British firm, Admiral Insurance, conducted astudy of half a million claims. They found that "women were almosttwice as likely as men to have a collision in a car park, 23 percentmore likely to hit a stationary car, and 15 percent more likely toreverse into another vehicle" (Reuters).

Yet gender "differences" are often the outcomes of bad scholarship.Consider Admiral insurance's data. As Britain's AutomobileAssociation (AA) correctly pointed out - women drivers tend to makemore short journeys around towns and shopping centers and theseinvolve frequent parking. Hence their ubiquity in certain kinds ofclaims.

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 haverepeatedly led to discrimination and prejudice, and then they'vebeen proved to be nonsense. Women were thought not to be world-classmusicians. But when American symphony orchestras introduced blindauditions in the 1970's - the musician plays behind a screen so thathis or her gender is invisible to those listening - the number ofwomen offered jobs in professional orchestras increased.

Similarly,in science, studies of the ways that grant applications areevaluated have shown that women are more likely to get financingwhen those reading the applications do not know the sex of theapplicant."On the other wing of the divide, Anthony Clare, a Britishpsychiatrist and author of "On Men" wrote:"At the beginning of the 21st century it is difficult to avoid theconclusion 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, alcoholmisuse, 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", SusanFaludi describes a crisis of masculinity following the breakdown of manhood models and work and family structures in the last fivedecades.

In the film "Boys don't Cry", a teenage girl binds herbreasts and acts the male in a caricature relish of stereotypes ofvirility. 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"? Aregender 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 theway particular genes behave when they find themselves in him instead of her.

The magnificent difference between male and female greenspoon worms, for example, has nothing to do with their havingdifferent genes: each green spoon worm larva could go either way.Which sex it becomes depends on whether it meets a female during itsfirst three weeks of life. If it meets a female, it becomes male andprepares to regurgitate; if it doesn't, it becomes female andsettles into a crack on the sea floor."Yet, certain traits attributed to one's sex are surely betteraccounted for by the demands of one's environment, by culturalfactors, the process of socialization, gender roles, and what GeorgeDevereux called "ethnopsychiatry" in "Basic Problems ofEthnopsychiatry" (University of Chicago Press, 1980).

He suggestedto divide the unconscious into the id (the part that was alwaysinstinctual and unconscious) and the "ethnic unconscious" (repressedmaterial that was once conscious). The latter is mostly molded byprevailing cultural mores and includes all our defense mechanismsand most of the superego.So, how can we tell whether our sexual role is mostly in our bloodor in our brains?The scrutiny of borderline cases of human sexuality - notably thetransgendered or intersexed - can yield clues as to the distributionand relative weights of biological, social, and psychologicaldeterminants 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 DysphoricPatients", published in the "International Journal ofTransgenderism", "indicate significant psychopathological aspectsand narcissistic dysregulation in a substantial proportion ofpatients.

" Are these "psychopathological aspects" merely reactionsto underlying physiological realities and changes? Could socialostracism and labeling have induced them in the "patients"?The authors conclude:"The cumulative evidence of our study ... is consistent with theview that gender dysphoria is a disorder of the sense of self as hasbeen proposed by Beitel (1985) or Pfäfflin (1993).

The centralproblem in our patients is about identity and the self in generaland the transsexual wish seems to be an attempt at reassuring andstabilizing the self-coherence which in turn can lead to a furtherdestabilization if the self is already too fragile. In this view thebody is instrumentalized to create a sense of identity and thesplitting symbolized in the hiatus between the rejected body-selfand other parts of the self is more between good and bad objectsthan between masculine and feminine."Freud, Kraft-Ebbing, and Fliess suggested that we are all bisexualto a certain degree. As early as 1910, Dr.

Magnus Hirschfeld argued,in Berlin, that absolute genders are "abstractions, inventedextremes". The consensus today is that one's sexuality is, mostly, apsychological construct which reflects gender role orientation.Joanne Meyerowitz, a professor of history at Indiana University andthe editor of The Journal of American History observes, in herrecently published tome, "How Sex Changed: A History ofTranssexuality in the United States", that the very meaning ofmasculinity and femininity is in constant flux.Transgender activists, says Meyerowitz, insist that gender andsexuality represent "distinct analytical categories".

The New YorkTimes wrote in its review of the book: "Some male-to-femaletranssexuals have sex with men and call themselves homosexuals. Somefemale-to-male transsexuals have sex with women and call themselveslesbians. 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 evidencepoints to the genetic and biological underpinnings of sexualbehavior and preferences.The German science magazine, "Geo", reported recently that the malesof the fruit fly "drosophila melanogaster" switched fromheterosexuality to homosexuality as the temperature in the lab wasincreased from 19 to 30 degrees Celsius. They reverted to chasingfemales as it was lowered.

The brain structures of homosexual sheep are different to those ofstraight sheep, a study conducted recently by the Oregon Health &Science University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture SheepExperiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, revealed. Similar differenceswere found between gay men and straight ones in 1995 in Holland andelsewhere.

The preoptic area of the hypothalamus was larger inheterosexual men than in both homosexual men and straight women.According an article, titled "When Sexual Development Goes Awry", bySuzanne Miller, published in the September 2000 issue of the "Worldand I", various medical conditions give rise to sexual ambiguity.Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), involving excessive androgenproduction by the adrenal cortex, results in mixed genitalia. Aperson with the complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) has avagina, external female genitalia and functioning, androgen-producing, testes - but no uterus or fallopian tubes.

People with the rare 5-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome are bornwith ambiguous genitalia. They appear at first to be girls. Atpuberty, such a person develops testicles and his clitoris swellsand becomes a penis. Hermaphrodites possess both ovaries andtesticles (both, in most cases, rather undeveloped).

Sometimes theovaries and testicles are combined into a chimera called ovotestis.Most of these individuals have the chromosomal composition of awoman together with traces of the Y, male, chromosome. Allhermaphrodites 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 ofmedical science at Brown University, and author of "Sexing theBody", postulated, in 1993, a continuum of 5 sexes to supplant thecurrent dimorphism: males, merms (male pseudohermaphrodites), herms(true hermaphrodites), ferms (female pseudohermaphrodites), andfemales.Intersexuality (hermpahroditism) is a natural human state. We areall conceived with the potential to develop into either sex.

Theembryonic developmental default is female. A series of triggersduring the first weeks of pregnancy places the fetus on the path tomaleness.In rare cases, some women have a male's genetic makeup (XYchromosomes) and vice versa. But, in the vast majority of cases, oneof the sexes is clearly selected.

Relics of the stifled sex remain,though. Women have the clitoris as a kind of symbolic penis. Menhave breasts (mammary glands) and nipples.The Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 edition describes the formation ofovaries and testes thus:"In the young embryo a pair of gonads develop that are indifferentor neutral, showing no indication whether they are destined todevelop into testes or ovaries.

There are also two different ductsystems, one of which can develop into the female system of oviductsand related apparatus and the other into the male sperm duct system.As development of the embryo proceeds, either the male or the femalereproductive tissue differentiates in the originally neutral gonadof the mammal."Yet, sexual preferences, genitalia and even secondary sexcharacteristics, such as facial and pubic hair are first orderphenomena. Can genetics and biology account for male and femalebehavior patterns and social interactions ("gender identity")? Canthe multi-tiered complexity and richness of human masculinity andfemininity arise from simpler, deterministic, building blocks?Sociobiologists would have us think so.

For instance: the fact that we are mammals is astonishingly oftenoverlooked. Most mammalian families are composed of mother andoffspring. Males are peripatetic absentees. Arguably, high rates ofdivorce and birth out of wedlock coupled with rising promiscuitymerely 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 tosupport this view.Furthermore, gender identity is determined during gestation, claimsome scholars.Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii and Dr. Keith Sigmundson,a practicing psychiatrist, studied the much-celebrated John/Joancase.

An accidentally castrated normal male was surgically modifiedto look female, and raised as a girl but to no avail. He reverted tobeing a male at puberty.His gender identity seems to have been inborn (assuming he was notsubjected to conflicting cues from his human environment). The caseis extensively described in John Colapinto's tome "As Nature MadeHim: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl".

HealthScoutNews cited a study published in the November 2002 issueof "Child Development". The researchers, from City University ofLondon, found that the level of maternal testosterone duringpregnancy affects the behavior of neonatal girls and renders it moremasculine. "High testosterone" girls "enjoy activities typicallyconsidered 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 area "blank slate" as far as their gender identity is concerned. Thisis also the prevailing view. Gender and sex-role identities, we aretaught, are fully formed in a process of socialization which ends bythe third year of life. The Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 editionsums it up thus:"Like an individual's concept of his or her sex role, genderidentity develops by means of parental example, socialreinforcement, and language.

Parents teach sex-appropriate behaviorto their children from an early age, and this behavior is reinforcedas the child grows older and enters a wider social world. As thechild acquires language, he also learns very early the distinctionbetween "he" and "she" and understands which pertains to him- orherself."So, which is it - nature or nurture? There is no disputing the factthat our sexual physiology and, in all probability, our sexualpreferences 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 geneticpropensities. It does so by propagating "gender roles" - gender-specific lists of alleged traits, permissible behavior patterns, andprescriptive 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 "genderroles".Inevitably as the composition and bias of these lists change, sodoes the meaning of being "male" or "female".

Gender roles areconstantly redefined by tectonic shifts in the definition andfunctioning of basic social units, such as the nuclear family andthe workplace. The cross-fertilization of gender-related culturalmemes 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 manyuses, in different cognitive and affective contexts, and subject tovarying exegetic frameworks.

As opposed to "sex" - "gender" is,therefore, a socio-cultural narrative. Both heterosexual andhomosexual men ejaculate. Both straight and lesbian women climax.What distinguishes them from each other are subjective introjects ofsocio-cultural conventions, not objective, immutable "facts".

In "The New Gender Wars", published in the November/December 2000issue of "Psychology Today", Sarah Blustain sums up the "bio-social"model proposed by Mice Eagly, a professor of psychology atNorthwestern University and a former student of his, Wendy Wood, nowa professor at the Texas A&M University:"Like (the evolutionary psychologists), Eagly and Wood reject socialconstructionist notions that all gender differences are created byculture. But to the question of where they come from, they answerdifferently: not our genes but our roles in society. This narrativefocuses on how societies respond to the basic biologicaldifferences - 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', explainsWood, 'then you don't have the opportunity to devote large amountsof time to developing specialized skills and engaging tasks outsideof the home'.

And, adds Eagly, 'if women are charged with caring forinfants, what happens is that women are more nurturing. Societieshave to make the adult system work [so] socialization of girls isarranged to give them experience in nurturing'.According to this interpretation, as the environment changes, sowill the range and texture of gender differences. At a time inWestern countries when female reproduction is extremely low, nursingis totally optional, childcare alternatives are many, andmechanization lessens the importance of male size and strength,women are no longer restricted as much by their smaller size and bychild-bearing.

That means, argue Eagly and Wood, that rolestructures for men and women will change and, not surprisingly, theway we socialize people in these new roles will change too. (Indeed,says Wood, 'sex differences seem to be reduced in societies wheremen and women have similar status,' she says. If you're looking tolive in more gender-neutral environment.


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