Social Constructs and Biological Differences

Feminism has been thrown into turmoil by the challenges raised by the third wave.  One particular area of challenge to traditional feminist thinking is the rethinking of gender particularly in the light of the increased visibility of trans*, and the theoretical backing given to it by Judith Butler as probably the best known advocate of the deconstruction of gender and sex.

In an earlier post, I looked at the distinctions that the feminist movement in Barcelona make of “women, lesbians and trans*” which comprise the movement and examined some of the different ways in which women have been defined.  Leaving aside arguments over the term “woman” and who owns such a term, it is worth looking at the distinctions between the the definitions in terms of what are actually objective realities, and what are social constructs that people have an an element of choice over whether they conform.  In a seperate post, I looked at how the patriachy oppresses groups of “unmen” in a variety of different ways.

There are four major elements to the distinctions which are made between people which divides them into the class of “man” or “woman”

- Gender: the public identification of someone as “man” or “woman”

- Sexuality: who people choose to have sexual relations with

- Bio-sex: chromosomal identification which assigns those with XX chromosomes to “woman” and those with XY to “man”.

- Reproductive capacity: whether someone has the capacity to gestate other humans.

To be fully identified as a “man” – it is expected that you will conform to male gender norms, have sexual relations with women, have XX chromosomes and produce spermatoza.  To be fully identified as a “woman” – it is expected that you will conform to female gender norms, have sexual relations with men, have XX chromosomes and produce egg cells and be capable of hosting a foetus.  The first two of these are social constructions, but the latter are objective biological realities

Gender is  a social construct, it is the presentation that people give which demarkates them as having a female or male gender and are called in popular discourse, “man” or “woman” according to this presentation.  That gendering then determines others expectations and how they are treated.  Although it is generally easier to present as one or the other, and people are socialised from birth into a gender which they do not choose, more often than not they conform to their assigned gender and the social expectations which go with it to a greater or lesser degree.  There is no objective reason why one gender should be assigned to one person and another gender to another, and there is an element of choice in gender presentation, which allows people to change gender either temporarily or permanently.

Similarly sexuality is a social construct     Although it is expected that men will have sexual relations with women, and women with men, there is no objective reason why this should be the case.  Adrienne Rich pointed out that it is expected that women will have relations with men, and urged them to experiement with sexual relations with women to explore whether such relationships would give them greater fulfillment in the context of a patriarchial society, bypassing the gendered obligations which are socially associated with entering into relationships with men.

Both gender and sexuality are imposed from society – there is in reality no gender of “man” nor of “woman”;  no sexuality of “heterosexual” or “homosexual”.    These are made up divisions which allow for differential treatment of one set of people by another.  On the other hand there are real and genuine differences between people which are not social constructs but which determine lived reality.  These differences cannot be overcome merely by social change or reclassification, for they are objective and determine differences in the objective reality that people live in

Despite the research into bio-sex which indicates that there is no distinct test for whether someone is male or female (the two sexes that people are assigned at birth and which tends to dominate their gendering), there is an identifiable difference between people in relation to their reproductive capacities.  Most people have no clue what their exact chromosomal make up is, their sex identification (ie that of male or female) is assigned to them on the basis of their secondary sexual characteristics and indeed although chromosomal make up is highly correlated to reproductive capacity, the correlation is not perfect.

Regardless there is a distinction between humans which governs their reproductive capacity – some humans are capable of gestating others.  That capacity to gestate others, makes for a different life experience.  While not all humans who have the capacity to have these life experiences do so, most who have the capacity do experience at least some significant events which come with that capacity – including menarche, menustration, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause.

Although the distinction of gender – and consequent discrimination – can be erased by the erasure of gender as a social construct, something which many second wave feminists and trans activists as well as third wave feminists see as a political goal, overcoming biological reality is not something which can simply be socialised away.  However you define the distinction, it is a biological reality that some people can and do gestate other people, and that some people do not.

If we assume that we can obtain the post-gender, post-sexuality society that many see as a goal in achieving liberation, the question remains over the fundamental biological distinction of reproductive capacity.  For that is where the social constructs of gender and sexuality both come into play – although some men and lesbians may have the capacity to gestate, their gender and sexual identity marks them out as those who are not expected to.  Were there to be no gendering – no way of communicating expectation of gestation; and no sexual identity – no way of communicating expection of sexual activity likely to lead to reproduction, although that may overcome many of the social aspects of discrimination, the biological reality of gestation and its offshoots would remain.

While the destruction of gender and sexual identity is a lofty aim, these are social manifestations of a fundamental biological distinction, which cannot simply be erased and wished out of existence.  No matter how problematic it may be to draw a clear line between those who have this capacity and those who do not, the distinction is there, it is real and it is the fundamental basis for other forms of oppression based on gender and sexual identity.  To decry it as a social construct is to ignore the lived reality of those who live with the effects of having the capacity to gestate and others who are assumed to do so.

 

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333 comments
Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Or that the binary never worked to begin with and merely refelcts the economy of reporduction as monopolised by "males"... intersex and other phenomena clearly challenge the binary being 'natural' by their very existnce, thus all we have is a reified construct that is so heavily dug into to culture it is barely conceivable that it could be fictional... pretty much as a round earth must have seemd once, or how homosexuality went from being a sin, to an illness, to what is hopefully becoming included in society... and more hopefully being left behind by a post-binary society that we have no clear idea what it will look like. :-)

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

Its an interesting thought - that after removal of organs capable of gestating (or indeed post menopause) you become male and indeed post-menopausal/hysterectomy women do describe a psychological loss of female identity. That would imply tho, that males then are those who know that they are incapable of gestating and are unable to change their sex identity. Females are those who do not know their status Or alternatively That males are those who know that they are incapable of gestating, females are those who do not know their status or at one point in their lives did not. The second makes far more sense to me, as a continuation of sex identity for both groups, rather than as a stable identity for one group and the potential for sex-change for another.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

But demonstrably teh human doesn't ACTUALLY conform only to that framework. So you are clearly expressing a sex identity whichis neother male nor female, as we understadn it.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

No - I am putting those with organs which facilitate gestation into one category, and those who do not have those organs into another. The fact that the organs may not in fact facilitate gestation is unknowable, but not having the organs allows you to be certain that you cannot.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

I rhetorical question may be that a woman after hysterctomy becomes then male.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Again you have put intersex adn any "woman" with a body who cannopt reporduce into the male catageory. The binary does not work.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

No it doesn't, that's totally overlooking the whole range of things that mean thay can and overlooking teh grey area about what constitutes a female body.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

Female anatomy puts you into the "I don't know if I can, but I am likely to be able to" category. Male anatomy puts you into the "I know that I cannot". category.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

I dont - I see it as a way that men (as a gender group) have of rejecting anyone who challenges their power, and a denial of female (as a sex group) identity. So it acts to remove patriarchial power from anyone who does not shore it up.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

I see your point of feminising 'all other' identuties as supporting my position???

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

But everyone has bowel movements, not everyone gestates. If there were some people who had bowel movements and others had to hook up to them in a human centipede formation in order to continue to live, those who performed the bowel labour would be controlled and subjugated by the non-bowelled class - and we would have words for the bowelled class and the non-bowelled classs.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

I disagree, but there is something in that - that anyone who does not follow a male pattern (male and cisgender and gynoamorous) gets feminised - the only potential challenge to that are transmen, who adapt within the community of men remarkably easily from what I have seen, certainly far, far more easily than those who undergo M2F transition get accepted within the community of women. Dunno if you have seen this - which talks a little about this. http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/05/15/the-concentric-circles-of-the-unmen/

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Without bowel movements we die... we don't organise around the Bristol Chart. I see the female idenity as the currency in a patriarchy where males realise the power of scarcity in females. It is an identity which represents male dominance and primal violence.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

I.e. are the unmales too... within the binary. A more rational appraisal would be these identity are all subordinates of the male superordnate and actually a single identity :-)

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

But its a critical one - gestation is the key to reproduction, without it the species dies out. If the elimination of "female" is the gateway to post-patriarchy then there is no post patriarchial society because it could not reproduce.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Also intersex are the unmales... and this is where for me there is significant challege to the binary opposition m/f as a truth.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Closer but still reifies a binary... but nice you can see that gestation is not a given, obv. I'd argue the imperative that it is a given is a hetero masculine construct... there is no other functional reason for a female identity that i can see. I'm just wondering why you seem to be hanging onto the female/gestation synecdoche as though it were a truth... when clearly it's only a small part of the truth of human anatomy?

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

"there is only a male sexual identity" (can I rephrase that to a "male gesticular identity") mmm...thats an interesting point, because as I was writing that previous piece, I was thinking actually that only males know for sure what their gesticular status is, whereas females dont. Most adult females - although they may be infertile, work on the assumption that they are not - that assumption is usually correct. You are right then when you suggest that the presumption of gestation is not fact, so a "female gesticular identity" is one which women assume, but which may not be correct. On the other hand the assumption of a male gesticular identity is always correct if the sex is based in biological fact. So females are effectively the un-males - those who cannot rely on their biology to excuse them from reproductive labour.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Or that the binary never worked to begin with and merely refelcts the economy of reporduction as monopolised by "males"... intersex and other phenomena clearly challenge the binary being 'natural' by their very existnce, thus all we have is a reified construct that is so heavily dug into to culture it is barely conceivable that it could be fictional... pretty much as a round earth must have seemd once, or how homosexuality went from being a sin, to an illness, to what is hopefully becoming included in society... and more hopefully being left behind by a post-binary society that we have no clear idea what it will look like. :-)

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

Its an interesting thought - that after removal of organs capable of gestating (or indeed post menopause) you become male and indeed post-menopausal/hysterectomy women do describe a psychological loss of female identity. That would imply tho, that males then are those who know that they are incapable of gestating and are unable to change their sex identity. Females are those who do not know their status Or alternatively That males are those who know that they are incapable of gestating, females are those who do not know their status or at one point in their lives did not. The second makes far more sense to me, as a continuation of sex identity for both groups, rather than as a stable identity for one group and the potential for sex-change for another.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

But demonstrably teh human doesn't ACTUALLY conform only to that framework. So you are clearly expressing a sex identity whichis neother male nor female, as we understadn it.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

No - I am putting those with organs which facilitate gestation into one category, and those who do not have those organs into another. The fact that the organs may not in fact facilitate gestation is unknowable, but not having the organs allows you to be certain that you cannot.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

I rhetorical question may be that a woman after hysterctomy becomes then male.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Again you have put intersex adn any "woman" with a body who cannopt reporduce into the male catageory. The binary does not work.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

No it doesn't, that's totally overlooking the whole range of things that mean thay can and overlooking teh grey area about what constitutes a female body.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

Female anatomy puts you into the "I don't know if I can, but I am likely to be able to" category. Male anatomy puts you into the "I know that I cannot". category.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

I dont - I see it as a way that men (as a gender group) have of rejecting anyone who challenges their power, and a denial of female (as a sex group) identity. So it acts to remove patriarchial power from anyone who does not shore it up.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

I see your point of feminising 'all other' identuties as supporting my position???

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

But everyone has bowel movements, not everyone gestates. If there were some people who had bowel movements and others had to hook up to them in a human centipede formation in order to continue to live, those who performed the bowel labour would be controlled and subjugated by the non-bowelled class - and we would have words for the bowelled class and the non-bowelled classs.

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

I disagree, but there is something in that - that anyone who does not follow a male pattern (male and cisgender and gynoamorous) gets feminised - the only potential challenge to that are transmen, who adapt within the community of men remarkably easily from what I have seen, certainly far, far more easily than those who undergo M2F transition get accepted within the community of women. Dunno if you have seen this - which talks a little about this. http://www.2ndcouncilhouse.co.uk/blog/2012/05/15/the-concentric-circles-of-the-unmen/

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Without bowel movements we die... we don't organise around the Bristol Chart. I see the female idenity as the currency in a patriarchy where males realise the power of scarcity in females. It is an identity which represents male dominance and primal violence.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

I.e. are the unmales too... within the binary. A more rational appraisal would be these identity are all subordinates of the male superordnate and actually a single identity :-)

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

But its a critical one - gestation is the key to reproduction, without it the species dies out. If the elimination of "female" is the gateway to post-patriarchy then there is no post patriarchial society because it could not reproduce.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Also intersex are the unmales... and this is where for me there is significant challege to the binary opposition m/f as a truth.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

Closer but still reifies a binary... but nice you can see that gestation is not a given, obv. I'd argue the imperative that it is a given is a hetero masculine construct... there is no other functional reason for a female identity that i can see. I'm just wondering why you seem to be hanging onto the female/gestation synecdoche as though it were a truth... when clearly it's only a small part of the truth of human anatomy?

Second Council House of Virgo
Second Council House of Virgo

"there is only a male sexual identity" (can I rephrase that to a "male gesticular identity") mmm...thats an interesting point, because as I was writing that previous piece, I was thinking actually that only males know for sure what their gesticular status is, whereas females dont. Most adult females - although they may be infertile, work on the assumption that they are not - that assumption is usually correct. You are right then when you suggest that the presumption of gestation is not fact, so a "female gesticular identity" is one which women assume, but which may not be correct. On the other hand the assumption of a male gesticular identity is always correct if the sex is based in biological fact. So females are effectively the un-males - those who cannot rely on their biology to excuse them from reproductive labour.

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

And again overlooked how socially normative and key to sex identity that idea is and very little more to it than that

Richard Wendy Carlos
Richard Wendy Carlos

So like i said "women" born witn organs that cannot support gestation are by your definition male. Cognition determines biological fact... It feels like you are so close yet so far from recognising you pretty much just agreed with me that there is only a male sexual identity because there is only a heteromasculine discourse.

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