Gender, Sex and its Intersections

Today marks the end of Radfem 2013.  After the stooshie caused by Radfem 2012 and their statement that the conference was only open to “women born women, living as women”, a coded and cissexist method of telling trans women to stay away,  This year, they have ditched that terminology in favour of “women-only (female) “, which is in effect the same thing, but slightly less offensive.  The distinction now being made between women and female is useful, but still the organisers cling to the idea that sex and gender are necessarily bound together.  In doing so, they are erasing female experience as being a mere sidenote to gender.

In a previous post I looked at how the category of “woman” had been defined in four different ways: biological, reproductive, cultural and sexual preference.   The first of these two can be grouped as  material; the second two as socially constructed.  I am going to use the following definition of woman here.

A person is a woman if others perceive them to belong to the category of people who are or have been capable of reproductive labour, and are not corrected when they do that.

In effect, this definition relies on biological sex [the category of people who are capable of reproductive labour], but only to the extent of others’ perceptions and their own acquiescence to it.   It is certainly arguable – an infertile cis woman  may disclose their fertility status and a trans woman may disclose their assigned sex –  however this categorisation of woman incorporates those who are incapable of reproduction yet conform to the social expectations of those who can.

Also note that in all of the following, I have referred to the binary of woman/man; female/male and trans/cis.  As I stated in previous posts on gendersex and trans , I don’t accept any of these as binaries, but all as continuums, albeit with concentrations at the ends, however in our current society they operate as binaries: if you are not one category, then you must belong to the other.  What you have then are three different forms of oppression taking place.

Sex Oppression

Oppression on the basis of sex – that is the biological capacity to be a person who is capable of conceiving, gestating bearing and lactating children manifests acutely at particular points – where-ever those reproductive capacities are engaged, either by choice or by force.  It may also manifest in other ways, for example taboos around menstruation or breast-feeding.

Gender Oppression

Oppression on the basis of gender – that is the inclusion in the category of “woman” is all around us.  It manifests in the media, in fashion, in common phrases and tropes all of which tell us what a woman is or should be like; how they should appear and how they should act.  Deviance from the gender norm of “woman” is mocked and conformance is enforced through social expectations and others interactions.

Trans Oppression

Oppression on the basis of trans-status – that is oppression on the basis of (birth-)assigned sex not conforming to gender orientation manifests continually at a low level through cis-sexism, with frequent displays of transphobia, including in the mainstream press.    It also manifests acutely with instances of violence being perpetrated against trans* people on the basis of their trans* status.  Moreover, the assumption that women are female and men are male is socially ingrained into our society.

Each of the above is a distinct oppression.  Oppression on these bases can be limited by an individual muting of the oppressive characteristic.  For example, women may play down their gendered features, by presenting in a more gender neutral manner; medical intervention such as an IUD, hormonal contraception or sterilisation can move a female body along the sex continuum towards a more neutral sex position and to “pass” as cis-sex person, trans* people can be pressurised into medical interventions which give the bodily appearance of female anatomy.  But each of the three affects any who fall into its categories.

A subset of feminists (commonly known as Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists, or TERFs for short) ideologically back the idea that sex and gender are necessarily linked – that one can only be a woman if female.  This, together with the cisnormativity of wider society where the dictionary definition of “woman” is that of “adult female” has seen trans exclusivity gain grip within a section of the feminist community, sometimes as a deliberate ideological stance, sometimes through a lack of awareness.  Underlying both is a fear that the female aspect of oppression will be lost should the sex-gender link be broken.  That the distinct oppressions that females, particularly reproductive females,  face as a result of their biology will be ignored.

When we seperate these out however we can see that there are some aspects of being a female woman that are less likely to affect a female who is not gendered as a woman.  If we look at “the female woman” as an intersection between two distinct oppressions, and compare with the treatment of the “the non-female woman” and “the female non-woman” we can explore how patriarchy operates across the bounds of sex and gender to oppress both females and women in distinct ways.

Gender and Sex Oppression

Women who are reproductively female find themselves targeted in a myriad of ways under patriarchy.  The denial of desired sterilisation on the assumption that women will want children; the objectification of womens bodies sees pregnant women being unwanted touched as people run their hands over their stomachs; the treatment women receive during maternal care, being infantalised or referred to as “Mummy” reflect their social status as women, and vaginal rape, a crime which overarchingly affects women has the added risk of pregnancy resulting if reproductively female.

Gender and Trans Oppression

Women who are either reproductively male, or who are toward the male end of the sex continuum are targeted by transmisogyny.  The deliberate misgendering of trans women is counterbalanced with a social expectation to be “feminine” to pass as a woman.  The demand  to conform to patriarchial standards of behaviour and beauty is intensified for trans women to “prove” that they are a “real woman”.  In order to “pass” pressure is put on trans women for expensive and invasive surgery, while the danger of not “passing” is one of intense violence – particularly sexualised violence, which sees trans women attacked and murdered at horrifying rates.

Sex and Trans Oppression

Men who are either reproductively female, or towards the female end of the sex contiuum face particular difficulties accessing appropriate healthcare as well as an increased risk of physical violence.   Pressure is put on trans men to be sterilised or have hysterectomies; pregnant trans men face difficulties getting appropriate maternity care as well as access to contraceptive services tailored for their needs.

Given that it is an intersection in theory a female only, women only space could be valid proposition, but the critical question to ask is for what purpose.  The way that such spaces are constructed at the present time without an awareness of the links to and differences between the wider affiliations to the entire class of women, and the entire class of females it becomes merely an exclusionary device.  And deliberately so, it is not designed as an intersectional space, to draw those active in challenging female oppression and womens oppression together to explore the links, but through a variety of subtle signals to indicate that the only valid form of female oppression is the form that women suffer, and that the only valid form of womens oppression is the form that females suffer.

We cannot hope to explore these intersections properly until the sex-gender link is broken.  In attempting to reinforce the idea that all women are female, TERFs are unwittingly erasing females and female oppression as a distinct entity which is worthy of consideration in its own right.  In a time when the “War on Women” (which should more properly be called the “War on Females”) is  hotting up, we cannot afford to lose sight of the unique nature of female oppression, but by insisting that all females can be represented by the category “women” we are not only chucking our female brothers under the bus, but also in danger of losing sight of the ways in which being female in our society is a distinct disadvantage  through an over concentration on gender and a fight over its meaning.

Wo/men make their own identity, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

…in like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into their mother tongue, but s/he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses themself freely in it only when s/he moves in it without recalling the old and when s/he forgets their native tongue.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (erm, kindof)

We must learn a new language, not only for the women who are not female, nor for the females who are not women, but for all females and all women so that we can properly explore why the reproductive capacities of females are simultaneously restricted and exploited in the way that they are and why women are routinely targetted, belittled and marginalised.   We can only do this if we look at all women and all females.  Trans women and trans men have much to teach us about the ways that women and females respectively are treated in our society, but as long as we insist that the only true woman is a female woman, and any females who do not gender as women can be safely ignored, female women are condemned to simultaneously fight on both fronts with one arm behind our backs.


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