On Sex, Gender, and Duality
December 2, 2018
Note: Gender identity and determination thereof is an important part of this conversation. It is also a part that I don’t feel qualified or entitled to talk about as a cisgender person. I encourage anyone interested in learning about gender identity and expression to do some research and talk to people in their community with direct experience. The Trevor Project is a great resource.
Sex and gender are related and often confused, but two different concepts.
Sex is biologically determined. It means having XX or XY chromosomes and having a vagina or a penis. There is also something called intersex, which happens when genitalia is ambiguous or there is a discrepancy between biological genotype and phenotype.
Gender is a sociological concept that encompasses the collection of ideas surrounding what it means to be male or female.
Gender is where we get ideas like “a woman’s place is in the home” and “men don’t cry.”
The thing is though, that these ideas, or gender norms and roles, have become so ingrained in society that they can be limiting to the individual in harmful ways.
Males pick up the message that they are superior to females and a part of maintaining that superiority is that they should not express emotions, because that would make them like a female, which is bad, because females are inferior. This phenomenon is a part of toxic masculinity.
Females pick up the message that their role is inferior to males’, they are not capable or worthy of success, that they should apologize for doing things that would be acceptable for a male to do (being aggressive in business, for example,) because as a female, they did not have the right to do that in the first place, because that’s a male’s role and they are inferior to males.
Do you notice how the feedback loop just keeps going?
Females are inherently at a disadvantage simply for the fact that nearly all realms have been dominated by men until quite recently in an evolutionary context. While progress is certainly happening, there is a big difference between legal rights and cultural attitudes.
Privilege also plays a significant role here. Women with more privilege – ex. white, straight, cisgender, educated, middle+ class, etc. – are less likely to recognize this institutionalized sexism because their privilege has somewhat leveled their playing field.
Privilege does not mean that one has not worked or struggled for their achievements – just that factors such as sex, race, religion, etc. have not been a significant factor in their struggle.
There are undeniably some factors that make males and females different, and these differences contributed to the early formation of traditional gender roles.
It makes perfect sense that when our ancestors stepped out of the cave for the first time, the male went to hunt for food while the female gestated, birthed, and nursed the offspring. She was vulnerable in many ways that the male was not, and keeping her safe was the best choice for the survival of the species.
But it’s 2018 – what excuse do we have now?
Sex obviously continues to serve a biological purpose – but gender? Not so much.
Women are no longer at great risk of being eaten by wild animals while breastfeeding. Our role as the bearers of offspring no longer designates us as vulnerable or in need of protection in that regard.
(Not to mention that many women have fulfilling lives without procreating, especially as society comes to realize that women have worth and merit of their own accord, not just in their ability to reproduce or serve men.)
In 2018, males are not the only ones who can hunt for food, or earn money to buy food. Even though their brains are still hardwired for survival and propagation of the species, and being a provider is a natural instinct for many men, so is nurturing.
I hypothesize that perhaps if there had been no risk of being eaten, if perhaps the male and female could have worked together to gather food from the Earth and nurture the offspring, gender roles may look very different today.
There’s a lot to be said for biology, instinct, and evolution.
There’s also a lot to be said for knowing better and then doing better.
In 2018, we know that the Earth is not flat. We know that proper hygiene practices slow the spread of disease. We know that smoking causes cancer.
And really, we know that traditional gender roles no longer serve an effective purpose.
Often, dissonance between knowing and accepting comes in the fear of change.
The thing is, though, that change is often a good thing.
Change is why we have things like Apple iPhones instead of Nokia flip phones.
Change is why we have medical procedures such as dialysis instead of leeches.
Change is why we have suicide prevention hotlines instead of telling people to buck up and acting surprised when they die by suicide.
Change is why we are free to live and speak our own personal Truths, so long as they do not harm others.
Change is why we are living longer, healthier, happier, lives.
Change is why we have hope for a better world – because oftentimes, change is positive and it brings us closer to our highest selves.
Institutions of old have served a purpose. We can recognize and honor that purpose while simultaneously looking for ways to improve upon it. It is arrogant to think we have all the answers and we have no more to learn.
That is not to say that there is no reason or wisdom in the way things have always been – just that things can always be improved upon, and we owe ourselves the grace of humility in evaluating the way things are, why they are, and how they could be better.
So what does all this have to do with gender?
Once upon a time, gender roles based on how the sexes interacted with one another and their environment and were essential to survival.
These days, it does not threaten anyone’s survival to let your son wear a dress or encourage your daughter to pursue a career in STEM.
It also does not threaten anyone’s survival to keep things the way they are.
We could agree to disagree and stop there.
However, at some point, it becomes a matter of surviving vs. thriving.
If we wish to thrive and move forward as a society where all people are treated with equity, we need to retrain our brains to accommodate the facts that evolution has not yet caught up with.
We should encourage one another to embrace the masculine and feminine aspects of ourselves without any sort of judgment. One does not need to be superior to the other. Both matter and both serve a purpose.
There is so much beauty in the balance, in walking the middle path, and in realizing that the world need not be defined in terms of black and white.
Either/or does not facilitate any potential for progress, but and most certainly can.