Posted by: clunythescourge | November 6, 2007

Has biology been overlooked as a road to gender revolution?

If we rethink what we as a society in the American geo-political context view as “natural” and instead think of nature, biology, and physiology, not as fixed, but as unpredictable and incommesurable, would this help shape a more inclusive claim for equality? Would this mean that our perceptions of gender are actually based on how we have interpreted sex differentiation? Can we then say that since many feminists have separated gender and sex, and actually based the struggle for equality on the presumption that sex precedes gender and that sex is “natural”, this has reinforced the claim for hierarchy and has actually strengthened the exclusive gender binary?

If we looked at the biology of the human body in “shades of difference” (Fausto-Sterling 3) instead of on an either male/or female continuum, perhaps we can then build a case for equality that doesn’t presuppose inequality.

Dismissing the historical importance and emphasis on sex, biology, physiology, and psychology deemed as “natural” and “immutable” characteristics which make males and females of both human and non-human species differ, perhaps claims for equality can be better founded.

If we acknowledge that sex doesn’t necessarily precede gender, but it is how historically and culturally we have viewed the body, we can see that we have created a binary, where we have defined male and female as oppostional extremes, and have actually determined what social roles should be divided into masculine and feminine based on these presumptions.

Therefore, it is how we have percieved sexual difference (i.e., there is more physiological body variation just than penis and vagina) that we then learn how to characterize gender, and this is all based on the idea that procreation is the ultimate achievement of humankind, and this then reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, a must. This is why sexuality is defined by gender and how gender has been defined by sex. But not everyone has relationships to procreate.

In conclusion, it might be useful for feminists who have dismissed sex as a variable which both precedes and informs how we view gender, to rethink the importance of sex in how we view gender and how we justify the importance of gender roles, and how we perpetuate hierarchies through this rhetoric of difference.

Therefore, an expanded feminist argument might be founded on how gender shapes our ideas about sex differences and if we rethink what is “natural”, gender roles might be more easily de-constructed. Thus, claims for equality might be based on how “natural” has been defined and used to justify inequality and hierarchical oppression, instead of waiting for society to change the social roles which have been shaped by our emphasis on gender as socially constructed.

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Responses

  1. Social construction of gender is not the whole picture, indeed. Our constructs hail from the holy body of the ‘irrefutable differences implicit in’ biological sex. Biological sex as a determinant of gender roles and scripts is one of the strongest holdouts against the dismantling of oppressive systems across gender lines. (These systems being things such as capitalism and it’s sociopolitical interplay, behavior socialization amongst citizens, etc.) ‘Natural’ sex is still treated with an immutable air of everlasting relevancy. At this point, I am unfortunately seeing a hard time poking holes in a notion so reified in various institutions of our social knowledge. ‘Natural’ sex and its implications has its hand in the informing of so many social ideals and expectations, and has, as yet, hardly lost the luster of its validity, even though it has received some questioning. I agree that feminists should realize the crucial role sex plays in gender oppression, and work towards tearing down its position. I think we need a significant collective to battle this beast.

  2. I appreciate that you brought up this question of biology and it’s role in feminism. We often get bombarded with arguments of social construction, which although go far to explain social phenomenon, do not offer us an explanation for such natural occurances as menstration. Althogh we may be provided with a feminist analysis of the social construction of meaning surrounding menstration in different cultures, an argument using social construction cannot accurately explain the physical process of something as bodily as a woman’s monthly reproductive cycle. So, this leaves us with the question- where do we draw the line, and when do we let biological or “scientific” arguments into the feminist discorse? Moreover, is there room for traditional science in feminism? Although I would not attest that feminism should transform into a science-based ideology, which in many ways goes against the prime arguments of feminism, I do wonder if by acknowledging some aspect of sex/gender as having some sort of biological basis feminists would be taken more seriously in a world which is becoming more and more medicalized and appropriated by “science”. However on the flip side, should feminists have to change their ideology and theory to conform to what is generally percieved as “mainstream”? I would guess many feminists would argue not…

  3. This was interesting to rethink the sex preceding gender argument. I don’t know if I completely understood what you were trying to convey in your message but one thing that I wanted to touch on was:
    “if we rethink what is “natural”, gender roles might be more easily de-constructed. Thus, claims for equality might be based on how “natural” has been defined.”
    I feel like if we look at Monique Wittig’s article again she is very clear in her argument of the word “natural” and how it is defined. She says that: “the idea of nature has been defined for us…distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea).” This sums up such a profound idea to me because historically our bodies, minds, and spirits have been told to us through stories and literature of men. How could we ever bring biological sex into the mix to describe how our whole beings have been oppressed when the core of the oppression comes from men forming this idea? I think that this is a very important and critical way to think in order to get to the root of the problem behind “womyn’s” oppression, the ideology of it all. Women’s bodies may be different, yes, but why does that difference have to be bad? Because of the way that this society has raised us.
    You also said: “Can we then say that since many feminists have separated gender and sex, and actually based the struggle for equality on the presumption that sex precedes gender and that sex is “natural”, this has reinforced the claim for hierarchy and has actually strengthened the exclusive gender binary?”
    I feel like through most of the readings and talks that I’ve had with feminists throughout the last couple of months since starting women’s studies I have come to the conclusion that gender precedes sex and that it is already systematically put there for us to reinforce. Not sex preceding gender but maybe I’m wrong. Thank you for letting me think more critically through your words. I hope that I understood what you were putting out their or maybe I just backed your point up even more.

  4. You have a lot of interesting points here in regards to the idea of “natural” and the social construction of biological sex. After reading the essay “Dueling Dualisms” by Anne-Fausto Sterling, a lot of insight was offered on our consructed perception of biology and sex. To me, it was fantastic to come to the realization that gender is not the only aspect of one’s character that has been historically skewed and constructed. It made complete sense that the way we understand biological sex has also been defined for us, not by us.

    In addition to the implications of culture on how we define “natural sex,” and the role of biology within Feminism, the speech that Mia Mingus gave in regards to abilism (from the video watched in class) comes to mind as well. The idea that we as a society have of “natural” has been so skewed over time, which becomes apparent after listening to what Mia Mingus had to say about her experiences in the medical sphere. Clearly, the skewed idea of “natural” goes beyond biological sex. Our understanding of “natural” also greatly influences the way we perceive disabilities and what it means to be “able-bodied” as well. It seems that we must be more pro-active in defining sex and disability, rather than just accepting the prescribed notions that have become institutionalized.


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