The Effects of Confusing Sex and Gender

When we allow the misuse of words, or blur the meanings of words important to our movement, and to radical politics in general, we are weakening our position.

Though sex is biological, legitimately dichotomous except in rare instances of intersex individuals: female or male, gender is entirely contrived. Gender is a construct of, and for the benefit of, patriarchy: masculine or feminine. Even the World Health Organization, hardly a bastion of feminist sensibility, is (sometimes) clearer on sex and gender (see also Note (1)):

“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define
men and women.

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities,
and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and
women.

It’s really ‘men and boys,’ and ‘women and girls,’ in both cases, and sex = male/female while gender = masculine/feminine, for absolute clarity. But the WHO definitions make the correct split, where sex is different from gender entirely. While both sex and gender are hierarchies under patriarchy, because sex is real the hierarchy really matters: female people, for the fact of being female, are oppressed by males.

Often there is a conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ creeping even into grassroots feminist writings. We hear of “The Divine Feminine,” as though that phrase has real meaning, and more importantly, feminist meaning. We read ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ conflated repeatedly. Academia has done much, beyond simply removing feminism from its base, in blurring the movement’s important definitions: we have Gender and Women’s Studies programs. Why on Earth would institutions decide to host programs for ‘Masculine/Feminine and Women’s Studies,’ except that sex and gender are words they have confused? Why is it not still Women’s Studies, or Female Studies, except that men felt excluded and were accommodated by “good” (patriarchally-approved) women? Why are women so willingly generous to men when they are the oppressors, and the issue is our oppression?

Those things that are culturally valued are claimed by men. Again conflating sex and gender, such “mannish” things are considered masculine, in a benevolent-leader kind of way, things like being:

responsible * strong * capable * intelligent * industrious * loyal

reasonable * wise * mature * sincere * benevolent * fair

Those characteristics are recognized as belonging to ‘good’ men, with widespread societal approval, if not necessarily to truly ‘masculine’ men, as judged by manly (not prissily “good”) men. And of course the characteristics said to be of “good” men are as often, sometimes more often, found in women and girls. Honorable and worthy human characteristics are not sexed; they certainly do not belong to the elite sex, male.

Other characteristics considered as belonging to men, or as being masculine, aren’t necessarily positive though they are often patriarchally-rewarded; these are the characteristics approved by manly men. They may include being:

aggressive * competitive * single-minded/ relentless * stoic

unmoved by others’ emotion * dominant/ dominating * violent

Patriarchy believes that the feminine counterbalances the masculine in this unequal dichotomy, and so the following characteristics are demanded of those mandated into femininity for this balance, women, including being:

passive * selfless * flighty or frivolous * overly emotional

unstable, easily swayed * deferential * cowardly

In this context it should be clear that “feminine” is NOT ‘that which is inherently characteristic of, or common to, women’! Instead, femininity includes those qualities that reinforce female subordination — characteristics which reinforce female inferiority in comparison to males, under patriarchy.

It is vital for feminists to understand, and to not conflate, ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’ It is only when these words are correctly defined and used that we can begin to see clearly the logic in the arguments of Bev Jo, Linda Strega, and Ruston (2a): that “Butch” is Female without the patriarchal overlay of feminine subordination. Butch is Female in her most vital, empowered, and unobstructed state. Every overlay of femininity that a woman carries with her is an act of complicity against the liberation of women and girls. Every reference to “The Divine Feminine” is an undercutting of feminism, a bolstering of female subordination. Sex is not gender; femininity is not feminist and, in fact, femininity works to actively reinforce female oppression.

Butch is, and long has been, a Lesbian who has, her entire life, evaded choosing femininity; she has never capitulated. A case could most certainly be made that Butch, right down to her Lesbian nature, is the unaltered female — but I’m not going to make it here, not in this writing (do see (2b)). (Also see Bev Jo’s incredible theory, along with Linda Strega’s and Ruston’s, in the book “Dykes-Loving-Dykes,” most of it at Bev Jo’s blog, noted above as (2a).)

So as not to appropriate more-marginalized women’s terms, to acknowledge that it is sometimes possible for women to have level relationships with men (rare, but possible), and to name this non-feminine way of being, any heterosexual, celibate, bisexual or otherwise-non-Lesbian girl or woman who later evades femininity needs a name. We could call her a normal, non-feminine woman (but not a non-fem, since by the definition of Butch she is still Fem, she made that choice once); we could call her a currently femininity evading woman, a CURFEW (I do like the idea of women putting curfews on men so that women may travel safely at night, especially) or a C-FEF for currently-femininity evading feminist. We could call her a virago. This, of course, affects me quite directly, so I would love having a say. And I’m sure there are better names and acronyms.

No matter the name chosen, an unfeminine woman, by definition many of whom here would be (or would have been) involved with men sexually, still deals with men’s patriarchal values internalized. This HAS to affect relationships with men. I would be surprised if most men can even see women without the judgment of standards of femininity. And I would suspect that for most all non-homosexual men, their sexuality depends on access to patriarchally-idealized, or feminine, females. Pornography certainly skews the standard, but femininity is basically as artificial as the porn ideal. Pornography is merely an exaggeration of the fixations on femininity — both idealized female body parts and female subjugation.

If women weren’t declaring subservience via complicity to the feminine ideal, how would non-homosexual men function sexually? Of course some men could function, but I wonder if that still is based on breast (and vagina-use) fetishization or the capacity to “see” femininity where it doesn’t exist, or both. Is her short, curly hair “feminine” in reality, or just to him and the same length and style would easily be seen as being appropriately masculine elsewhere? Large breasts are demanded not only in the porn ideal, but also in the cultural idealized view of heterosexual womanhood, enough so that young women frequently seek silicone-implant surgeries. But, ironically, both large size (often) and implantations (usually) serve to reduce breast and nipple sensitivity (3). To the extent that women find their own breasts to be erogenous zones, the preferred aesthetic serves heterosexual men, not women!

For many women, heterosexual or otherwise, I wonder how much the porn ideal shapes self-estimates of sexual desirability. For all women, I wonder how deeply are the norms of patriarchy internalized, taken then as givens. Certainly body shapes and features typical of women are culturally devalued, even demeaned, separate from breasts and sometimes buttocks. Women’s shoulders are relatively narrow, compared with men’s. But narrow shoulders are not considered attractive, not on either sex; wider shoulders are idealized, even on women, especially if the women are thin and not “too” tall. Long legs, more typical of youth, male or sometimes female, are idealized as is a narrow waist — far more rare for women after childbearing. Suntanned skin — but decidedly white skin! — smooth and hairless, is idealized. In so many characteristics, it’s more likely that a young male will meet them than any woman. And yet this is the “feminine” ideal.(4)

Those men who vary from the customary idealizing still don’t meet women as interesting individuals. Instead they simply skew the preferred characteristics: big butt over smallish hips, red hair over blonde, very long hair, or an exceedingly fat body, even to the point of debilitation. Women are still objects required to meet fuckability standards, though slightly amended ones.

 There is nothing inherently wrong with long hair; for many cultures, it is not sexed at all. The same can be said for natural red hair, a genetic-based component of appearance that is found among males and females, both. And while perfectly healthy women may have large backsides and/ or large breasts, and a lot of body fat, especially breast and fat fetishists too often demand a level of profound disability with their ideals. Pornography has forced female body insecurity to a whole new and more intimate level, with labiaplasty, the reshaping of the vulva to fit the porn aesthetic (and, ironically, ‘decency’ standards, for longer labia have been labeled obscene, while photographing prostituted rape is entirely legal!). Another newer surgery, reminiscent of the Victorian-era removal of women’s lower ribs to fit the wasp-waist ideal, is toe-bone removal. Pins replace toe bones in a woman’s feet so that they will better fit in sky-high stiletto heels; sometimes the last toe of both feet is entirely removed!(5)

Not only are women expected to behave in limiting, self-deprecating ways, we are also expected to surgically alter our bodies to a changeable set of patriarchal ideals. Why are we not fighting back? Why are we, in such large numbers, accommodating patriarchal views of our bodies, our sex? Why are we still so unable, in feminist spaces, to talk about sex and gender within this framing?

Some of us do fight back, and this is good news. For all of the infighting, and the recurring need to challenge faltering allegiance to the core principles of radical feminism, including being trans-critical and insistent upon keeping radical feminism open for all women — and not a white, heterosexual, college-educated and otherwise class privileged women’s movement — some of us do fight back. And some of us fight on very personal fronts — we evade the femininity mandate, even if we fail the more-stringent criteria for “Butch.”

Is it possible to actually talk about this? Or do I need to soft-pedal it further, create even more introductory posts, and find alternative ways to approach it other than simply saying, Sister, are you with us or are you against us?

I will say that I think that for most women, heterosexuality is deeply psychologically damaging, to the point that women cannot see themselves without the male gaze taking over their vision, without the mandate to evaluation by standards of sexiness, a male concept, and without the little girl posing that every clothing-store flyer puts them in.  Child porn is normalized, little girls preferred, but adult women will do IF they play along, grovel at the right times, learn their lesser place.  How can that not wound permanently?

And yet feminists who challenge compulsory (meaning ‘conformity absolutely demanded’) heterosexuality are exactly right — we can function with wounds, we all do, and we can make better choices.  We can honor and emulate those we cannot be — Lifelong Butches. In the sense that the personal is political, I think we also need a way to honor those women who later begin to resist patriarchy, who choose to be unfeminine, uncomplicit in the femininity mandate, unfettered by the patriarchal demand. But this needs to be a discussion, not just my voice so adamant on a rarely-read blog.

Yes, I know it’s more complicated than agreeing to stop the conformity cycle: the shaving, makeup, coiffed ‘do, heels and dresses and skirts, jewelry and scents and accessories, and the concern about taking up space — from body fat monitoring to gestures made demure by their intentional restriction. We are OPPRESSED and this is work, I do know that. And there are COSTS to a woman for not following the femininity mandate, I get that, too. But the costs are rarely immediate, and maybe you need to see it for yourself, if you’re clinging to the femininity mandate. Pick a few sacred capitulations, let them go, and see what happens? And while you’re dropping those several habits of femininity, listen to your internal dialog so that you might hear your judgments and your valuations of other women. And then, just maybe, consider the costs to the women who have NEVER capitulated — and realize they have, in fact, lived on.

The personal is indeed political. This isn’t about individual women, though it is about doing the right thing. It’s about women beginning to take responsibility for the effects their actions, behaviors, and words have within the dominant culture, and on other resisting women’s lives. It’s about either complicity or support, because sometimes it really is that damned simple!

I’ve said before, I don’t agree with “if only every …” scenarios. If every woman needed to drop her feminine acquiescence for change to happen, change would never have happened at all — but it has; both positively and negatively, change has come. We can work on moving liberation back toward the positive, toward greater legitimate freedom. But not through coercion, not through the violence of force. And the only way to get to ‘if only every …’ would be through violence; for their own reasons, some will always resist even the most obviously beneficial directive.

If only every woman were Lesbian, patriarchy would end overnight. Probably true, but they’re not — we’re not! And there just might be some small value in staying within the beast to inform those not in it of tactics it intents; and there might be some small value in forcefully challenging the misogyny that masculinity demands. If only every woman would stop giving time, attention and energies to men, patriarchy would dissolve almost immediately. Reasonable, yes, but it’s still not likely to happen. Certainly not without force. What about always giving less than half what a woman has available to give, and then giving the rest, the most, to women and girls? 



And what about those rare few men who do act differently? It is not incumbent upon feminism to change men, not ever. Men are not the issue in feminism. And yet men have the possibility of being allies, and sometimes even more, of doing ‘unmasculine’ things showing that they are not innate. I do believe men are rapists — what happens in war is not an anomaly, and there is a war on women that legitimates rape, anyway. And yet, women talk with one another: there are times when she was tremendously interested in sexual expression, and the man she was with was not — because of his loyalty to and feeling for another woman, because he was not ready, because she was drunk and he didn’t want intimacy under those circumstances. I believe strongly that we live in a rape culture, and I believe that most men, if opportunity exists, will find within themselves some abhorrent motive — and they will rape. And I know that some men don’t. And more importantly, that some men won’t.

I’ve also said that in a normal, tribal society of human-reasonable numbers, a jury of her peers would have no issue with terminating the life of the man who raped her, a woman of the society. Some other time we could explore a better ratio of females-to-males. Many of us are certain that anything like 1:1 is dangerously high for female safety. No woman who reproduces can ever be sure that her son will not rape, or that her daughter will not produce a rapist. We miss terribly, here, in resisting patriarchy. But I have written on this elsewhere, and others within radical feminism frequently further this idea. We understand the danger of males; even more, we can talk about it. Why then do we not see dangers in complicity to the feminine ideal? Why is this never an acceptable topic for feminist discussion?

Still, we do more than miss on resisting the femininity mandate: we so very often support each other, reinforce one another, in bowing to this terribly anti-feminist ideal. Sometimes this insistence toward our sisters’ femininity contains at least some violence: the non-conforming girl or woman is ostracized, and ridiculed when confronted in more-public spaces. And then, think of how often the Ugly Duckling tale, in girl culture, becomes a case of the Ugly one getting her revenge by winning the attentions of males, at her sisters’ expense? We do not ever win when we follow the femininity mandate — hugely, horrifically, we lose! What sanity might we find if we begin to put girls and women ahead of boys and men, in importance in our lives? What freedom might we find if we let at least some of the femininity rituals go? What revolution might at least begin if we were to give to one another the real support of resisting? Real support IN resisting? Are we, can we be, RE-SISTERS? Not if we continue the conflation of sex and gender so that femininity remains quietly reinforced — and by women, demanded.

 

Notes:

(1) WHO gets it basically right, here: http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/ and
in the text, above, but fails miserably at the site most apt to appear in searches I conducted (4/2013): http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/gender_rights/sexual_health/en/ where sex is defined (acceptably), though gender is not and the two are conflated. And then there is the weird caveat on the incomplete definitions, suggesting they should not be credited to WHO, anyway:



“These working definitions were elaborated as a result of a WHO-convened international technical consultation on sexual health in January 2002, and subsequently revised by a group of experts from different parts of the world.

They are presented here as a contribution to on-going discussions about sexual health, but do not represent an official WHO position, and should not be used or quoted as WHO definitions.”

(2a) These links, from Bev Jo’s blog, represent some of the most amazingly concise and cohesive theory to come out of feminism; the entire blog is (and the book is) well worth reading!
http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/supporting-butches-supports-all-lesbians/
http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/22-years-later-2012-butch-update/ and http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/the-big-sell-out-lesbian-femininity-by-linda-strega/

The blog itself is here: http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/

(2b) http://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/naturally-lesbian/

(3) https://www.google.com/search?btnG=1&pws=0&q=large+breasts+less+sensitive

(4) ‘As Tom Wolfe describes it in A Man In Full, today’s ideal female is “a boy with breasts.” ‘ http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/SchuchardtHefner.php

“The ideal body is now a boy’s body with breasts.” http://www.nytimes.com/1995/04/02/weekinreview/ideas-trends-put-on-your-best-chest-it-s-time-to-preen.html

(5) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2236039/Off-pinky-How-high-heel-obsessed-women-removing-toes-stiletto-surgery-comfier-fit.html