Postmodern sex and the construction of sex and gender

Written in May 2014 for a Sexual Histories paper at University of Auckland

The late 20th and early 21st century has seen a freeing of sex, sexuality, and gender. Anthony Giddens described this freeing of sex as “plastic”, attributing it to a variety of social and cultural changes such as effective contraception and the liberation of women disconnecting sex from the sole purpose of reproduction.[1] But perhaps more notable, especially in recent years, is the freeing of gender and sex from the binaries of modernist thought.

As Stephen Whittle writes in 1996, feminist theory became concerned with the dichotomy of sex and gender, the genital essentialism that dominated modernist thought.[2] This concept – that sex, and thus gender, was determined and irrevocably fixed at birth by an individual’s genitalia has been challenged not only in the medical sphere by intersexed bodies and the discovery of physical determiners of sex other than the presence of certain genitalia, but also in the social and academic spheres by feminist and transgender activists and academics – the likes of Kate Bornstein and Loren Cameron, to name a few.

However, while the transgender community has been influential recently in breaking down this dichotomy, the community in the early 1980s was not so revolutionary. Anne Bolin, in her research of the transsexual community and the Berdache Society points out that these male-to-female transsexuals (the term being used to very specifically to refer exclusively to those who sought out medical treatment and surgical transition) inadvertently supported the dichotomy between gender and genitalia: “male to female transsexualism endorses a formula for gender construction in which social woman is conflated with genital woman”.[3] However, Bolin also acknowledges that this is likely because of prevalent ideals about sex and gender – the conflation of sex with gender in particular means that it was not surprising that the transsexual identity emerged as a highly medicalised one. Early critiques of transsexualism point to the rigidity of gender at its core[4] – this particular criticism, however, comes from a noted trans-exterminationist radical feminist who actively fought to revoke transgender healthcare access in America, and is currently not viewed in a positive light. However, even this relatively early stage of transsexualism was a challenge to hegemonic binary ideals – as Bolin points out:

“As a social identity, transsexualism posits the analytic independence of the four gender markers – sex, gender identity, gender role or social identity (including behaviours and appearances) and sexual orientation – that are embodied in the Western gender schema as taken-for-granted premises and regarded in a number of scientific discourses as “naturally” linked.”[5]

Bolin writes in 1994 of the beginnings of the “transgenderist” movement, one in which gender was viewed less in categories and more as a continuum, “supplanting the dichotomy of transsexual and transvestite with a concept of continuity”.[6] Whittle, two years later in 1996, attributes the potential deconstruction and reconstruction of sex, sexuality, and gender to “the real-life postmodernist practice of hearing (and listening to) many voices and the acknowledgement of their individual truisms”[7] – that is, he acknowledges the variance of transgender individuals and the continuity rather than dichotomy of their identities. This continuity and fluidity is being referenced continually more often in academia – C. Jacob Hale, in an essay about sado-masochism as a gender technology and exploring masculinity addresses fluidity in his gender and how it relates to the essentialism of the binary model:

“In my self-conception, who I ‘really’ am is a matter of social/cultural facts about my categorical locations; there is facticity here, but it is not natural or essential and is continually changing as culturally available categories change and as I change relative to them.”[8]

Elkins and King also refer to varying types of fluid gender identities; those outside the rigid gender binary and those who travel within and between categories of male and female. In particular, two of the modes of transgendering they outline in their 1999 essay ‘Towards a Sociology of Transgendered Bodies’ highlight these experiences – the modes of oscillating (that is, shifting between male and female at varying rates) and transcending, mode which “renders problematic the binary gender divide”.[9] Referenced by Elkins and King, Kate Bornstein advocates for gender fluidity: “the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders for any length of time, at any rate of change. Gender fluidity recognises no borders or rules of gender”[10] – that is, gender fluidity by definition must exist outside of and challenge the binaries of sex and gender and the immutability of the same.

Sex, in a similar fashion, has been uprooted in recent years. No longer is it simple to assume that sex exists in a simple and clear cut binary of male and female. Intersexual bodies have existed throughout history and each culture has dealt with them in differing ways – for example, ancient Jewish law established guidelines for proper gender etiquette for hermaphrodites (a term used only because the less stigmatised “intersexual” was not available then) that comprised of a combination of rules for males and females, and early 17th century French hermaphrodites had to operate in “the sex which dominates their personality”.[11] [12] Today, by and large, the standard procedure is perhaps more conservative – what is perceived as an abnormality, a transgression against the “natural” hegemonic binary of sex is literally erased at birth. Parents are kept largely uneducated, and intersex children are often lied to about their bodies throughout their lives, ostensibly to create a strong sense of gender identity – the effectiveness and ethicality of this is controversial. Anne Fausto-Sterling points out that “in their extensive discussions about what not to tell parents, medical practitioners reveal the logical bind they face when they try to explain to patients and parents that the gender they have assigned – and often performed surgery to create – is not arbitrarily chosen, rather, it is natural and somehow inherent to the patient’s body all along”[13] – that is, they “reveal their anxieties that a full disclosure of the facts about intersex bodies would threaten individuals’ – and by extension society’s – adherence to a strict male-female model”.[14] The gender assigned often does seem arbitrary – chosen by virtue of the size of the phallus (from 0-1cm is considered acceptable for a clitoris, while 2.5-4.5cm is acceptable for a penis), for example.[15] Intersexual surgeries are usually heteronormative – both a prospective penis and vagina must be able to participate in heterosexual sex – and “physicians… do far more to preserve the reproductive potential of children born with ovaries than that of children born with testes”.[16] In the 1950s the standards of treatment stressed that “properly treated intersex children posed no threat of homosexuality”.[17] Meanwhile, an article published by the Intersex Society of North America (who, notably, refer to themselves as “Building a world free of shame, secrecy, and unwanted sexual surgeries since 1993”[18]) draws disturbing similarities between trauma experienced by intersex adolescents and adults and trauma experienced by victims of child sexual abuse – both contain “secrecy, misinformation, betrayal by a caregiver, and dissociative processes”.[19]

All this may suggest a solidification of sex – medical professionals are actively erasing variance beyond the male/female sex binary, after all. But the ISNA, among other intersex rights and activist groups are challenging and campaigning to change these standards – the Third International Intersex Forum released a public statement in which they called for “an end to mutilating and ‘normalising’ practices such as genital surgeries, psychological and other medical treatments through legislative and other means. Intersex people must be empowered to make their own decisions affecting own bodily integrity, physical autonomy and self-determination”[20] as well as an end to prenatal screening and treatment. The Australian Senate released a report in 2013 recommending ending cosmetic genital surgeries on infants.[21]

As the treatment of intersex individuals is questioned the necessity of gender assignment at birth is subsequently also questioned, as well as the necessity of strict adherence to the male/female sex binary. The Australian Senate sums it up well: “Enormous effort has gone into assigning and ‘normalising’ sex: none has gone into asking whether this is necessary or beneficial”.[22]

The transgender experience, gender fluidity and genders outside the male/female binary, intersex bodies and the challenging of prevalent medical thought are all significant indicators of the freeing and loosening of sex and gender and the challenging of binary, heteronormative, and cisgenderist[23] ideals. The dichotomy of sex and gender and the essentialism of genitalia to both are in the process of being thoroughly deconstructed and reconstructed. The binary two-sex model of gender is being challenged whole-heartedly and no longer holds true. Sex is being unsettled across the board, and normative hegemonic ideals are no longer thought of as untouchable truths. As Whittle so eloquently puts it: “Gender, like God, is a concept of the imagination that belongs within and supports the foundations of a patriarchal heterosexist hegemony.”[24]

 

Bibliography

 

Alexander, T., ‘The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse’, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog, accessed 22/05/14

Bolin, A., ‘Transcending and Transgendering: Male-to-female Transsexuals, Dichotomy and Diversity’, in G. Herdt, ed., Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York, 1994, pp.459-460

Bornstein, K., Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, London, 1994, p.52

Dreger, A.D., ‘”Ambiguous Sex” – Or Ambivalent Medicine?’, The Hastings Center Report, 28, 3, 1998, pp.24-35

Elkins, R. and D. King, ‘Towards a Sociology of Transgendered Bodies, Sociological Review, 47, 1999, p.595

Fausto-Sterling, A., Sexing the Body, New York, 2000, pp.36-72

Hale, C.J., ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies: How to Have Sex Without Women or Men’, in K.M. Phillips and B. Reay, eds, Sexuality in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, p.426

Hawkes, G., ‘Plastic Sexuality’., in G. Ritzer, ed., Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_yr2013_chunk_g978140512433122_ss1-23, accessed 22/05/14

http://www.ilga-europe.org/home/news/latest/intersex_forum_2013, accessed 22/05/14

http://www.isna.org/, accessed 22/05/14

Jones, A.R. and P. Stallybrass, ‘Fetishising Gender: Constructing the hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe’, in J. Epstein, ed., Bodyguards: The Cultural Policies of Gender Ambiguity, New York, 1991, p.90

Kennedy, N., Cultural Cisgenderism: Consequences of the Imperceptible, Psychology of Womens Section Annual Conference, London, 2012.

Raymond, J., The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male, Boston, 1979

Siewert, R. et al, Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, Community Affairs Committee, Senate of Australia, 2013, p.117

Whittle, S., ‘Gender Fucking or Fucking Gender?’, in R. Elkins and D. King, eds, Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-dressing and Sex-changing, London, 1996, pp. 203-210

 

 

 

[1] Hawkes, G., ‘Plastic Sexuality’., in G. Ritzer, ed., Blackwell Encylopedia of Sociology, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_yr2013_chunk_g978140512433122_ss1-23, accessed 22/05/14

[2] Whittle, S., ‘Gender Fucking or Fucking Gender?’, in R. Elkins and D. King, eds, Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-dressing and Sex-changing, London, 1996, p. 203.

[3] Bolin, A., ‘Transcending and Transgendering: Male-to-Female Transsexuals, Dichotomy and Diversity’, in G. Herdt, ed., Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, New York, 1994, p. 460.

[4] Raymond, J., The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, Boston, 1979.

[5] Bolin, p. 459.

[6] Ibid, p. 460.

[7] Whittle, p.204.

[8] Hale, C.J., ‘Leatherdyke Boys and their Daddies: How to Have Sex Without Women or Men’, in K.M. Phillips and B. Reay, eds., Sexuality in History: A Reader, New York, 2002, p.426.

[9] Elkins, R. and D. King, ‘Towards a Sociology of Transgendered Bodies’, Sociological Review, 47, 1999, p.595.

[10] Bornstein, K., Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, London, 1994, p.52.

[11] Jones, A.R., and P. Stallybrass, ‘Fetishising Gender: Constructing the hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe’, in J. Epstein, ed., Bodyguards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, New York, 1991, p.90.

[12] Fausto-Sterling, A., Sexing the Body, New York, 2000, p.36.

[13] Ibid., p.64.

[14] Ibid., p.65.

[15] Ibid., p.57.

[16] Dreger, A.D., ‘”Ambiguous Sex” – or Ambivalent Medicine?’, The Hastings Center Report, 28, 3, 1998, pp. 24-35

[17] Fausto-Sterling., p.72.

[18] http://www.isna.org/, accessed 22/05/2014.

[19]Alexander, T. ‘The Medical Management of Intersexed Children: An Analogue for Childhood Sexual Abuse’, http://www.isna.org/articles/analog, accessed 22/05/14

[20] http://www.ilga-europe.org/home/news/latest/intersex_forum_2013, accessed 22/05/14

[21] Siewert, R. et al, Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, Community Affairs Committee, Senate of Australia, 2013

[22] Ibid., p.117.

[23] Term coined by Natascha Kennedy to encapsulate the cultural impact of normative cisgenderism.

Kennedy, N. Cultural Cisgenderism: Consequences of the Imperceptible, Psychology of Women Section Annual Conference 2012, London

[24] Whittle, p.210

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