I remember participating in a civics workshop at school once where I was first introduced to the distinction between sex and gender. I’d always thought of them as meaning the same thing i.e. whether you were male or female. However the chap leading the workshop posited a distinction between sex and gender. He described the word ‘sex’ (in this context) to mean your biological designation as either a man or a woman (or as he crudely but amusingly put it ‘what’s between your legs’ which got a big laugh from a group of 14 year olds!) Gender on the other hand he said, referred to the result of the societal behaviour that you were expected to exhibit, and that you could expect others to exhibit according to your sex. (He almost certainly made the point more articulately than that.) His point was that while ‘conventionally’ your sex and gender might be the same, this wasn’t a given. You might biologically be female but ‘feel’ like a boy.
I’ve never personally known anyone who felt that they were born in the wrong body, that I know of, so I’m not going to pretend to know what that would be like. I have no idea if anyone in the transgender community would use this kind of distinction to characterise their situation. They might think it’s quite helpful, they might think it’s a total misrepresentation. I just don’t know.
But I am very interested in the notion that your ‘gender’ encompasses more than your ‘sex’. That depending on your culture you will have profoundly different experiences because of your sex and what that means to other people.
As the saying goes: we have more that unites us than divides us. Biologically humans are pretty similar to each other. We eat, respire, sleep. We grow to maturity, age and die. We form memories, develop the capacity for reasoning and learn to communicate. We can invent, imagine and reflect. All of these put together describes the species of modern Homo sapiens as distinct from any other life form on the planet. Compared to these, the differences between male humans and female humans seem slight.
The differences that do exist between the sexes are even slighter prior to a human reaching sexual maturity. Before the point where your status as an egg or a sperm carrier becomes relevant there are some legitimate physical differences between boys and girls (beyond the obvious ones around plumbing!) But the difference in how girls and boys are bought up can be extreme, and most of that isn’t about biology, it’s about social convention.
In the Metro a couple of days ago I happened to see the headline of one of those stupid human interest stories. It read “Baby girl was raised as a boy for two years”.
(I should point out that this case is in Brazil, so perhaps there are even larger cultural associations with gender there than in the UK. Apparently the mother suffered abuse as a child herself and is claiming to have done this to try to prevent her daughter suffering the same fate.)
Anyway having just read the headline and nothing else to situate this in a context, my first reaction was: what does that even mean? If a child is only 2 years old, then beyond potty training (I have no idea when that starts…) what relevance does their sex have? The article expanded thus: “She managed to convince the baby’s father and grandparents ‘she’ was a ‘he’ by dressing her in boys’ clothes, only letting her play with boys’ toys and cutting the little girl’s hair short…”
For a while now, each Christmas brings with it a slew of articles and blogs about the gender division of children’s toys. Children are taught gender-appropriate behaviour so young. Is this supposed to make the world easier for them to navigate later? What exactly would be the consequences of raising a generation who had learned they were, first and foremost, human, not female or male? Does it even make sense to talk of the gender, as distinct from the sex, of a baby?
But things are slowly improving. Campaigns like Pink Stinks have sought to raise awareness of the issues around the fairy-princess-ification of our female youth. A little girl called Riley became a minor internet sensation for her rant about the toys she felt she was expected to play with. And a Guardian writer celebrated a Swedish Christmas toy campaign featuring a pretty blonde girl dressed in a black track suit top brandishing a nerf gun.
Of course training a generation of snipers carries its own set of moral issues.