This is the second installment of “Back to the Basics” a brief primer on Radical Feminism. You can read the first one “Back to the Basics: Let's Talk Patriarchy” here.
Two or Twenty?
In patriarchal, heteronormative, cis-centric Western culture, gender and sex are often used as synonyms. Many questionnaires use sex and gender interchangeably. In-utero, ultrasound technicians often use the presence or absence of a fetus’ penis to inform the parents if they’re having a “boy” or a “girl”. More often than not, our society tells us that what is in-between your legs tells us if you’re a man or a woman, boy or girl. This is absolutely not true.
Gender is a social construct of identity to manufacture and maintain control. It’s a social construct because it only exists because we make it exist. The sex/gender correlation the hegemonic West uses gives easily identifiable characteristics to biological processes that tell us how to respond and interact with other people. Through these characteristics, we create our identities and our realities.
There is nothing inherently biological about gender. Gender is an aspect of how we identify ourselves and how we want other people to identify and interacts with us.
Biology is not to blame
Biology, genes, dictate processes in our bodies. Biology tells the gonads to develop, breasts to lactate. Biology tells us if some bodies can viably carry fetuses or not. Biology is to blame in the sense that it is often co-opted by patriarchal power structures to support the sex-gender relationship.
Most individuals have either xx or xy sex chromosomes, however there are so many other individuals that have xxx or xxy or just x chromosomes. There are people whose physical bodies do not develop biological sex characteristics. There are over 15 different types of intersex variations.
When infants are born, their genitalia are examined to determine if they fit the two-sex system. Infants presenting unclear genitalia are arbitrarily placed into one sex or the other. These intersex individuals break the two-sex system. Intersex individuals prove that sex is still very arbitrary. About 1.5 percent of our population is intersex – while that might not seem like a lot, that’s about as common as people who have red hair. While they are a minority, these persons still exist and we interact with them every day.
Why are we talking about sex, I thought this was about gender?
Even “objective” biology is being used to force people to conform to a patriarchal system. Breaking down the two-sex construct is important to breaking down the correlation between sex and gender. If we accept the existence of intersex individuals we must accept that sex, as it is used in our society to mean one of two: male or female, is arbitrary and then the relationship between sex and gender becomes arbitrary, too.
A lot of radical feminist are gender critical because they only see gender as oppression. I don’t think gender is inherently patriarchal or violent. To intersectional and trans-inclusive radfems like myself, we need to continue to understand both sex and gender as constructs of the patriarchy that are used to oppress and control others.
Gender is a manifestation of our personality, our identity. Gender is an expression of who we are. Gender is what we put on in the morning so people interact with us in ways we want to be. In non-binary folks, fitting under man/woman doesn’t feel comfortable like it does to cis folks. They want to be ambiguous or neither man nor woman. To trans folks their biological characteristics don’t match up to how they want others to interact with them or how they want to see themselves like it does for cis folks.
Gender is often described as being a spectrum from masculine to feminine. Some individuals are highly masculine and some individuals are highly feminine. Biology doesn’t dictate these characteristics – women are not “more” nurturing than men, men are not “more” though than women. All of the gender characteristics are prescribed by our society and culture.
Once connection between sex and gender becomes less fixed, there will be a lot more freedom for our bodies and identities to exist as we want them.
Rebekah L. Markillie
a PDX based creative who enjoys reading books, contemplating the oxford comma and rolling for initiative.
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