Thursday, May 11, 2023

Latest Draft Attempt at Explaining "What is Gender?"


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Lately I've been attempting to explore gender as a concept from the angle of...

What even is the point? Why is it useful? 

I fully acknowledge and support that many people find great meaning with it, and I want to understand why. I've also been using these questions to link up with a fancy-sounding concept called epistemic injustice - injustice related to knowledge.

To start with, I want to put to the side for now the societial roles and social control aspects of potential answers to those above question. They very much matter. I also don't want to lose sight of body dysmorphia, but we'll also be getting to that later. It too very much matters as an experience to acknowledge, validate, and discuss. To start with though, I want to begin with another use of gender as a concept which my current attempt to label is that it's a "desire to be seen and known". Known to own self. And able to discuss and explain to others. To explore this, want to bring in epistemic injustice as a concept. 

If you have an experience but can't define or explain it, that can be incredibly disempowering. Two examples that I've seen used as newer-invented ways to explain longstanding occurrences are...

- Sexual harassment

- Postpartum depression

Both always existed. But they were often explained in different (often more problematic) ways. Sexual harassment, especially male on females, was just "boys being boys". Postpartum depression was just another time women were getting "overly emotional". Both were oppressive and disempowering framings of experiences humans were having.

Side note - I didn't mean for both these examples to involve gender, it's just two of the classic examples and I didn't have non-gender ones"

If that makes sense as a concept, we can now bring that epistemic injustice piece (and it's corollary epistemic justice) back to the "what's the point on gender?" question. There can be a lot of empowerment having a term / concept to define oneself by. Why do I do [behavior/trait/thing]? Oh it's because I'm a [identity]. There's tons of ways to fill that [identity] in. There are a bunch of pros and cons, justice and injustice, in which kinds of options society makes available and popularized. And also which ones society doesn't make available. 

You can be a punk, a gamer, an introvert/extrovert. You can understand yourself through your job role. Etc. There's all sorts of answers. But one that seems deeply interwoven into various human cultures, including the dominant white supremacy patriarchy culture that's held control of supposed "formal knowledge" the West has looked to for 2,000+ years, is the binary gender system.

One question is - what exactly are these collection of [behaviors/traits/things] that supposedly have...

1) A bimodal distribution


2) Historically have been said to directly correlate to which biological sex organs you have

Is this a main part of what gender is being used for people who identify strongly with the concept? Sort of predestined "this is the psyche/personality" I have and this captures explaining that. And, taken a step further, there's a notion that it's the one you're supposed to have. That biology of sex organs somehow predicts or determines likelihood of these attributes. Which seems like a quite a bold claim to make a scientific hypothesis about with any sort of "certainty". Especially given that we have exactly zero established mechanistic understanding of how biological neurons give rise to higher-level cognitive experiences like emotions and complex thoughts. 

Reference Article: Hard Feelings,  Science's Struggle to Define Emotions

Imagine if we did this with any other biological characteristic...

Green-eyed people are more nurturing.

Blonde people are more aggressive. 

People with dyslexia have higher emotional sensitivity. 

It sounds ridiculous. The one difference is that, unlike eye color, we do know that biological sex organs are directly linked mechanistically with, on average, higher or lower levels of just three of the fifty hormones in the human body. Hormones act as "signals" interacting with human organs, including the brain. Again though, we do not directly know how the brain creates higher-level cognitive functioning. It's also important to note that all humans have all three sex hormones - estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, just in different levels. 

So that's psyche and biology.

Moving on from what I'd term the more "inner" or "innate" [behaviors/traits/things] aspects of gender, we can also touch for a moment on socially defined roles. At this point connection to biology becomes absolutely ludicrous. Does strongly identifying with one's gender mean contentment with the social role society chose for you based on your sex organs? Do those seem to have much of anything at all to do with sex organs? Seems incredibly unlikely.

There's the classic fashion examples of how Viking men wore their hair long, 17th-century male aristocrats loved heeled shoes as a fashion statement, and pink-blue gendered fashion social rules are a product of the 20th century. There is seemingly nothing innately about society's collective gonads that predetermines them for predictable psyche patterns in fashion preference.

Yet for some reason society likes to make and enforce social rules, and assigned gender based on sexual organs is one of the most popular ways to divide up humans and also assign social rules to them.  psyche 

Framed this way, it seems deeply dystopian to base on social role on unrelated biological characteristics. Maybe there's pros as well as cons? One could argue "social cohesion". It seems flimsy compared to the thousands of years of historic and ongoing gender oppression we continue to witness. And remember that gender (in all the aspects it plays out) remains forcibly assigned to you by modern society through possession of certain biological sex organs. 

Understood in this light, is one part of the gender revolution thus an understanding of self-selected social role? Perhaps? If so, we've assembled quite an odd mishmash and goes back to a question we could ask - is this a useful broader category to have around? Maybe yes, maybe not. It's not my place to decree that answer. I do think we can do much better asking and exploring the question. As well as the broader question this article is aimed at - "what even is gender?".

We can also talk about historic legacy and enmeshment into modern culture as such a deeply interwoven level. It's so deeply engrained into certain historic cultures it tied to language itself. It's used as one of the core fundamental concepts (invented? discovered? arguable as to which) that's been "given", but mostly that means demanded, be used as a main tool for explaining why person A is behaviorally and mentally different than person B. It also makes some kind of rational sense that if you believe in the sexual organ determines psyche and physical capability hypothesis, it may be useful for assigning social role. But wow is that a leap to be careful about. Because if you're wrong, if there's no causal biological link, it is the exact same thing as than assigning personality and roles based on eye color. So maybe we should be a bit careful about it?

Finally, we also need to talk about body types and body dysmorphia. To begin with and to summarize above, I have strong doubts about our ability to link psyche to sex organs, especially given lack of mechanistic understanding and the massive nature/nurture questions brought on by enforced socialized gender norms. Biological physical characteristics are a different matter. They are more directly measurable than inner psyche (always self-described) or behavior (open to extreme subjective bias, including both the what and especially the the why). We get down to hard number like height, facial shape, etc. Even then there's interesting research about how socialized gender role impacts physical development to some degree. But on the whole we're more firmly in hard, clear data. And yes, humans have many bimodal physical traits that overlap with sex organ. There's also, and this can't be emphasized enough, huge bell-curve overlap. The tallest person with a vagina is 7 feet, 0.7 inches tall. At the individual level, the predictive certainly power of predicting almost any secondary physical sex characteristic is immensely low. So, there's that to note.

The other thing to note is body dysmorphia, a condition where feels extreme discomfort about the body they're born into. This could mean the sex organs. This could mean the secondary physical sex traits. It could mean any of the biological traits. It's a complex topic that's been treated with disdain by the psychological and broader medical community for centuries, placing it in good company with all manner of other medical racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, and all other assorted bigotry. 

Body dysmorphia exists. Modern science can do some amazing things to change one's body. That sounds like a win to me.


Getting back to the original introductory questions, what is the point of gender? What does comfort with a gender concept mean?

Is it a way to feel and be accurately seen and to describe to others. A way to describe your "inner" or "innate" being. The [behaviors/traits/things] that make you, you?

Is it ability and happiness/contentment/comfort when allowed to perform and do the roles/activities/behaviors socially assigned to that gender?

Is it being born into the body type associated with that gender?


Are these three definitions of gender even accurate? Is something missing? Is something sounding wrong? 

It seems super weird to me how this one singular human categorization system seems to simultaneously be all these things at once. To be wholly honest, I don't even know how I feel about it. My main feeling currently is that I'm still not even sure the above is correct.

I feel like gender, despite its astoundingly deep cultural and social impact, remains elusively defined and my main feeling is being frustrated by that fact itself. It seems like we don't even collectively know what gender actually is, or at least I feel like I don't and that makes me feel frustrated, disempowered, and deeply isolated. 

I don't want to ruin anyone else's enjoyment of the concept. I do want to ask and better understand what they themselves think about the what and why. What are they enjoying and why? What is "gender" to them?

One of my thoughts is this...

1) Maybe it feels fun and empowering to have that group you feel belonging to and explained by

2) Why is gender one of the most commonly used category systems to develop belonging to? Is there a way to preserve the pros of #1 with some other system? Is #1 a pro for everyone? Who isn't it a pro for and how can we accommodate them? Etc.

So, that's my latest exploration of gender as a concept. Interested to hear if it resonates with others, horrifies them, or lands somewhere in between.


Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

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