Is gender real?

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Is gender real?

#1  Postby Beatsong » Aug 23, 2010 2:20 pm

I decided to start this thread out of the one about my personal issues in the parenting & education forum. A lot of interesting general discussion came up there that wasn't particularly relevent to the specific issue, so I thought I'd follow it up separately.

What is gender?

Obviously gender as a set of social constructs is as "real" as any other set of social constructs. ie, not objectively real at all, but real in the sense that society chooses to operate that way and in doing so, has real effects upon peoples' lives.

But I think what I'm referring to here is gender as a person's own subjective sense of "being" male or female, or "identifying" with male or female gender roles.

I'm going to start from the position that this concept is not real: it doesn't describe any actual psychological reality (in most people, at least), that can't be adequately described by other factors.

As far as I can tell, the factors that contribute to a person's sense of identity in relation to sex, are:

1. Their biological sex

2. Their sexuality

3. Their interests

4. Their interaction with social expectations about how these factors go together.

The concept of "gender" only seems to arise where there is a severe conflict between any of the first three of these factors, and the fourth one. A biological male who happens to be homosexual will have to fight against homophobes who insist on the expectation that men "should" want to have sex with women. A young girl who happens to like playing rough games will be called a "tomboy" and, later, probably be suspected of being gay, simply because her interests don't coincide with what society says they "ought" to be. In extreme cases, a young child can form a transgender identity and insist that they are the opposite of everything people tell them they "should" be.

But the problem with all this is that factor 4 is entirely cultural and arbitratry. There is no innate connection between biological sex and certain interests, or contradiction between it and other interests. Since these social expectations are not "real" - they are not rooted in anything to do with physical or innate psychological reality - the idea of "gender" that emerges from them cannot be real either. It is simply a way of describing the interaction between the real elements of a person's body and psychology, and social expectation.

Anecdotally, I have never known young children to have a concept of their own "gender" that is separate from or additional to these elements. Small children just get on with life. If they want to play with dolls they do. If that is celebrated or discouraged because of the spurious assumptions of the adults around them, then obviously that affects how they continue in terms of seeking reward from their environment. The one exception to this seems to be transgender children, who develop the sense that they "are" the opposite sex from their bodies, largely out of extreme conflicts between their personality or interests and social expectations (ie, factors 3 and 4 above).

But I'd be interested to know if any of the psychologists around here have any information about this that isn't so anecdotal.

Also anecdotally, I don't personally understand what it means to "be" male, or to "feel" male. I'm aware that I have a penis; that I want to shag women; that there are certain things that interest me and others that don't; that society deems some of these things "manly" and others not. That's it - factors 1-4.

But beyond this, what does it mean to "know" that one is a certain "gender"? Can anyone describe it?
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Re: Is gender real?

#2  Postby Tbickle » Aug 23, 2010 2:29 pm

:coffee:

I'd like to see what some others more versed in this topic have to say about this.
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Re: Is gender real?

#3  Postby Mononoke » Aug 23, 2010 2:45 pm

:coffee: :coffee:
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Re: Is gender real?

#4  Postby Beatsong » Aug 23, 2010 2:47 pm

Everyone's on the coffee. Does thinking about gender produce a need for stimulants?
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Re: Is gender real?

#5  Postby Tbickle » Aug 23, 2010 2:55 pm

Well, thinking about someone else's "gender" may be a stimulant itself. :think:
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Re: Is gender real?

#6  Postby katja z » Aug 23, 2010 3:20 pm

Beatsong wrote:Everyone's on the coffee. Does thinking about gender produce a need for stimulants?

No. But a need to stop and think, definitely. I think you're asking a very good question. It got me thinking about what it means for me to be a woman (I certainly don't think there's anything mysteriously feminine in me, over and above the biological and social factors!). I wish I had anything useful to contribute apart from one more bit of anecdotal evidence roughly matching yours, but coming from a different gender. :cheers:
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Re: Is gender real?

#7  Postby z8000783 » Aug 23, 2010 3:36 pm

As I said on the other thread, these are just labels that describe individual or groups of behaviour that we then ascribe to the person exhibiting those behaviours. Someone on the other thread even elevated it to a full blown theory although I can’t imagine what the purpose of doing that might be.

However the people being assigned these labels are all unique and will have a range of emotions and a continuum of sexuality that throwing a handful of labels at cannot possibly do just to.

Whilst you questions are good I wonder what the usefulness in attempting to answer them is. You may say that that is what society does and I wouldn’t disagree with you but the point is still made. For me it is back to behaviour in 2 & 3 and so long as doesn’t frighten the horses why the need to categorise it? Of course 2 & 3 may be driven by 1 and the many variations of that but that is just chemistry. As for 4, WGAF.

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Re: Is gender real?

#8  Postby Beatsong » Aug 23, 2010 4:41 pm

z8000783 wrote:Whilst you questions are good I wonder what the usefulness in attempting to answer them is.


Good point.

I suppose part of it is about trying to understand what's going on in people, when "gender" is used (either by themselves or others) to describe how they are different.

AFAIK the widespread use of the term originated in the 70s, among people who wanted to challenge the accepted idea up to that time that sexuality and personality was inextricably linked to biological sex, and people who didn't conform to those links were therefore "disordered" and had to be cured. Feminists used the term "female gender" to denote aspects of behaviour that are only socially determined as "female", to make clear that they could have female bits without being interested in that behaviour. Gays used the term to clarify that being of one "gender" does not necessitate being sexually attracted to the other, or not to one's own.

But this ties in with what I said above about transexuals: gender only seems to be a useful term (if at all) to describe problems and contradictions between innate sexual characteristics, or interests and personality traits, and social expectations. Where there are no such problems or contradictions, because most of what a person is and likes corresponds well enough with what society arbitrarily expects of them, then there is nothing real we can point to in that person's makeup and call "gender".

Yet the presumptions and terminology have spread outward from the description of how society's norms fail to fit minority groups, to description of the mainstream majority. Thus the way gender seems to be conceived by many would suggest that I walk down the street "feeling like" a man. I don't. I walk down the street feeling like shagging women, playing music or going to the beach. If someone were to come up and ask me to a football game I'd decline, not because of my "gender" but because I'm not interested in football. If someone were to come up and ask me to spend the afternoon shopping for handbags, I'd decline for the same reason.

On the other side of the street there might be a gay woman walking along also thinking about shagging women, playing music or going to the beach. Clearly she has a different biological sex from me, but what does it mean, over and above that, to say she is of a different "gender"?
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Re: Is gender real?

#9  Postby Dory » Aug 30, 2010 10:19 am

I think every social topic can be hugely confusing, conflicting, and contradicting, almost no matter how much you'll try to make it scientific. It's culture, it's fucked up, and we do what feels good, and I don't think overthinking it is healthy. It's just asking "why sex feels good? why does touching boobs feel good? why does grabbing a piece of ass feels good? why does sucking cocks make you feel good?" over and over and over again, till you're just wasting time and not making any progress. Hey, being the other gender makes you feel good? godspeed, all I gotta say...I'm not gonna waste time to understand your personal psychology. I reckon what is male or what is female is defined different by males and females, and many females vary heavily in their femininity-masculinity just as much as man do. In fact, just because a male turned female, doesn't mean that individual has to be feminine. The diversity, complexity, and inexplicability of life and human culture is just another one of its charms.

That's my PoV about it, in general.
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Re: Is gender real?

#10  Postby Mononoke » Aug 30, 2010 10:39 am

Hello Dory, long time no see.

:wave:
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Re: Is gender real?

#11  Postby Dory » Aug 30, 2010 11:01 am

Mononoke wrote:Hello Dory, long time no see.

:wave:


;) Hey.

BTW, in my post above I didn't mean to say "stop asking questions and stop exploring", rather a friendly warning that you're diving into a pool of messiness where answers are not definite and you're gonna get caught in a web that will often make you churn water.
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Re: Is gender real?

#12  Postby Elena » Aug 30, 2010 12:56 pm

Beatsong wrote: 4. Their interaction with social expectations about how these factors go together.

The concept of "gender" only seems to arise where there is a severe conflict between any of the first three of these factors, and the fourth one. A biological male who happens to be homosexual will have to fight against homophobes who insist on the expectation that men "should" want to have sex with women. A young girl who happens to like playing rough games will be called a "tomboy" and, later, probably be suspected of being gay, simply because her interests don't coincide with what society says they "ought" to be. In extreme cases, a young child can form a transgender identity and insist that they are the opposite of everything people tell them they "should" be.

But the problem with all this is that factor 4 is entirely cultural and arbitratry. There is no innate connection between biological sex and certain interests, or contradiction between it and other interests.

I humbly suggest that we don't have all the answers yet. Neuroendocrine factors and brain neurochemistry have shown over the past two decades to be more intricately associated with mammal behavior (bot human and non-human) than any expert in behavior (or any neurologist or endocrinologist) could have predicted. As you say:
Anecdotally, I have never known young children to have a concept of their own "gender" that is separate from or additional to these elements.

Yes, there is culture and there are societal expectations. But they apparently can't override biology and the perception of gender that each of us has for our selves (splitting intended).

As for the definition of gender... :ask:
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Re: Is gender real?

#13  Postby Beatsong » Aug 30, 2010 3:39 pm

Well since starting this thread I have asked a couple of people what they think and while some agree with me, some don't.

My wife in particular was absolutely certain that she feels female, and that having shaven legs or getting her nails done involves a pleasure that goes beyond the things itself, into reinforcing her sense of femininity in general. She reckons I'm unusual in not having similar feelings about masculinity.

But the way she described it, it was like the pleasure came from positive feedback from society, confirming her femininity. It's like the difference between us is not so much how we feel subjectively, but the fact that she takes categorisations from outside herself and personalises them, whereas I don't, generally.
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Re: Is gender real?

#14  Postby nunnington » Aug 30, 2010 3:58 pm

Beatsong wrote:Well since starting this thread I have asked a couple of people what they think and while some agree with me, some don't.

My wife in particular was absolutely certain that she feels female, and that having shaven legs or getting her nails done involves a pleasure that goes beyond the things itself, into reinforcing her sense of femininity in general. She reckons I'm unusual in not having similar feelings about masculinity.

But the way she described it, it was like the pleasure came from positive feedback from society, confirming her femininity. It's like the difference between us is not so much how we feel subjectively, but the fact that she takes categorisations from outside herself and personalises them, whereas I don't, generally.


I was just recalling that 1980s feminism was full of conflict over these issues. Some feminists saw gender as entirely a social construct, yet others seemed to argue for an essential femininity or femaleness. They tended to be derided for being 'essentialists', yet they had a rather interesting reply, that social constructionism tends to dissolve the notion of femaleness or femininity.

I also recall (without reference) various research projects on playground behaviour, which seemed to argue that whereas girls flock together and socialize, boys stand around sullenly, kick footballs and lumps out of each other.

But that doesn't really tell us whether these behaviours are also socially constructed.

Of course, anecdotally again, many parents swear that boys 'instinctively' reach for the toy tractor and the gun, and girls reach for the doll. Surely there has been some more substantial research on this?

I think the research on male brains might throw some light on this (Baron-Cohen), as male brains seem to be rather emotionally switched off and dissociative. This research also seems to predict that men will tend to be atheists more than women (although some women have male brains).
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Re: Is gender real?

#15  Postby nunnington » Aug 30, 2010 4:11 pm

Beatsong

I forgot to mention an interesting fact, that in the 1980s, gender studies was very big business. There were gender studies departments in universities, hence professors of gender studies, bookshops had large sections on it, and there were ferocious debates on gender within feminism, but also in other disciplines. Do you remember Andrea Dworkin and co? Shudder. Intercourse, as practised by men, is intrinsically an act of rape, don't you know?

Anyway, I was involved in all that up to the early 90s, and I began to lose interest, but strangely enough, gender studies itself began to either collapse or become subsumed into other areas, such as anthropology. (Gilmore's 'Manhood in the Making' was considered a minor classic). You will now no longer find sections in bookshops devoted to it at all, and I think that in general, it has shrunk a lot.
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Re: Is gender real?

#16  Postby Dory » Aug 31, 2010 12:30 pm

Beatsong wrote:Well since starting this thread I have asked a couple of people what they think and while some agree with me, some don't.

My wife in particular was absolutely certain that she feels female, and that having shaven legs or getting her nails done involves a pleasure that goes beyond the things itself, into reinforcing her sense of femininity in general. She reckons I'm unusual in not having similar feelings about masculinity.

But the way she described it, it was like the pleasure came from positive feedback from society, confirming her femininity. It's like the difference between us is not so much how we feel subjectively, but the fact that she takes categorisations from outside herself and personalises them, whereas I don't, generally.


Funny. Imagine if, just if, you were put into HER body and she was put in your body. Or, to that effect, any male just imagine he's suddenly woke up as a female. And for the heck of it, let's say you're pretty and young.

For starters, I'd imagine you'd feel your boobs. Fair enough. You're still wired like a guy. Then you'd feel your body. Oooh the smoothness... you may not have a cock but a pussy is kinda funny to play with too....it's interesting, it's new. Okay, it's been a few months now and you're sick of playing with yourself. You go out to the real world. You're not as strong as you used to be, but you notice guys look at you differently. Some are hitting on you. Almost everyone, in fact. You feel powerful. In fact, much more powerful than you were a guy. As a guy, it's your muscles for your own. As a chick, it's the entire world and their dads defending you. Kinda cool. You look in the mirror and you wish you could bang yourself. But you can't. You are what you wanna bang. It's the weirdest fucking feeling ever. Now imagine you have the option to go back to being a guy...would you do it, or would you carry on being female? Isn't it fun?

It's amazing how mellable is the human mind, and how nothing is predetermined, really.
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Re: Is gender real?

#17  Postby z8000783 » Aug 31, 2010 1:33 pm

Of all the things I could do even if I choose not to, which are the same for both sexes, there is one exception and that is to experience a female orgasm.

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Re: Is gender real?

#18  Postby Beatsong » Sep 01, 2010 10:08 pm

nunnington wrote:I was just recalling that 1980s feminism was full of conflict over these issues. Some feminists saw gender as entirely a social construct, yet others seemed to argue for an essential femininity or femaleness. They tended to be derided for being 'essentialists', yet they had a rather interesting reply, that social constructionism tends to dissolve the notion of femaleness or femininity.

I also recall (without reference) various research projects on playground behaviour, which seemed to argue that whereas girls flock together and socialize, boys stand around sullenly, kick footballs and lumps out of each other.

But that doesn't really tell us whether these behaviours are also socially constructed.

Of course, anecdotally again, many parents swear that boys 'instinctively' reach for the toy tractor and the gun, and girls reach for the doll. Surely there has been some more substantial research on this?

I think the research on male brains might throw some light on this (Baron-Cohen), as male brains seem to be rather emotionally switched off and dissociative. This research also seems to predict that men will tend to be atheists more than women (although some women have male brains).


What you're referring to here is the classic nature/nurture debate. Clearly the jury is still out on a lot of this, but I don't actually have a problem with the idea that a lot of the differences between typically male and typically female behaviour may be innate and biological. That's not my point though.

Even if these behaviours ARE innate and biological, that doesn't mean that there is a real thing that can be subjectively experienced called "gender". In fact, to the extent that the behaviours are biological in origin, we don't call them gender; we call them sex. If it is discovered one day that a specific genetic difference between men and women causes men to be more aggressive, or women to be more compassionate, or whatever, then all that knowledge will do is add to our awareness of the reach of biological sex.

But the whole point of gender is that it isn't necessarily tied to biological sex. A tomboy, an effeminate man or in extreme cases a transexual can identify with the gender of the opposite physical sex.

As far as I can tell, gender is simply the name given, externally to the experiencing individual and after the fact, to certain clusters of typical characteristics. And "typical" is the oeprative word, since every individual seems to have a different mix of these characteristics anyway.

It all comes down to whether the overall word used to group the characteristics is a real part of the subjective experience of the characteristics or not. As I said, for me it definitely isn't. When I have sex with women, or enjoy fixing computers, I don't "feel male". I just feel the thing that I am doing. Likewise, when I look after my children in ways that might have been considered "motherly" to my parents' generation, or when I enjoy a scented bubble bath, I don't "feel female". Again, I am just doing those things. There is no disconnect in my personality between the part of me that enjoys "typically male" things and the part that enjoys "typically female" ones. The fact of somebody putting them in those boxes has no connection with my subjective experience of them, and would continue to have no such connection even if their "typical" association with masculinity or femininity were proven to be largely biological in origin.

I'm willing to admit that I'm the unusual one, if it turns out that most other people do actually experience this thing called "maleness" or "femaleness", as opposed to just having their behaviour named that way after the fact by society. I suppose that's why I'm interested in talking about it, like a blind person wondering what it's like to experience red.

It may be that gender, as I hypothesised above, is something that people are only aware of when it doesn't work the way it's supposed to (eg when they're born in the "wrong" body, or when their internal nature tells them to be happy as a very butch gay woman, but society judges them for it). Or it may be that people who are naturally at the extremes of the spectrum do experience it as such, and the people like me who are closer to the middle don't. Or it could be all an invention of social control that nobody, if they really examine their internal state of mind, actually feels at all. I don't know...
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Re: Is gender real?

#19  Postby Beatsong » Sep 01, 2010 10:13 pm

Dory wrote:Imagine if, just if, you were put into HER body and she was put in your body. Or, to that effect, any male just imagine he's suddenly woke up as a female. And for the heck of it, let's say you're pretty and young.

For starters, I'd imagine you'd feel your boobs. Fair enough. You're still wired like a guy. Then you'd feel your body. Oooh the smoothness... you may not have a cock but a pussy is kinda funny to play with too....it's interesting, it's new. Okay, it's been a few months now and you're sick of playing with yourself. You go out to the real world. You're not as strong as you used to be, but you notice guys look at you differently. Some are hitting on you. Almost everyone, in fact. You feel powerful. In fact, much more powerful than you were a guy. As a guy, it's your muscles for your own. As a chick, it's the entire world and their dads defending you. Kinda cool. You look in the mirror and you wish you could bang yourself. But you can't. You are what you wanna bang. It's the weirdest fucking feeling ever. Now imagine you have the option to go back to being a guy...would you do it, or would you carry on being female? Isn't it fun?


You're fucking with my head Dory. If you knew, as a frustrated 15-year-old, how many hours I wiled away wishing I had boobs. :lol:

Not sure I can answer your conundrum. I can't deny I'm intrigued...
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Re: Is gender real?

#20  Postby Dory » Sep 02, 2010 4:59 am

Heh. Yes, it's really, really, really fun to play with my own boobs, if you have to know. I do it all the time :D
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