A guest blog post by Helen Spandler and Meg-John Barker With the recent emergence of Mad Studies we thought it timely to explore some connections with Queer studies – another critical field of enquiry. We wanted to examine their similarities and differences; any points of tension; and what each could learn from the other. Helen […]
The Multeity Manifesto, pt.1
Under the influence of heteronormative and sex/gender binary-normative (largely Patriarchal) culture, the world’s progression towards a deeper understanding of gender has inched forward slowly, out of the assumptions of “natural gender roles” and related gender mythology and into a more complex analysis of gender that acknowledges the influence of social construction. While perhaps the majority of people still hold the view that gender traits and roles are inherent and immutable facts of Nature (e.g. “girls are naturally more talkative than boys”, “boys are naturally more gifted at math”, “girls are natural nurturers”, “women are nurturers”, “men have a higher proclivity to violence than women as dictated by their nature”, etc.), there is growing acceptance of the theory of gender as a social construction— in other words, as not natural.
But while we can tolerate theories of gender norms and roles as rooted in sociocultural construction, there is very little tolerance of theories that question the absolute validity of dividing all human beings into two categories of biological sex. The notion of biological sex seems infallible: at birth, a child is clearly determined to be either male or female, typically based on their genitalia (when possible). Broader definitions of biological sex consider hormonal and chromosomal makeup in addition to anatomy– which is where problems begin to arise, but doubts are quelled by labeling any individual body which resists sex binary classification as “deviant.” Indeed, “biological sex deviation” is seen as “abnormal” and, perhaps ironically, “unnatural”; this is reinforced by highlighting the adverse health affects of chromosomal or hormonal “syndromes“, depicting these “deviations” as clearly problematic.
Some biologists and scientists of the human body resolve such difficulties by redefining biological sex as a two-point spectrum, rather than an absolute binary. Such a spectrum, with “male” at one end and “female” at the other, allows us to consider variations of biological sex which fall “somewhere in between” these two absolutes. The problem with this spectrum is that it positions “male” and “female” as opposite, and further assumes that any deviations from “properly male” and “properly female” still land between them somewhere, thus being either “more male” or “more female”. The idea of “properly male” or “properly female” implies an unquestionable truth, thereby maintaining the correctness of binary categorization where possible.
This construction of biological sex as dichotomous or oppositional is extremely limited and inadequate. The diversity of human biological sex simply cannot be described or conceptualized by attempting to position “deviations” between two “true” or “real” points. It certainly can’t be done so without marginalizing those persons who defy the “reality” of sex binary or two-sex spectrum.
This reveals a very deep-seated problem, which is the fundamental assertion that there are correct sexes (namely, xx with socially-defined “female” anatomy and hormones, and xy with socially-defined “male” anatomy and hormones), and any sex (or a-sex) which cannot be described in these terms is deviant, abnormal, wrong.
Human investment in this conception is so deep that we go to great lengths to reinforce and protect it, even so far as “correcting” individuals who pose a threat to its stability and infallibility: there are standards by which we determine the correctness of the sizes of penises and clitorises, standards against which we measure the correctness of male and female hormones, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s chromosomes, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s reproductive tissues, et cetera.
At birth, doctors and medical staff examine the infant’s genitalia to determine its sex. Sometimes this is very difficult to do, as many infants are not born with what is obviously a penis or obviously a clitoris. Sometimes a penis is “too small” (less than an inch long) and needs correction. A common way to “correct” an “abnormal” penis is to cut it off and remake the infant as female. Similarly, infants may present with a clitoris that is “too large”. An “abnormally large clitoris” is usually shortened (sometimes called female circumcision or female cutting). Normality and abnormality defined by what Martha Coventry calls “the tyranny of the esthetic”, or more broadly what I will term the Sex Binary Construct.
The Sex Binary Construct identifies only two “real” or “true” categories of sexual distinction. To account for all individuals who do not fit neatly into this paradigm, the SBC labels them “deviant”.
The idea of “remaking” or “assigning” an infant into one sex or another is evidence of the elastic and abstract nature of sex. Indeed, the very notion of “reassigning”, “remaking”, or “defining” a newly born human as either male or female seems to discredit the SBC, even as these are the methods used to uphold its infallibility.
Many other challenges have been posed to the concreteness of SBC. Apart from “intersex” persons (individuals whose sex cannot be established as “typical”), persons self-identifying as transgender, Third Gender, asexual, or otherwise genderqueer contradict the fundamental tenets of the supposedly infallible SBC.
The power and authority of the Sex Binary Construct appear to be absolute. Its tenets are supported by reputable and highly-respected scientific institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which call the intersex birth a “social emergency”. As a social emergency, the concerns of society are placed above the welfare and human rights of the individual. These institutions have control over decision-making processes about intersex bodies. Some have tried to argue that when children and infants fall prey to such decision-making processes, it is in violation of their human rights. This argument could also be made on behalf of queer persons who are declared mentally ill when their behavior and/or attitudes fails to conform to the SBC.
There are countless examples of the harm done to individuals and overall human rights by the Sex Binary Construct, which are not even remotely limited to intersex, transgender, or genderqueer persons. But what is the solution? Simply banishing “gender” and “sex” to the dustbins of history would not truly resolves these problems– not to mention the notion is unrealistic.
I cannot purport to have a definitive solution; I do wish to join my voice to those seeking alternatives to the current reality. If in seeking to dismantle the SBC we have no adequate (and accurate) conceptualization to take its place, the old tenets will continue to shape sociocultural consciousness. Thus the first thing to go should be our cognition of gender as a dichotomy, and even as a two-point spectrum. In place of it I suggest a radial spectrum, upon which any “point” is not more or less “true” than any other, and which can describe an infinite number of sex possibilities. A radial spectrum would also solve the problem of oppositional categories, for “points” may be unfixed and mobile. The symbolism of the circle also invokes images of fluidity and changingness, which more accurately embody the lived human experience of gender/sex and sexuality. Does this disrupt the “scientific ideal”? Is it imperfect? Probably so. But our current science is hardly ideal, and very much imperfect. All communities with an interest in seeing the SBC on its way out should be coming together for dialogue, idea exchange, and redefinition of gender/sex. In that vein, I welcome comments and criticisms on these subjects.