Sunday, April 06, 2008

Framing Gender Differences

The categories of male/female and masculine/feminine are neither fixed historically nor monolithic presently in global cultures. In the West speaking of the gender differences as ‘opposite’ has not always been relevant. Prior to the Enlightenment women remained largely a part of an overarching hierarchical male model in which women were on a lower point on the scale of being human (that is male). Female reproductive anatomy was understood to be the same but inverse as men. “Women were essentially men in whom a lack of vital heat – of perfection – had resulted in the retention, inside, of structures that in the male are visible without.”[1] These were the same organs, just at different stages of development. It took until the 1700s before specific vocabulary emerged to describe female anatomy. It is at this point that biology arose to both define and segregate genders in an unprecedented way in the West. Male and female became opposites as opposed to places on a hierarchal spectrum.[2] Biological differences led to all sorts of speculations and assertions as to the differences between genders. In the modern west biological sex came to define gender.

Though biology continues to play a significant role in our understanding of gender in the past generation developments in psychology, anthropology and sociology have also offered significant contributions. This has led to varied and conflicted claims about gender. In the field of biology, evolution, neuroscience, and hormone research have all made claims that gender is ultimately determined by our genetic makeup. This field is typically used to support the notion that gender is based in nature. Contemporary biological research is a battle wearied field as it has been plagued with easily becoming ir being framed in politic terms. Even apparently objective studies would use such politically charged language speaking of women’s inability to separate thought and feeling as opposed to their ability to synthesize the two.[3] The authority of nature was quickly picked up by both social conservatives or liberals to normalize either homosexuality or the nuclear family. Recent research seems to be much more self-aware of this tendency and is much more tentative in its claims. Simon Baron-Cohen acknowledges that generally men have a greater capacity to systematize while women carry a greater capacity to empathize.[4] The reader is quickly warned that this says nothing of the individual who may fall anywhere on the spectrum. Baron-Cohen looks to the particularities of Autism and Asperger Syndrome as a possible example of an ‘extreme male brain.’ Since these conditions are highly genetic and related to neurodevelopment the claim is offered that the chemistry of our brain tends to shape male and female brains along this spectrum.

The role of anthropology has tempered the extant to which biology is allowed to play a determinative or prescriptive role in gender distinctions. On a global scale very few, if any, claims regarding normative gender distinctions can be made. In his chapter on cultural constructs of gender Michael Kimmel notes the wide ranges of gender expressions around the world.[5] In some cultures gender appeared to play little role in organizing society. In some instances both genders share in a more ‘feminine’ expression of nurture while in other cultures both genders express a more aggressive ‘masculine’ nature. He surveys cultural expressions of extreme male dominance, of general equality and of female dominance. Also, some cultures have traditionally allowed for more than two absolute gender expressions. Certain Native American cultures have clearly prescribed roles for biological males who exhibit feminine traits or whose sex is ambiguous. In some of these cultures when a family has two many girls one might be chosen to live as a man and participate in the male division of labor. These women often grow to enter into lesbian relationships.[6] There is also extreme sexual diversity among global cultures with some south pacific cultures practicing ritual anal or oral sex among men. Here older men ‘inseminate’ younger boys so that they receive their ‘life force’ and can become productive warriors.[7] These men would not consider themselves homosexual or bisexual. Despite this diversity Kimmel acknowledges that nearly all cultures recognize divisions between genders and that the male gender generally has greater power within a given culture.

The primary contribution in the field of psychology (or of psychoanalysis in particular) appears to be the view that gender is understood to be an achievement in the development of individuals. In Freudian thinking this is related to the third stage of infant development. The first two are the oral and anal stage which both genders share equally. It is at the genital stage that the genders begin to diverge. In this stage individuals achieve masculinity or femininity. The masculine transition is considered more traumatic as the primary association of the feminine mother must be broken and the boy must associate with his father in order to have symbolic sexual access to the mother (the feminine). The transition for girls in this model is less traumatic. Here the girl must reject her sexual desire for her mother realizing her inability for sexual relations. She remains attached to the mother and develops a ‘passive’ sexuality in anticipation of male sexual relations. This model divorces gender identity with biology. It connects gender with sexual orientation (a gay person having failed to associate with his father). It reinforces traditional stereotypes of the sexually aggressive male and the sexually passive female. While much of Freud’s claims have been criticized or rejected many of the basic assumptions have been preserved. For instance, while many women reject the notion of ‘penis envy’ they may recognize the underlying power dynamics and speak of ‘privilege (or power) envy.’[8]

A sociological approach to gender also de-emphasizes the role that biology plays in gender differences. In drawing attention to the power that one’s environment plays on an individual Kimmel points to the unusual cases of children being brought up in near isolation.[11] In one particular instance a girl was nearly six before she began interacting with humans. Rather than being able to observe what sort of inherent gender or sexual dispositions the girl might exhibit he noted that her response was fear of people in general. Even after she got used to being around people she remained uninterested for a period of time “as if she did not see herself as one of them.”[12] Whatever our essential hardwiring might be environment plays a vital role in our formation.

Exploring gender as a social construction (though not ex nihilo) allows us to place less limits or arbitrary constraints on gender definitions then biology or psychology tend to offer (this will be important for the development of theological context for gender). Kimmel argues that a sociological perspective need not find differences within genders as aberrations but can rather speak of masculinities and femininities. Here gender itself is not an isolated expression but is a relational attribute within a larger social context. What is perhaps most important in the sociological or cultural approach to gender is its ability to link gender to power and politics. The question needs to be asked why gender differences are almost always linked to gender domination; that gender differences are embedded in a system that where men have power over women. Kimmel is quick to point out that this does not mean that each individual male feels or even experiences power.[13] The truth of male domination is that the social structures (economic, political, educational, scientific, religious) of our society have been formed and are still primarily inhabited by men. So even when women function in these structures they are still often functioning within a male structure. One example of this is in science, particularly the behaviour of molecules, where Barbara McClintock decided to reject the traditional models that assumed a hierarchically ordered relationship. “McClintock, using what she called ‘feminine methods’ and relying on her ‘feeling for the organism,’ discovered that instead of each cell being ruled by a ‘master molecule,’ cells were driven by a complex interaction among molecules.”[14] A woman could have continued to work in the traditional structure without finding these results so long as she did not change the ‘gender’ of the institution as McClintock had. In this way personal and social gender cannot be defined in a static way but continues to change as new relationships are created and old patterns are discarded.

None of these fields of study are neutral or objective as they all fall into larger political or social structures. It is important to have a sense of how each field of study approaches the issue of gender. This understanding should allow us greater discernment in clarifying the implicit motivations of those working on gender and gender ministry in the church. However, as Christians all of these approaches to gender must somehow be brought into relationship with a theological vision of what it is to live as a gendered person.

[1] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1990), 4.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Michael S. Kimmel, The Gendered Society, 3d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 30.

[4] Simon Baron-Cohen, “Does Biology Play any Role in Sex Differences in the Mind?” in The Future of Gender, ed. Jude Browne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 77-97.

[5] The Gendered Society, 54-76.

[6] Ibid., 68-9.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Ibid., 86.

[11] Ibid., 99.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 105.

[14] Ibid., 112.

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