American social expectations based on gender are reached by way of an unacknowledged, but very commonly understood logically valid argument roughly like this:

  • Premise 1: Every human being is born with either a penis or a vagina.
  • Premise 2: Those human beings with penises are males, starting life as 'boys', and upon reaching sexual maturity, becoming 'men'. We will call this set "men". Those with vaginas start life as girls, and upon reaching sexual maturity, become 'women'. We will call this set "women".
  • Premise 3: In the set "men", certain innate emotional and behavioral characteristics are very common, among them: Sexual attraction to women, aggression, toughness, etc. In the set "female", certain other innate emotional and behavioral characteristics are very common, among them: Sexual attraction to men, a nurturing demeanor, tendency toward emotion, sensitivity, etc.
  • Premise 4: People should behave in a way that is consistent with their gender-set’s common characteristics.

  • ______________________________________________
  • Conclusion: Adults with penises are "men", and should behave in the ways consistent with the rest of their gender set, i.e., consistent with masculinity. Adults with vaginas are "women", and should behave in the ways consistent with their gender set, i.e., consistent with femininity.

There are three problems with the valid argument above:

Premise 3 asserts that certain emotional and behavioral characteristics are very common in the gender sets. That much is not too difficult to accept. But are those characteristics innate? Well, they're certainly not innate for everyone; if they were, there'd be nothing to discuss here. While common gender-variegated behavior norms may be innate to some (or even most) members of a gender set, we should consider that behavior paradigms may actually cause themselves, through widespread a priori acceptance. That is, men turn to male society to establish their correct behavior, but that correct behavior is in the first place established by those men themselves, since collectively, they ARE male society!

I liken this circularity to an interesting phenomenon in modern language: the body of English-speakers consults dictionaries as guides for "correct" word usage and spelling; but lexicographers consult this same body of English speakers to determine the word usages and spellings which are very common, and therefore "correct." These systems of authority--in the examples of language and gender--are recursive and closed, because each entity regards the other as the authoritative standard, denying its own role in the matter.

Premise 4, that a person "should" behave in a gender-specific way has two problems. Besides being completely baseless, it has some unintended consequences. Paraphrased, Premise 4 says that anything that is common in a gender set is good, and anything that deviates from the most-common traits is bad. Notice that this Premise renounces effeminate behavior AND exceptionally-masculine behavior alike! It is no more 'normal' (i.e., common), for a man to be an excellent sharpshooter ("masculine") than it is for him to be a homemaker ("feminine"). Both are uncommon, and therefore, by this reasoning, 'abnormal'. Yes, perhaps the premise could be rephrased in a way that avoids that problem, but even so, the following question would remain: Why 'should' a male behave in a way that is common, even if such behavior is not natural for him? Says who?!

Finally, the most basic premise of the argument, Premise 1, is also the most provably false. I'm serious: it is very simply not true that every human being is born with either a penis or a vagina.

In her fascinating and commendable paper, "Indeterminate Biological Sex: An issue of Gender Determination," Tia Scagliarini of the University of Maryland, College Park, thoroughly and scientifically debunks the binary sex concept, demonstrating that biology exhibits no such thing. The incidence of "intersexuality" in an astounding 1.7 percent of American births (63) is alone enough to disprove the premise that "all humans have penises or vaginas." Intersexuality includes (but is not limited to) hermaphroditism, and refers to a set of medical conditions in which sex chromosomes, external genitalia, or the internal reproductive system are either gender-ambiguous or otherwise "non-standard" (Ibid.). Some of Scagliarini’s findings about the reactions of the American medical community to the intersexed were troubling:

The average length of a male penis at birth is between 1 and 1.5 inches. However, if a baby is born with a penis of 0.6 inches or less, the penis is generally removed along with the testes and a vaginal opening is created. (64) "In cases of intersexed children assigned the female gender, surgeons may carve a large phallus down into a clitoris attempting to make it appear invisible when standing, create a vagina using a piece of colon, and mold a labia out of the remnants of the penis" (Dreger, qtd. in Scagliarini, 64)

. . . It is extremely rare for . . . [a] sexually abnormal infant to be created a penis as penises are thought to require much more precision and accuracy to be believable while vaginas are less scrutinized (64).

. . . The only occasions when emergency gender alteration will favor a male sexual identity is in the case of true hermaphroditism, when both a physically perfect penis and vagina are present. In this instance, physicians will save the penis and attempt the elimination of the vagina through fusion of the labia (Ibid).

These findings lend weight to the comments of A. Fausto-Sterling, author of The Five Sexes, Revisited, who asserts that the disparity between social expectations of biological sex (i.e., unequivocally male or female), and the truth of biology, forces physicians to "explain otherwise natural biological variation as 'deformity' and hold[s] them responsible for imperative gender determination and assignment," (qtd. in Scagliarini, 63).

Here again is the interesting problem of recursion. Physicians assign gender in two categories because it is the expectation of society that all persons have either a penis or a vagina--that every person is either male or female by primary virtue of their genitals. It is only when viewed from this perspective that ambiguity necessarily equals deformity. But note that societal expectations are set (at least in part) by the behavior of physicians. So, just as in the example of dictionaries and speakers, surgeons perform genital modification to fulfill the expectations of society -- expectations which those surgeons themselves are partly responsible for establishing through surgeries!

Not only do I claim that gender is necessarily a social construction, but furthermore, sometimes, biological sex itself is too.

Source Cited:

Scagliarini, Tia. "Indeterminate Biological Sex: An Issue of Gender Determination." Maryland Essays in Human Biodiversity. Vol. 2, No. 1, Dec. 2003. University of Maryland. Ed. Benjamin Auerbach, Wendy Gilley, et al. 63-64.

The notion that gender is a binary trait has been upheld for quite some time. By dictionary standards, it is sex that we are born with (I.e., our reproductive organs define our sex), but gender is created by society. However, most people are not aware of this difference and treat the two words as synonyms. For the most part, people’s sexes and genders as created by society match up. This is when we get a “normal” male or female. Gender itself is usually harder to define than sex, because it fluctuates. Many girls, for instance, may go through a tomboy phase, and then later become very “girly” for a few years. This alone proves that gender is not a binary trait, if one can be equally a girl when she is playing with dolls as when she is climbing trees.

Society imposes gender on children when they are very young, through parents, teachers, friends, and the media. This imposition can start as young as when the child is an infant, and can be determined by simple things such as what types of toys the infants are given to play with. Young boys will play with dolls or Barbies, and girls will play with trucks and balls, if they are given them. Children do not have any innate sense of their social gender roles until they are taught them by society. In addition to parents influencing gender, boys and girls are treated differently in school and a group of girls playing will be behaving differently than a group of boys playing. The media also imposes gender on viewers, particularly commercials and advertisements, who often use women to sell home appliances, cosmetics and toiletries, cleaning supplies, or fresh food and groceries, and use men to advertise things like insurance and investing. Another interesting bit of food for thought is the fact that males and females are expected to wear different types of clothing, although any of us could be physically comfortable in the other gender’s clothes. All of these aspects help create gender roles and pressure people, especially children and adolescents, to conform to them. Some adults, particularly males, tend to become slightly more androgynous in their gender as they grow older. This is thought to help interpersonal relationships, as those who are more androgynous can see both male and female perspectives and thus “put themselves in the other person’s shoes”. Because of this, many believe that gender androgyny is something people should strive towards.

Although sex is easier to define than gender, it is not binary either. A biological example to society’s sex rule is hermaphrodites. There are three known types of hermaphrodites: True, Male-Pseudo, and Female-Pseudo. A “True” Hermaphrodite is a person born with both ovarian and testicular tissue. Genitalia can be all male, all female, a combination of both, or very ambiguous looking. The chromosomes can be XX, XY, XX/XY (mosaic), or XO (resulting in Turner Syndrome, which is very rare). Those who are XY or XX are usually raised with their corresponding gender, and can sometimes even reproduce. Those who are XX/XY or XO but who have distinct male or female genitalia are normally raised in the sex that they look like. Hermaphrodite children who have ambiguous or combination genitalia are carefully tested and analyzed and then undergo surgery to make the genitalia look like the sex that doctors believe the child should have. Female-Pseudo Hermaphrodites have XX chromosomes and are born with normal internal female organs, but their genitalia is ambiguous or “masculanized”. A Male-Pseudo Hermaphrodite has XY chromosomes and testes, but has ambiguous or “feminine” genitalia. Hermaphrodites of any type are often referred to as “intersexed”.

Transsexuals and cross dressers also prove that gender is not binary, in straddling the line between sex and gender. Many transsexuals, whether or not they have had reassignment surgery, feel as if their gender does not match up with their biological sex. Transsexuals are often trying to make their sexual organs or genitalia match up with the gender that they feel they have. This is the reason why sex change operations are often referred to as “gender reassignment surgery”. Cross dressers feel similarly about their gender and sex, but only dress and act as the opposite sex some of the time, often in private.

I feel that the above two write-ups make very valid and interesting points. Gender roles are reinforced by society and creates a chicken or the egg situation: a never-ending loop of gender behavior imperatives creating themselves. However there are a few important questions that I feel have been left out.

First off, neither touched on the biology of the brain. These gender characteristics must have originally come from somewhere. The brains of men and women are wired differently. According to men have 4% more brain cells than women. This is not to say that men are necessarily smarter because next the site says that the connections between the brain cells are better in women. Language is the dominant hemisphere in men but women have more access to both sides, it may be why women are said to be better multi-taskers. But the most relevant info to this write up comes in the study of the limbic system. Differences here give women advantages and disadvantages. The limbic part of the brain in women is larger which makes them more in touch with their feelings and better able to bond emotionally with others (which suggests why women the world over are primary caretakers for children). But the disadvantage is they are more susceptible to depression. Even with this fact, though, men kill themselves more often and by more violent means. Conclusion: women are more emotional and men are more aggressive, generally speaking. These things are not taught, it's biology. So these biological differences are the roots of these reinforced gender behaviors. Maybe there's not as much reinforcement as is suggested above. Perhaps these things like boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls were originally driven by biology and are self-perpetuating in that sense.

Second off, I wonder what would happen if you took a bunch of female and male babies and put them on a desert island and they are taken care of by adults who purposely reinforce any gender roles as little as possible, and then the children are left to their own devices once they can adequately feed and care for themselves? The real goal of the experiment would be to see if there's a new genesis of gender roles, which might prove that boys will be boys and girls will be girls anyway. And then they will go on to "reinforce" those behaviors to the children those little horn dogs will invariably have.

Oh, and one more thing: as to the discussion that gender really isn't binary, it is obvious that it is not since there are individuals born with both sex organs. However, the small percentage of them does make them anomalies and doesn't necessarily mean that human beings are supposed to or are meant to have multiple genders. So I feel I can freely discuss the differences between males and females above as I did without mention of them. But of course, as is the case with anybody with any kind of difference from the norm like homosexuals and transsexuals, they deserve the same respect and dignity as everybody else and it does anger me when doctors so freely think they can play God and decide what gender these children will be. It downright infuriates me when penises are removed just because they are small, but, hey, I may be biased there being that I am a man, and, as such, am thankful I have the little guy down there.

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