This section discusses the concepts of sex, gender, binary and non-binary identities. It’s aim is to explore their similarities, differences, and complexities. Gender is an identity-based social or cultural construct that represents how someone is perceived or how they feel. It is also a way to categorise people in a systematic way, and project upon them certain expectations. Genders are typically differentiated on binary terms and are meant to relate to the sexed bodies of males and females. Gender is what Judith Butler calls cultural interpretations of the sexed body. These lead to particular expectations regarding how one should behave to meet gender expectations, in terms of dress, behaviours and speech, for example.
You may be familiar with phrases like a woman being ‘lady-like’ and ‘lads will be lads’. This tells us that there are different expectations for how men and women should behave. For example, women are typically expected to be more caring, considerate, submissive and gentle than men. Sex refers to the biological characteristics of an individual, specifically reproductive anatomy. Gender is more generally considered a social construction. There is a lot of pressure and expectation for the two to align with one another, i.e female and femininity, male and masculinity.
Most people are identified at birth as either male or female, although in some cases the anatomical, chromosomatic or hormonal characteristics are such that an individual is described as intersex as they “do not fit” what society deems to be typical definitions of a male or female body. There is a lot of pressure for people to be classified as either male or female, even resulting in medical treatment in order to make someone “fit into” an assigned a sex category. However, in a more contemporary context, what we call non-binary gender or sex identity is increasingly embraced more openly.
Sex is therefore typically treated as a biological not a social construct, although it is still strongly linked with gender – for example, a male body and male gender are typically assumed to be directly connected with one another. In the previous slide we referred to non-binary. By that we simply mean not conforming to the prescribed conventions of the distinction between males and females, men and women. Historically it has been assumed that most people can be categorized by this binary, however we now know that is not the case. We see this binary in everyday life, for example on public toilet signs, on medical forms, and in swimming pool changing rooms, just to name three.
However, increasingly there is a growing awareness that people are not easily classified in binary terms; there is an array of genders with which people identify. This goes beyond those classified as intersex and includes those who categorise themselves as non-binary, queer, or gender fluid. ‘Queer’ is used to represent those who identify with ‘non-normative’ gender and sexuality categories. For example, the term queer has been claimed by those who do not identify as cisgender and/or heterosexual. (The term cis-gender refers to individuals whose gender corresponds with their sex assigned at birth). For lots of reasons, gender is a complex and contested term. Our understanding has gradually become more sophisticated and nuanced.
We recognize that the gender binary is too restrictive and that gender identity can be fluid not only over time (i.e. how our expectations of men and women change over time – compare for example Victorian England to the present day) but also that gender can be seen as changeable for an individual. We can perform (or reject) certain aspects of gendered behaviour, and we can separate the link between certain activities and gender identity (namely, the problematic idea that girls wear pink and play with dolls, but boys do not). This suggests that gender has no essential link to the sexed body, and therefore one can identify and enact any gender identity regardless of one’s body. However, the relationship is more complex than that.
Firstly, there are strong historical and ongoing links between the sexed body and expected gendered behaviours. Secondly, for some there is a desire that their sexed body match their gendered identity. One way to explore this complexity is through considering transgender identity. Transgender is the term used for someone whose gender identity does not conform to the typical gendered behaviours ascribed to the sexed body at birth. If gender is something that is socially constructed, then arguably someone could live as the gender they identify with without needing to physically alter the body, whether that be through surgery or hormone supplements. However, transgender also includes transsexuals who choose to change their bodies physically as well as how they dress.
Consequently, their sexed body conforms to the gender which they identify with. This links the sexed body with the associated gender. For some, therefore, there is a need for their gender expression to be congruent with their sexed body. So is gender really socially constructed? Yes, but it’s helpful to bear in mind the role of power and the biological associations at play. We’ll take each of these in turn and treat them separately, even though they are interrelated. We discussed how men and women often face different expectations regarding their behaviour. These expectations have the effect of influencing and regulating our behavior as we either conform to these expectations or face being treated as abnormal if we do not.
The work of Judith Butler is helpful here. Judith Butler explains how we create, re-create and sustain gender identities through our performance of them, such that it is assumed that they reflect the essential nature of a gender (women are like this, men are like that) rather than just a cultural performance. This she describes as performativity, whereby everyday speech acts and non-verbal forms of communication define and maintain gender identities. We do not just perform our identities through this, but it also creates and sustains them. Butler also explores how, to be recognized as appropriate subjects, we need to conform to these gender identities. So whilst it may seem like we have the freedom to choose, deny and subvert gender norms (i.e.
what is considered normal behavior for a gender), it is also the case that if we do reject what’s deemed ‘normal’ then we are liable to be labelled as ‘different’-a position in society which can be ostracising. This has the effect of disciplining us (reflecting the power it has over us) to give the ‘correct’ gender performance. We can also see how some of these ‘abnormal’ identity classifications and normalised gender traits become classified. For example we use the prefix ‘iron’ to lady (iron lady) to describe women who exhibit attributes more typically associated with men, such as confidence, forcefulness, and dominance.
Although generally seen as a social construct, the transgender example illustrates that there are strong links with biology, and that our social constructs are based on sex, and link in ways that for many, are very important and central to their personal identity. As Judith Butler notes, the identification and division of people by virtue of their sex, and the association of certain gendered behaviours with each sex, reminds us that although gender is not the same as sex, it is very difficult to disentangle it from its associations with sex. Typically, we expect men to exhibit masculine types of behaviours, and females, feminine ones. Indeed in much of everyday language sex and gender are interchangeable words.
And the link is also important, because many of the problems with gender inequality are in fact sex inequality, where biological distinctions are core to understanding the causes of the inequality.