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Sex Essentialism


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Sex, as in the verb and the noun. Specifically, gender and homosexuality. For this post, I'm not explicitly linking the two, but am discussing them together because my argument is the same. (I echo some of the thoughts that Steve had in the linked post.)

First, "gender essentialism" usually refers to inherent differences between men and women. Some like to snarkly point out that there are inherent differences between men and women, i.e. "boy parts" and "girl parts". Point taken, but it's asinine. The purpose of gender essentialism seems to make claims such as, "Since men are more/less X than women, only men should do Y." Psychological differences and quantitative/qualitative differences (strength, communication skills) are often tauted as the "X" in the previous statement.

On homosexuality, there is a debate concerning inherency. That is, many are concerned with whether or not homosexuality is a learned trait or biologically programmed. It shouldn't be difficult to see the similarity with the gender essentialism I've outlined above.

In case you want to skip the justifications that follow, I'll offer my conclusion now: talk of essentialism is lame. It doesn't (or shouldn't) mean anything.

Two points:

First. Every conversation I've read in the nacle since I started reading the nacle (4 months) starts with the assumption of a man/woman dichotomy. Perhaps I should not be surprised at this, as the bible, official proclamations, and Church culture affirm this. But there is good reason to think of gender as a continuum with "strictly man" and "strictly woman" as the poles, assuming (of course) that we could state what "strictly man/woman" means. When this spectrum is spoke of, it generally refers to biology. The Intersex Society of North America is a good place for more information.

Some also argue that a straight/gay dichotomy is also wrong, and that sexual orientation is also a continuum.

These issues need to be dealt with, or talk of essentialism is utterly pointless.

Second. Assume that there are essential gender traits that make women better at Y. So what? Does it follow that we should restrict male access to Y? Well, no. It seems that only one broad reasonable arguments can be made in favor of restricted access: society would be more efficient. Okay, but:

(a) Don't we believe in 'freedom' (whatever that means)? Agency? The equal opportunity to make our own choices?
(b) a free society will fluctuate around an equilibrium (efficiency) anyway, so why mandate it (see (a) above)?

So it comes down to this, why I think the discussion is lame: it makes do difference on how we should treat people. My feminism is not dependent on belief in inherent gender differences, but on principles of freedom and equality. My pro-SSM is not dependent on belief in inherent sexual urges, but on principles of equality and freedom.

And, frankly, I'd expect the anti-SSMers to feel the same way. Do you think that they would give up their battle if it was proven (100%) that homosexuality was genetically programmed? I don't. Even though I disagree with their position, I think that's the way it should be.


3 Responses to “Sex Essentialism”

  1. Anonymous Anonymous 

    The purpose of gender essentialism seems to make claims such as, "Since men are more/less X than women, only men should do Y."

    Do you think? Or can it be that people are simply trying to explain observable differences? Remember, men and women differ in terms of brain chemistry and hormones, too, and hormones have a powerful influence on our behavior.

    I'm not trying to pick an argument, I just think you are too casual in your dismissal of possible differences.

    And yes, I agree with your title. Sex is essential!

  2. Blogger Pris 

    You're right, I may be a little causual in my dismissal. I'm all for the pursuit of descriptive biology, but the problem comes when we start making perscriptive claims based on it.

    But I'm still a little hesitant with any sort of gender essentialism. I find it difficult to parse out the nature vs. nurture debate--which basically means that I don't know (and don't know if we can know) how much we can attribute to chemistry and hormones and what is caused by socialization. Clearly they are both factors, but I'm uncomfortable with saying anything more definitive than that.

    Even if essentialism isn't used as perscriptions, it seems a bit too general for my taste. We can say, for example, that "men are generally stronger than women". But that seems too broad to mean anything. Is the average man stronger than the average woman? Would men on average score higher on a "strength" test? How much has to do with the fact that it's more socially acceptable for a man to be strong than for a woman?

    So, I think you're right, but this is why I tend to dismiss it.

    (I wanted to title the post "Essential Sex", but, well, group blog and all...)

  3. Blogger Mike 

    Pris,
    I agree that if sexual orientation were proven to be primarily genetic the Anti-SSM zealots would not give up their argument- but I think their camp would split into those who are somewhat more compassionate while still opposing and those who just claim the science is bunk and that science is obviously part of the liberal godless establishment (the way they do in discussions on evolution.)

    As for the gay/straight dichotomy- would more evidence in terms of a continuum actually hurt the efforts of homosexuals to be societally accepted and harm the SSM movement?

    The article you link to extends the concept of sexuality far beyond even a continuum like the old Kinsey sorter.
    I think in winning their argument in favor of societal acceptance of homosexuality, SSM advocates and others may have a bit of a problem with the psychological studies of this sort and the search for genetic proof of in-born sexual orientation.

    Part of the problem is that a lot of the psychological research like that article and like Kinsey scale often find/conclude that sexuality is, at least in part, fluid. People may indeed have inborn tendencies but sexual attraction is changed by experience. Most of the people advocating the Kinsey scale would say that really very few people are born either totally gay or totally straight and that their sexual desires are influenced by socialization of varying sorts.

    The article you link to supports that idea- and implicitly goes further than that by claiming that sexual orientation is even beyond the Kinsey idea of an x axis with gay on one end and straight on the other. The old assumption was a dichotomy, bisexuality and study of it has moved to the idea of a continuum with people falling somewhere in between two extremes. It seems that may not even be fully accurate- and the article hints at that with the quotation of the bisexual woman who said "My sexual orientation is toward creative people of color who can cook,"

    Garnett’s (who the article references quite a bit) claims that research shows that there is no clear relationship between cross dressing and other cross gender activities and sexual orientation.

    With all these things defining sexual identity, sexual orientation, and gender becomes problematic. But- it also means that sexuality is in part socialized. It may indeed be that like gender it is largely biological and partly socialized-
    but...
    if that is true it lends credibility to the "sexual orientation is a choice" line of arguments.

    I think research showing that sexuality is a continuum, that it is rarely fixed, etc. will harm acceptance of homosexuality by many (in the short term).
    I think this is seen pretty clearly in acceptance of homosexuality- but looking at bisexuality as not acceptable by many people. People who disagree with homosexuality will nonetheless have compassion upon those who "can't help being gay" But, for someone who believes homosexuality is wrong, if someone is attracted to the opposite sex at all then there is no reason to engage in homosexual activity.

    I think this feeling is likely due to cultural constructs and it is implicitly understood by most. A personal example- my freshman year I knew my roommate was gay but no one else did. Before he came out of the closet publicly or even secretly dated men, he dated women and did seem to like some of them. I asked him if he ever came out of the closet would he still date women as well- he paused and thought about it for a minute and then said "No, I think you have to pick one way or another."

    In the Lawrence case (that overturned the Texas sodomy law) it was decided on basis of due process. However, O'Conner in her consenting opinion claimed that it really should be decided that way on equal protection grounds. It isn't that the government can't regulate sex, or that you have a right to it and the government must show compelling state interest to regulate (which some argue can be done with sodomy laws.) No- it is that the government extends or allows the right to have sex to heterosexuals- and to deny homosexuals, who can not have heterosexual sex, the right to have sex would violate the equal protection clause and treat people differently before the law.

    I think this sentiment of O'Conner is in some sense shared with many who aren't really comfortable with homosexuality. -That whether or not they like it; it wouldn't be fair to tell some one "you can't enjoy the same privileges I do- to fall in love, to make love, etc."

    But... if sexuality is fluid and homosexuals are simply individuals who prefer their own sex but attraction to the opposite sex isn't out of the picture- then I think a lot of people will be somewhat less sympathetic.

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