Friday, 29 May 2015

Sex and Gender (Basics)

For most of my life, Forms to be Filled asked me for my Sex and I always ticked Male, which was truthful, not that any bureaucrat ever checked up by getting me to pull down my pants. Occasionally they did check on you: at the Olympic Games, for instance.

I can see that the system was a bit unfair: the binary choice of M and F creates a problem for the maybe 1% of people who are hermaphrodite to a greater or lesser degree. No one ever offered them a third box to tick. It was always just Male and Female, with many consequences entailed like liability to military service. 

In the UK, it determined whether you could stop work and collect your pension at 65 (if you ticked M) or 60 (if you ticked F), though if you ticked F it would then be predicted that you would live longer than someone who ticked M.

Nonetheless, very few people ever lied about their Sex. In John Berger's book A Fortunate Man, about the work of a country doctor, there is a charming story about an elderly couple who had spent their lives doing so. But it is rare.

Nowadays, I am no longer asked for my Sex. I am asked for my Gender, though I am still offered the binary choice of M and F. I suspect that the word “Gender” is no more than an American euphemism for the word “Sex”. Americans don’t like to be reminded that sexual organs exist. Remember that there was once an organisation in the US which campaigned to make animals wear nappies.

The new word irritates me because I have always understood by “Gender” something which is a multi-dimensional spectrum  - and a spectrum on which an individual may have difficulty in locating themselves in any kind of fixed and final way. Somedays I feel more Masculine than on others; my Feminine side comes and goes. It depends a lot on where I am and who I am with.

 If you ask for my “Gender” I want to write an essay, not tick a box. I don’t think of myself as very M when it comes to gender. As someone sexed M I seek out sexually those who are sexed F, but after that I don’t have many interests which are supposed to go with being sexed M and I almost completely lack some  character traits normally fostered by parents and schools in those sexed M, or so it seems to me (I may be wrong about myself).

I collect stamps (which is very, very M in the UK at least) but I never go to pubs (which for most of my life were very M places in the UK) or hang out in all-M groups or attend M-sports fixtures. I don’t read magazines designed for M and there was a time when I pointedly read Vogue instead. I don’t cook or clean (which makes me very M) but I am quite a good listener (which makes me F). And so on. You can see how an extremely long and irritating essay could develop.


The conflation of Sex and Gender is unhelpful. For example, we still have lots of campaigns to increase the proportion of people sexed F in jobs mainly occupied by people sexed M (though we don’t have any campaigns for the reverse situation). But we don’t have campaigns to increase the proportion of people with Feminine gender characteristics in jobs mainly occupied now by people gendered predominantly Masculine.  But it is this which might make more of a difference to the way things like corporations are run or politics conducted. The trouble is, it's probably easier for people to fake their Gendering at interview than it is for them to fake their Sex.

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