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Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Sex and Gender: Binaries and Continuums

I think of sex as mostly binary and gender as pretty much a continuum. There are intersex individuals and more of them than cursory midwife inspection may suggest; some intersex features only reveal themselves later, often in adolescence. But it's still a small number and to treat sex as binary has always been a fairly good approximation for practical purposes; it has high predictive value for such things as who will get breast cancer and who will get prostate cancer. Worldwide, it also predicts which foetuses are more likely to be aborted: if the scan shows the foetus female, then that is more likely to be aborted.

But gender characteristics are distributed along a continuum rather than distributed into a binary of trans and cis. Most boys, by whatever are the accidents of their upbringing, acquire some feminine characteristics and most girls some masculine ones. Some children end up more thoroughly transgendered than this but manage to find niches in life which suit them.

There are a very small number of people who feel strongly that their gender character is so misaligned with their body that they want to change their body, and some do so using whatever chemical and surgical methods are on offer from the current medical profession (which has a less than glorious history in such matters, one should always remember). 

But I doubt that those who change sex in this way end up completely cisgendered in relation to their new body. They will still have gender characteristics left over from the sex they are leaving. It can get very complicated and that’s fine, though complicated does not necessarily mean heroic or morally unproblematic. You can get rid of parts of a male body to make yourself more of a woman but it's still possible that you act like a bully.

That gender is a continuum has  always had some recognition. The terms sissy and tomboy indicate very obviously that there was long ago a recognition that some boys had more than their average share of feminine characteristics and girls ditto for masculine. Sissies had a bad press, but tomboys usually a more indulgent one. The differences sometimes had obvious explanations in accidents of parenting and the sex distribution of siblings. An isolated boy growing up with six sisters would probably end up playing their games; a girl growing up on a farm often got handy at doing things that we might think of as very masculine, like killing. And, living on a lighthouse, Grace Darling knew how to row a boat in a storm.

Parents very often try to ensure that their children get gendered in as binary fashion as possible and schools to their shame often co-operate in things like school uniform and separate classes for this or that, swimming or cookery. Toyshops insist that there are boys' toys and girls' toys and even stamp the fact on the boxes to prevent any accidental transgendering. But children are not docile in these matters and may resist. They are very alert to other forms of fun than the ones they are being channeled towards.

© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019

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