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What is gender?


What is gender? It is something everyone has, but rarely thinks about. They know they are either a man or a woman and simply take it for granted. We behave in masculine or feminine ways that have become habitual to us through our lives, so that we give our behaviour no thought, we think of it as being natural to us. Yet whenever we meet someone, the first thing we note is whether that person is a man or a woman. It predicts the way the interaction between us will proceed. And if the behaviour of the other person gives cause for doubt, it causes worry and a feeling of insecurity.

Some people believe this behaviour is instinctive and predicted by our biology and our genes, others assert that we learn to behave in the way that we do. This is the nature/nurture debate which has been going on for a century and more, and is at its most partisan in the fields of science and politics. The central aim of this site will be to tease out the relationship of the two opposing points of view. What we will try to give is an interactive account.

You can see from the list of subject areas, in the index, that the discussion will range over a wide range of scientific and academic study. It may well become a very complex website.

Everyone who writes or talks about the subject, or practices therapy, must necessarily view it refracted through the personal lens of their own gender identity. We take it for granted. As Bem(1)points out, "a fish is unaware that its environment is wet. After all, what else could it be?"

Almost at once, we run into a terminological minefield. In general, the definition of gender identity is "A continuous and persistent sense of ourselves as male or female."

Most psychological and psychiatric texts simply regard this as a label one adopts, generally in childhood, the knowledge one is male or female, and no more. Many sociological, especially feminist, works use the term to refer to the whole person who has developed in the social world. In other words, they make a rather subtle distinction between being male and being, or becoming, a man, or being female and becoming a woman. Bem(2)in particular, refers to gender schemas, the whole individual mental pattern of memories, learning and behaviour that are considered to be masculine or feminine. This is a theme which will crop up from time to time in this discussion, since it has been the basis for criticising a number of studies.

The literature on sex and gender is vast and covers practically the whole range of human studies, yet each speciality seems, in general, to proceed in isolation from the others. It seems to be divided into three main categories.

Firstly, there are scientific and clinical works. Then there are sociological studies, usually by feminist or gay writers. Finally there are books for the popular market, not only transsexual autobiographies but also 'pop' psychology accounts that seem to be more concerned with Fleet Street hyperbole than scientific accuracy.

There is what Fausto-Sterling calls "the lack of null reporting" - no one is likely to publish a study that found no effect. There are hundreds of studies published each year, especially in the area of intersexuality. Most disappear unnoticed into the archives. Those that gain attention are often framed in a way that attracts the attention of the press, (and are often mis-interpreted) and tend to be those that conform to our social expectations. Worse, there are 'experts' that make off-the-cuff insupportable comments to the press, knowing they will not be held to account.

Meanwhile, though the press is accused of being distinctly homophobic, it doesn't seem to know what to make of gender variation. There is no doubt that it challenges everyone's social learning at a very fundamental level and, as Anne Fausto-Sterling says:(3) ". . . certainly a culture that has yet to come to grips . . . with the ancient and relatively uncomplicated reality of homosexual love will not readily embrace intersexuality."

The scientific works also can be split into a number of categories. Firstly, there are the clinical studies of intersexed people, hermaphrodites and pseudo-hermaphrodites, plus those affected by various hormonal disturbances.

There is a whole library about those who are said to suffering from gender dysphoria. For most lay and professional people, work in this field is seen as the province of a minority group of rather bizarre psychiatrists - and transsexualism is seen as a pathology.

Transsexuals talk about their brains being 'feminised' (or 'masculinised'), but what do they mean? What relevance do biological variations have to our cultural structure?

Added to this are the results of ethological studies and animal experiments. The question raised by many critics is "How relevant are results obtained from groups of animals, or untypical humans, to understanding human behaviour?

To these studies have been added neurobiological studies, often using very small groups of subjects, or with EEG and brain scans, perhaps making claims that are not justifiable given the limitations of the equipment. Most of these have been carried out on adult subjects, often restricted to the notorious "middle-class, European or American, university student." Though they claim to support the biological argument, they say nothing about developmental precursors.

Other studies focus on physical and mental abilities, relative sporting prowess, height, stamina and so on, while, in education, studies have concentrated on relative learning abilities.

Finally there is the psychoanalytic approach of Freud, Jung and others, followed by psychological studies which can be broadly divided into the social learning and cognitive development paradigms and this is where we begin.

Bibliography and good reading.

  1. Bem, S.L., (1993) The Lenses of Gender, London: Yale University Press
  2. Bem S. L., (1981) Gender Schema Theory: A cognitive account of sex-typing. Psychological Review (88, p354- 364)
  3. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. (1993) The Five Sexes. in The Sciences, Mar/Apr 1993.
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Bland. J. (2001) About Gender: Preface
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Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
08.04.98 Last amended 12.11.01