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Development: Introduction


As we have seen, the biological sex of a person, at conception, is defined by their chromosomes, usually XX or XY. Between the moment of conception and birth, there are a number of stages involved, that are extremely variable. Boys and girls develop with different bodies and differences in brain development - referred to as sexual dimorphism.

Clearly then, the idea that men and women are different comes as no surprise. Yet, on some measures, the difference within a group of men, or women, is greater than that between the groups. The real differences between the sexes that are common to all individuals are likely to be very subtle.

The last chapter described many of the variations in sexual dimorphism that occur. Generally the literature defines them as intersexed people or pseudo-hermaphrodites, distinct, say, from transsexual people. A distinction is made between sexual dimorphism as biology, and gender as socialisation, which we will continue to make, as a matter of convenience and clarity. We are aware that the distinction is an artificial one, but so is the distinction between biology and psychology itself

The day of one's birth is a momentous occasion, to say the least. One is exposed to the environment as never before.

Babies are clearly not passive 'pieces of clay'. They can make their feelings known quite well, but more importantly, they can manipulate their environment, including their parents. Even when clean, fed and comfortable, babies actively seek stimulation rather than passively absorbing experience. Initially they may be unselective, but gradually human sources are preferred and they then focus on a gradually increasing number of individuals.

The idea that babies were born with no innate behaviours at all was always difficult to sustain. Far from being blank slates, every gynecologist you meet will insist that even new born babies have their own very definite little personalities.

Whatever the baby may bring into the world will be developed in interaction with experience, and will modify the baby's reaction to different experiences. Personality describes how we behave and interact in consistent and predictable, but individual, ways. Thus, for most occurrences in life, we have a ready-made strategy to help us deal with them.

There is one more thing about one's birth-day. From a cursory inspection by an attending midwife or physician, one is given a label which will irrevocably shape the course of one's life. Just a physical inspection. After reading John Money's seven criteria, it seems remarkably unscientific. Perhaps what is remarkable is that, for most people, it works.

At this point we come upon a problem of definition. As we mentioned in the Introduction, the definition of gender identity is "A continuous and persistent sense of ourselves as male or female."

As we also pointed out, most texts simply regard this as a label one adopts, the knowledge that one is male or female. Other writers refer to the whole person who has developed in the social world. In other words, the identity of the person, as a person, in terms of masculinity and femininity.

Are we born with knowledge that we are male or female? Or are we taught it? Differences in brain structure have been discovered, but it is not always clear what function they serve. There are correlational studies, but little evidence of cause and effect.

What we can suggest, without too much controversy, is that babies have unique individual precursors of personality, whether they're boys or girls. There is little empirical work to support the idea, but at least there is a degree of tacit acceptance. We can then suggest that there is wide variation, that is biased towards maleness or femaleness.

But nature does not define what a masculine or feminine personality is - we do. As the child grows, it learns that certain expressions of its personality are appropriate to its sexual label, others are not. It attempts to become acceptably masculine, or feminine - and it is easier for a girl to be a 'tomboy', than for a boy to be a 'sissy'.

Different societies, social classes, sub-groups and families may offer different gender roles and they may be offered with different levels of pressure to conform. Moreover what is important is not the individual stereotype itself, but the individual child's perception of it.

To put it another way, there is a new buzzword - the 'third gender'. By the definition that prevails in our culture, there can only be two genders - masculine and feminine. But masculinity and femininity are themselves social constructs - the stereotypes of individual cultures. Why only three? Why not as many as we like?

At some moment in early childhood, there is a decision point, a realisation, a choice of role model. A compromise is negotiated between our individual personality and our individual stereotype - we adopt our own personal 'third gender'. Generally, we find a compromise that feels comfortable.

We are using the term gender identity. Money(1) has defined this process more precisely by coining the phrase Gender Identity/Role (G I/R) to describe the child's negotiation between its personality, as masculine and feminine, and the stereotype offered to it, or imposed on it. In other words, 'who' it is and 'who' it 'ought' to be.

The result is what Bem(2) calls a Gender Schema. Schemas are the way the mind is said to organise memories, conscious and forgotten, into networks and structures, in this case relative to gender perceptions, so as to determine attitudes, behaviours and reactions, ideally in the most efficient way.

It is perhaps those, whose composite is a fragile construction, the 'macho men' and androphobic feminists, who find the issues most threatening. For some people, the composite is unstable and, eventually, gender identity problems appear, the need to express the hidden parts of their personalities. This is why transvestism and transsexualism is connected to self-expression, rather than sexual preference.

There are those who could never survive in the gender role expected of them. They spend their childhood in increasing emotional discomfort, and sooner or later, change role, the so-called 'sex change', correctly termed 'gender confirmation'.

Is it all down to childhood experiences, incorrect nurturing, inappropriate learning? The fact has to be acknowledged that different people react in different ways and their biological make up has to be a factor. At the risk of repeating ourselves, there is an interaction of biology and environment.

In the 'seventies, there was much interest in the concept of psychological androgyneity. Bem's(3) philosophy is that everyone should be able to find the best within themselves, regardless of whether we now consider it masculine or feminine. However, she points out that the very notion of androgyny reinforces the idea that the world is divided into male and female things. A better alternative, may be to allow people as much expression as they wish, without labelling it in terms of gender. The difference is not easy to grasp for anyone conditioned for a lifetime to the idea that there only two genders: man equals masculine, and woman equals feminine.

Cookson,(4) a geneticist suggests that: "While accepting the existence of genetic differences between people, the way to get the best out of the genes . . . . . is to organise our society so that every individual has the chance to develop his or her innate abilities to their maximum."

Could there be a human world without gender? In such a world, there would be no transsexualism, no gender dysphoria.

It seems reasonable to suppose that human evolution has produced some common basis to gender, probably to do with mate choice. Yet the gay community demonstrates that even human mate choice is not straightforward. Meanwhile Landen and Lundstrom(5) predict that of 100 live births, 0.02 percent are potentially transsexual. Their study may have been concerned with Swedish subjects in a Western cultural environment. Yet there is nothing to suggest any differences in other cultures, and it is becoming increasingly clear that transgendered people have a long - and often honourable - history throughout human civilisation.

Meanwhile, Archer and Lloyd(6) suggest that "in adopting the gender view, we can look forward to changes in the content of gender roles and stereotypes, as indeed occurred over the past fifty years, but we do not foresee the total abolition of gender categories."

Bibliography and Good Reading

  1. Money, J.(1975) The Concept of Gender Identity Disorder after 39 years Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 20,163-177
  2. Bem, S.L., (1981) Gender Schema Theory: A cognitive account of sex-typing, Psychological Review, 88, 354-364.
  3. Bem, S.L., (1993) The Lenses of Gender, London: Yale University Press.
  4. Cookson, W., (1994) The Gene Hunters: Adventures in the Genome Jungle (p195) London: Aurum Press.
  5. Landen, M., Lundstom, B., (1995) Incidence and sexratio of transsexualism Proceedings of Harry Benjamin Gender Dysphoria Association Conference, Amsterdam.
  6. Archer,J., Lloyd, B., (1985) Sex and Gender, (p284) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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Bland, J., (1998) About Gender: Development Introduction
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Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
Last amended 09.05.98