Is gender merely a social construct?
Sexuality has become increasingly politicized in the last decade in America. It has become popular to think of gender not in a binary way but as a spectrum with as many as 50 or more possibilities, each fading into the next. In some academic and social justice circles, the word “binary” has become synonymous with what is limiting, simplistic, and worthy of being dismissed with an eye roll. Whatever spectrum we feel we need to express sexuality in these times, the binary notion should not be thrown out altogether. Perhaps there is an alternative, and useful, way of thinking about this issue. If we think of sexuality in terms of two hemispheres, it will protect the binary aspect while still accounting for the idiosyncrasies and exceptions in each sex that so trouble the modern soul.
Just as the earth has two hemispheres, two poles, and an equator, in this metaphor a person is either north or south of that equator based on their genitalia and chromosomes. And each person — by nature, nurture, and circumstances — is either closer to the poles, inclined to the outer extremes of femininity or masculinity; or closer to the equator, and thus more like the other sex. And when men and women encounter each other, they may have varying amounts of metaphorical ground to cover as they seek to understand each other, based on each person’s unique characteristics.
Though people span the “globe” of human sexuality, the poles and the equator are sparsely populated — just as most of the Earth’s population lives in the temperate zones, the great majority of people occupy the “temperate zones” of sexuality, being neither hyper-masculine nor hyper-feminine. And so, there are many women and men who have roughly the same “climate” when it comes to temperament (for example, a tendency toward aggression or compassion), though they are from their own separate hemispheres. Consider that Buenos Aires is similar in climate to San Francisco, though they are quite far apart geographically — in fact, on separate sides of the equator.
A woman comes from the land of estrogen, with ticking biological clocks and hormonal realities that prime her for nurturing, whether she is interested in having children or not. Women, as a group, have been found by social scientists to be more agreeable than men, and more sensitive, both physically and emotionally, in ways that would make an infant in a woman’s care more likely to survive. Women are equally aggressive as men but usually manifest it socially instead of physically. Women are higher in negative emotion and usually self-report being less happy than do men. Women are coming from a tendency to gain weight for the sake of pregnancy and lactation, and face the physical challenges of menstruation, childbirth, and menopause — all events that a woman has little to no control over.
A woman is keenly aware of her vulnerability to sexual assault. She has been formed by negative and irritating social expectations that demand she project as nice and attractive, youthful and thin, and somehow both modest and sexually provocative simultaneously. She has also been formed by more advantageous social assumptions — for instance, that she is incapable of committing crimes, unlikely to lie (ever, especially about sex), and basically altruistic or at least well-meaning most of the time compared to men. She will receive a 63 percent lighter sentence for the same crime as a man and be twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted. For better and for worse, society designates women as “those who need help.”
Men, on the other hand, come from the land of testosterone. They are more interested in sex and more vulnerable to sexual temptation and the pull of pornography, are more disagreeable, and exhibit more physical aggression. They tend to have a greater interest in competition, risktaking, and line-crossing, and are ten times more likely to die at work than women because they tend to take on more dangerous jobs. Men die six to eight years earlier than women on average, according to the World Health Organization. Over 95 percent of CEOs are male, but it is also to be noted that 70 percent of all homeless persons are men. A man faces the possibility of the military draft, and expectations that he will be the one to do the dangerous things, that he will be strong and unflappable, that he will fix things (including his wife’s emotions). He faces fears that he won’t measure up to other men.
Men often feel, understandably, as though they’re expected to read women’s minds. Our unwritten rules say a man should never pursue a woman until the moment she gives the signal. He will be held responsible for his partner’s unhappiness, which is statistically more likely given her higher negative emotion. Should she conceive any children by him, it is her decision whether to get an abortion or give birth. He will be held financially responsible for the child, but only if the woman wants it; if not, he has no recourse. Men’s rate of death by overdose is 68 percent higher than that of women, and men have double the rate of alcoholism and kill themselves 3.5 times more than women do. All this suggests that despite self-reporting to be happier than women, men are perhaps not as vocal as women about their pain. And yet for better or worse, our popular ideas of masculinity say that men are those who “shouldn’t need help.”
Men and women shoulder their individual struggles with their respective sets of strengths and weaknesses assigned by their biological sex, which are primarily aligned toward the survival of the species — not their individual enrichment or thriving per se, but their individual thriving insofar as they pass on their personal genes. Beyond that, to something like a career or financial success, nature is indifferent.
While it is often said that “gender is a human construct,” I would argue that the notion of the hemispheres of the Earth is also a human construct, but it is an undeniably useful construct that only gives a name to what is apparent to everyone. One can insist that there are not two genders but a plethora. But the fact that there are an infinite number of points of latitude and longitude on a sphere does not negate the existence of the hemispheres altogether.
We can maintain the idea of two sexes while incorporating nuance. Our life circumstances call out for more temperate or more extreme versions of ourselves to tackle what is put before us. With the birth of a child, we may be amazed to see a new sort of tenderness emerge; conversely, when a crisis erupts, often both sexes are suddenly capable of shocking and sudden aggression. Our places on the hemisphere move, but never past that equator line. Different people are better than others at sliding back toward the more temperate zones of comportment — for instance, when they must re-enter civilian life after war, or come home every day from a high-stress job as a police officer. Soldiers returning from war and stay-at-home moms going back to work both sometimes need therapeutic help to adjust to the changes.
While men and women have more in common than not, one of the many differences is that women are more interested in people and relationships, and men are more interested in things and systems. Just one of many studies on this topic was done by the Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. He and his colleagues discovered in a 2000 study that day-old male infants — that is, children who have likely not experienced any social conditioning — showed “stronger interest in the physical-mechanical…while the female infants showed a stronger interest in the face.”
This finding is confirmed in the choice of jobs women and men select as adults. As they are freer to choose what sort of work they want, the differences between men and women widen instead of narrow. Women who have a free choice in the matter tend to choose jobs based on people and relationships and men tend to choose jobs based on objects and systems. This is often called the Nordic Paradox, because it is very pronounced in the Scandinavian countries where every effort has been made to liberate women from traditional roles. While there will always be exceptions to the norms, that is, people who are not typical and are perhaps more from the outer limits of the sexual hemispheres, denying that there is any sort of average or typical experience of men or women is untruthful and counterproductive and leads to public policies that hurt both men and women.
A person’s position on the “globe of sexuality” can slide toward the pole or the equator throughout life, but a person’s chromosomes don’t change. And so, in the case of the transsexual phenomenon, sexual difference means being from someplace and not from another. If you have lived your entire life in California, and you tell someone you are from Brazil, you mislead them to think you have had experiences you simply have not had. Sexuality is much more than just how one presents at any given moment. It implies a certain history based, metaphorically speaking, on being from either the world of male or female. A person who hopes to “become” the opposite sex can have plastic surgery and change clothing and mannerisms, but they cannot change their personal history to be someone from the opposite hemisphere of sexuality.
Truth is important in our relationships. The stories we tell about ourselves to each other matter. Anyone who suffers from a desire to obscure their origins should be treated with kindness but also gently encouraged to be honest and not to have a negative opinion of themselves. Also, men and women would both do well to be more understanding of the challenges faced by the opposite sex as well as the advantages our own sex enjoys. Sexual differentiation is a gift and not something limiting or oppressive but simply descriptive and useful, like the hemispheres of the Earth, merely the two sides of human sexual experience. There is no shame in being either a man or a woman, and both hemispheres are broad and wide and have room for great diversity.
This essay formerly published here in Jacob’s Well https://issuu.com/jacobswell/docs/jw_issue_3_07.03.20/s/10724110?fbclid=IwAR2WztTwjqcgkKjsbOfaMMQViLgjUHT6HJmu53Z5Apvt2wVs7fO8lrKwsJ0