Sex and Gender

By | 31/08/2015

The conversation started in 1949, when Simone de Beauvoir published “The Second Sex,” in which she writes: “women aren’t born, but made.” In other words what it means to “be a woman” is not solely defined by biology. So, not only there are male and female sexes, as determined by anatomy and physiology, but also masculine and feminine genders, which are a social construct. From the standpoint of traditional thought, men are supposed to be more aggressive, enjoy more vigorous and competitive sports, and are not allowed to cry. Women should be delicate, accepting, tolerant and devoted to their children. To each gender, a specific wardrobe, haircuts, gestures and expressions are assigned.

These matters are getting more complex, as many today challenge the validity of masculine and feminine “performance” standards. If on a first stage, in the beginning of the 20th century, feminists were concerned in gaining social rights, specifically the right to vote, in the next stage the fight was for female freedom from strict family standards, sexual liberation, and professional equality; now, the current stage, also called the third feminist wave, is about questioning gender. Is there a biological basis to create the feminine and masculine ways of being, or is it all a cultural construct? How to explain those in the middle, such as cross-dressers, transgender people, or butch women?

Even within the feminist movement, there are different opinions. Some believe that biology does matter, especially since reproduction and care of newborns are inherently female. Others, among whom stands out Judith Butler, an American philosopher, believe there are no relevant biological differences between men and women, and we are who we are and act as we do because we were taught to do so, because we follow previous patterns of behavior accorded to each gender’s “performance.” That is, they disregard the importance of biological distinctions, believe we are sexual beings, in a generic, undifferentiated way, and that culture set us in fixed molds that can be criticized and changed.

According to Butler, there is a huge and unexplored spectrum of possible behaviors and presentation beyond the traditional female and male formulas. She claims each person should develop their own “performance,” free and separate from their biological sex. This is where I disagree. I always think of us as biopsychosocial beings, and am always surprised at some scholars’ insistence in giving more weight to just one of these aspects of our being in detriment of the two others. I can’t see why it’s so hard to operate these three variables at once, but there are always radical proponents of just one of the factors as our main driving force.

We are born, indeed, with specific biological characteristics that determine male and female sexes. But I agree with Butler on this: the main differences are not anatomical. I believe they are physiological. Men’s visual desire is much more significant than women’s. Women get aroused when they feel desired by men and this physiological difference can influence the construction of each gender’s “performance.” Also, after ejaculating, men experience a refractory period of sexual disinterest, which does not exist in female physiology, and that can also interfere in the construction of gender.

Our home environment and the people with whom we live when we are growing up influence us. We imitate their demeanor, so the way we turn out to be as adults also depends on the psychological context in which we were raised and positive and negative identifications formed by observing our parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. Of course, our home environment, if it conforms, at least partly, to the culture we live in, reproduces a great deal of the patterns of society at large, and I don’t underestimate the importance of this influence on our personality. These days, we live in a time in which genders are coming closer in several aspects, establishing a lifestyle that is essentially unisex. But I don’t believe there is infinite freedom of expression of our sexuality. We cannot underestimate the limits of biology.

Tradução: Amanda Morris