Archive for November, 2009

XX, XY, and ‘Other’

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Ariel Levy writes in the New Yorker an article about Caster Semenya which, along with discussing the mismanagement and insensitivity of the testing she underwent, and the various politics influencing said manhandling, also examines the difficulty of establishing gender in any irrefutable way; when one reaches the point where there is a degree of crossover, there is no clear binary distinction – however specific and scientific the tests may be, all they reveal is a greater muddle.

There is no absolute – not everyone is either XX or XY, not everyone has the biological, chemical, and/or hormonal capacity to create and obey various cues which develop what we consider to be the markers of a particular gender.

What is interesting, though Levy does not go into this point in detail, are the implications this ambiguity holds for the rest of us.

If we were to admit that at some level we don’t know the difference between men and women, we might start to wonder about the way we’ve organized our entire world. (Currently, the United States government recognizes the marriage of a woman to a female-to-male transsexual who has had a double mastectomy and takes testosterone tablets but still has a vagina, but not to a woman who hasn’t done those things.) We depend on gender to make sense of sexuality, society, and ourselves. We do not wish to see it dissolve.

emphasis mine

What would it mean if people accepted that gender existed on a spectrum rather than as a binary trait? So much of how society is arranged is determined by gender (and by extension, sexuality, since that is another assumed binary that evidence suggests is also more of a spectrum), however much gender roles have evolved over time. Would an acknowledgement of this gray area assist in the deconstruction of gender roles? Would it allow people to be more tolerant and accepting of the variety of ability and inclination, and would culture and social infrastructure come to reflect that?

At present, what exists is, I think, more of a third category, with most people assigning themselves and others to either A or B, and relegating a small percentage of the population to a ‘neither A nor B’ category, and not considering it beyond that. The only people for whom the idea must be complicated are those in that third category.

And why? Because there are value judgments placed on people based on how much or little they correspond to their gendered categories. However much one might be completely at peace with their body, sexuality, voice, wardrobe, haircut, weight, walk, and interests, the rest of the world, when it bothers to pay attention, makes assumptions and judgments about that person’s value, attractiveness, propriety, and intelligence (however wrongly), based on such information.

Can there be a world where people are more or less masculine or feminine without a value being assigned to that quality? Or where everything is deemed gender-neutral and therefore a matter of inclination or biology, something personal rather than a way of organizing people and society?

Hopefully, as people are periodically confronted with the necessity of thinking about such things, as unfair as it is to whomever is in the spotlight, there will be a consideration of the individual, and as the ambiguity on a scientific level is manifest, there will be a movement away from judging such things cruelly, and more acceptance of such variation as just that, a variation, like hair colour or eye colour.

Hopefully.

On Aging and Sex

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[Roth’s novels] were also paeans to masculine sexuality, which remains potent long after the ravages of the body have removed the ability to do anything about it.

That Shakespearean Rag’s review of Philip Roth’s The Humbling made me think of the notable old white guys whose work addresses the perceived injustice of the failing body with the active sex drive, whether through wish-fulfilling narrative fantasy or cruel mockery, and contrast them with the fewer instances of older female writers exploring the same situation.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins looks at (among many other things) the fading sexuality of an older women who cannot enjoy the present without a painful awareness of her own age and future asexuality. Diana Athill’s latest biography, Somewhere Towards the End, deliberately takes a rather sensible and unapologetic view about her own independent sexuality, its final flowering (if you will pardon the phrase) and its ultimate and total disappearance.

Which is crueler? The male body that, once developed (over, on average, eight gawky and masturbation-filled years), never loses its sexuality and urges, only weakens their potency and lessens their frequency, or the female body, that enters fecundity in a maelstrom of hormones (the rapid four years of sudden breasts and awareness of the lunar calendar), whose development is quicker but whose peak is later, and who later returns to the asexuality of youth, but for the memory of experience, after another short and unpleasant hormonal battle?

Ultimately, the desire is for the same thing – the possession of the young body. I was going to say the young female body, but one must except the homosexual men in this case. However old the male body becomes, it is still capable of arousal, still, then, susceptible to the attractions of the young and nubile. The female body, on the other hand, has a greater disconnection between the mind and body. While the mind may crave or pine or what have you, the body cannot respond.

One sex has an ever-responsive libido (however incapable of action the rest of the corpus might be), and the other with a body that returns to the disinterest of childhood, without the curiosity.

Of course, the medical community has found ways to work around this – with the male, rendering him capable of performance, and with the female, producing a steady dose of hormones that stave off the rapid aging that comes with the stoppage of natural hormone production.

One could ask why aren’t we all on the same timeline, and be met with the biological determinists who would point out that the male body producing viable sperm until death is more likely to succeed genetically, whereas the female body, who, with age, is less and less capable of enduring pregnancy and childbirth, is better off without the strain after a certain point.

But I want to know which is better or worse – or if we must simply shrug our shoulders and label it different. On the one hand, one always has hope, and on the other, one has a kind of freedom, but a freedom that entails exclusion.

With the literary evidence mentioned, I have to say it is the women who seem the most calm and accepting, whereas the men seem to be in the grip of an epic tragedy which involves a significant amount of embarrassment. And yet, what is there but acceptance when hope is gone?

Lie back and think of England

I cannot buy the Times today. Jezebel found this stunning piece of advice from Suzi Godson in yesterday’s paper.

Godson answers the query of a recent divorcee back in the dating scene, whose current beau expressed shock that she had pubic hair. It being so uncommon in grown women and all. This woman, rather sensibly, has no interest in ripping the hair from her genitals, and wonders if it is expected.

Rather than the obvious reply – your boyfriend is clearly an insensitive chauvinist for a) expressing anything other than delight when you drop your panties and b) suggesting that you do anything you find painful/uncomfortable for his viewing pleasure, Gordon, supporting her answer with a brief history of pornography, says that men are now ‘instinctively’ attracted to bare pudenda and must therefore be gratified, preferably by waxing, since shaving can leave unsightly stubble.

Aside from revealing a complete misunderstanding of the word ‘instinct’, Godson reveals herself to be a useless advice columnist, particularly for women. If she can justify bikini waxing exclusively with the prevalence of porn, what would she make of anything else? This is taking the idea of general grooming to a point of absurdity.

Does her beau look like a porn star? Does his grooming involve waxing, fake-tanning, and bull-like penile dimensions?

Any man who expects real sex to be like porn has, probably, never actually had real sex.

In a rather asinine final line, Godson says ‘at least’ the Sicilian is the latest trend, so ”you are left with a neat little Sicily-shaped triangle, which at least means that you still look like a woman.” Yes, that little triangle makes all the difference. No way do you look like an adolescent.

Godson should be ashamed of herself, and I hope the letter-writer has the good sense to ignore her stupid advice (advice which I suspect comes from Godson’s own decisions as regards her pubic hair, which may in turn have come from a similar scenario to the letter writer’s), and either tell her young man to appreciate her body or get the hell out of Dodge.

The Times should be heartily embarrassed.


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