A brief history of ‘gender’ by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language: a feminist guide
Originally published: 15.12.16

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 11.48.11

In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.
Read more A brief history of ‘gender’ by @wordspinster

A book a loved (and one I didn’t) by @AtHomeActivist

Cross-posted from: The Agoraphobic Feminist
Originally published: 14.12.15

A book I loved…

I don’t really have all-time favourites, so I picked a book I just finished reading, my current favourite – Girl on the Net: My Not-So-Shameful Sex Secrets.

Aside from being a steamy romp (yeah I just said that) through the sex life of said Girl, it deals with a load of stuff including joyful sluthood, BDSM and consent and teen girl sexuality (I still have a lot of left-over weird guilt over stuff that happened in my teen years, so this helped a lot). 
Read more A book a loved (and one I didn’t) by @AtHomeActivist

Maria Miller’s Report Puts Feminists In An Impossible Position by @cwknews

Cross-posted from: Stephanie Davies-Arai
Originally published: 24.01.16

Maria Miller transgender reportMaria Miller has stated that she is ‘taken aback’ by the ”hostility’ towards the government’s recent transgender reportfrom ‘purported feminists.’ She says: “I think that all of us who are feminists know that equality for other groups of people, and a fairer deal for other groups of people, is good for us as well.”

Yes of course, as a society nobody wants to see any group suffering discrimination so why would anyone not give just a passing nod of approval to this new report, even those horrible feminists?

This time it’s not so simple; ‘transgender’ is not one of those ‘other groups’ defined by distinct boundaries, as all other minority groups are. By definition, ‘transgender’ stakes claim to membership of already existing groups; the mantra ‘transwomen are women’ accordingly puts them into two protected categories; both ‘transgender’ and ‘women’.

In the blurring of boundaries, ‘women’ as a distinct group ceases to exist; we have to say ‘women-born women’ now to make the sex-based distinction clear, and we are losing the right to do even that: any sex-based comparisons are seen as ‘transphobic.’

This is the crux of the matter; if the recommendations in this report are passed into law as expected, it means that in important legal terms the distinction between men and women will become ‘gender’ instead of ‘sex’. This is an arbitrary move; when did we decide that ‘gender’ is a stronger marker than ‘sex’ if you need to differentiate between men and women? Gender, as a concept of masculinity and femininity, is based on subjective opinion; a means of dividing men and women along personality lines. ‘Correct’ gendered behaviour and presentation is already enforced and policed by society in a million different ways from birth, and the group it mostly harms is women. This report does not ask women to support transgender rights, it demands that we accept a definition of women which reinforces a limiting stereotype and at the same time deny the biological sex which is the basis of discrimination against women.
Read more Maria Miller’s Report Puts Feminists In An Impossible Position by @cwknews

#sharedgirlhood: puberty

(Cross-posted from Bella Solanum)

Have been reading this wonderful article on experiences of starting periods: The Day I Got My First Period

There are some wonderful stories there, I’ve laughed at some (Call the Cops), cried happy tears at others (Bring us together), and felt saddened by others (Cosmopolitan Past). While they are all different stories by individuals from different eras and backgrounds they all have a common thread. 

I have no love for menstruation, you’ll find no desire for period parties here. I see no strength in the menstruation itself, for me personally it’s been hellish from the very start. But there is great strength in the shared experiences of women, it transcends age and location.

Every born woman will have past experience of menstruation, yes, even those whose bodies didn’t do as they were meant to. Because they too will have grown up watching their peers go through it, and felt the worries related to it though multiplied. We all experienced the stigma and the status of menstruation. We all knew it’s significance of changing us from children to women, and the knowledge that we were expected to use this bit of our biology to bear children. Even at that young age we knew that our bodies were seen as ready for sex and procreation, and that to be unable or unwilling was seen as transgressive.

I remember there being a lot of talk of periods just before I started, one of the girls in our year had started at 9 years old and most of us had been told or read that we were likely to start any time after we turned 11. We were 10 years old, already feeling like we weren’t properly children as our age was in double digits. We weren’t like the little ones playing skipping rope in the playground. Instead we’d gather around teen girl’s magazines that someone had pinched from an older sister, or copies of Judy Blume books. We’d devour all the information we could on starting our periods. Alongside it we’d read about sex acts and how we were meant to look, the three seemed to always be packaged together.

We were simultaneously terrified of starting, and excited at the same time. We knew it marked the leap from girlhood to womanhood, we also knew it meant that our bodies were about to go through some massive changes. Some sounded great to us, let’s face it we all wanted boobs – some sounded awful, just how painful could period pain be?

We’d go through lists of what puberty entailed, trying to spot if any of us were showing any signs.

The girl who’d started early was our mentor, we all looked to her for advice and support as she was the “woman”, she’d been there. Through starting she’d suddenly been catapulted from being a girl like us to something else. We were proud to be friends with her, we were respectful of her experience, and we also felt pity for her as we knew it was scary to be first. We were both jealous that she’d been through it, and relieved it was her and not us.

We took bets on who would be next? Who would be last?

There was status in being on of the first, but also fear. We were worried it would hurt, and nervous of others (specifically boys, younger children and adults) knowing.

Conversations in whispered groups shared our hopes and fears. What if it hurt? What if it never happened? Did it mean we had to have sex? How did you use tampons? Did you need to have sex first to use tampons? How embarassing would it be to buy sanitary towels? What if only our dad was home when it started? What if we started in public? Or at school? What if boys spottted sanitary towels or tampons in our school bags? So many questions.

Then as different girls started we talked over what had happened, commiserating, celebrating and mentoring each other. In many ways it was a great equaliser, despite our differences we all shared these moments with each other. We all knew that despite our differences we were all together, and our shared experiences were a shelter in which we could be scared and vulnerable but safe.

We felt like the only ones to go through it, but also knew it was something bigger. For some of us it helped forge a closer bond with female relatives, for some with girls they’d previously been at odds, female teachers changed from distant and unknowable creatures to someone you relate (in a small way) to.

We were part of a club, not with the intent of exclusion, but one of support and safety. We needed to not take this first step into womanhood alone. Over the years I’ve spoken to women who’ve been supported through it, and those who haven’t. And no matter how things were at the time they started, all have been helped by discovering at some point that they are not alone – that they share this part of girlhood.

Bella Solanum: “I’m a gender critical feminist who thinks we would all be a lot better off in a world were we could be full people rather than fit into limiting gender boxes.”

My Other Relationships at Three Letter Blog

friends-fingers

I’ve been meaning to write a post about friendship for a long time now. I’ve learnt a lot about friends and the different kinds of relationships you can have with people over the past year, and I thought I’d put my musings down on paper. Where do your friends come into your sexuality and sexual discovery? Is it something that should be shared exclusively with your partner, or is part of the excitement of being adventurous being able to run and talk about it with your best friend the next day? Being more openly sexual has opened up a lot of relationships for me and developed others. Talking about your deepest human desires with those you trust and rely on is important, as they will accept you for who you are and what you love, even if they don’t love it too.

Talking about sex with other people can help you gain more respect for the different ways people enjoy sex. My sister and I were already close as we’ve lived together pretty much our whole lives and are close in age. However, we’re very different, sexually, and I have only recently learnt to respect that. For a long time I viewed her as someone who couldn’t relax, someone who didn’t enjoy sex; I always had her down as someone who wouldn’t express her desires or communicate properly with a partner. Since I’ve been writing for TLB, some of which she has read, she has opened up to me and we’ve come to an understanding of each other. She’s not into what I’m into, and she doesn’t consider herself very sexual, however that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t enjoy it when it happens or doesn’t enjoy the connection with another human being. I enjoy loud, bite-y, wild sex because it’s empowering, but she enjoys closeness and loving when it comes to sex and I respect that a lot more now.

Opening up sexually means that being able to talk about sex, and being interested by sex, is a quality I now look for in a friend. Last year, not long after Mortimer and I got together, we came across a girl we both wanted to be friends with. She’s funny, interesting, kind and honest, and lovely to be around. She’s also really hot and I fancy the pants off her. Our friendship developed over a love of dancing, gin and kinky sex. I knew I really wanted to be good friends with her after we spent the day wandering around Spitalfields market just after she’d had her heart broken, and to distract her I told her about TLB. I know a lot of people who would tell me that this blog is distasteful, crude or unsuitable, but she saw straight away what we were trying to do, and wanted to hear more. Her heart is still broken. I don’t know the guy that did it, but I know she feels like she’s not worth anything unless he loves her still. It’s very difficult as a friend to watch someone feel like that, and I want so much to make her realise that she is excellent and I’m proud to know her. Oh, and as I mentioned before, she’s really hot. Our friendship started by talking about kinky sex, but I now hope to help her get back to herself and I hope that we will be discussing kinky sex for many years to come.

The biggest impact that talking about sex has had is on my relationship with VJ. If you follow us on Twitter then you’ll know that a couple of weekends ago I visited VJ while she rides out her PhD. We had an excellent weekend involving dancing, drinking and some excellent food, but we also stripped off down to our underwear and took photos of each other for John and Mortimer. We looked up popular pin-up poses to copy and it was so much fun. I laughed so much, felt really hot but mostly felt so happy that I could share this moment with my absolute best friend. I think we both went into it a little sceptical, but came out giggling and with some gorgeous photos for our special man friends. Seeing how my friend found herself most attractive, and being privy to a private part of her relationship with John means I’ve seen my best friend in a way that I have never seen her before, and I absolutely love her for it. Similarly, working with VJ on TLB means I’ve never felt more close with anyone, and I know I can ask her or tell her anything at all.

I realised that knowing someone well and having a good, strong relationship means showing your whole self, truly, to someone else. I don’t mean in a naked exposure way (though that’s fun too), I mean in a soul-bearing way. Sex and what you enjoy sexually is a part of who you are, and you don’t need to have a sexual relationship with someone to share that. We can learn so much from each other, and teach each other as well. Together we all have a huge wealth of shared experience, and finding the people you want to share your experiences with is important; important for your sexual development but also just important for life. Talking about sex helps break all the taboos surrounding it, and contribute to the wider sexual discourse that we all need in order to forge a positive path for the future. So go on, bring it up over lunch. Who cares if the woman on the next table chokes on her coffee and gives you a dirty look? Talk about sex and it’ll help you understand it better, and you’ll make some excellent friends along the way. I know I have. – MJ

 

The Three Letter Blog: Our writers (VJ and MJ) are two twenty-something ladies living in big cities across the UK, one is currently drowning in the midst of a Literature PhD and the other is a kick-ass young professional in the Marketing world. After becoming increasingly irritated with the idealistic, mostly sexist and romanticised sex lives promoted in glossy monthly magazines, we decided to create this blog as a means of discussing the actual reality of sex for the modern day woman (and man). We hope to present to you a mix of anecdotes and articles, a discussion of all things, from sexual health to role play, foreplay to foreskin, and everything else in between. We feel strongly that sex and being sexual is a part of being human, and that being in charge of your own sexual discourse is empowering and liberating. TLB is an open conversation seeking to break the taboos surrounding one of our most intelligent and indulgent past times.

The science behind sex differences is still in dispute

Cross-posted with permission from Feminist Borgia who blogs occasionally about feminism, rape culture and games [@feministborgia].

In November 2013 a study was published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA’ (link here for those interested http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/11/27/1316909110, the full paper will be available on open access in May 2014) titled, ‘Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain’. Now if you don’t know what a connectome is, don’t worry, the term was only coined in around 2005. It refers to a map of neural connections in the brain, and it exists as a way of trying to connect the physical structure of the brain with its function (if you are interested there is more on this here  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectome). Fancy new terminology aside, the purpose of the study was to measure structural connections within the brains of just below 1000 young people (aged 8 to 22) and their results showed some interesting differences. Using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging (an MRI technique that measures the restricted diffusion of water) they found that after the age of 13 there were significant differences in how the brains of men and women were connected. In the study men’s brains were found to connect more within a given hemisphere. and women’s had great cross connectivity (seen below the connectome maps published, showing the male brain in blue and the female brain in orange:
Image

As you can see, the male brain shows more longitudal connections whilst the female brains shows more transverse connections.
The abstract for the study states, ‘the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes’, having earlier noted that ‘Males have better motor and spatial abilities, whereas females have superior memory and social cognition skills’.

The publication of this paper resulted in a number of excitable and fairly familiar newspaper headlines.
The Telegraph announced boldly ‘Brains of men and women are poles apart’, (demonstrating once and for all that broadsheets aren’t immune to headline puns) telling us that women’s brains are set up to have better memories (for anniversaries!) and gauge social situations better while men’s brains coordinate their actions with their senses, so can navigate better (not to mention be better at parking cars).

The Independent declared these differences, ‘could explain why men are ‘better at map reading”.
The Belfast Telegraph gets the prize for the best reporting on this, by first reminding us that ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ before going on to declare that the study has shown ‘men and women’s brains are wired in completely different ways, as if they were species from different planets.’

With the possible exception of the Belfast Telegraph (who seem to have got themselves hopelessly overexcited), you can’t place too much fault on the reporting here. It is a clear cut case of ‘science says’, and in this case has the benefits of a peer reviewed journal to back it up. The study itself made reference to differences in male and female behaviours, stating that men have better ‘motor and spacial abilities’ whereas women show, ‘superior memory and social cognition’. Unfortunately, whilst this paper may make that claim, the preceding study (of which the participants of this study were a subset) does not back that up (abstract here http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/neu/26/2/251/). Of the 26 behavioural measures made for comparison (for example executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition), 11 showed sex differences that were non existent, or as small as 53:47 (the expected sex outperforming the opposite only 53% of the time), Even in those areas where the differences are meant to be the greatest (spatial or social awareness) the performance difference was only 60:40-a measurable and noticeable difference for sure, but hardly enough to declare difference species.

My problem is not with this study or with their results, but rather with the way the conclusions have been drawn, and with the extrapolations. They have shown interesting differences in how men’s and women’s brains connect with themselves, but then rather than taking any further interesting steps, drilling down further into the data, they have attached some male/female stereotypes and called it job done. One of the authors has even suggested that the ‘hard wired’ differences found could explain the ‘gut feelings’ that women demonstrate more than men, and which makes them good mothers (‘intuition’ and ‘mothering’, or indeed ‘nurturing’ was not in fact measured in this study).

There could be other reasons than ‘men are better at map reading’ for the differences observed. Men’s brains are frequently bigger than women’s brains, the difference in the wiring could be due to physical necessity (there are also studies on this).

Then there’s the most interesting part of the study that has been the least discussed: the structural differences are not observed in a significant manner until after age 13. And we have to ask ourselves why. One of the proposed explanations is that this is the approximate average age for the development of secondary sexual characteristics. There are massive changes in the body, hormones flooding everything, the logic seems to be that the brain changes at this time too. However there is a better explanation, and one less routed in speculation. See, there’s this thing called neuroplasticity. It refers to the changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour or environment. Literally as you learn, your brain changes shape. Then we have to bear in mind that gender as a social construct is learned. It is taught. Little girls aren’t born liking pink. They are taught that girls like pink, and that they are a girl, therefore they then like pink. You put those two things together and what you end up with is the possibility that, rather than being innate, related to the release of hormones at puberty, the structural differences in the brains are programmed in by telling girls that boys are boisterous and girls play nice, that boys are good at maths and girls are caring, that boys build things and girls decorate them. But no mention is made in the study of any consideration of gendered activities in their subjects, or indeed any activities that may (and in fact do) influence how our brains are wired.

If you take this into account, the claim that ‘sex differences are hard wired’ seems a little less proven than it was before.

I am very fond of saying ‘peer reviewed journal or it didn’t happen’. But we have to be able to treat even these studies critically. Their data may be fixed and immutable (tho that is not always the case) but the conclusions have more room for movement. And the people making those conclusions are not immune from sexism.

The study may have shown that men and women’s brains connect differently. But it hasn’t shown why. And it hasn’t shown that the differences are innate. It has shown they are learned. ‘Men and women are taught to be different’ is a less interesting conclusions perhaps, but it is a more truthful one.

 

Post script: If you are interested in this subject, may I recommend the very excellent Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Her article on this study was also very useful to me https://theconversation.com/new-insights-into-gendered-brain-wiring-or-a-perfect-case-study-in-neurosexism-21083

 

Cross-posted with permission from Feminist Borgia who blogs occasionally about feminism, rape culture and games [@feministborgia].

 

See also: Extra, Extra! Scientists Misunderstand their own Research by @Marstrina