The Sex, Gender and Sexuality Binaries
Implications for a diverse human experience
Feminism assumes that there is something universal, particular and consistent that can be understood through the subject of 'women'.(1) This category forms the basis of feminist discourse and is a subject whose identity and power is frequently contrasted with the pseudo-opposite subject of 'man'. Ironically these categories are a product of the gender binary that reinforces the notion there is a 'natural' and fundamental distinction between 'man' and 'women'. A distinction that is said to extend causally from an individual's biological sex to their gender and sexuality.(2) The male/female binary enforces submissive female-gender roles and heterosexuality as well as expecting overtly masculine and dominate performances from men.(3) Transsexuals, intersexuals, non-heterosexuals and any alternative combination of sex, gender and sexuality are labelled deviant, ignored and even persecuted. The most outstanding argument for these injustices is that the male/female binary denotes the only biologically 'natural' form of sexuality, a claim that is based on what 'group' holds a majority and is used to perpetuate the myth that sex and gender binaries are a natural necessity, when in fact they are counter-productive to the diversity of real human lives.
What are intuitively regarded as 'man' and 'women' or 'masculine' and 'feminine' are not intrinsic properties of a particular kind of subject. Rather they are constructed entities, an attempt to source a biological explanation for sex, gender and sexuality.(4) However these biological explanations are based on the faulty premise that the innate forms of sex, gender and sexuality in discourse are axiomatic truths; this fails to acknowledge that identity and power are not only passively expressed through discourse but actively affected by discourse.(5) In other words, every individual is influenced and shaped by the expectations of their environment, an environment that is itself shaped and perpetuated by the individuals within it. Individuals forge groups to garner power over the environmental domain (and those within it) and in doing so positively polarise themselves from other groups. Thus, the resulting discourse is a greater reflection of the ruling groups institutionalised authority then anything of biological validity.
A prime example of this is the male/female binary where an individual's biological sex designates them to the “male” or “female” group, each with its own connotations and gendered discourse that extends, without relevance, to every facet of life. Those delegated to the 'male' group hold environmental power with discourse reflecting predominately 'male' benefiting goals, while those in the 'female' category are moulded and expected to conform with 'male' ideals.(6) This is frequently at the expense of their own autonomy and through 'compulsory heterosexuality'; their sexuality.
Compulsory heterosexuality is a term originally coined by Adrienne Rich to describe heterosexuality as a institution of patriarchy.(7) The assumption that sex causally links to a concrete 'gender' and from that to heterosexuality underlines the operation of many social institutions. A short overview of education demonstrates how the male/female binary moves from mere encouragement to enforcement and later expectation .
Embedded within the educational discourse is a romanticised notion of heterosexuality that effectively trains an individual to adhere to the idealised roles of male dominance and female domesticity and places boundaries around individual emotional and sexual expression.(8) Educational institutions operate under the assumption that young adult sexuality, particularly homosexuality, is something 'dangerous' that requires control, yet at the same time particular (hetero)unions are encouraged.(9) The encouragement is not a particular event; but rather how heterosexuality as the expected normal influences the discourse of the school environment. School rules, uniform and social events prescribe different standards for the sexes and are encouraged, while deviations from gender expectations are devalued. Often those who deviate are given a derogatory term, such as 'fag', which then becomes a label that can be applied to any individual as a 'threat' to the rule of masculinity and heterosexuality.(10) Perhaps the most confronting trend is the allowance of sexist and homophobic comments or behaviours under the guise of 'boys will be boys', when in many cases comments or actions are blatant harassment (sexual or otherwise).(11) This is a ritual that marks the emergence of male sexual dominance and female submission, and emphasises that 'female' traits are not only considered polar opposites to 'male' traits but that they are also less desirable. Puberty is a time of immense pressure to conform to gender roles, however, this pressure is not exclusive to homosexuals, the confines of a passive, domestic and futile femininity deny many individuals access to their own identity.(12)
The distinct way sex, gender and sexuality is emphasised in educational discourse leads to similar expectations in adulthood, whereby “seductive representations of heterosexuality dominate popular culture and the media.”(13) The underlying messages found within the film industry offer interesting insight into these expectations; with characters in films assumed, by default, to be heterosexual. Those who are homosexual are frequently “Defined by their sexuality”, usually in the form of gender role inversion, whereby men are portrayed as effeminate and the women as grubby and masculine.(14) In either case there is a link drawn between sex, gender and sexuality and anything non-heterosexual is seen as a quirky alternative that renders an individual as a lesser version of a man or women; a gender failure.(15) On the other-hand heterosexuality is often portrayed as the 'correct' way; a guaranteed path to achieving personal fulfilment and success. Thereby film and other forms of media are indicative of ingrained socially learned forms of sex, gender and sexuality that are often assumed to be biologically natural.
Supporters of the biological naturality of the male/female binary draws on three facts: There are significant larger number of people who are either male or female then intersexed;(16) although people exhibit androgynous traits, most will identify with either a male or female gender;(17) and heterosexuality is found in greater numbers then other forms of sexuality.(18) Although these are true statements they are often misused to justify the marginalisation of minorities, drawing on the flawed logic that the most prolific is more credible and biologically natural; and ignoring the role of social learning in sex, gender and sexuality. In fact by examining societal institutions it becomes clear that sex 'appropriate' gender roles and heterosexuality are encouraged in youth, enforced in puberty and then expected in adulthood, with the intent of ensuring men have sexual and emotional access to women and at the expense of individuality.(19)
Societal structures demonstrate overly simplified and concrete views about sex gender and sexuality; namely that it is a process starting with an individual's physical sex, male or female; that causally determines their gender as either feminine or masculine and leads naturally to heterosexuality.(20) For this reason knowing an individual's sex is considered crucial as it supposedly tells you a wealth of information about their gender and sexuality. This mainstream thinking is often accompanied by the idea that any variation in the three areas, or the causal direction of the three areas, is an indication that something is wrong. In this way all individuals are pressured to adhere to the gender binary and those who resist or exhibit an alternative, such as those who are non-heterosexual, transsexual or intersexual, are labelled as deviant.
Despite the fact that that majority of people are either biologically male or female sexed the numbers of intersexuals is by no means insignificant. It is estimated that 1 in every 100 infants is born with a sex 'anomaly' and in 1 out of every 1000 births the anomaly is significant enough that it isn't possible to visually determine sex.(21) When an intersex child is born medical staff seek to determine the child’s so-called 'true sex' with chromosomal tests providing the basis for the 'sex diagnosis.' If only X chromosomes are present then the child is considered 'female', however, if a Y chromosome is present then 'sex' is based on the potential for penile tissue to become an 'adequately' sized penis.(22) Medical doctrine advises that intersex patients with an 'inadequate' penis should be reared as a female,(23) with little thought given to the adequacy, aesthetic or sexual function of the surgical vagina, other than it's ability to accommodate a penis.(24) This phallocentric attitude leads to a high proportion of intersex individuals being assigned as female.(25) The sexual-binary mandates that a person is either male or female, when in reality 'sex' is far from a dimorphic category(26).
There has been little evidence suggesting that surgical sex assignments provides a physical or psychological benefit(27), on the contrary, an plethora of studies highlight the damage of these interventions.(28) Leading to the emergence of intersex support networks seeking to de-mystify the intersex phenomenon and advocating that 'corrective' surgeries should only be performed with the adult consent of the intersex individual and not on infants or children.(29) Furthermore it has been argued that the assigning of a 'sex' label doesn't have a biological necessity, that it is constructed to provide a distinction that justifies the division of people into gender and sexuality categories.(30) Given that society encourages and expects 'correct' gender roles and heterosexuality, it is no surprise that ambiguous 'sex' is a source of discomfort; an attitude which leads to hasty sex-determination; and painful and unnecessary surgical 'correction'.(31)
There is no discourse to express identity outside the constraints of the male/female binary. therefore, intersexuals, transsexuals, the androgynous and other 'gender bending' individuals are frequently cast as a non-normative 'other.'(32) Likewise, those who identify as straight and present a 'gender' that does not conform to their biological sex are perceived as threatening to a patriarchal culture that emphasises the distinction between men and non-men.(33) Because those who do not adhere to the male/female binary are devalued and isolated, they are forcibly positioned in a way that makes it difficult to challenge the supposed 'normal'.(34) Furthermore they face ridicule at home and at work; and their attempts to be validated are consistently met with societal and political resistance.(35) Yet, when viewed from outside the restrictive gender-binary people have many combinations of sex, gender and sexuality as well as numerous combinations of individual traits that don't necessarily form a bi-gendered compatible whole. In fact, majority of people are psychologically androgynous, in other words, they exhibit both male and female defined characteristics, even though they may have been socialised to act otherwise.(36) It is probable that the fundamental differences between the 'two' sexes are a product of social learning. Given this it is illogical to conclude that the binary process is immediately correct, biologically 'natural' and without negative consequence.
The male/female binary has been used extensively by feminist discourse as a source of identity that could be used in contrast with the 'male' identity to explain and resolve societal inequities.(37) However the male/female binary encourages the division of individuals into groups based purely on the physical manifestation of sex, emphasising the similarities within each group and the difference between them.(38) The ideals of a passive femininity, dominate masculinity and heterosexuality are so ingrained in society that there is no discourse with which to express an alternative and it is common-place to assume there is only one 'correct' form of sex, gender and sexuality. Thus creating an environment where alternatives are not just an uncommon variation but a negative occurrence that is at best tolerated and at worst; ignored, persecuted or manipulated. The emergence of queer theory and the resulting de-mystification of intersexuals, transsexuals and homosexuals has challenged the common-sense notions of sex, gender and sexuality. These reclaimed terms have provided an expression of identity, however they also harbours the potential for negative connotations and the marginalising of entire sects of people that do not conform to mainstream views.(39) By critically viewing the bi-gendered system as a construction of patriarchy it is clear that the male/female binary provides a limited view of humanity and places artificial constraints on the rich diversity of the human experience.