Sunday, 22 January 2012

Delusions of Gender: delusions of gonads

I am in quite the quandry.

On leaving my last job, I was presented with a card, a knit-your-own-jewellery kit, and a £50 Amazon voucher. (Seriously, work for charities: people are generous.) I've been keeping this saved up for a January treat and have now purchased a selection of books which I've wanted to read for ages, but couldn't quite justify spending more than 50p on.

So here they are, all shiny and beautiful and full of knowledge, and so giddy was I at finally getting my hands on Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Between Sex Differences that I gobbled it all up in two days flat, gleefully snorting my way though its wry and witty take-downs of various spurious non-science claptrap used to justify sexism by idiots.

Which is where the dilemma comes in: do I now read The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn? Or Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class? Or, perhaps, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire? You guys, my life is so hard.

I've been wanting to read Delusions of Gender since it first came out, but was reluctant to spring for it simply because I assumed it would be mostly stuff I already knew, whether from Bad Science or Myths of Gender or just from reading studies and laughing at them: better, surely, to go for something that would challenge beliefs I hold rather than confirming them, or something that would educate me on areas I know nothing about. But hey! I went for it anyway, because I knew it would cheer me up. What can I say; we all need comfort reading.

Happily, it was more than that: as well as picking apart studies that claim to show that men are from arrgh and women are from lovely - oh, you know, map reading, embroidery, maths ability, mind-reading - it linked this trend to older currents of sexist thought that have changed surprisingly little over centuries. It also introduced some pretty mind-blowing concepts: we assume that if Science identifies differences between male and female brains, this proves that Men And Women Are Different, that these differences are based in biology, and that they are 'hardwired' and unchangeable. But the brain is an infinitely plastic organ: it changes constantly in response to incoming data from its environment, and so women's bigger empathising node in the anterior cerebellum* might 'prove' nothing more than the fact that women respond to the social expectation that they be more empathic.

* There is no such thing.

However.  One of the difficulties in writing this sort of book, if you are a cis person, is avoiding the mines: the topic has been misused in so many directions to the harm of so many people ("women: you are thick!" "Trans people: you don't fit my theory, therefore you don't exist!") that you have to be incredibly careful about who you're treading on.

Fine doesn't make the obvious mistakes, like following the faux-logical path from "gender differences in the brain have been overplayed therefore there is no such thing as a 'male brain' therefore transness is an illusion" - for the most part she doesn't even go down the conjectural route, letting you draw your own conclusions about the implications of the research she dissects. But there were a couple of passages which set my spidey sense a-tingling.

In one passage she discusses how trans men's experiences in the workplace alter post-transition, as a way of highlighting how we value characteristics differently when they are presented by men and women (or people we perceive to be men or women). She devotes a couple of paragraphs to a study done by Kirsten Schilt at Houston's Rice University in which men in this situation reported being taken more seriously, their work being rated more highly, their opinions being sought more often. Which is interesting, and great data to work with - Julia Serano talks about this issue in Whipping Girl - but she just leaves it there. Even one sentence noting that trans men don't simply gain male privilege, but also face the effects of transphobia in ways that are likely to be at least as overt and dangerous as sexism, would have put this into context. But she just skips on to the next study.

In a later chapter, she quotes with approval a couple who are making a concerted effort not to instil gender stereotypes in their children: doctoring picture books to feature more female and/or stereotype-busting characters, for example; splitting housework exactly in half; ensuring the children saw men and women doing a variety of jobs - and "promoting the idea that the difference between males and females lies in their anatomy and reproductive functions" rather than their fondness for dolls or trucks. Fine notes that "your typical pre-schooler enjoys a detailed knowledge of gender roles, but remains a bit hazy regarding the hard, biological fact that males differ from females when it comes to the allocation of such items as penises, testicles and vaginas."

Which is nice. Congratulations, these parents: you have raised two children with a wonderfully free set of beliefs about what men and women can do - and a shockingly narrow set of beliefs about what men and women are.

I'm not dissing the parents, exactly: I don't have a clue about what other values they're instilling; maybe the children's lives are full of healthy representations of non-cis and non-binary people; maybe they or their parents are trans themselves. Plus raising children is an incredibly difficult task at the best of times and non-parents chucking their tuppence-worth in is almost never helpful - and it's not as if the traditional upbringing eliminates transphobia anyway. (Wouldn't that be nice.) But Fine's enthusiastic endorsement of this genitalia = gender definition sends a dangerous message. Surely there must be a way of protecting children from relentless messages about what little girls are and what little boys like - letting them decide for themselves - without hardening this unbreakable link between gender identity and differentiated gonads. I'm sure we can do better than this.


  1. can we hang out, soon, please?

  2. Fuck yeah! When are you free? (PS I love the fact that there are people in this world who read me banging on about gender theory and think "I want to hang out with her" rather than "give it a rest".)