I am feminist. I say that with no conditions or reservations. I also don’t believe in “abolishing gender”, or that gender is “nothing but a social construct”.
A lot of feminists believe in “abolishing gender”. According to them, in a perfect world we wouldn’t have the categories of male or female, or perhaps these categories would be purely biological; anything else that makes up our concept of gender would no longer exist. We would all be equally likely to engage in typically masculine and typically feminine activities, we would all be equally likely to present in masculine or feminine ways.
That,………….. or we would all wear trousers, and dedicate ourselves to careers rather than childcare, and men would never wear skirts or be stay-at-home parents, because everyone in this genderless world will be what is currently considered masculine. According to some, masculine things are just better or something. They don’t seem to think about the fact that this is basically the definition of sexism. But I digress.
The concept of “abolishing gender” is a fundamentally cissexist one.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Cissexism means structural transphobia, just as sexism means structural misogyny. Someone who doesn’t actually hate women can be sexist, because they grew up in a society which is built on a foundation of hatred for women. Because of their upbringing, they subconsciously think women are less qualified or less respect-worthy than men, and so on. This can be measured on tests such as the implicit association test and, in turn, these results predict how likely someone will hire a woman in mock job interviews, and the like.
In the same way, someone who doesn’t actually hate trans people can be cissexist. As a completely random example, they might talk about “abolishing gender” and ignore the fact that many trans people experience an internal sense of gender on such a visceral level that they at least know that “abolishing gender” is impossible. Trans people are generally brought up as a certain gender, and often try very hard to be that gender, but find out they are another one. They have an internal gender that does not respond at all to social pressure.
I will add to this that saying that gender can be changed or abolished is, in the case of trans people, basically the same as stating that homosexuality can be changed in the case of gay people. And we all know how incredibly wrong and destructive that is.
If someone isn’t cissexist, they can listen to trans people and know that the idea of abolishing gender is wrong and simply has to be discarded. In reality, many prefer to put their theories before people, erasing the experiences of trans people and hurting a very vulnerable population in the process.
The idea that gender is something that can be abolished can be disproven incredibly easily with the story of David Raimer.
David Raimer was a boy who lost his penis as a baby. On the orders of a certain doctor, he underwent surgery to make him a vagina and he was, as they called it, “reassigned female”. His parents never told him he had been born with a penis, and did their best to bring him up as a girl.
His childhood was basically identical to that of a trans boy. He rejected the dresses he was forced to wear, played with masculine toys, walked with a male gait which made him a target of ridicule at school, and had the intense feeling that he was a boy despite what everyone told him. His doctor responded with therapy intended to mould him into his female role.
He eventually discovered the truth and transitioned back to male. You can read the whole story here.
David Raimer, despite all evidence to the contrary, knew he was male, and acted masculine. His male gender was not socialised; it was internal. He was socialised female, but he did not become female.
Asides from this case, this awful experiment has been performed many more times, all with similar results. In one study quoted in Julia Serano’s “Excluded”, 14 boys were reassigned female in this way; eight of them decided that they were male at some point without knowledge of their gender reassignment; all of them acted in ways considered “male typical”*.
*William G. Reiner and John P. Gearhart, “Discordant Sexual Identity in Some Genetic Males with Cloacal Exstrophy Assigned to Female Sex at Birth”, The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol 350 (2004), No.4, 333-341
With this in mind, I don’t understand how anyone can continue to believe that gender is something entirely socially constructed that can be somehow “abolished”. This has been disproven. We’re done here.
And on top of that, besides being just wrong I find it offensive that people keep trying to say that gender is entirely socially constructed. As a trans person, an incredible amount of work and pain in my life has been a direct result of the fact that my gender is NOT socially constructed. Saying that it was is both absurd and it erases all my experience and all my pain. My pain should not be erased; it must be understood, so society can help me and not continue to hurt me. This is incredibly important, because we trans people are in an incredibly vulnerable position. More trans people commit suicide or are murdered every day. This is a state of emergency. We need help, not erasure.
I’m not going to say that there isn’t an ELEMENT of gender which is constructed by society, and which, indeed, is oppressive and should be broken down.
I’m going to be radical here and suggest that gender is partly social, and partly biological, and may have other factors that we don’t yet know. This sounds less exciting than suggesting that we know exactly what causes gender. It doesn’t make such a nice soundbite as “gender is just a construct” or “all gender is drag”. However, lives are at stake, so we can’t just go with whatever sounds coolest. I’m sorry.
I believe that society has a tendency to exaggerate natural gendered tendencies, and erase variation. For example, in my personal experience I’ve seen how estrogen makes me naturally cry more often. But I’ve also seen that my upbringing as male made me cry less. It’s not either/or; actually, both biological and social factors influence this.
Social and biological factors tend to influence gender-associated traits in the same direction (the social factor exaggerating the natural tendency as I said), which can make it hard to separate one factor from the other. When we see that society discourages boys from crying, it’s easy to think that this is the ONLY reason they cry less. However, trans experience shows that this is not the case.
Social factors also tend to erase variation in gender-associated traits. While masculinity in men and femininity in women can be seen as a general tendency, it’s also true that gender-associated traits exist on a spectrum. You can get very masculine women and very feminine men, and everything in between. This, too, I think is obvious. And yes, I do believe we must undo social conditioning that attempts to erase these variations from the general tendency.
As I understand it, there is nothing which is fundamentally male or fundamentally female. Instead, there are tendencies, groups of traits which are much more common in one group or another. There is always an overlap; women might like flowers more often, but men also like flowers sometimes. Some men like flowers more than some women. These tendencies come partly from social sources, partly from biological/innate sources.
I believe there are some aspects of social conditioning which are unquestionably bad and we should attempt to change them.
I believe that men need physical contact just as much as women, so it’s absolutely wrong that they should be discouraged from having platonic physical contact. As it is, affection from men is basically always understood as sexual, provoking homophobia from other men, a polarity of distrust or sexual interest from women, and severe suspicion or protectiveness when directed towards children. Men must learn to unabashedly enjoy platonic intimacy, and of course learn that if they do mix up some sexual feelings with their intimacy towards other men, that’s not the end of the fucking world.
I believe that women being taught that they can’t do certain “male” things is bullshit too. I don’t know how many women would engage in things like construction work in a sexism-free world, but it’d sure as hell be more than they do now. I also despair at other women who think they can’t drill a hole in a wall if they need to. Of course they fucking can, and it’s stupid to depend on men to do those things.
There are a lot more ways in which gendered social conditioning is awful and damaging. I won’t go into all of them. However, just because gendered social conditioning can be damaging, doesn’t mean that gendered differences would not exist without it. It doesn’t mean that the very concept of gender is wrong. Trans experiences and the experience of David Raimer and those like him prove that.
All we need is a more nuanced concept of gender, accepting that gender is partially constructed, partially innate; that some gendered concepts might be damaging, others useful and positive; and that sometimes, we just don’t know what things are constructed, what things are damaging, and what things are natural.
We don’t understand everything (surprise!). Let’s be humble and let things be that way. We can still combat sexism. We can just start with what we do know or can reasonably assume, which is plenty of things. As we make progress, I believe some things might become more clear. So let’s just take this one step at a time, and just remember never to erase real human experience when creating our theories.