written circa 2001 as the keynote for an independent study project on gender
“All men are created equal.” Thus begins the history of mankind. Thus perpetuates the belief that women and men are inherently different, biologically, socially, religiously, psychologically, sexually, genetically, and, with the publication of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, interplanetarily.
It begins with birth, where the doctor, holding the infant child by its ankles, examines the child’s genitalia, and says “It’s a boy!” or It’s Other. And, if Other, It’s either a girl, or It’s broken. And, if It’s broken, the doctor asks the parents if they would like their child fixed. Their child’s gender fixed. Sometimes the doctor doesn’t bother to ask. And sometimes they guess right in this moment of Gender Roulette, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they don’t play, and the child grows up in a society of strictly enforced gender requirements, in which the Gender Nazis ridicule and beat and torture anyone whose gender is not as clearly defined as theirs (at least outwardly) is.
But in normal circumstances, that doesn’t happen. The child’s “sex” is determined, and written on hir birth certificate–a legal document. Thus, based on the outward, physical appearance of a child’s body their gender is determined for them, ripped out of their grasping hands, and given to the Government for census purposes, tax purposes, law enforcement purposes, insurance purposes. Then, friends and family of the parents shower them with gender-specific gifts and decorations. Balloons (“baby” blue for boys, pink for girls) that say “It’s a Boy!” or “It’s a Girl!”, baseball gloves for boys, dolls for girls, sickeningly sweet Navy suits for boys, frilly saccharine pink dresses for girls. And they address the child, even from looking at them through the glass. “What a big boy! So strong!”; “What a sweet little girl! So gentle!”
But that’s not what really happens.
It really begins before birth, long before birth. Men and women start out as physiologically the same. Determination of gender happens late in the development process, almost an afterthought. The belief that men have testosterone and women have estrogen is misleading; we each have both. Male and female genitalia come from the same skin, the same tissue.
The first time I really realized this was during a lecture by a male-to-female transsexual talking about the process of changing a penis into a vagina. In this process, the testicles are sliced along the seam and opened to create the outer labia. This seam exists because the skin, during the development process, had folded over and connected–gender reassignment surgery is putting it back the way it was before. The penis itself is simply an elongated clitoris, as can be seen from female-to-male transsexuals. Unless they opt for phalloplasty, the testosterone they intake as part of their “reassignment” effectively increases the size of the existing clitoris into what is clinically referred to as a micro-penis–only slightly demeaning. Which, due to our obsession with penis size, illicits responses in the proud possessors of micro-penises such as:
“I have to wear two pairs of trunks at the swimming pool because I don’t think the bulge in my pants is big enough. It’s really obvious when my clothing is wet. Without a larger phallus, the testicle implants alone just don’t give the look I want. I try to appreciate what I have since my surgery, but it’s hard when I live in a society that associates penis size with a man’s worth.
“I’m not convinced that most women are concerned with the size of a man’s penis (even a guy with a small dick can do a lot of stuff), but I can’t even ejaculate, much less penetrate! It isolates and handicaps me in an invisible sort of way. I’m really angry about it!” (46, Cameron)
This isolation and anxiety over a penis that is not up to some imaginary par accompanies the belief in a system that is either/or. There’s male and there’s female. There’s black and there’s white. Normal and abnormal. Well-adjusted and deviant. While the intent of bestseller list books on gender like Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus is well-meaning, the outcome is chicken soup for the patriarchal bipolar system. Books like that reinforce this belief that men and women are different, and that we should learn to deal and accept these differences. In the introduction to her book on “why women are not the better sex, the inferior sex, or the opposite sex,” Carol Tavris examines this:
“The perception of female otherness occurs in every field, as we are learning from critical observers in science, law, medicine, history, economics, social science, literature, and art. In medicine, students learn anatomy and physiology and, separately, female anatomy and physiology; the male body is anatomy-itself. In art, we have works of general excellence and, separately, works by women artists, generally regarded as different and lesser; male painters represent art-itself. In literature, a college course on “black female writers of the twentieth century” is considered a specialized seminar, yet when an English instructor at Georgetown University called her course “white male writers,” it was news–because the works of white male writers are regarded as literature-itself. In psychoanalysis, Freud took the male as the developmental norm for humanity, regarding female development as a pale and puny deviation from it. In philosophy, the centrality in thought and language of the universal male affects the ability to reason about humanity. The philosopher Elizabeth Minnich reminds us of the famous syllogism:
“All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
“But, Minnich suggests, try this one:
“All men are mortal.
Alice is ________
“Alice is what? We can’t say ‘Alice is a man.’ So we say she is a woman. Therefore what? Alice is immortal? Alice, being female, is in a category that is neither masculine nor mortal.” (18-9, Tavris)
Tavris writes about how men and women are the same and women and men are not the same. In all the ways we typically separate men from women, physiologically, psychologically, intellectually, sociologically, behaviorally, and most of all sexually, she dissects the real differences and finds that they are minimal or non-existent. But in other things, she says, it’s ridiculous to assume there’s not differences. “It is absurd,” she says, “to speak of ‘sex differences’ in rape rates, for instance, as if men are merely somewhat more likely than women to rape; the rate for women is virtually zero” (288, Tavris).
What is the distinction between male and female? Is it the presence or absence of a penis? If so, what about women with penises, men with vaginas, or those that have both? Are hermaphrodites asexual, omnisexual, or just those strange folks on daytime talk shows that don’t actually exist? Are women female because they can bear children? If so, what about women who are incapable of bearing children? What about women after menopause? Are they not women? With the same logic, what about men who are impotent? Does being incapable of “carrying on the family name” make men less men? What about homosexuals? Is gender defined by who you have sex with? Is gender defined by sex? What about virgins?! They haven’t yet “become a man” or a “woman” having not yet fucked (though girls get another shot at being women by bleeding, and boys have another chance at being men by having the ends of their penises chopped off–though, sadly, more and more this is being done at birth rather than a rite of passage into manhood).
Let’s bring it back to science. I’m male because I have x and y chromosomes. Or, wait, do I? There’s more than xx or xy. As Kate Bornstein points out in Gender Outlaw, there’s xxy, xxx, yyy, xyy, and xo. “Does this mean there’s more than two genders?” (56, Outlaw) In her book My Gender Workbook, Bornstein–a male-to-female transsexual–says:
“For so long, we’ve bought into a biological imperative that has labeled genitalia as ‘male’ or ‘female’; what’s more, we’ve dignified that imperative by giving it it’s own word: sex!…Gender is real easy to sum up in one word: categorization. Anything that categorizes people is gender, whether it’s appearance or mannerisms, biology or psychology, hormones, roles, genitals, whatever…So where does that leave sex? Sex is fucking…” (26, Workbook)
By making the distinction between sex (as referring to intercourse) and gender (as referring to male, female, and everything in-between) we take gender out of the delivery room with the birth certificate and it’s M or F checkbox waiting, and into the realm of sociology, psychology, and (GASP!) independent thought. But how or where do we learn to be gendered? Everywhere. It starts in the delivery room, goes on to circumcision or baptism or both. (These can happen in any order, but having a Jewish mother and Roman Catholicism on my father’s side, I’m basing it on my own experience.) It’s on TV as Ozzie and Harriet or Lucy and Ricki or Dan and Marsha. And the great thing about TV is that there’s sideshows, there’s Riki Lake or Sally Jesse Raphael who have special episodes with guests who are neither Ozzie nor Harriet, who break the rules and laws of gender, and we can look at them and say “what freaks!” We point at them and say “can you even orgasm with that thing?” which is to say “are you really (insert gender here)?” Then, switch the channel back to General Hospital, where everyone is perfectly gendered and nothing has changed.
We learn gender from religion, from science, from history and the historic representations of gender, from the law and the way in which laws are written, from art, from media and advertising, from friends, family and the people around us, from class and race, from the economy, and last but not least, from pornography.
Sex and Gender
“On the negative side [of marriage], there is the wedding night, during which the bride must pay the piper, so to speak, by facing for the first time the terrible experience of sex.
“At this point, dear reader, let me concede one shocking truth. Some young women actually anticipate the wedding night ordeal with curiosity and pleasure! Beware such an attitude! A selfish and sensual husband can easily take advantage of such a bride. One cardinal rule of marriage should never be forgotten: give little, give seldom, and above all, give grudgingly. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.”
(from Instruction And Advice for the Young Bride, The Madison Institute Newsletter, Fall Issue, 1894 as quoted 120, Workbook)
“We may calmly assert that the future course of marriage is determined largely during the wedding night. The woman never forgets the art and manner in which she is treated by the man on that occasion; how he introduces her to the mysteries of love; how he overcomes her initial resistance. I have repeatedly heard words of appreciation expressed by women who said they would never forget their husbands’ fine behavior. They remain grateful even if subsequently he disappoints them.
“Her first yielding is a momentous experience for the woman. A woman never forgets the first man to whom she has given herself…Sometimes it happens that the man lacks neither skill in the art of love nor the delicacy and adroitness required by the occasion but that the woman prevents successful intercourse. She is tremendously afraid, and refuses to cooperate at least to the extent of releasing her thighs. If the man succeeds in overcoming this resistance, his efforts may be thwarted next by a powerful spasm of the vagina, a condition which expresses a categorical negative…For the man too the wedding night sometimes amounts to a severe ordeal and shock. But the trauma is generally not so serious for the man as it is for the woman, whose fancy has preoccupied itself innumerable times with the wedding night, weaving around it the highest expectations.” (93-5, Stekel)
“Where the husband forces the wife by menaces and other violent means to the conjugal act, we can no longer describe such as a normal physiological manifestation, but must ascribe it to sadistic impulses. It seems probable that this sadistic force is developed by the natural shyness and modesty of woman towards the aggressive manners of the male, especially during the earlier periods of married life and particularly where the husband is hypersexual. Woman no doubt derives pleasure from her innate coyness and the final victory of man affords her intense and refined gratification. Hence the frequent recurrence of these little love comedies…” (from Psycopathia Sexualis by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, as it appears 26, S&M)
Before I begin my discussion on gender and pornography and the gender system in pornography, I’d like to add an additional quote from performance artist and member of the “NEA 4,” Karen Finley, which touches on the pleasure derived from her “innate coyness” and desire for her “initial reluctance” to be overcome:
“…The menfolk say as I pass…
I prefer small women
I like to dominate women
I enjoy the conquest of sex
Some women are asking for it
I get excited when a woman struggles
I’d like to make it with her
I hope I score tonight
“And when the last man said his violence
I knew I couldn’t do anything to them
so I’d do something to me.
I went and took a knife and cut out my hole
but it just became a bigger hole
and all the men just laughed and said
She’s too big to fuck now
And I felt relief, but then they said,
We can all fuck her at the same time.
But I was bleeding so they left me alone
Men don’t touch women when they bleed
It’s unclean, unless they cause the bleeding.”
(from Why Can’t This Veal Calf Walk?, 93-4, Intimacy)
Two things I’ve defended in the past, and defended strongly, are pornography and S&M. As individual things and concepts, I don’t think they’re inherently evil. But if the enemy is gender inequality, and specifically male supremacy, it could (and has been) argued that these two things perpetuate that system of oppression. Kate Bornstein addresses it rather nicely (by which I mean sweetly, and possibly weakly):
“A particularly insidious aspect about gender…our gender system here in the West, and perhaps for the planet as a whole…is that it is an oppressive class system made all the more dangerous by the belief that it is an entirely natural state of affairs. In this sense, gender is no different a form of class oppression than the caste system in India or apartheid in South Africa. Those systems have long been held to be ‘natural,’ and the way of the world in their respective cultures, based as they are on the concept of the possibility of a pure identity.” (105, Outlaw)
BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism & masochism, which I use interchangeably with S&M) as I was introduced to it was largely role-play. It was consent based, and therefore equal. There was no gender hierarchy. I’m not going to claim the opposite, however, it is interesting to look at the patterns in the scene. In heterosexual S&M relationships, the tendency leans toward male dominance and female submission–which furthers and perpetuates the beliefs inherent in our patriarchal society. It’s no surprise that there are significantly fewer female dominants than male, however, there is an excess of male submissives. Even as slaves it seems to still revolve around male supremacy and wanting (forcing) women to perform specific actions for them or to them. This can be seen in Charles Moser and Eugene E. Levitt’s reference to a study based on observation of men patronizing prostitutes. The researcher, Stein (1974), “observed 1,242 men with 64 call girls and categorized these men into nine types based on the apparent goal of the interaction. The ‘slave’ category accounted for 13% of her sample. It is important to note that none of the call girls was a professional dominant, nor did they advertise this service” (94-5, S&M). In her “Autobiography of a Dominatrix,” Juliette (61-9, S&M) describes a similar behavior when working as a call girl before becoming a professional dominant. More violent accounts of this can be traced to pornographers forcing their actresses to serve them in slave-like servitude, forcing them to perform in their movies or be beaten, raped, or both.
In his essay on “Pornography and Freedom,” John Stoltenberg asks the question “Why has sexual freedom come to look so much like sexual repression?” This is an interesting question to me, as someone coming from inside the BDSM scene, because in-itself, it does not assume that the behavior is wrong, it instead is considering why we as a culture are attracted to it. If an example of the attraction of repressive sexuality is needed, he provides a few, this is just one:
“‘Baby, you’re gonna get fucked tonight like you ain’t never been fucked before,’ he hissed evilly down at her as she struggled fruitlessly against her bonds. The man wanted only to abuse and ravish her till she was totally broken and subservient to him. He knelt between her wide-spread legs and gloated over the cringing little pussy he was about to ram his cock into.” (Baker, 1978, p. 132 as printed in 65, Violence)
Stoltenberg’s answer to the question of sexual freedom versus sexual repression is that sexual freedom does not mean sexual justice and is not about “sexual justice between men and women” (67, Violence), and instead “[it’s] about preserving a sexuality that preserves male supremacy” (68). I don’t agree that this is necessarily the pervasive attitude regarding sexual freedom, at least in my experience of so-called sexually deviant culture(s). However, I will admit to the existence of such attitudes in BDSM and certainly in pornography, where he further directs his focus. In my experience of BDSM, there are the men who objectify women, women who allow themselves and desire to be objectified, and then there are those for whom gender and gender roles seem to play a less active part in their desires. And while it could be said that a woman who is empowered by accepting the masculinized role of a dominant dominating submissive men is merely buying into the patriarchy by accepting a male role of power, it could also be argued that maybe she’s just accepting of the “masculine” qualities or traits she possesses as a woman. Remove gender associations or stereotypes from the equation and it becomes unimportant where the traits come from.
Still, it’s men who write the books, it’s men who make the movies, it’s men who decide what they want women to do, look like, behave like, do to them. On pornography and male supremacy, Stoltenberg says:
“Male-supremacist sexuality is important to pornography, and pornography is important to male supremacy. Pornography institutionalizes the sexuality that both embodies and enacts male supremacy. Pornography says about that sexuality, ‘Here’s how’: Here’s how to act out male supremacy in sex. Here’s how the action should go. Here are the acts that impose power over and against another body. And pornography says about that sexuality, ‘Here’s who’: Here’s who you should do it to and here’s who she is: your whore, your piece of ass, yours. Your penis is a weapon, her body is your target. And pornography says about that sexuality, ‘Here’s why’: Because men are masters, woman are slaves; men are superior, women are subordinate; men are real, women are objects; men are sex machines, women are sluts…Pornography also eroticizes male supremacy. It makes dominance and subordination feel like sex; it makes hierarchy feel like sex; it makes force and violence feel like sex; it makes hate and terrorism feel like sex; it makes inequality feel like sex. Pornography keeps sexism sexy. It keeps sexism necessary for some people to have sexual feelings” (69-70, Violence).
This is further confirmed elsewhere in Making Violence Sexy (Diana E.H. Russell, ed.) in testimonies and essays about and by survivors of rape whose assailants in one form or another used pornography as a guidebook for their assault.
If there existed–and I hope somewhere there does or will–pornography that didn’t depict women as objects, that instead showed images of equality in sex, realism (as opposed to male supremacist fantasy) in sex, possibly even art in sex or beauty in sex, would that still be pornography? According to Andrea Dworkin & Catharine MacKinnon (84, Violence) pornography is a Greek word meaning “the graphic depiction of women as the lowest, most vile whores. It refers to writing, etching, or drawing of women who, in real life, were kept in female sexual slavery in ancient Greece.” Possibly this is a slightly biased view, but the only linguistic analysis I’ve currently got to go on. This definition of pornography means that, by its very name, it’s exploitative, if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be pornography.
So what of the argument, then, made by women who feel empowered by reclaiming their bodies through pornography or stripping? Some accounts of this can be seen in Erika Langley’s photodocumentary, The Lusty Lady. The title refers to a female-owned and -run strip club in Seattle (with a sister club in San Francisco, reputedly the first to organize a union for female exotic dancers). Because it’s female-run, the theory is that it is less exploitative than the other, male-run strip clubs, and that seems to be the case. Still, most women (approximately 75%) in the sex industry were abused or assaulted, and this seems accurate according to Langley’s testimony. And even though The Lusty Lady is less exploitative, that isn’t to say that it is not exploitative.
Despite this, the women often talk about how liberated they feel dancing naked for themselves and each other. This may be, but often they also talk about how horrible the clientele makes them feel. Many of the women dancing at the Lusty Lady were feminist or had many feminist attitudes. Yet they allow themselves to be part of a system that is designed for men, and for the supposed superiority of men. They can be as liberated and feel as empowered as they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that some men may go and watch them, and want to force their wife to dance like that for them, or perform specific actions for or to them. That doesn’t change the fact that they are contributing to a system that is inherently male-supremacist.
It’s frustrating to come to the realization of this system, the full impact of this system, and the ways in which it is played-out in the media and advertising (whose ideal, it often seems, is becoming “soft-core” porn or becoming more like “soft-core” porn) after deciding and realizing that gender doesn’t exist in any real sense. It may not exist, but that doesn’t change the impact of the belief in it. Christ may (or may not) have died 2000 years ago, but people are still talking about it. Is it going to take that long to grow out of a patriarchal system of female inequality and oppression?
The results of my research in gender have only led me back to the beginning with the only exception being the realization that all of these systems that have been formed are based on non-existent truths. That the reality in which they exist are Baudrillardean hyperrealities based in the purest form of supremacy it borders on slavery. What makes this research most frustrating is the realization that sex crimes are based in this dominant worldview, that rape is based in a belief of male privilege, that 1 in 3 women are raped at some point in their life based on reports, and that most rapes aren’t reported. It seems to me that the only way to disrupt the system is to challenge some of the fundamental beliefs…beliefs such as the bipolar gender system. Gender Outlaws like Loren Cameron, Kate Bornstein, and Leslie Feinberg continue to speak out from their transgendered perspective, but breaking the polarity is not a privilege limited to transsexuals alone. There is no “real” man and there is no “real” woman, there is no “real” anything. What exists is variations in color and hue of male, female, masculine, feminine, butch, femme, dyke, fag, white, black, normal, abnormal, acceptable, perverse and the more we blur those lines, the more we challenge the fundamental belief that keeps gender inequality going, so that maybe someday it will say “All people are created equal.”
(the following is a list of works that may or may not have been quoted in the text but somehow influenced the ideas as they were presented)
Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, Routledge, New
Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the
Real You, or Something Else Entirely, Routledge, New York, 1998.
Cameron, Loren. Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits, Cleis Press, San Francisco,
DeBecker, Gavin. The Gift of Fear, Dell, New York, 1997.
Finley, Karen. A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley, A
Memoir, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2000.
Langley, Erika. The Lusty Lady: Photographs and Texts, Scalo, Zurich, Switzerland,
Murray, Thomas E. and Thomas R. Murrell. The Language of Sadomasochism: A
Glossary and Linguistic Analysis, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conneticut, 1989.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club, Norton & Co., New York, 1996.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Invisible Monsters, Norton & Co., New York, 1999.
Powell, Jim. Postmodernism for Beginners, Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., New
Queen, Carol and Lawrence Schimel, ed.. PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About
Gender and Sexuality, Cleis Press, San Francisco, 1997.
Russell, Diana E. H., ed. Making Violence Sexy: Feminist Views on Pornography,
Teachers College Press, New York, 1993.
Scott, Gini Graham. Erotic Power: An Exploration of Dominance and Submission, Carol
Publishing Group, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1998.
Stekel, M.D., Wilhelm. Frigidity in Woman Volume I, Horace Liveright Inc., New York,
Tavris, Carol. The Mismesure of Woman, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1992.
Weinberg, Thomas S., ed. S & M: Studies in Dominance and Submission, Prometheus
Books, Amherst, New York, 1995.