Thursday, March 15, 2012

Peter Wicks - The End of Gender? - A Reply

A post-gender world where we can choose not only the social expression of gender, but also the biological aspects, even down to manipulating DNA. Sounds great in theory, at least to those who have a libertarian bent in social maters.

Maybe this will happen to some degree . . . but only within the mostly white, affluent (although this is the loosest aspect), educated, Western developed world with more liberal beliefs about gender and sexuality. People who make these kinds of proclamations tend to forget that much of the world does not fall into that socially and culturally advantaged group.

What we might be able to hope for, of the three reasons he gives for why the "end of gender" might happen, is that the "increasing insistence on choosing the socially-constructed aspects of one’s gender—whether it concerns sexual orientation, how to dress, what kind of roles to play in society, how we refer to ourselves" or whatever . . . will continue to spread - but again this is, again, an element of the white, generally affluent, educated, developed world.

[When I include affluent here, I am referring more to the culture than to the individuals. Most of those who transgress gender norms are not affluent, but living in an affluent culture offers more freedoms to push boundaries than living in a poor culture where social norms are more strictly enforced.]

The end of gender?

Peter Wicks
Peter WicksEthical Technology

Posted: Mar 15, 2012

It has been suggested by Peg Tittle in her recent article that the prefixes Ms. and Mr. be abandoned, on the grounds that they reinforce discrimination between sexes. What this and most other contemporary debates about gender might be missing, however, is that the whole concept of gender may be about to go the way of the dodo.

Contrary to what some like to claim, the basic male-female divide is not in the first place a social construct that humans have invented. Opposition and dichotomy is built into the fabric of the universe, and is fundamental to sexual reproduction. Long before homo sapiens the vast majority of animal species were divided cleanly into male and female, with females hosting and gestating their offspring through the initial stages of its developments, while the direct male role reproduction was limited to providing the fertilizing agent, together with its payload of DNA. As with all things biological there are exceptions to confirm the rule, but they are rare enough not to disrupt the overall picture.

In addition to the direct roles in reproduction, gender has also been correlated with other roles, in ways that differ from species to species. In the case of humans, the classic model for understanding this division of roles within stone age communities is the hunter-gatherer paradigm, and while this theory can be questioned, for the moment it seems to be the best guess as to how the roles between men and women were divided at this stage.

With homo sapiens came both technology and language, and eventually civilization. This resulted in a huge complexification of social structures, and thus of gender-correlated roles. There is plenty of evidence that the first civilizations were matriarchal in their structure, but at some point—possibly associated with the invention of the wheel and the taming of the horse—men came to dominate the public sphere, and patriarchal civilizations were born.

By then we were a long way from a simple hunter-gatherer division of roles, and indeed one’s role in society depended on much more than one’s biological gender. Furthermore, in addition to the two biological genders there was a third, socially-constructed gender, namely the eunuch. Thus not only did societal role started to become decoupled from biological gender, but even one’s sexual identity started to become decoupled from one’s at-birth biological gender. For the most part, however, men continued to be men, and women continued to be women.

This started to change during the 20th century when gender started to be seen as something that was entirely socially-constructed. This was a false belief, of course, but also an influential one. In particular, an increasingly vociferous number of women were no longer willing to associated in any sense with the traditional female gender. It was no longer just a question of demanding the vote, or equal pay for equal work. Instead, the whole concept of what it meant to be female—and by extension what it meant to be male—was now up for grabs. In parallel to this, people who had other reasons to be dissatisfied either with their biological gender or with the social baggage that accompanied it increasingly found a voice, and demanded the right to forge a sexual identity of their own choosing. The ladyboys of Thailand are just one example of a “third gender”—which, unlike the eunuchs of yesteryear, is largely the result of choice and tolerance rather than of oppression—that is complicating the traditional male-female divide.

The question that this article seeks to raise is whether this trend will eventually annihilate the whole concept of gender, at least in humans, and if so how long this will take. There are at least three reasons to suspect that gender is on its way out.

Firstly, the trend towards increasing insistence on choosing the socially-constructed aspects of one’s gender—whether it concerns sexual orientation, how to dress, what kind of roles to play in society, how we refer to ourselves (and insist on being referred to by others, or whatever—seems set to continue, at least in the developed world.

Secondly, surgical techniques enabling de facto alteration of our biological gender, at least at the macroscopic level, are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are thus enabling increasing alignment of our (apparent) biological gender with our wishes.

Thirdly, and most radically, we may be on the verge of being able to tinker massively with our DNA, with the result that even at the genetic level we might find ourselves able to blur the boundaries between male (XY) and female (XX), to a far greater extent than nature has done for us.

And once gender becomes a matter of choice, rather than of nature’s providence, there is no reason why there should be only two, three or even four of them. And once gender splinters, like political parties and religious denominations, into categories that are limited only by the human imagination, the term “gender” seems likely to become increasingly inappropriate as a description of reality.

Peter Wicks has been employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would have my gender amnd DNA altered, i want all my energy and resources to go to what i want to do in life, instead of an animalistic reproductive system. I dont need thin weak skin, extra fat, less strength etc. I would rather have a bit more of a masculine metabolism. So i can be stronger, have more energy, a more usable brain. I dont want all this estrogen switching me down. But i dont want the draw backs of being too male either, like a beard, bald head, fat stomach, nasel hair, less flexable joints and a package. Also i dislike both the female and male social role, both dont leave much room for freedom. I would like to have both sets of curcuits in my brain, use both sides of it. Enougth testosterone to get its benefits, and enougth estrogen to keep me from getting a fat stomach and cholestrol problems, along with male lack of empathy and aggression. I am fed up of living by a genetic code that has evolved to serve its self and not me, the chemistry of my body is something i want to control, instead of it going by natures cycles.