Ain’t I a Woman?

Posted on March 19, 2013


Well, no, actually– not even 30% of one.

But you sure are making history.

That’s my gut reaction after being asked by BBC Radio to participate in a broadcast reacting to a news story published on the BBC website today.

Tagline: Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O’Brien thinks of himself as 70% male and 30% female

O’Brien– who actually uses the term “third sex” when describing himself– reports the not uncommon experience of feeling that he wanted to be more feminine. Many people identified by those around them as male have such senses of alienation, and it is no longer news when someone takes steps to move trans-gender. In O’Brien’s case, this involved starting to take estrogen hormone therapy, apparently about ten years ago. He reports

“It takes the edge off the masculine, testosterone-driven side of me and I like that very much. I think I’ve become a nicer person in some ways, slightly softer. For the first time in my life, I’ve started to put on a little bit of weight, which I like.”

Now, you have to imagine me on the phone trying to understand what makes this news, not having read the story. Here comes the ahah! moment: O’Brien, the BBC story notes, has no intention to have “sex reassignment” surgery; instead, he argues that people don’t come in just two kinds, and that sex should be thought of as a spectrum:

“It’s my belief that we are on a continuum between male and female. There are people who are hardwired male and there are people who are hardwired female, but most of us are on that continuum and I believe myself probably to be about 70% male, 30% female.”

The BBC had no problem finding support for the idea that sex is a spectrum, since that is actually quite uncontroversial among scholars studying sex and gender. Their authority, Melissa Hines, described as a professor of Psychology at Cambridge University, answered as I would: there are not just two distinct categorical sexes.

“I think that the research in this field suggests just the opposite. That there is not a gender binary, that there’s a range of gender, and there are many dimensions of gender and an individual person can be in a different position in terms of how masculine or feminine they are on each of these dimensions.”

Again, not controversial– 95 undergraduates in my current undergrad class could tell you this.

But O’Brien pushed this into focus in two important ways: first, by not being interested in being entirely redefined; and second, by (I think playfully) specifying that he is 70% male, 30% female.

Both of those statements push against the conservative strength of the two sex “correspondence” model, the dominant one throughout the 20th century in the US and much of Europe (although not everywhere else in the world, and not historically everywhere, including– notably– not historically in Europe).

That model has shown itself to be incredibly resilient in the face of the very real flexibility and fluidity of people’s experiences of themselves, and even denies the actual complexity and variability of biological sex, which can be categorical (e.g. if defined based on chromosomes), continuous (if we want to take something like sex hormones as a basis), but rarely actually binary (think of those chromosomal categories: people don’t just come in XX and XY). As developmental systems theory shows, biological sex is actually best understand as an emergent property that is shaped recursively by environment and biological systems of a diversity of kinds.

Not to mention that whatever else biological sex is, it does not precede social categories and discourses, and cannot serve as a solid, pre-cultural basis for a “real” identity. As scholars of sex/gender systems have long recognized, the attempt to create a differentiation between sex-as-biology and gender-as-cultural is nothing more than another attempt to entrench cultural discourses in some pre-existing reality.

So I have to disagree with another of the experts who the BBC says argues “that while people may feel not entirely male, or female, the reality is that they are born one or the other”:

“The distinction has to be made between gender and sex. Gender is very much a social construct, sex is biological. My guess would be that social notions of gender dictate how we behave.”

Yes, but that includes: how we recognize bodily differences as evidence of inherent embodied identities, which we then call sexes and try to say are already there in the flesh, when in fact they are our readings of the flesh. Sex is always labeled with words that are themselves products of cultural discourses. Languages (like English) that have only two words for sex force us to recognize only two sexes, and cultures (like the dominant ones in the US and Britain) that view two sexes as “natural” enforce adherence to one sex or the other. In the course of the 2oth century, the Anglo-American world came to understand that some people might be born with a sense of themselves that was other– but they still had to fit into one of two categories: a woman who felt herself to be “really” male’; a man who wanted, as O’Brien reports, to be a fairy princess.

But not something in between. Not a “third sex”. Not something that challenges the boundaries of categories; not something that suggests there might be more than two ways of being.

It is a little disappointing that O’Brien– having launched a real challenge to the either/or logic with his claim to be 70/30 (not 100% female trapped in a man’s body, not a male who needs to flip a switch) falls into the two-way trap. This comes immediately after he is quoted as saying he doesn’t want to complete a transition to a feminine body through surgery:

“I don’t want to pretend to be something that I’m not.”

While the interviewer’s question doesn’t appear, it is implicit: “Why wouldn’t you want to complete a process to re-identify your body with your interior self?” O’Brien offers an identification as a “third sex”– but he also still is stuck with the Anglo-American understanding that sexual identity is an inherent, internal essence– we don’t want to be something that we are not.

But by definition, we cannot be something we are not. We are always ourselves– but that self–contrary to what the rigidity of the two sex/two gender categorical model insists– is always unfolding.

Even the most conventional man or woman who imagines him- or her-self within the limits of the heterosexual male/female dyad is never always the same. We are born as infants who experience a world around us that offers us models and rules, that rewards us for being masculine and feminine in ways that vary in time, space, and context. Maturing bodies respond to changing levels of hormones but not all in the same way, and as the dramatic stories told by high profile cases like Olympic athletes show, sometimes in ways that expose the discordance between chromosomal and genital/reproductive sex. Insofar as being a mother is part of the underlying inherent essence of womanhood in the dominant two sex model, the many women who either cannot have children, or do not have children, certainly have both cultural and biological realities that are quite distinct from those of women who do engage in this form of sexual, embodied experience. While the marked nature of the female– seen as in need of definition in ways that the unmarked male body is not– has robbed us of any equally rich exploration of the changing sexuality of the male body that comes with maturation, sexual experience, aging, and the like, what little research exists shows that a heteronormative male body at 20 and the “same” body at 50 are vastly different. And it has become almost a truism to point out that post-menopausal women, in these cultures as in others, may be interpreted and experienced as different from the pre-menopausal body– and of course, may actually be different, biologically.

I wish I could end by saying that the BBC radio program responding to this took this as an opportunity to explore the challenge to inherent dualism in sex. Oddly, though, the program I was asked to consider– then politely told I was too “intellectual” to do– sees a very different take away point: doesn’t the idea of a gender spectrum challenge the basis of feminism?

My response– that this was incredibly old fashioned, already debunked by women of color who pointed out decades ago that to be female and white is not the same as being female and black– missed what I think was an opportunity to be even more direct. If feminism were the defense of the privilege of one category of people (women), presumably based on their having been oppressed by another category (men), then it wouldn’t have been, nor would it continue to be, revolutionary. Since feminism is instead the critique of oppression of people based on categorical aspects of being that serve to naturalize their disadvantage– of which unequal treatment of women in the two sex system is paradigmatic, although neither primary nor most extreme– of course, O’Brien is hardly a challenge.

He is, instead, a fellow traveler on the truest road: challenging the terms of engagement.

70% man; 30% woman; 100% human; and not to be reduced to a stereotype.