Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 1)

Do our genes determine our social identity?

Before commenting directly, I remark that, thinking on this, I was reminded of two books – almost forgotten today, but each in its way important at the time of publication.

The first is The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone, described briefly by the Wiki article on Firestone:

“In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone synthesized the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Simone de Beauvoir into a radical feminist theory of politics.” (paraphrasing Jennifer Rich)

But it was actually more radical than the listed influences suggest, because Firestone had what we would now call a ‘trans-humanist’ faith in the capacity of our new technologies to literally alter human evolution. The ‘cybernetic’ future Firestone sees for us will eliminate the necessity for work, the problems of poverty, the desire for national identities, etc., etc. Finally, technology will eliminate the need for sexual reproduction.

“The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general (…).”

It is going little further along these lines of thought to envisioning a world where we can choose our own sexual identity, not through surgery and hormonal supplements, but through manipulation of our genes; we are already on the borders of choosing the sex of our children, according to some.

The point being that, one side or another, there seems to be an urge toward utopia or perhaps perhaps a return to Eden. Sorting through these matters requires us to be wary of such urges.

The other book coming to mind was John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me ( ), the report of a white journalist who traveled the South after having his skin treated medically to assume the color of black man. The important lesson his book revealed is that color alone has such profound cultural effect on social responses, that the biological issues are strictly irrelevant to them – which suggests that efforts to define ‘race’ biologically may be merely efforts to find some inherent reality to differences that don’t exist. (But this doesn’t bode well for someone who ‘feels’ they were ‘born black,’ when their genetic history is decidedly European.)

‘Everywhere he went, “the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. [Whites] judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival.”‘

This certainly seems to validate group identity with socialization, not ‘natural born’ attributes, and that’s important. Is there any genetic component to such identities, or are they merely a matter a happenstance and circumstance?

Who ever asked to be ‘born this way’? (This ‘way’ being any way one chooses to consider.) And are we ever really trapped in it?

Very murky waters, frankly….

But let’s consider a recent feminist response – largely negative – to the recent popularization of ‘post-op’ trans-sexual Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce): :

“I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us. That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.”

What is making Elinor Burkett angry? Because the undertone (not far from the surface of her text) is anger bordering on outrage; why?

Burkett has a specified anger that triggers a generalized anger. She tries to sublimate the specific into the general, because (I suspect) she doesn’t want to come out and say that Jenner should not have the opportunity for self-determination. But it’s apparent that Burkett is angry with Jenner; Jenner has had an opportunity granted exactly because, as male, Jenner enjoyed privilege most women are denied. Jenner’s opportunity to appear female on the cover of Vanity Fair, in a stereotypical pose media has constructed for starlets and models, arises from Jenner’s history as having been male.

A side issue worth noting here: surgical construction of vaginas in trans-males has proven very successful and relatively routine. Phalloplasty, on the other hand, requires extensive re-surgery addressing almost inevitable complications, and prosthetic implants to mimic erection; 25% result in long-term serious complications. It’s almost as if the physiology has been arranged to permit greater opportunity to trans-males than trans-females. Even the surgical effort to provide such opportunity seems weighted in favor of men. ( )

I mention that, because although this happens by chance through evolution of the species interacting with an imperfect surgical technology, it does – seemingly – shade the issue in favor of Burkett’s argument.

Moving back to that argument, let’s supplement it by rephrasing Jenner’s feelings: Suppose Bruce Jenner had never expressed an interest in ‘being a woman’? Suppose he simply said, “well, I really want to look like that model on the cover of Cosmo; I feel I was really born to have big breasts, painted nails and dolls to play with; oh, and throw in a vagina for good measure, I just hate standing up to pee.” Would we be as sympathetic with such expressions?

But consider those dolls; feminists have long insisted that the gender differences in child’s play are largely, if not wholly, the effect of nurture – why shouldn’t girls play with toy fire-trucks? (because their parents buy them dolls). So if a boy expresses the desire to play with dolls, could this really be an expression of having been born ‘female in a male body’? Or it’s just wanting to play with dolls, and then the child grows up being convinced by the surrounding culture that this means he needs to be female?

That’s why I remarked the murkiness of the waters on such issues. For the sake of compassion and political ethics, we want the matter to be clean and decisive; but it’s not. And Burkett is quite right to raise the issue, whether the trans community, by re-affirming stereotypes, may be setting back the cause of justice for women.

Finally, it must be admitted: There is NO united front in the efforts to achieve sexual and gender rights and identities. What we do with that is another question.

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