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Sc2220 Lecture 3 2009

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Lecture 3: Biology, Sex and Gender

Lecture 3: Biology, Sex and Gender

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  • 1. SC2220: Gender Studies Biology, Sex & Gender (The Sex/Gender Distinction) Dr. Eric C. Thompson
  • 2. Key Points
    • Gender is based on human heterosexual reproduction; but not determined by biology. (We interpret and act upon our biology in many diverse ways.)
    • Many cultural interpretations of biology attribute causation to correlation. From a scientific point of view they are wrong; but they are powerful cultural myths (stories with powerful social consequences).
    • Human sexual biology has important consequences for gender. But simplistic biological reductionism meets our need for simple explanations (and myth-making) rather than providing robust explanations of complex gender systems. (People treat simple answers as ‘true’ merely because they understand them; even with scant logic or evidence.)
  • 3. 1. Human Sexual Reproduction and Gender
  • 4. What is so good about Sex?
    • Asexual (non-sexual) reproduction relies on mutation to create variety.
    • Sexual reproduction creates new combinations of DNA every time .
    • Variety: Speeds up evolution, allows for more rapid adaptation, allows for emergence of more complex organisms
  • 5. Asexual Reproduction (Example: Hydra) (Note: This Hydra, a Mythical Greek Beast, is not what I’m talking about!) Hydra grow “buds” that drop off, grow large, and grow their own buds. Hydra are biologically immortal (they don’t age!). Hydra are small creatures that live in water.
  • 6. Sexual Reproduction (1): Sequential and Simultaneous Hermaphrodites Clown Fish: Male to Female Sex Change (Nemo’s deep dark secret?) Wrasse: Female to Male Sex Change Hamlet Fish: Simultaneous Hermaphrodites (Take turns during extended, multiple mating sessions, lasting several days) Banana Slug: Simultaneous Prefers to mate with partner, but self-fertilizes if necessary.
  • 7. Sexual Reproduction(2): Heterosexuals Homo sapiens sapiens Hoverflies Rabbits
  • 8. Human Heterosexuality shapes Gender
    • If we were asexual we would have no basis for “gender” at all.
    • If we were clownfish, gender would be an aspirational concept (men would aspire to one day become female).
    • Because humans are “fixed” (unchanging) as male or female from birth, we think of gender as a fixed attribute determined by our biology (even though it is not).
  • 9. But Biology Does Not Determine Gender.
    • Different cultures create many different interpretations of our biology (for example, two, three or more genders).
    • Different societies deal with biology differently (they put male and female bodies to use in different ways).
    • Gender is our cultural interpretations of and social practices associated with our biological system of sexual reproduction.
  • 10. The Sex / Gender Distinction
    • SEX: Is a biological construct . It is the product of biological processes (reproduction, DNA replication, mutation, selection, evolution, etc.).
    • GENDER: Is a social and cultural construct . It is the ways in which we organize our society, interpret, and give meaning to the fact that we are a sexually reproducing species.
    • But GENDER is not determined by SEX.
    • There are many, many different ways to organize society around and many different ways to interpret our sexual reproductive biology.
  • 11. Male, Female, Other, Don’t Know?
    • How is it possible to “not know”?
    • Many types of ‘intersexed’ individuals (who follow non-standard biological developmental sequences)
    • One set of processes “sexes” the body (“masculinization” of the body).*
    • Another set of processes “sexes” the brain (“masculinization” of the brain).*
    • Hermaphrodites (“five sexes”) only refer specifically to “uninterpretable” genitalia.
    • There are many other ways in which typically male and female characteristics can be ‘mixed and matched’; many not at all obvious.
    *For technical reasons, becoming female is considered the ‘normal’ developmental sequence; and “masculinization” is a deviation.
  • 12. Human Hermaphrodites “Intersexed” Individuals
    • A small percentage of all humans born are hermaphrodites; or “intersexed”
    • Many, many varieties of intersexed individuals (Reading: “The Five Sexes” only scratches the surface).
    • Intersexed individuals are ‘fixed’ by modern medicine; but this is not always helpful to the individuals involved.
    • Intersexed bodies are required to conform to cultural gender beliefs.
    The Reclining Hermaphrodite 1 st century BCE sculpture See the Short Film XXXY: Intersex Genital Mutilation
  • 13. 2. Biology, Gender and Cultural Myth-making
  • 14. Heterosexed Individuals
    • Most individuals are substantially “heterosexed”; they follow a standard developmental sequence (they are “normal” – in a statisical sense)
    • Even then, discounting ALL the many unusual cases. There is tremendous overlap in almost every respect between individuals who follow a standard female developmental sequence (i.e. women) and those who follow a male developmental sequence (i.e. men).
  • 15. Why are we obsessed with Biological Sex Differences?
    • They seem (are) more easy to observe – so they seem more “real” than socialization or culture.
    • They give us the comfortable illusion of permanence.
    • So, we look obsessively for biological sex differences, for example . . .
  • 16. “ Sexing the Brain”*
    • Studies showing difference in brain structures: 13*
    • Studies showing no difference in brain structures: 95*
    • Question: Why focus on difference correlated with sex ? What is the specific purpose of the research?
    • Left-handed & right-handed people exhibit as great or greater differences.
    • Focusing on sex/gender difference and highlighting the (minority of) studies that find differences, reinforces cultural sense of difference.
    *See Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (2000) Chapter 5 (This is among the supplementary readings)
  • 17. Ok, so there is a lot of misleading of scientific information, BUT men and women are still different in many ways, on average , right?
    • Men are on average:
      • Faster
      • Stronger (esp. Upper Body)
      • Better with directions
      • Better with math (maybe)
    • Women are on average:
      • Less susceptible to illness
      • Better descriptive memory
      • Better at listening/recall
      • Better with language
    ABSOLUTELY TRUE! But, what does “ average” mean? Is everyone pretty much average?
  • 18. Problem with Averages
    • Studies are repeatedly used to claim “men and women are different”
    • Average differences are always cited.
    • But, the range is almost never cited; without that, the meaningfulness of the “average” is useless.
    “ Even when scientists themselves are cautious… popular renditions of new scientific findings dispense with linguistic subtlety” (Fausto-Sterling pg.236)
  • 19. FEMALES MALES 80% 20% 80% In US Army physical tests: top 20% of women had the same average as bottom 20% for men. (These statistics then get used both for and against women in the military) How big is the difference? Example of a test of physical ability; emphasizing upper body strength.*
  • 20. How much can you lift? Udomporn Polsak (Female, Thailand, Height 150 cm, Weight 53 kg): Lifted 125 kg* Tang Gonghong (Female, China, Height 172 cm, Weight 120 kg): Lifted 182.5 kg Halil Mutlu (Male, Turkey, Height 150 cm, Weight 56 kg): Lifted 160 kg Hossein Reza Zadeh (Male, Iran, Height 185 cm, Weight 160 kg): Lifted 262.5 kg *All results for “Clean & Jerk” 2004 Olympics
  • 21. “ Strong Masculine Bodies”
    • In many cultures, domestic work is considered more appropriate for women than for men.
    • In Samoa, Fafafini are considered excellent at domestic work because of their strong masculine bodies.
    • Bodies can be (and are) used and interpreted in many different ways.
  • 22. Turning Averages into Absolutes
    • Physical strength, especially upper-body strength is the most significant known difference between human males and females (aside from childbearing).
    • Most other differences have much greater overlap.
    • The science of averages is often turned into absolutes in popular discourse (which in turn guides public policy)… “Science” as myth-making… in modern societies, when we call something “scientific” it gains credibility.
    In almost every case, the abilities of woman and men overlap.
  • 23. 3. Sex Differences that Matter in (Some) Social Contexts *Sexual Dimorphism *Reproductive Strategies *Sexual Competition *Hormones
  • 24. Sexual Dimorphism
    • Dimorphism: Two (“di”) forms (“morphism”)
    • Sexual dimorphism results from “natural” selection (and “sexual” selection) acting differently on males and females.
      • Cooperation (selection) between sexes; mate-selection (women choosing men and men choosing women)
      • Competition between members of each sex; men competing with men; women competing with women.
  • 25. Reproductive Strategies
    • In mammals (including humans), females are far more limited in the number of offspring compared to males.
    • This inclines females toward “quality” and males toward “quantity” in sexual reproduction and practice.
    • Females are more “selective” (and in this sense, more active in driving human evolution; Hrdy 1981)
  • 26. Sexual Competition
    • Sexual Competition (over access to mates) occurs between men and between women; NOT between men and women.
    • Men compete with other men to make themselves attractive to women (based on what women want; or what men think women want).
    • Women likewise compete with other women.
    • At the same time, groups of men and groups of women often cooperate.
  • 27. Some Consequences of Reproductive Strategies
    • Physical dimorphism (men being on average larger than women) is an outcome of competition between men.
    • Men’s larger size did not come about in order to physically dominate women; but in some cases it results in physical domination (violence or abuse).
    • Male competition focuses on sexual access to women.
    • Female competition focuses on access to the excess resources men produce (meat, money, etc.).
    • Some of the social and cultural consequences of these differences will be discussed later in the course…
  • 28. Testosterone (Hormone) Theory
    • Male dominance is often attributed to testosterone (e.g. Steven Goldberg, 1993).
    • Testosterone has effects that are important to understanding gender socialization – but they are oversimplified and exaggerated culturally.
    • The oversimplified, exaggerated testosterone explanations perpetuate gendered outcomes and are often inaccurate excuses for gender discrimination.
      • For example: Goldberg (1993) concludes that because testosterone (may) incline men to be more competitive therefore women should never compete with men.
  • 29. A Few Facts about Testosterone
    • Both men and women have testosterone and are affected by it.
    • Testosterone levels are affected by environment.
      • Levels of testosterone rise during competition (e.g. sports) – among participants and fans. The members and fans of a winning team have spike in testosterone after the game; testosterone levels in losing teams and fans drop.
      • Men’s testosterone levels fall after marriage and rise after divorce.
      • Boys have spikes in testosterone at various stages of childhood and adolescence.
    • Testosterone affects the body and emotional responses.
  • 30. Social Effects of Testosterone
    • Testosterone makes boys more “aggressive” (agitated).
      • Boys and girls respond equally to physical/aggressive activities, but boys are more likely to initiate them.
    • Aggression contributes to different play styles.
    • Different play styles contributes to self-segregation by gender (boys play with boys, girls play with girls)
    • Segregation leads to different socialization (girls learn from each other ‘how to be girls’; boys learn from each other ‘how to be boys’)
    • The socialization is responsible for the greatest differences; the testosterone is a “catalyst” but not a “cause” (Testosterone would have no effect in the absence of socialization processes).
  • 31. Beyond Testosterone
    • Testosterone is just one example of the complex interactions of biology (hormones), society and cultural contexts.
    • Interactions between sex (biology) and gender (society, culture) are always similarly complex.
    • Correlation between a biological fact and a social and cultural one can never be taken as proving that one causes the other.
    • Reducing gender to biology is myth-making; not science.
  • 32. Biological Differences Matter. But Myths Matter More . Biology is not destiny. Gender is a process we live and a project we construct every day of our lives.