“ ‘Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male . . . intersex anatomy doesn’t always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.
“Intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation … nature presents us with sex anatomy spectrums. Breasts, penises, clitorises, scrotums, labia, gonads—all of these vary in size and shape and morphology. So-called 'sex' chromosomes can vary quite a bit, too. But in human cultures, sex categories get simplified into male, female, and sometimes intersex, in order to simplify social interactions, express what we know and feel, and maintain order.”
But to be clear, gender is not neatly divided into three categories either. Like sexual orientation—and so many other facets of organic reality—there exists a continuum with a multitude of variations. If we can view our lives on that continuum, instead of clinging to rigid definitions that function more like mental and emotional prisons than reflections of reality, we can move past limiting beliefs which divide us from each other and separate us from portions of ourselves.
For the purposes of simplicity, let’s concede to three categories: male, female and intersex (although, as we know, the truth is that none of us fits neatly into any of these categories).
If you view the social landscape as being distinctly divided between men and women, you miss all the subtle and not so subtle variations between individuals. More importantly, you miss the opportunities for shared experiences and emotions.
Yes, hormones and DNA effect how we think, feel and behave. But we attribute far too much influence to our chemical and chromosomal selves, often to the exclusion of individual differences, and even free will.
Sometimes, it almost seems as if the dominant culture has conspired against us, intentionally accentuating gender differences, and in some cases, even enforcing arbitrary divisions.
For instance, not so long ago it was against the law to cross-dress. Even the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:5) warns that cross-dressing is an “abomination unto the LORD thy God.” Modern variations on this theme tend toward peer pressure, shaming and ostracizing those who might express themselves on the continuum instead of adhering to the rigid divisions.
The drive to be accepted as male or female begins very early in life. By age two or three, most children have a firmly entrenched view of themselves as either a boy or a girl. By age five, most prefer to play with “gender specific toys,” as well as sorting themselves out so that boys play with boys and girls play with girls.
One thing I find encouraging is that young children often hold the belief that gender can change over time. This, I think, is the natural state of our minds until the culture completes the socialization process and convinces us of the immutability of gender.
You may be tempted to believe that gender roles are not all that rigid today. In some respects, you would be right of course. Men can stay at home with their children and women can run for President. Despite the many strides toward gender parity, there remains resistance to truly understanding and connecting with each other. This can be debilitating for heterosexual couples, but this isn’t just the purview of heterosexuals. Some gay and lesbian relationships also enforce strict gender divisions.
As long as we perceive someone as “other,” we don’t really allow ourselves to share perspectives and feelings—at least not at the deep level that invites profound intimacy. Instead, we enforce the distance between us with affirmations designed to denigrate that which we are not. A man who insists: “I will never understand women,” is not only creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, he is also comforting himself with the belief that his inability to understand the females in his life verifies his masculinity.
Both men and women assert their own gender identity when they focus on real and imagined gender differences. “I know I am a man or a woman because I am not like the people I judge as the ‘opposite’ of me.” Like whistling in the dark, the more insistent the mantra, the more insecure the individual.
A first step in building a bridge of communication, shared experiences and deeper emotional intimacy between the genders is to become more secure with oneself. Any doubts you harbor that you may not be a “real” man or a “real” woman will make it almost impossible to truly connect with those who are not of the same gender. Instead, your drive to fit in with your gender will compel you to repel anything you deem contradictory to that identity. This is why men who refuse to cry or hug or even laugh, announce to the world just how insecure they are with their masculine identity.
It takes a certain amount of courage to view oneself as a human first and a gender second. Next month we will move past gender stereotypes to improve sexual pleasure.
Next month: How similar male and female genitals and sexual response really are in Part Two of Building a Bridge Between the Genders.