Gender, Sex, and Genitals

Cis people, we have work to do. I’m calling you in with me to do this work of dismantling the systems that hold us all down, and I want us to do this by starting with educating one another.

Today, let’s talk about gender, sex, and genitals–what they are and what they aren’t. I know a lot of us are confused, because we’ve been taught by our binary-loving system that gender and sex and genitals are all the same things. We’ve been taught that genitals come in exactly two forms–either penis or vagina–and that sex and gender necessarily follow that format, as well.

We’re wrong. We’ve been taught wrong.

Don’t panic.

We can fix this.

Let’s start with genitals. This probably seems both the most and least confusing all at once–because of course it’s always penis or vagina, right? Except no. Intersex people exist. And some intersex people have genitals that aren’t clearly ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’. (This is not the case for all intersex people.) And even when a person’s outer genitals look a certain way, their inner anatomy may not match. Or their chromosomes may not match. Their hormones may not match. So–even our genitalia doesn’t fall on a strict binary.

Okay, so what about sex, then? Isn’t sex a biological thing? Yes, and no. Mostly, we assign sex based on genitals. We ‘sex’ people and animals based on what we observe their outward genitals to be. So this can only be as biological as our constructed categories. That is: we’ve made some categories to describe what we’ve observed. And what we’ve observed is that biology–genitalia–doesn’t follow a strict binary. It follows a continuum. So sex can’t be a strict binary, either. If we are going to insist that sex be assigned based upon genitalia, then we must allow that sex exist as a continuum, as well–and recognize that it is a category we’ve made up to describe something we’ve observed.

Moving on to gender, then. Gender has two parts: identity and expression.

Gender identity is a person’s inward self-definition. You can try this yourself, at home, on the bus, or wherever you’re reading: I am ________. A woman? A trans man? Non-binary? Agender? Genderfluid? All of these, and many others, are valid answers here. This is completely detached from anything else about a person–what genitals a person possesses, what sex/gender a person was assigned at birth, etc.

Gender expression is a person’s outer presentation of self. This could include clothing, hair style, make-up or lack thereof, shaving or not, handbags or briefcases or none at all, bow ties or hair ties, or just about any other thing one might use to outwardly indicate a sense of self. Gender expression may or may not hinge upon one’s self-defined gender identity, one’s sex, and/or one’s genitalia. For example, I am a cisgender (identifying as the gender I was assigned at birth) cissex (identifying as the sex I was assigned at birth) woman who often presents in a feminine manner, but who often presented quite masculinely in my undergrad days. I’ve always self-identified female regardless of how I’ve expressed.

Figuring out that these things are all actually separate things is huge. Realizing how much of our lives exist on continuums as opposed to in strict binaries is amazing.

If we start here, educating one another with this information, we can begin to set ourselves and our transgender siblings free.

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Lila Perry is a Girl. Deal With It.

CW: I’m discussing the continuing harassment of Lila Perry, a transgender girl in Missouri–my current home state. She has been using the girls’ locker room and bathrooms since school started this year, and many students (many of them female) have walked out in protest. In this post, I am addressing TERF (trans-exclusive radical feminist) comments regarding this issue. I’m putting the rest of this post below a cut so that trans people do not need to read this and be triggered. Cis people, I am a cis person talking to you. Please do read this post.

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Communication and the Soft No

We have a communication problem. Or, more precisely, we have a problem with reaction to certain communication: the ‘soft no.’

A lot of people profess to be confused about it–to the point that Dr. Nerdlove has written about it multiple times. Gavin de Becker writes about it in The Gift of Fear. What is it? It’s a way to say ‘no’ without being direct or harsh about it.

Wait, but what’s wrong with a direct no? Shouldn’t a direct no clear up any confusion?

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with a direct no. Some people are lucky enough to be educated to give a direct no. But most women are not socialized in such a manner. Most of us are socialized to give indirect no’s:

There are plenty of reasons why someone (females in particular) would present a ‘Smiley-No’ when they seriously mean ‘No’. In fact, it’s totally natural to smile and laugh when afraid as a form of appeasement. There’s even a catchy name for this behavior; its called ‘tend and befriend‘. Additionally, females are socialized from a young age to suppress their voices, to be soft- spoken, and not-be-forceful in general.

And sometimes even a hard, direct no leads to unpleasantness at the least. But sometimes–sometimes, it can lead to far, far worse, as as some of the examples from the Dr. Nerdlove columns. Sometimes we give a ‘soft no’ because we’re afraid of becoming a part of stats like these:

violence-against-women

Sometimes we give a ‘soft no’ because we’re already a part of stats like these:

graph-4-fear-race-gender-sexuality

We have fear, and we’ve been socialized to appease rather than offend. Many of us would like to use direct scripts for saying no, but it’s not that we’re being ill-mannered when we don’t–it’s that we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t.

And we are not making this up. In Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer, the author shows how women’s refusals are understood and ignored depending on the men in question, and shows some of the men’s rather disturbing responses to women’s refusals. And from this piece:

Women know this is happening! We know we don’t feel safe! And sometimes we may be comfortable to start changing the norm here, but this is still NOT the demographic that you should be calling out. You should be calling out the men and boys who perpetuate this. The ‘journalists’ who need to report that a girl had a boyfriend when she was stabbed to death for a hard no. The culture that teaches boys you should try as hard as you can to win a girl’s heart, unless she has a boyfriend (or sometimes still then). The world that does not respect women’s claims about their own feelings and opinions. Not the women who operate within that system and have to use patriarchy to their advantage to feel socially and physically safe.

The thing is, having to use ‘lines’ and ‘soft nos’ is a very patriarchal thing. Having to appease, to tend and befriend? It’s kyriarchal and partriarchal and it needs to stop. But we cannot put this blame on those who are at risk of violence for not engaging in this behavior–because often, this is a matter of survival.

Instead, we need to query the culture that allows for pushing past the soft no. What is it that allows for ignoring when someone says no in any way they have available (when it’s not been pre-negotiated)? I think this is part of the rigid construction of masculinity in our culture–that it is part of the construction of the ‘macho man,’ that he gets to have sex whenever he wants it, from whomever he wants it (always someone feminized to him), and that if someone refuses him, it is a denigration of his masculinity.

Except–that’s a very harmful concept, isn’t it? Of course it is. What if someone ignores his no, and takes from him what they want despite his no? What if he said a very forceful no, and they did that anyway? What if all he could manage was a soft no? Does it matter? No.

The point is: everyone’s ‘no’ should be respected, however that ‘no’ comes out. It is chilling that ‘soft no’ gets used as an excuse to blow past boundaries, and even further–to assault, rape, and murder. It happens to people of all races, all genders–but least often to those with the most power in our society, and as such, we need to start our query there, with the most powerful, who are the ones blowing past the ‘soft nos’ the most often. This is how we take down kyriarchy.

Misogyny and Racism Kill

In the wake of the Charleston Mother AME Church shooting, I’ve done a lot of reading. I’ve watched the events unfold of #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches, black female pastors receiving death threats, and the Confederate flag debates.

Two articles stuck out to me, personally, as they dealt with the ways that gender and race intersect, particularly in relation to this recent and the ongoing violence perpetrated against Black (and mostly female) bodies in the name of White female bodies.

The first challenged me to review my own self, as I am a white woman. Titled “I Don’t Want to Be an Excuse for Racist Violence Anymore,” the article explores Dylann Roof’s self-proclaimed motive in murdering Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson in their church after he sat with them in Bible study for an hour in their welcome. As he shot them, Roof claimed, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” This article–and I–focus on the ‘our women’ part of the statement. Whose women? Which women? Most of the people Roof killed were women, after all–but they were black women, and thus beneath consideration to him. To Roof, ‘women’ means ‘white women.’

From the article:
There is a centuries-old notion that white men must defend, with lethal violence at times, the sexual purity of white women from allegedly predatory black men. And, as we saw yet again after this shooting, it is not merely a relic of America’s hideous racial past. American racism is always gendered; racism and sexism are mutually dependent, and cannot be unstitched.

The article goes on to point out that this isn’t only a black-and-white problem–that it’s a problem of white and all non-white bodies, as shown by Donald Trump’s recent hideous remarks.

Again from the article: Trump failed to mention that 80 percent of girls and women crossing that border are raped as they make the journey. Those girls and women aren’t white. Gender is always raced, and race is always gendered.

Whiteness, then–the ‘purity’ of white womanhood–is being ‘protected’ violently by white men at the expense of non-white bodies, of all genders. This puts non-white women in a place of non-humanity and non-white men in a place of monstrosity. The problem isn’t non-whiteness; the problem is whiteness and how we live it out.

I refuse to stand by idly while white men try to protect me from a non-existent threat. I refuse to be made to sit on a pedestal. I reject the comfort of that position, even as I recognize that I cannot opt out of a system that subjugates and oppresses without question. None of us are free until all of us are free. 

The second article comes not from my own experience. It challenges me by coming from outside my own experience. Titled “On the Pole for Freedom: Bree Newsome’s Politics, Theory, and Theology of Resistance,” it focuses on heroine Bree Newsome’s now-famous take-down of the Confederate flag.

From the article:So I’mma say that the pole here – flagpole though it were – still marks a liminal space of possibility for what Black resistance beyond respectability looks like. Bree Newsome’s Black girl body climbed a pole, quoting scripture, to take down a flag that is emblematic of so much violence enacted on the Black body by the U.S. nation-state. Her act exploded every simple discourse we are currently having about what faith demands, about what decorum dictates that we should accept, about what are acceptable forms of resistance for (cis) Black women’s bodies.

Respectability politics would have the marginalized–women, non-white people, non-cis folks, non-hetero folks, etc–behave exactly like cisgender, heterosexual, white men in order to have the ‘benefits’ of existing. Bree Newsome took this notion and turned it on its head. As she scaled a pole, she recited Scripture. As she ripped down a symbol of violence, she claimed no fear. In the face of police–in the face of far too much police brutality against non-white bodies–she peaceably resisted and gave herself over.

Having read both this article and the one above it, I am struck afresh by the violence against non-white bodies, by the supposed protection of white women, by our (white women’s) complicity-via-silence.

From the first article again: It was, and remains, necessary for white women to decry the violence that is done in our name. It is on us to dismantle racism with just as much commitment as we dismantle sexism, for one cannot happen without the other.

We have work to do. We must break our silence. We must not sit passively by while our white womanhood is ‘defended’ from a threat that does not exist. We must uplift the very real threats that do exist–of racism, of sexism, of the kyriarchy.

Two ways to start: A reading list called the #Charlestonsyllabus. And a way to donate to help the churches that are burning, via the Rebuild the Churches Fund.