Gender issues are getting harder to talk about in the current social and political climate. That makes them more important than ever.
I have recently volunteered to be a member of my local church’s crèche program. For anyone who doesn’t know, crèche is an opportunity for church volunteers to give its congregation some peace and quiet during the sermon by rounding up all the fledgling future leaders and nobleman, and ushering them into a sound proof room away from the auditorium where they can yell and scream and play for an hour while their parents reflectively take in another confronting, biblically based sermon every Sunday.
This Sunday we had four little rascals to take care of. Two of them were boys, and two of them were girls. We didn’t have a whole lot of structure planned for the event, instead we had a couple of toys, some big bouncy balls, books etc. and a few other object to keep them occupied for the hour. So we ended up in a convenient situation where there was one lady volunteer, one male volunteer (me), two boys, and two girls, who were ultimately left to their own devices to decide what they wanted to do. Within minute a clear pattern emerged. Shortly after arriving the two boys found themselves running around the room, chasing each other with balls in their hands, and begging me to join in. I think I was at one point a dragon, and shortly after that ‘lava’… Meanwhile, in the same room, the two girls quickly found themselves together with the lady volunteer, sitting on the small kid couch thing emblazoned with a giant picture of Elsa and Anna, chatting and getting to know each other (for one girl it was her first time) and possibly reading some books.
It was at this point I found myself surveying the rather innocent and joyous scene before me and coming to one inalienable conclusion…
Gender differences are not a social construction.
Unless you have been living under a rock, then you would be well aware that gender roles, gender differences, gender identity, sexual orientation, and all things related are an incredibly hot, emotionally charged topic right now. Yet another source of direct antagonism for any Christian who dares to hold steadfast to the biblical affirmation that ‘God made them man, and woman’. Especially for Christian men, who simply don’t know what to think. We’re under intense pressure to conform to societies new image of manhood, which is that there is none. The ‘modern man’ is exactly not that. We are told that ‘real men are sensitive’ and ‘tender-hearted’. The irony is, that in an effort to abolish social gender norms, the modern gender engine simply wants to create new ones.
The wave of post modernism, the feminist movement, the gay rights lobbies and the very recent focus on the transgender movement all take issue with one primary, underlying assumption: that almost any and all gender differences are a social construct.
“From birth, children are assigned a gender and are socialized to conform to certain gender roles based on their biological sex.” – www.boundless.com
You see, you’re not treated like a boy because you are one, it’s forced on you because your parents mistakenly assumed that you were a boy because you have a penis.
But is there any merit to this idea?
I know my epiphany on Sunday morning was only based a small isolated sample, but it was a very clear demonstration of the intrinsic differences between the boys and girls, when they weren’t being oppressed by their ‘socially engineered gender norms’.
Nobody really questions the reality of biological sex, and that there’s a difference. Even transgenderism, the belief that you can be born biologically male, but ‘actually’ be female, implicitly assumes there is a clear difference. Transgenderism does not argue that males and females are the same, they argue that they are different, it’s just that nature just got some people wrong.
The only possible exceptions are hermaphrodites, which are exceedingly rare cases of individuals born with both sex organs. However, these cases are regarded as genetic abnormalities, and are always known to be either male or female with some relatively clear genetic defect which produces the unfortunate phenotype. Besides this there are some other rare genetic abnormalities which can lead to various feminine, or masculine attributes in males and females respectively (see klinefelter syndrome). But again these are clear genetic defects with clear symptoms (such as sterility).
Gender roles, and gender stereotypes however, are particular social norms that are perceived to be arbitrary and socially constructed stereotypes.
Some of the more outward stereotypes may indeed be driven by some cultural perception of masculinity or femininity. One example is pale pink being associated with baby girls, and blue with boys. Historically pink was only recently adopted as a feminine colour, and has traditionally been viewed as more masculine.
However, my experience with the younglings on Sunday gave me the opportunity to see some gender differences in one of the most innocent and least socially constructed environments, an unstructured children’s play area.
It wasn’t always so clear cut. The children at times played together, and also separately.
What really muddies the waters is that while there is some clear differentiation, there is also variance. Gender differences are really based on averages, and behavioural trends.
Part of the problem arises when as individuals we place to much emphasis on the constructed differences between genders, because very often these can be personal biases we have and not even necessarily socially constructed but just those values that we personally define as gender specific.
As a boy, my sister was obsessed with horses (and most other animals), mostly as a result of this I came to associate horses and horse riding with being a girls activity. It wasn’t until I grew up and came to appreciate very masculine caricatures like Jim Craig of the Man from Snowy river, or the mounted soldiers of the Crusades to name a few, that I realised that my aversion to horse riding was based on my own prejudices.
But just because I came to recognise my gender specific associations as being a personal construction, it didn’t mean that gender differences no longer existed to me, I just learned that those differences were not derived from the activity, but from something more innate. It wasn’t the act of horse riding that was inherently feminine. I learned that masculinity and femininity existed as innate characteristics, and that they were not driven by social convention, but instead it was only certain activities that came to be seen as gender specific in different cultures.
The mistake that the modern transgender movement seems to make, is assuming that if you don’t conform to stereotypical gender norms, instead of re-evaluating your perception of the social norms, you can just change your gender instead.
Although I would argue that there are many gender stereotypes which exist for good reason, and are often based intuitively on gender differences, it is still a mistake to assume that they are proxy’s for gender assignment.
I really want to study this in more detail. The problem is that when science attempts to be objective about transgender research, instead of merely bowing down to the very vocal minority, scientists lose their jobs (<– Read that article!).
In any case, one possible explanation for the existence of ‘gender dysphoria’ could simply be that some children associate their gender identity with certain social constructions about gender which may not be inherently gender specific. If a child has a penis, but likes to play with dolls and kitchen utensils, they may intuitively assume that they ‘want to be girl’, when really all they want to do is play with dolls and pretend kitchen utensils.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, and this is only a rations post. But maybe we should start spending more time assessing the differences between true gender roles, and mere cultural gender differences.
This is an important topic for men to think about in general. What makes men, men? How do you define masculinity? Is it purely on the basis of activities which are culturally accepted as masculine, or is it something more innate?