Complex Personal Narratives

A few weeks ago, I had a guest speaker come into my Constructing Sexuality class.  His name was Daniel, and he was a FTM.  He began telling his personal narrative, describing how he perceived himself as more masculine than other females growing up.  He thought, at first, his “manliness” was caused by hanging out with more males than females.  His parents similarly attributed his masculinity to lack of female friends, and they tried to “socialize” him by enrolling him into female-only sports and activities.  By high school, he had started experimenting with the female gender – growing his hair long and dating men.  Because he felt comfortable around men and held similar interests with them, he said he never had a difficult time finding a boyfriend.  He had one serious relationship during that time and, after it ended, he realized he was more interested in women.  In college, he began exploring trans* issues and identifying as queer.  Then, when he realized he could identity as trans* without transitioning medically, he began adopting a trans* identity.  After college, he started binding his breasts and exclusively wearing men’s clothing.  He began hormones around seven months ago, and he said he was immediately more sexually attracted to men and sexually driven because of the testosterone.

While listening to Daniel’s story, I found it both intriguing and contradictory.  On the one hand, he is challenging traditional gender norms, describing his gender and sexual orientation as fluid, complex entities.  On the other hand, he falls into a Western paradigm crux, discussing how he shared similar “masculine” interests with other men, such as playing video games and watching action movies.  Additionally, he naturalized heterosexuality by attributing the female gender with dating men.  Thus, he ends up reinforcing a binary world, one that separates men and women and normalizes heterosexuality.

In addition, his described situation with testosterone reminds me of Patrick Califa’s story.  Califa described how after taking T, he would have physical sensations that “acquired a piquancy and an immediacy that is both entertaining and occasionally inconvenient” (437).  His desire for instantaneous, casual sex grew rapidly, and he said he suddenly understood sexual differences between the sexes after his intake of T.  Similarly, Daniel describes an intense, sexual urge for men and desire for casual sex.  What’s largely problematic about both accounts is that it presents women as sexless beings (who don’t have desires or impulses!) by attributing sex drive to an increased testosterone level.

This type of narrative is similarly highlighted in PLENTY of articles, especially in this cringe-worthy Men’s Health article called Why You’ve Always Been So Horny.  It “describes” how testosterone affects the body:

“The first [burst of T] produces a male brain: one that’s more interested in objects, actions, and competition. The left (parietal) lobe flourishes in the testosterone bath and helps you visualize objects in three dimensions (good for catching a football or watching a woman cross the street), and it boosts your aptitude in mathematics (that’s how you estimate that she’s about a 34DD).  In addition, testosterone beefs up your hypothalamus, the area of the brain that’s interested in sex. The hypothalamus is twice as large in men as it is in women.”

A part of me wants to believe this is a joke because of its BLATANT sexism but, alas, I honestly think this was printed.  Anyhow… while Daniel and Patrick clearly are complicating and challenging identity categories within their narratives [unlike this terrible, terrible article], I do think their attributions of sex drive to testosterone are perhaps troublesome and even reflect notes of biological essentialism.

-Anna Sekine


Multiple and Competing Conceptions of Sex/Gender Intersections and Causations

            Within the realm of gender studies, sex and gender are generally understood to be two related but distinct facets of personal identity which contribute both jointly and independently to an individual’s experience in the world.  Expanding to include the larger world, the sex/gender relationship is understood in conflicting ways, and many of these ways imply judgments about how identities are formed and which facets of identity determine an individual’s self expression.  From plain old Biological Essentialism to Emi Koyama’s “Reverse Essentialism” to what I will call Janice Raymond’s “Gender Essentialism,” I’d like to explore the conflicting ways that the interaction of sex and gender gets imagined, while thinking about how these imagined schemas affect the lives of real people. 

            As all who will be reading this blog know already, “biological essentialism” is the theoretical position which takes for granted that biology- in this case sexual anatomy- determines a person’s reality, including their gender identity (and often sexuality as well).  A person who subscribes to biological essentialism would assume that a person’s biological sex would determine her/his gender identity, sexuality, and physical/mental capacities.  This theoretical position is often chosen by those who believe in the naturalness of conventional understandings of gender, and thus within this theoretical perspective a male-bodied person would be assumed to be heterosexual and to have a masculine gender identity. 

            In Emi Koyama’s “Transfeminist Manifesto” she devotes a short segment to what she titles, “Deconstructing the Reverse Essentialism.”  She writes,

“Trans people have often been described as those whose physical sex does not match the gender of their mind or soul. … To say that one has a female mind or soul would mean there are male and female minds that are different from each other in some identifiable way, which in turn may be used to justify discrimination against women.  Essentializing our gender identity can be just as dangerous as resorting to biological essentialism.” (5). 

While it is undeniable that a simple sex/gender separation makes easy work of why some individuals may feel compelled to alter the configuration of their bodies, this cut-and-dried logic essentializes conventional conceptions of masculinity and femininity and roots them in some identifiable terrain other than physical anatomy.  In other words, the heart of what it means to be a man or a woman (which are assumed to be consistent and meaningful categories) resides in an insulated core of gender identity which is acted upon by neither biology nor socialization.  This talk of essentialized understandings of gender remind me of a) Koyama’s discussion of gender clinics’ naturalization of gendered behavioral roles-to the point where would be-MTF trans people would talk about their proclivity for sewing when petitioning for GRS and b) all the news coverage several years ago about the differences between the male and female brains.  Here’s a link to an article from 2008 that I found on a Psychology website on the subject:  Try not to be too offended by the assumptions that all men treat people like robots and all women talk to inanimate objects- these are only the least harmful of the consequences of essentializing gendered personhood.

            Finally, I’d like to return to the way that Janice Raymond, in our assigned reading last week from her Transsexual Empire, conceives of the relationship between sex and gender.  For the purposes of this blog post, I am calling this “Gender Essentialism,” for lack of a better term, although this schema differs importantly from the one that the brain scientists are arguing for and that Koyama critiques.  In her chapter “Sappho by Surgery,” Raymond writes that true women are necessarily “encumbered by the scars of patriarchy that are unique to a woman’s personal and social history.” (133, Transgender Studies Reader).  Later she asserts that there are important differences between men and women which “may spring… from the total history of existing as a woman in a patriarchal society.” (139, Transgender Studies Reader).  Clearly, she intentionally avoids a logic of biological essentialism by claiming that socialization rather than biology determines a person’s true gender identity; however, this is a less-than-significant move once it is added that she believes gendered socialization is based upon an individual’s sexual biology at birth.  Essentially (no pun intended), biology=socialization=gender identity. 

            Each of these understandings essentializes some aspect of the relationship between sex and gender and ultimately restricts the number of sex/gender combinations existing in real life which are granted (arbitrary) legitimacy.  As Koyama elegantly put it, “Transfeminism believes that we all construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable, and sincere to us as we live and relate to others within given social and cultural constraint,” (5).  As the world holds an incredible diversity of people who exhibit every combination of the numerous human sex, gender and sexuality traits, utilizing any theoretical ideology to attempt to understand sex and gender as teleological is an exercise in futility.  I guess we all must learn to live with the frustrating yet refreshing realization that sex and gender do not occur in reality as neat, readily intelligible and predictable categories of being. 

-Roz Rini