Gender on a spectrum

In her last column Courtney Martin challenges the way we think about gender roles, sexual orientatio

Like most teachers, I have a few quirks that seem to emerge over and over again, every semester. I ban the word “weird” from my classroom. It is, in my experience, used as a substitute for critical, original thinking and a buffer from dealing with new learnings and discomfort. Which brings me to my next quirk—I am constantly advocating discomfort. I borrowed this idea from my brother, who borrowed it from Piaget—to be optimally uncomfortable (i.e. just a little, so you can concentrate but feel a little thrown off) is the most fertile time for real learning. And finally, I am constantly talking about spectrums.

One of the questions we ask in feminist theory is: what part of our behavior is socialized and what part is biological? Basically, we are modernising and gendering the nature vs. nurture debate. I ask my students not to peg themselves as one or the other—a social constructionist or an essentialist—but to consider where they might fall on a spectrum and where they might move on that spectrum with regard to specific issues.

For example, are women more prone to multitask naturally or because they have been socialized that way? Some neuroscientists suggest that we have more fibers in our corpus callosums, the part of the brain that links the two hemispheres; this appears to facilitate faster movement back and forth between the right and left brain, and therefore, quicker shifts in thinking and action.

On the other hand, perhaps girls are socialised to believe they are better at multitasking because it props up a whole economic system which depends on women taking on a greater range of responsibilities (sometimes called “the second shift”) than men. Or perhaps both are true. What do you believe? And where does this plop you down on the nature-nurture spectrum? (Note: for far too long the majority of us have indiscriminately placed ourselves on the nature spectrum when it comes to issues of gender and sex.)

Another spectrum that I ask my students to engage is that of sexual orientation. Rather than thinking of attraction as existing on a binary—heterosexual or homosexual—or even as tri—throwing bisexual in the mix—why not consider the possibility that our attractions develop along a spectrum? This rocks the foundations of so many of our current political debates and social realities in a really good, unsettling way. If I’m not heterosexual, but merely participating in a heterosexual relationship at the moment, it changes the way I might consider engaging issues like “gay marriage” or “family values.”

And finally (this one will really blow your mind) what if sex itself exists on a spectrum? Anne Fausto-Sterling, a widely-read and celebrated, feminist scientist, argues that there are in fact five sexes, not two. Four percent of babies are born intersexed, meaning that their reproductive organs don’t all fall into just one category—male or female.

In our current medical system, these babies are “assigned” a sex through reconstructive surgery (sadly, often based on whether the penis appears to have the potential to be “large enough” to be normal.) Four percent! That means that out of a college of 6,000 students, 240 were born intersexed.
That day of class always sends my students home to the dinner table asking, “Mom, dad, was I really a girl when I was born?” By the end of the semester, most parents have been bewildered by at least one question inspired by our class discussions. I consider it an honour.