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.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn, NY, and the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normality of Hating Your Body (Piatkus Press). Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.