Thursday, 3 May 2012

On gender

(I published this piece in my deviantART journal on 4 July 2011, but never on my blog, so I thought I’d share it here. Readers of Eve’s Rib are well informed on the question of gender, of course, but this was written for a more general audience.)

A few people have asked about the gendered world depicted in my pictures so I thought it would be worth explaining.

It may surprise some readers, but human beings are born without gender. Gender and sex are not the same thing.

Sex is about biology: which chromosomes, reproductive organs etc we end up with. People are normally male or female, though ambiguous conditions also exist.

Gender however is a social construct. It is a set of social conventions that says how males and females ought to behave: what they ought to wear, how they should talk, what they should find interesting. No girl is delivered into the world genetically programmed to want to wear lipstick or chat about shoes. No boy is programmed to like football or be aggressive. Masculinity and femininity are packages of behaviours that are taught to us by intense conditioning from the moment our parents dress us in either pink or blue.

Gendered behaviour is not ‘natural’ or innate and it is not directly connected with biology. It varies over time and between cultures. An obvious example is that the soldiers of ancient Rome (male, of course) wore skirts. These soldiers conquered most of their known world. Yet it is taken for granted by us that men wearing skirts is absurd and embarrassing. Imagine the general response if the US marines went into battle wearing skirts!

The roots of this lie in the division of labour between male and female in prehistoric society (men hunting, women foraging), and the later emergence of male dominance after the agricultural revolution, when men acquired a disproportionate amount of control over the soaring social wealth of human cultures. There is no evidence at all that one sex dominated the other before the agricultural revolution. But the dominance of males became a historical reality with huge consequences for culture – most obviously sexism.

It’s important to understand this power aspect because it explains the course masculinity and femininity took. Masculine behaviours were about being active, assertive, mastering nature, etc. Feminine behaviours were about domesticity, prettiness, and knowing one’s place. It’s only very recently in history that this has been consistently challenged. ‘Even’ today when women are more empowered, the sexes are still sold different clothes, different deodorants, different brands of diet Cola. It is still seen as absurd and embarrassing for a man to wear ‘women’s’ clothes, because our society still thinks that a man degrades himself by adopting ‘feminine’ behaviours – or in other words, that a woman is not a man’s equal.

This is why women, over the last century or so, have been able to adopt trousers and other masculine clothing whereas men have not been able to adopt feminine clothing. By intruding on masculine territory, women are empowering themselves. By shifting onto feminine territory, men however humiliate themselves. Or so the perception goes.

Men who like to wear women’s clothes are therefore also likely, though not always, to be drawn sexually towards certain power relationships. This is why crossdressing and masochism often go together. Many crossdressers associate feminine clothes and behaviours with submissiveness and inferior status (hence the femdom aspect of my pictures, for example). This isn’t because women are naturally submissive to men. It is because we are swept up into a complex web of social conditioning that fills us with often very stupid ideas about gender roles. But though the ideas are ultimately stupid, the feelings, sexuality, etc that they bring about in human beings are real.

My own position is that people should be allowed to adopt whatever gender behaviours make them happy. There should be no social pressure, no prejudice, because gender is a load of old cobblers anyway.


  1. Very interesting insights.

  2. Exactly! Who ever decided that the way in which you sew your cloth (open at the bottom or sewn up the middle) determined how much power you deserve? Clothes, ideally, should only be a reflection of individual character, not your assumed societal worth. As a woman, I avoided dresses for the longest time because I thought that they would make me appear "weak" and incapable of handling myself. I have come to realize that I like dresses and pants equally. What I choose to wear that day does not alter who I am, but (sadly) it does change how people perceive me. Going fishing in a dress gets me laughed at and if I got married in pants, it'd be scandalous. Why? They're just clothes! I'm still me underneath!

  3. I agree with tour viewpoint. I being a crossdresser like it