Sexuality and Gender

Sexuality and gender are still extremely hot topics in America. Nobody but a man and a woman can get married in most of the states, and people protest gay marriage very strongly based on a number of different things like religion, morality, and a personal discrimination against homosexuality. In America and the West, nearly everybody believes that there are two genders: you are either a man (with biologically male reproductive organs) or a woman (with biologically female reproductive organs).

Although some people do believe that someone can be born as the so-called “wrong gender” (meaning they feel like they were born with male reproductive organs but are actually a woman, or vice versa), this is not the mainstream opinion. The way that countries and people view gender and sexuality tells a lot about that culture, and it is often rooted very much in their history. Although in America people believe in the two-sex theory now, this was not always the case.

Before Europeans ever came to America, the Native Americans lived here and they had some very fluid beliefs about gender. Their ideas were more complex than the simple distinction between male and female that we make today. When the Europeans began settling in America, they brought their one-sex theory along with them. Just like in so many other ways, the continent of North America has been a melting pot of ideas about gender and sexuality, but just as Europeans dominated the North American continent, their ideas about gender have become dominant in society.

By comparing two competing arguments about human sex and gender, the one-sex model of the West and the three-sex model practiced by indigenous people, we can begin to understand the role that culture plays in ideas of sex and gender. Although it is no longer believed, the one-sex theory was a very influential set of beliefs with scientific background that has influenced current Western thought on gender. This theory essentially states that men and women have the same body. The male body is considered “normal” or the “dominant” body, and women’s bodies are simply the male body turned inside out.

Additionally, body fluids were the same in both men and women. At the time, “medical experts thought these fluids could convert into one another and therefore what might look like distinct fluids in men and women were simply different forms of a single, endlessly protean substance” (Page 30). These fluids like semen and menstrual blood were interchangeable and although they presented differently in men and women, they were the same substance at their core. Men and women (and their related physical characteristics) were different because of temperature and humidity.

Medical experts believed that men’s bodies were hot and dry, causing the sex organs to expand and develop externally. Women, on the other hand, were moist and cold, and their sex organs developed internally. Despite these differences, though, all bodies were human, with male and female characteristics, rather than being thought of as fundamentally different based on gender. Although the one-sex theory seems like a very strict and narrow definition, men and women were in danger of changing sex if they engaged in activities of the other gender and thus men became too cold or women became too hot.

Since all people had the same basic body with different characteristics, gender could be changed if you took on the characteristics of the other gender and developed like them. This view was influenced by the belief in the hierarchy of God and humans. God was seen as the ultimate being at the top of the hierarchy, and people were of one body made in his image. Men were closer to God on the hierarchy and women were below them, even more imperfect. This view was informed by religion but also by their scientific understanding at the time.

Even though it seems like it would be easy to explain a third gender (intersexed, or hermaphroditic) within one-sex theory (someone who is colder than a man but warmer than woman), intersexed people were generally just assigned either male or female gender. This was mainly because there were very clear social ranks for men and women, and intersexed people had to be assigned to one rank or the other. Three-sex models are much more common among indigenous people, including Native American tribes.

The actual characteristics of the three-sex model can vary from culture to culture, but the general theory is this: individuals who did not clearly identify as male or female could be assigned their own third gender identity. These indigenous cultures often practiced rituals around adolescence that ushered children into their ultimate gender role. For those who identified as either male or female, that included traditional roles and rituals. Females were often isolated at the time of their first menstrual cycle, and they learned their tribe’s traditionally female duties from older women in their family.

Males were often separated from their female relatives around adolescence and they learned traditionally male roles from their male elders. Teens who identified as intersex go through a different set of rituals exclusive to their gender identity. For example, in a Sambian tribe, male teens go through six stages of initiation into male adulthood and live exclusively with male relatives. Intersexed teens are allowed to remain at home with their mothers, and they go through an abbreviated version of three of the six initiation rituals. This third gender is accepted, rather than portrayed as unnatural or evil.

What do these two competing theories tell us about our own cultural construction of two genders? We can make two conclusions from an examination of these theories. First, Westerners have always viewed indigenous beliefs as “uncivilized” or “barbaric”, so it is not surprising that this notion of a true intersexed person which was accepted in indigenous cultures has been condemned throughout Western history. Second, our current understanding of two sexes, male and female, as our gender model is rooted in the philosophical split of science and religion, and it has not changed much for several hundred years.

I will look at Western attitudes toward indigenous beliefs and how this has helped hold discrimination against those who do not identify as male or female in place. I will then look at how our current two-sex model came to be and why it has not changed despite many advances in science. When Europeans colonized the Americas, they did not have any respect for indigenous people or their beliefs. There were generally two attitudes toward native people. Either they were seen as hopeless barbarians (and possibly a threat) who needed to be eliminated.

Or they were seen as savages who needed to be reformed and brought to Christianity. With both attitudes, the native people were not allowed to keep their culture or their beliefs. There was a great amount of discrimination against these people and their ideas. Although many Americans today like to think that we live in a society that has moved past racism and discrimination, a majority of Americans still do not believe in anything other than strictly male and strictly female genders. This is shown in national opinions on gay marriage and on transsexuals.

Although there have been gains in marriage equality in certain states, many Americans still believe that gay marriage is wrong and the only acceptable relationship is between a biological male and a biological female. Many people discriminate against transsexuals, which can be seen in the fact that a lot of the medical procedures they need are not covered by most health insurance plans, the fact that violence and murder crimes against transsexuals is nearly 100 times higher than for the average population, and the fact that people and the media almost always depict transsexuals as some sort of freak or abomination.

They are either demonized or they are a punch line. We have not progressed to believe that more than two sexes are possible, but why did start believing in two sexes instead of one in the first place? As one author, Lacquer, argues, it is because “science and religion parted ways, with the natural and biological worlds becoming increasingly denuded of any extra factual significance” (Page 33). The hierarchy of God, then imperfect man, then more imperfect women, with all beings in likeness of each other, was no longer accepted because religion and science were becoming separate realms.

The human body “was no longer an illustration of the cosmos”. Now the physical differences in gender were labeled separately. There were also political reasons for this change: around this time, feminists were beginning to demand a voice and more power. Although women initially approved of the distinction between men and women because science was no longer classifying them as an inferior man, ultimately this distinction lead to the idea that there are male roles (public, strong) and female roles (private, domestic). However, a combination of philosophical changes and political unrest led to the rise of the two-sex belief.

Although many would classify the new two-sex model as more progressive and forward-thinking than the old one-sex model, I would argue that this is not exactly true. Scientifically, it is a more accurate model because it has been proven that there are important biological distinctions between men and women. However, the idea that this is a progressive way of thinking is not so accurate anymore. Yes, we progressed enough to understand that there are fundamental biological differences between men and women. This has no doubt helped us greatly in the field of medicine, especially reproductive health.

However, medical science has shown since then that there are in fact people who do not identify as either gender, and they have their own health concerns. But we do not acknowledge them or their unique needs. They are in fact most times ridiculed in our society. We progressed up to a certain point in our understanding, and then we stopped. I believe that this is because Western culture was moving in such a way that the importance and all-knowing nature of religion was being questioned, while science was the new champion of the day.

But just like scientists came up with eugenics and racial science to discriminate against people of different ethnicities, scientists also interpret their findings based on their preconceived ideas of gender. They interpret their findings into the model of the universe that they understand. Until society accepts the idea of alternative gender identities, we will be stuck with the two-sex model, which may have been progressive for its time, but now it is anything but.

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