nature v. nurture
May 22, 2003 08:37 AM

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the nature/nurture argument with regards to gender and sexuality (which, as Rev pointed out, are in many ways inseparable). So, this week I posed a long - and apparently overdense - question to the group on just that subject. [While the question is quoted in part below, you could also just read it directly on WHB.]

What role should biology play in our understanding of gender and sexuality, and how should we address this as a culture/society?
The inherent flaw of any argument about biological destiny vs. indoctrination vs. free choice is the versus. People are influenced by everything.

In the case of gender, I argue that most of the impact of sex (biological sex, that is) is a tendency to bias others in their behavior towards you. This is precisely why transgendered people have the experience of being one thing trapped in another. It's not, as far as I know, biologically possible to be a biological woman in a biological man's body (though, of course, there are the biological sex anomalies like Turner's Syndrome and such), for instance. But the simple fact of being in a man's body means that people will respond to you in certain ways, expect certain things.

Generally speaking, the body you're in and the cultural expectations for that body are dominant influences on your behavior. But - that doesn't mean those cultural influences automatically pigeonhole you into the "ideal" woman or man. Maybe you have more or less of certain hormones, are exposed to opposite gender types (not too difficult in a world where "ideal" gender behaviors are so contradictory), or simply see something over there in the other gender you like.

Gender types are not unlike any other cultural conception in that.

Of course, they're such a deeply engrained conception that we can't just stand on the roof with a bullhorn shouting "Gender is Dead! Long Live Gender!" and expect to make progress. I do think, though, that the world of queer and the small but vocal transgender community are slowly eroding what it means to be "man" or "woman", however consciously or unconsciously they do so.

Feminism, sadly, seems to simultaneously reject and reinforce our cultural notions of gender and the differences that implies. This, too, has had value - trumpeting the value of women, gaining us equal voting rights, improving health and childcare legislation in the US - but any feminism that implies women are all one way (whatever way that is) still falls back on that male/female dichotomy. Of course, the end of gender rather implies the end of feminism - so maybe it's self-preservation.

How much does your genetic makeup, your biological sex, etc. contribute to who you are as a person
I was a physically uncoordinated child. This might have something to do with biology, or it might be a nurtured trait. What I know is that I was verbal long before I was mobile (I think I was nearly 2 before walking), and that this was attributed to eye-body coordination issues and a disturbing natural flexibility that I haven't cultivated as much as I would like.

I also know that girl children are more likely to speak words earlier than boy children and boys are more likely to walk earlier. Is that a sex-dependent difference, or a gender-based one? I suspect, given the way we tend to treat babies - girls are cuddled and spoken to, boys are tossed and played with - that there's a strong "nurture" component to what is usually seen as a "nature"-based variance. Nevertheless, aside from my clearly genetic, though hardly sex-dependent, physical qualities, the order in which these two things happened was "normal" for my sex.

I've also always had a clear biological/genetic predilection towards fatness. I was a round child; I'm a round adult. Even when I was a tree-climbing, bike-riding kid who mostly hung with boys (and refused to wear non-dresses, ironically), I never acquired that lean child body.

And then, there's whatever combination of genes led to my wearing of soda-bottle glasses starting in second grade. I am so half-blind girl. It was a source of embarrassment and inconvenience for years before the invention of the disposable contact lens.

Those factors (predilection for fatness and failure to catch - or even see - moving objects) undoubtedly contributed to my leanings towards dance and other "soft" exercise modes, a loathing of games with balls, friendships based on conversation, and a general shyness and nerdiness I've never quite shaken. Because I was a girl, all these things were, to an extent, encouraged. I think those biological factors, then, ultimately played some role in the formation of my personal preferences.

My dad read to me all the time, mostly science fiction and horror. I was a bald baby who was always dressed in dresses or pink for my first 2 years, so people knew I was female (for my family's benefit, basically). I went to a sex-divided school for much of grade school. I had a mother who took me to college classes and did yoga and dance and that "we must, we must, we must increase our bust" exercise and a dad who read a lot (and also tried to throw balls at me, with limited success). The children's books with smart protagonists are frequently about girls (Harriet, Anne, Jo, Eilonwy, all those girls) who read and ultimately find some middle ground between intellectual pursuit and "feminine" behavior like getting along with others. I also remember being fixated on the year of my parents' birth (in the fifties), which ultimately resulted in me reading about a lot of fifties-era stereotypes. And my mother loves magazines.

That collection of factoids includes a blur of experiences that may have contributed to my "girly"ness, my feminism, my queerness. But I think the single most contributing factor is the experience of being exposed to all those things.

Is it worthwhile to think about biology as, to an extent, destiny? For instance, the queer movement has done a lot of work to assert that gay is predestined at birth. That has some political value, but is it true?
I'm really torn on this one. I recognize that saying sexual preference is fixed makes the argument for equal rights more obvious. I recognize that a lot of gay and straight people feel there's no possible way they could have another preference. I recognize that many other bisexual-acting people feel that, whatever their behavior, they are ultimately either gay or straight.

But this just doesn't ring true. So many people have experiences or feelings that they're willing to discount as not them because those experiences don't meet some definition of what they do or do not do sexually. I suppose there's a value in taboo, but I'd rather accept the entire realm of experience as possible.

And if that's so, you remove the dichotomy and the differentiation among who has and hasn't rights to be normal, to be a player in the political and social life of our culture. Well, at least as far as sex is concerned.

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