Tag Archives: sexuality

Human sex is not simply male or female. So what?

Aimee Ardell/Flickr

Sex is a divisive topic, loaded with moral weight and the scientific stamp of truth. The word ‘sex’ is of French (sexe) and Latin (sexus) origins, with sexus connected to secare (to cut/divide) and seco (half of). It is no surprise, then, that the sex binary is so firmly rooted in Euro-American thought, along with many others (think body and mind, nature and culture). It underpins and naturalises gendered divisions of labour through, for example, the notion of women as the weaker sex. Language mirrors the distinction between male and female, as in the way we talk about the sexes as ‘opposite’, and throughout life we are encouraged to think in binary terms about this central aspect of our existence.

While these gendered binaries play out in social life in reasonably clear ways, they also seep into places conventionally seen as immune to bias. For example, they permeate sex science. In her paper ‘The Egg and the Sperm’ (1991), the anthropologist Emily Martin reported on the ‘scientific fairy tale’ of reproductive biology. Searching textbooks and journal articles, she found countless descriptions of sperm as active, independent, strong and powerful, produced by the male body in troves; eggs, in contrast, were framed as large and receptive, their actions reported in the passive voice, and their fate left to the sperm they might or might not encounter. Representations in this vein persisted even after the discovery that sperm produce very little forward thrust, and in fact attach to eggs through a mutual process of molecular binding. Martin’s point? That scientific knowledge is produced in culturally patterned ways and, for Euro-American scientists, gendered assumptions make up a large part of this patterning.

In Gender Trouble (1990), the feminist theorist Judith Butler argues that the insistence on sex as a natural category is itself evidence of its very unnaturalness. While the notion of gender as constructed (through interaction, socialisation and so on) was gaining some acceptance at this time, Butler’s point was that sex as well as gender was being culturally produced all along. It comes as no surprise to those familiar with Butler, Martin and the likes, that recent scientific findings suggest that sex is in fact non-binary. Attempts to cling to the binary view of sex now look like stubborn resistance to a changing paradigm. In her survey paper ‘Sex Redefined’ (2015) in Nature, Claire Ainsworth identified numerous cases supporting the biological claim that sex is far from binary, and is best seen as a spectrum. The most remarkable example was that of a 70-year-old father of four who went into the operating room for routine surgery only for his surgeon to discover that he had a womb.

Early in its development, an embryo is sexless, able to move toward male or female characterisation. ‘The identity of the gonad,’ writes Ainsworth, ‘emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity.’ Different genes guide the gonad to turn into ovaries or testes, or, in the case of the RSPO1 gene, ovotestis, a hybrid of the two. Equally interesting are mouse studies that indicate that the state an individual’s gonads take is not just set early in life and fixed from that moment; rather it could require ongoing maintenance across a lifetime.

The picture this paints is of sex as a composite, potentially shifting over time. Sex is at the same time genetic, hormonal and morphological. All of these different manifestations of sex layer onto each other, so people might go their whole lives without knowing that they have cells or even organs of the ‘opposite’ sex.

Ainsworth raises the important point that while multiple gender identities are gaining social acceptance, and science is lending its legitimating powers to the idea of a sex spectrum, legal systems remain clumsy and ill-equipped to cope with such thoughts. Feminists and lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender scholars and activists have known this for some time, and have offered rich alternatives for thinking through law, sex and gender. Meanwhile, social scientists and historians have looked to other times and places to explore how sex and gender might be conceptualised.

In his book Making Sex (1990), Thomas Laqueur argues that some pre-modern Europeans recognised only one sex, on which they imposed two possible genders. The female body, from this perspective, was a mere inversion of the male. Both were characterised by a penis, which in women was simply interior to man’s exterior. As the anthropologist Rosalind Morris writes in ‘All Made Up’ (1995), Laqueur’s work ‘forces readers to acknowledge that gender dichotomies can be imagined in a variety of ways, none of which are reducible to the absolute oppositions that contemporary biology posits in the so-called natural body’. It also reminds us that the ‘sex spectrum’ is itself rooted in Euro-Western gender dichotomies, with male and female providing the framework upon which the new sex science is mapped.

In parts of Melanesia, the cluster of islands scattered through western Oceania, a person is thought to be made up of other, gendered, parts of people: their father’s bone, their mother’s blood. As such, they are always a composite of male and female. Though people here can resemble ‘men’ or ‘women’, ‘in gender terms, the single sex figure will have parts or appendages “belonging” to the opposite sex’, writes Marilyn Strathern in The Gender of the Gift (1988). Moreover, these parts might not always be of one gender or the other – they change according to circumstance. Relations and exchanges provoke gender to emerge differentially between people, over time.

This ‘dividual’ understanding of personhood is framed as a counterpoint to the individualism so taken for granted in the Euro-American world; dividualism acknowledges a form of existence in which the human person is not a bounded individual but an interpellated part of the social whole. That person’s existence is continually brought into being through interactions and exchanges with others. With such an understanding of personhood, sex becomes less of a totalising phenomena.

In the Papua New Guinean highlands, the Kamea see kinship not in terms of genes and heredity, but in social ties with familial obligations elicited through exchange, writes Sandra Bamford in Biology Unmoored (2007). For Kamea, a mother’s and father’s bodily substances struggle in utero, and the child’s ultimate sex is determined by the stronger. For the first five years of life, male and female children are treated as essentially the same, and referred to as imia (roughly, child) without any gendered qualification. Bamford writes: ‘The difference between “male” and “female”, or “brother” and “sister”, are not taken to be innate, but have to be created against an ungendered backdrop of “one-bloodedness”, which furnishes first and foremost an original field of sameness.’ This sameness drops away when a woman marries or a man undergoes his initiation rites. Through these rituals, people become fully reproductive beings. For the Kamea, biology is not meaningful in and of itself, but is made so through social processes.

Looking to other times and to other cultures, we are reminded that sex is to some degree produced through the assumptions we make about each other and our bodies, and the meanings we derive from our relationships. Now that our science is moving towards consensus on sex as a spectrum rather than a simple male/female binary, it is time to start casting around for new ways of thinking about this fundamental aspect of what we are. Historical and anthropological studies provide a rich resource for re-imagining sex, reminding us that the sex spectrum itself is rooted in Euro-Western views of the person and body, and inviting critical engagement with our most basic biological assumptions.Aeon counter – do not remove

Courtney Addison & Samuel Taylor-Alexander

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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When your feminism isn’t intersectional: Raquel Willis on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent “trans women” comments

Channel 4 Twitter/YouTube

The internet is full of faves, but it’s always the moment that they’re put on a pedestal that your faves end up disappointing you. Partly because they are human and humans will disppoint you, but also because you realize that sometimes, your faves still need schooling on certain areas of life and social politics. Case in point: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Adichie was on Channel 4 News recently, being asked about feminism and women’s issues. Then, she unwisely said that “trans women are trans women,” alluding to her opinion that trans women don’t belong under the same “woman” banner as folks who were born as ciswomen.

Here’s what she said:

Okay, let’s pump the brakes for just a second. As you know, Adichie came to full pop culture power when she was featured on Beyonce’s Flawless. She became lauded for her viewpoints on feminism, particularly where black feminism fits in within the entire “feminism” conversation. Her book sales skyrocketed and she became an overnight “fave” of the Beyhive and laypeople alike.

It’s unfortunate that Adichie has this viewpoint about who does and doesn’t belong under the umbrella of “womanhood,” because trans women are women, full stop. In fact, how she said it and what she said is eerily similar to how black women have to fight against white feminism all the time.

However, you don’t have to take my word for it. Raquel Willis, an advocate, activist, and member of the Transgender Law Center, wrote an important Twitter thread about her experiences as a trans woman and how Adichie’s comments are just a continuation of the kind of oppression trans women face on the daily from ciswomen.

Adichie also wrote an article for The Root, called “Trans Women Are Women. This Isn’t a Debate.”

Some key points of the article:

“I was inspired by seeing another black women so unapologetically claim the feminist label and be willing to discuss it publicly. However, I should have known that her [Adichie’s] analysis on womanhood would exclude transgender women. Plenty of other mainstream feminists have shared their own transmisogynistic (anti-trans-women) views with a conflation of gender, sex and socialization in their core beliefs about equality.”

“…She began by gaslighting transgender people. On one hand, she wanted to give the appearance of inclusion and understanding, but on the other, she stripped trans women of their womanhood. By not being able to simply say, ‘Trans women are women,’ Adichie is categorizing trans women as an ‘other’ from womanhood.

Trans women are a type of woman, just as women of color, disabled women and Christian women are types of women. Just as you would be bigoted to deny these women their womanhood, so would you be to deny trans women of theirs.

Then Adichie invalidates trans women for not having a certain set of experiences. When cisgender women do this, it reminds me of how white women in the United States were initially viewed as a more valid type of woman than black women. In her iconic 1851 ‘Ain’t I aWoman’ speech, Sojourner Truth spelled out how inaccurate and privileged it is for us to use these limitations in public discourse.

…Just as it was wrong for womanhood to be narrowly defined within the hegemonic white woman’s experience, so, too, is it wrong for womanhood to be defined as the hegemonic cisgender woman’s experience. Cis women may be the majority, but that hardly means their experience the only valid one.”

In short, to quote Willis’ article, trans women are women; this isn’t up for debate. Also, if you are in the public eye like Adichie, make sure to talk about stuff you know; don’t make assumptions about stuff you have no clue about.

Another point: Inclusion is key if we’re all going to get somewhere, and that means including and recognizing the humanity of all womanhood, which includes trans women. I’ll let Willis’ speech from the Women’s March be the last word.

What do you think of Adichie’s comments and Willis’ rebuttal? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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“Riverdale” react: Let’s talk about Jughead’s sexuality

How do we feel about Jughead and Betty as an item? (CW)

Riverdale Episode 6 | “Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” | Aired March 2, 2017

As I wrote before, love was in the air on the latest episode of Riverdale, Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” and maybe it’s just me, but one of my early criticisms of the show thus far is that it is trying wildly hard to impress as the new pulpy, soapy teen show on TV, so much so that it overshoots its mark on several occasions. The first two were involving Chuck and Ms. Grundy, the third being how ridiculously evil the parents of Riverdale are towards their kids (as explained by Black Girl Nerds’ Chelsea A. Hensley). The fourth mark against the show is how Jughead’s sexuality has been treated.

For those of us in the know (which includes a lot more kids and teens than I gave Archie Comics credit for despite being a fan of the comic when I myself was a preteen, which means its rebranding as a fresh new comic book franchise has paid off in dividends), Jughead has been officially canonized as asexual. We don’t have to speculate over his sexuality anymore (although, I have to admit that creating your own headcanon for Jughead was kinda fun–there was one point early in my Archie Comics fandom that I would swear that Jughead and Betty would hook up, then I felt like Jughead and Veronica could make a good opposites attract pairing that clearly wouldn’t last long but would have huge fireworks, then when Kevin came along, I would swear that Jughead and Kevin would be together through their shared love of burgers and competitive eating.)

In any event, Jughead being clearly defined as asexual (and maybe, in an unspoken fashion, also canonized as aromantic seeing how he hates the idea of relationships outside the realm of close friendship) put a lot of Jughead’s behavior and preferences into focus. It all made sense. Why wouldn’t Jughead be asexual? In fact, he’s always been asexual, even though the 1940s didn’t have a name for it yet. What’s even better about the current run of “Jughead” though–aside from the sharp wit and seriously laugh-out-loud moments, is that Jughead is portrayed as a confident, imaginative, semi self-absorbed teenager whose priorities include loafing, playing video games, eating, and hanging out with his best friend Archie. Everything and everyone else can kick rocks, especially Reggie, Jughead’s historic nemesis-now-turned-frenemy. In short, Jughead has become even more Jughead-like, and part of that is due to cementing his sexuality.

Now, though, that positive step towards representation and sexual diversity has been shortchanged by “Riverdale” making Jughead kiss Betty, thereby starting a romantic, sexually-implied relationship. Now, of course, there are various types of asexuality, which does include kissing, but as a character, Jughead has never shown an inkling towards liking kissing, let alone willingly engage in it. This TV characterization of Jughead goes too far—it has begun erasing the core of what made Jughead great.

I wrote a little bit about my feelings about Jughead and Betty’s moment as a Twitter moment:

Of course, as I say in my Twitter thread, I am not asexual so while what I have to say may be well-intentioned, it certainly isn’t the end-all-be-all of opinions. Enter Jordan Crucchiola, who wrote “An Asexual’s Defense of Jughead Kissing Betty on Riverdale” for Vulture. She writes that Jughead is allowed to be a character who is still discovering his own sexuality.

An important thing to consider is that Jughead’s preferences are being reduced to whether or not he is asexual, which takes away from the nuance of the asexual spectrum, which is wide and varied. Some of the better articles discussing Jughead’s orientation point out that he might not necessarily be aromantic, even if he is asexual. I, for example, identify as a pan-romantic gray asexual. That means I’m capable of having nonsexual crushes on anyone, regardless of gender or sex, and that my asexuality isn’t written in stone. There’s that “gray” area where I’m philosophically flexible. I am not motivated by sexual desire, and have never had any sexual partners, but I do experience deep love through my friendships and have experienced many instances of “crushing” on people I take a strong liking to.

I am also a very affectionate person, and many asexual individuals appreciate, enjoy, and seek out physical feedback from others, just like gay, straight, or bi individuals do. The ultimate end game just looks different than we’ve been taught to expect in health class, on TV, and in the movies. It’s about setting the correct boundaries with people in your life who are comfortable sharing such closeness without it leading to a sexual relationship. It takes some searching for the right people, but it can be done.

Again, I’m not asexual and I highly respect Jordan’s view on this subject. With that said, though, let me just say this: Jordan states at the end of her article that she hopes that the writers are going in the direction of eventually making Jughead understand and realize his sexual orientation, and I certainly hope so as well. But the one thing that irks me the most is that while Jughead might be given the “let him find his way” scenario, Kevin, who is also in a similar boat as far as sexual representation goes, is never portrayed in that way. Kevin, on the other hand, gets the straight-up (no pun intended) confident gay teen storyline, a storyline that would have been the “let him find his way” storyline just 10 years ago or less. The fact that Kevin being gay is played as passe while Jughead’s canonical sexuality seems, at least on the surface, is ignored, is a sticking point.

Some of this is addressed in a thread by Twitter user TheShrinkette, who states in her Twitter profile that she identifies as gray aromantic asexual.

Cole Sprouse, who portrays Jughead in the series, gave his his opinion on the controversy, showing his in-depth Jughead knowledge in the process. First, according to Bleeding Cool:

I think, first and foremost, this conversation deserves more time than something that we can quickly do here. There are two forms of representation Jughead has received over time. In [Chip] Zdarsky’s Jughead, he’s asexual. That’s the only Jughead where he is asexual. He’s aromantic in the digests, which is a different thing but deserves attention as well.

But what I found when I was really diving in — because once we started putting Jughead and Betty together, I started doing research to see if that was a narrative that even existed in the digests, and it turns out it is. It’s a narrative that’s existed for a long time. There are a handful of digests in which Jughead would say things like, ‘Oh, Betty, if I did like women, I guarantee you would be the one I would marry outright. You are the best person around.’ He would say these things that are really romantic and cute with an appreciation for Betty and I think it’s become clear to me now that Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa] has taken off with that trend.

While I think that representation is needed, this Jughead is not that Jughead. This Jughead is not Zdarsky’s Jughead and this Jughead is not the aromantic Jughead,” he said. “This Jughead is a person who is looking for a kind of deeper companionship with a person like Betty and Betty ends up being this super nurturing, caring, care-taking person that with Jughead’s screwed-up past they end up diving into each other and it ends up being a beautiful thing.

How are people going to respond? Truthfully, they’re probably going to be quite incendiary about it at first. Do I think that’s ill-placed? No. Do I think they should give it a shot? Yeah, I do, because I think now — after filming thirteen episodes — it makes sense to me and, if it makes sense to me as the person who’s dumping so much time and especially so much argumentation into trying to represent Jughead correctly, if it makes sense to me, it will make sense to other people as well.

Also, here’s what he said to Glamour before the show in February:

So, the day I was cast was actually the same day he was announced as canonically asexual. It wasn’t in the digest—it was in Zadarsky’s universe, so it was in one of the newer comics that was written. But Jughead’s always been a romantic in a way that he, in the earlier comics, stayed away from girls and put his attention toward his food fetishism. So he’s always kind of had this narrative, but when I started doing my research into Jughead’s sexuality specifically there’s always been little areas where he got close enough to potentially suggest that he might like either Betty or Ethel, or even some comics where he gets kissed by Veronica. I don’t think it was really cemented in the digest too much what stance Jughead took.

I think, in this show, he’s not a romantic and not asexual. I argued in the beginning, creatively, that he should be both, but in this show, he’s kind of a tortured youth that ends up finding a comfort and a resonance with another person who’s going through a lot of trauma. They end up forming this kind of beautiful, honest union, and I think that, to me, is a narrative that works with this universe of Jughead. But I think that kind of asexual and a-romantic representation is really important. If it ends up finding a place in Riverdale and in future seasons, then hopefully we’ll do it with tact and in a way that respects what it is and how it resonates.

It should also be noted that Sprouse did fight for Jughead to be asexual and, as far as I believe—and from what his quotes suggest—is still fighting for Jughead to be asexual.

With all of this said, what do you think? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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“Incredible Girl” Provides Space for Alternate Relationships

Ready to learn about more than just the two-person relationship dynamic? If you’ve raised your hands, consider me right there along with you, because in the spirit of being well-rounded, I’m highly fascinated to see the new pilot, Incredible Girl.

The webisode is created by Celia Aurora de Blas and Teresa Jusino (whose written work you can read at The Mary Sue, where Jusino’s the Assistant Editor). The pilot focuses on a young woman who realizes the life she’s lived up until this point isn’t really who she wants to be. Enter Incredible Girl, who changes the young woman’s life forever.

INCREDIBLE GIRL is the story of Sarah, a young woman from a Southern Baptist background who’s going through a divorce – and is slowly realizing that the life she used to value no longer makes sense for her. She meets a mysterious force-of-nature known as “Incredible Girl” who shows her that the possibilities for what her life can look like are endless, and encourages her to indulge her curiosity in the world of BDSM.
Family drama, romance and  humor irreverently come together in this female-led, rite-of-passage digital series that confounds expectations about who and how you should love.
Ultimately, we’ll learn that love and passion, control and submission, pain and pleasure are just as intrinsic to religion as they are to BDSM. The body is indeed an altar, while prayer is a form of orgasm (fact: orgasm and prayer activate the same parts of the brain!).
Our goal with this series is to depict the world of BDSM in a fun, entertaining, authentic way, and to promote understanding and tolerance of those whose sexuality marks them out as “different”.

The show is a 30-minute dramedy-of-sorts, which aims to join the likes of Hulu or Amazon; in fact, if you want to compare Incredible Girl to any of the web’s current slate of shows, use Netflix’s Orange is the New Black Hulu’s Casual, or Amazon’s Transparent as your yardsticks. I’d also say that the show could possibly be a great fit for the Audience Network, who has the threesome show, You, Me, Her.  Incredible Girl doesn’t just focus on sexual diversity, but also features racial and gender diversity as well. The show is helmed by women and is a “female-centric series that explores alternative lifestyles and tells the stories of characters that are diverse racially, in their gender identification, and in body type and physical ability.” To go further, let’s look at the stats, provided by Jusino:

As of now, the show has a Latina writer, 5 of our 6 producers are female, over 50% of our production team is People of Color, and we’ve hired a trans woman as our production sound mixer. Many of our characters are of color, on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, or of different body types/physical abilities (for example, one of our major supporting characters is Cupcake Dominatrix, who is a plus-sized Latina dominatrix. We also feature kinky people who are in wheelchairs, or have other disabilities, etc)

If you need something to take the awful taste of 50 Shades of Grey out of your mouth, Incredible Girl is exactly what you need. Take a look at the short film the pilot’s inspired by, as well as the pilot pitch and teaser scenes (some images are not safe for work):

Incredible Girl has a crowdfunding campaign to raise $50,000, with the campaign ending April 13. There’s still time for you to help out and make Incredible Girl‘s spot on Amazon or Hulu a reality. (Donations are also tax deductible.)

What do you think about Incredible Girl? Give your opinions below the post! Also, follow Incredible Girl on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube.

 

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