Differences Between Men and Women are Perceived

I have considered myself a feminist since discovering five years ago the intersection between war and gender-based violence. I subsequently joined Feminism Without Borders at the University of Maryland, the Men of Strength Club as a campus organizer, and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) as a crisis counselor. I am currently one of only a handful of male volunteers with the DC Rape Crisis Center.

Given my background I am taking it upon myself to correct a basic assumption behind virtually every news story or opinion piece involving gender in the mainstream press. I think it is time for the mainstream to come to terms with what many gender-ambiguous, transgendered, and intersex folks have known all along: There is no static gender binary, and to adhere to this fantasy is to defend the oppressive status quo.

I state this not merely to challenge those who strongly identify as either a man or a woman but to liberate us all from the shackles of dichotomous, either/or thinking. I, for one, hate it when someone assumes that I, as a male, am capable of carrying heavy objects and overlooks the equally or more capable woman standing next to me. This is a relatively small matter, but it’s not hard to see the injustice of basing the quality of performance on perceived gender. How many perceived women end up being dancers or seamstresses when they would prefer to be fire fighters or construction workers? How many perceived men, like myself, have been made fun of for being sensitive, expressive, poetic, and not overly strong or athletic?

A recent and glaring example of the mainstream’s assumptions about gender is this critique of the “Slutwalk” movement, which is planning a major action in Washington, D.C., next month. Does sexual freedom need to be enshrined as a women’s issue in order to be won, or can it be completely decoupled from gender?

Whether social conservatives like it or not, we are all composed of various traits associated with both the traditional masculine and the traditional feminine. By traditional I mean traditionally Western — a crucial distinction because as the great anthropologist Margaret Mead illustrates in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, masculinity and femininity are entirely culturally and socially constructed. In other words, a white American suburban man does not conform to (or rebel against) the same standards of masculinity that his Australian Aboriginal brother does. They both have a penis, of course, but we are not talking about sex (biological differences) but a social construction akin to race that we call gender.

By stringently observing the gender binary as if it were natural or scientific, one is continuing the oppressive status quo, even if one claims to support the “victim.” In the case of some feminists, it is not revolutionary or even helpful, in my opinion, to associate all things “female” with victimhood and all things “male” with violence and oppression (or to do exactly the opposite, as so-called men’s rights groups often attempt). This approach addresses some of the symptoms but not the disease.

I believe the disease is the gender dichotomy itself and the use of gender to wield power. People of all genders are capable of wielding power through gender — although some far more than others due to the established system of patriarchy — and, therefore, people of all genders are desperately needed to deconstruct, undermine, and (one day) abolish the gender dichotomy that keeps everyone in their socially constructed place.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons