The conception of 'sex' and 'gender' as background to inequities faced by women.

Author:Babatunde, Ekundayo B.


Why are women disadvantaged than men? What are the structures in our societies that influence the position of women within the public sphere and private domain? Has inequities been reduced in recent years? What difference, if any? Is it useful to talk about femininity in African context? These and many more questions pervade the empirical and non-empirical literature of women and generate debates among recent scholars working in the fields of gender, sexuality, politics, health issues and other social discourses on women's position in nearly all societies and particularly in African society.

This paper is not an attempt to provide answers to the above questions or aim at reflecting on the various barriers or social problems faced by women. For in doing so, one would only be adding to the stream of frustrations that women continue to voice. Rather what appeared significant to this paper is the background to the problem. That is, what led to the inequities or how society reinforces the frustrations raised by women and those who advocate for women? Therefore, in the following paragraphs, this paper examines the construction of sex/gender in more detail, by reviewing the various social constructionist theorists particularly the feminist perspectives and those opposing arguments from the biological determinist point of view.

Sex and Gender: Socially and Culturally Constructed

In the field of social science, 'sex' has remained an essentially contested term. Generally, it is used as part of everyday language to identify maleness or femaleness, depending on an individual's biological features. It can also be used to describe the 'sex act' such as intercourse, oral sex and anal sex.

However, over the past decades, the concept that it denotes has sparked a widespread debate among those in anthropology and sociology, particularly among feminist scholars, who have devoted their attention to analysing and conceptualising it. While some theorists have assumed that sex is fixed by nature and often produces gender (Stoller, 1968; Archer, 1992; Harraway, 1996; Hood-Williams, 1996; Scott, 1999), other theorists, particularly within feminist studies (such as Butler, 1990; Gatens, 1996; Butler, 1999; Antony, 1998; Hird, 2004) have overwhelmingly argued that sex is not determined by biology but is rather produced socially and culturally. For instance, Harraway (1996) conceptualizes sex as inevitable and destined. Similarly for Stoller (1968), sex is a biological foundation that distinguishes males from females. On the other hand, West et al., (1991:14) suggest that sex is a matter of "socially agreed upon biological criteria for classifying persons as females or males", also for Butler (1993:2), it is "the norm by which 'one' becomes viable at all". In the same vein, Hird (2004) disputes the immutable nature often attributed to sex, arguing that it is through social discourse that sexual differences are inscribed on the material body and that sex, like gender, is indeed socially constructed.

Such disparity of views prompts the question of what accounts for the contested understanding of the concept of sex. One explanation emerging from feminist writings is that the conventional understanding of sex often rests on the expected behaviours or assigned roles of men and women in all areas of social life (Sherfey, 1972; Acker, 1990; Lorber, 1994; Holland et al., 1998; Curthoys, 2000). In addition, in nearly all societies, sexually differentiated roles are generally constructed in accordance with the meaning attributed to 'maleness' and 'femaleness'. Such meanings are related to a broad range of concepts: gender, sexual identity, desires or attraction and the cultural understanding of these notions (see Acker, 1992; Connell, 1995; Stone, 2007).

In the same vein, scholars have also written much about the concept of gender to explain its development. According to West et al., (1991:14), gender is "the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one's sex category". As de Beauvoir (1973:301) agues "one is not born a woman, but, rather becomes one". Importantly, gender is seen as existing in all societies in a "systematically unequal way" (Curthoys, 2000:24). As this essay discusses shortly, a certain sex is associated with particular gender roles: culturally learned and expected behaviours, traits and attitudes (Connell, 2002). Thus, this essay supports the argument that both sex and gender entail social and cultural processes that determine or differentiate between females' and males' patterns of behaviour as well as their social status (gender roles).

The notion of sex as a characteristic of individuals or as biological category with no social or cultural dimension is a widespread position which has been developed over time. Many theorists including some radical feminists have based their augments on the idea of biological-determinist approach which specifies two sex roles in any cultural context, always in the form of male and female, and gender differences which position men and women as inherently different (Thompson and Geddes, cited in Shields, 1982; Fraser and Nicholson, 1990; Coltrane, 1994). Importantly, biological determinist approach conceptualizes sex-differentiated roles not only as 'naturally given' but also as largely unchangeable (Coltrane, 1994; Brandser, 1996). In this context, biological-determinist theories of sex take certain attributes to arise from individual biological makeup or nature.

By contrast, some feminists (especially those influenced by the post-structuralist theorists) have consistently challenged the premise that sex is determined by biology or innate while at the same time, have also taken issue with the view that sex predetermines gender (Butler, 1990). In the following paragraphs, I will sketch out some important contributions to the theorisations of sex and gender (advocated by the biological-determinist perspective), taking the work of Geddes and Thompson in the late 18th century as a starting point.

Geddes and Thompson (1889 cited in Shields, 1982) conceptualize sex in terms of biological male and female sexes. This led to their view of certain social, psychological and behavioural manifestations of gender identity as resulting from the biological nature of the different sexes, known as the 'metabolic state'. This biological explanation suggests that men are inherently being 'ketabolic' and women as 'anabolic'.

These different biological terms describe both sexes with different biological conditions. In this context, the male sex is viewed as naturally endowed with certain gender qualities including assertiveness, independence, confidence, activeness, aggressiveness, enterprise, impersonality and recklessness. On the other hand, the female sex is conceived as inherently constituted to reflect the opposite qualities, such as passivity, submissiveness, emotion, caring, gentleness, warmth, sensitivity, receptiveness, expressiveness and biological economy (Thompson and Geddes, cited in Shields, 1982; Osland et al., 1998).

In terms of division of labour between men and women or social relations within the societal structure, the biological explanations often rely on physiology, psychology and medicine to argue that the differences between men's and women's reproductive systems and capacities mean that women are biologically suited to bearing and raising children and to engaging in household chores, while men are biologically suited to working and providing material support for their families (Connell, 2002). As Pringle (1980:5) puts it, "it may be well that because only women can conceive and bear children, they have developed a greater capacity for nurturing and caring which has then been further enhanced by the traditional division of labour between the sexes". This echoes the earlier discussion of the meanings attributed to sex, which signifies it as the biological foundation of the distinction between male and female (Stoller, 1968), as a destiny, as innate, or as unchangeable biological function (Harraway, 1996).

Another important argument of the determinist perspective is that human society is understood as developing first from the primal division between the sexes, with the inevitable attraction between male and female then...

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