With growing concerns about feminist movements and LGBTQA+ rights, ideas about gender mobility, binaries, classification, and spaces have become a hot topic of discussion. New ideas are being formed while older ones are being challenged. In a culture where gender and sexuality are still taboo topics, body-rights less concerned about, and the lens of gender almost never put on to analyze policies, the magnitude of discrimination is large.
The popular idea that exists about ‘sex’ and ‘gender’- ‘sex’ is biologically determined while ‘gender’ is a social construction – needs to be challenged. A closer inspection suggests that ‘biological sex’ is as strong a social construction as gender is. The ‘definitions’, ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘language’ used as tools of sex determination arises from society. The binaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’ based on the chromosome are as arbitrary as anything. Most of us, in fact, are ignorant of our chromosome structure. The doctor certifies the biological sex not on the basis of chromosome structure or ‘genotype’ but on the basis of sex organs or ‘phenotypes’. These are again classified as ‘male’ and ‘female’ on the basis of popular social norms. This is how society begins to construct ‘biological sex’.
Intersex and transgender persons challenge the convention of using chromosomes as determinants of ‘biological sex’. An androgen-insensitive person with XY chromosome developing a vagina and clitoris presents us the question of whether should we label the person as ‘male’. Similarly, how should we classify a person who began life as a female and developed into ‘male’ (Crapo, 1985)? How important are phenotypes in classification? Even on using genotypes, what should we label a 47XXY person? Present medical journals call them ‘disordered’, but what guarantees that they aren’t just a minority? Why is every statistical ‘average’ deemed normal and every ‘outlier’ deemed ‘disordered’?
According to Judith Butler, the sex versus gender distinction founders as sex is replaced by the social meaning it takes in a given culture. There is no ‘self’ preceding or outside the ‘gendered self’. The strict line of classification used normalizes ‘procreation’ as the essential feature of being human—a view of the ‘essentialist’ school of philosophy. On the contrary, Hull in his paper “On Human Nature” suggests that at least folk biology doesn’t give us any set of such necessary conditions. Even the number of chromosomes is not deemed necessary for being a human! The presence of non-heteronormative relationships and queerness in humans and the animal kingdom suggest that there is almost no need for a strict binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’ even in scientific studies. If we are comfortable enough using the phenotypic features ‘genitals’ as the only manifestations of ‘genotypes’ for classification, why not use other phenotypes to draw a line, such as eye colour? Why not black eyes versus everything else, instead?
We see gender all around us. Languages are gendered and words elicit gendered images in our mind. Think of ‘drivers’- male, isn’t it? Think of ‘prostitute’- female, isn’t it? We have even gendered the gender. We are taught to walk and talk in conventional terms, smoke in a conventional way and curse in a conventional way. It is no wonder how ‘effeminate’ men are condemned. ‘Masculine’ is a symbol of pride while ‘feminine’ seems a symbol of shame. ‘Masculinity’ protects ‘femininity’ by conventional standards. Even the slangs we use are gender-biased.
The conventional images have a far-reaching impact, from individual behavior to policy making. How gender sensitive are our agricultural policies? How correct are we in teaching our kids ‘man’ is the antonym of ‘woman’ with nothing between them? The idea of ‘macho’ men often implies sexual violence is expected rather than condemned (IIkkaracan and Jolly, 2007). There are few initiatives ever taken to analyze policy decisions through the gender lens.
In a recent workshop which I attended, one of my co-participants highlighted the significant issue of ‘toilets’. ‘Toilets’ exist is binaries – ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’. But in doing so are we not condemning a large part of our transgender and queer population from using this basic facility? Why can’t there exist a ‘gender neutral’ toilet as well? These issues have a far-reaching impact, from psychological well-being to economic efficiency.
The gender problem and heteronormativity feature largely in literature, too. Few books ever written violate the idea of ‘conventional men’ and ‘conventional women’! Lead characters are mostly macho men in the rescue of not-so-macho heroines. Even the most ‘powerful’ women characters are devoted to the service of their husbands in classical Indian literature and there is almost an absence of gender role reversals.
In dramas and films there is rarely a departure from heteronormativity and gender norms. It is always the male character taking lead in everything, from sexual acts to offering cigarettes. Transgender and queer people are often trivialized or reduced into comic roles. From memes to slangs, microaggressions directed towards people breaking gender norms can make their lived experience traumatic.
Any discussion on gender remains incomplete without dwelling on ‘sexuality’. WHO in 2004 gave a very broad definition of sexuality: “Sexuality is a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced and expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors. Still one of the biggest taboos in India, sexual health is not discussed, problems are not spoken of, and sexual harassment normalized. One of the most natural and pleasurable acts of humankind is put under the cover because of social stigma. Sex should always remain within the charmed cycle proposed by Gayle Rubin. In whatever little sex education we receive, we are taught how dangerous the act is. Sex is the harbinger of unwanted pregnancy, STDs, and shame! From our debate about #MeToo to #WeConsented we forget to teach our kids that sex is about pleasure too. It can be one of the purest and most beautiful acts of love and for many people it is one of the primary biological needs (or wants?).
With growing instances of paedophilia, it is more important for us to teach students about sex and body rights at an early stage. The differentiation between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ needs to be discussed with our kids more frequently. How many of our colleges and schools have laid down guidelines regarding sexual harassment of students and has a functional committee to take care of the complaints? Do we ever care whether an infant wants to be touched or not by a stranger? Many of our affectionate acts towards kids have sexual connotations – blatant but ignored! If you want to start respecting body rights start it by respecting the rights of a newborn kid.
Speaking of body rights, another issue comes to my mind. Who has the right over our bodies? The natural answer is ‘self-determination’. But from getting a tattoo or haircut to the way we express our sexuality and gender we are constrained. Society’s norms are not easily broken. In a heteronormative world, how many of us can guarantee that we truly have realized our sexual preferences? Who knows what kind of relationships one would like when all one can explore freely is a heteronormative relationship while everything else remains unexplored? The act on transgender people by the government proposes to makes gender identity not an act of self-determination but the determining by a committee. It is strange that while cisgender persons do not need to prove anything, we make transgender people stand in front of a committee to determine their gender. The draconian Section 377 criminalizes any sexual act ‘against the law of nature’. Though what the law of nature is remains debatable. By its popular interpretation, any non-procreative sexual act. Take for example oral sex in heteronormative relationships. It would be punishable under this law! The Right to Privacyact sounds nice on paper, but until you can exercise such rights over your sexuality and body, it shall continue to sound nice only on paper.
In our marital-rape-normalized world it is often forgotten that sex should be consensual. An affirmative ‘yes’ should precede a sexual act, any absence of it should be deemed a crime. In case of any sexual harassment, the right question to ask is whether the act was followed by an affirmative ‘yes’ and not whether it stopped after the first ‘no’. A famous analogy states that whenever we feel a person would like a tea we offer him the tea and simply not push the cup into his mouth waiting for the first ‘no’. In a male-dominated world, such basics are often forgotten. It is often a wonder that how even in the literature produced by the most talented individuals of our species the affirmative ‘yes’ is more or less absent or invisible!
Sex work is another area I would like to focus on. The social stigma attached to it is immense. While it is true that many sex workers were forced into or compelled to be in the profession, we cannot deny the presence of few people who chose it. In the question about the right to bodies, why should anyone not have the right to use their body for sex work if they want to? We are largely ignorant of the laws about ‘prostitution’ that exists in this country. There are some NGOs operating to look after the welfare of sex workers, and recently the Usha cooperative was opened at Sonagachi. However, any idea of sex worker is a given prototype of a ‘female’. We do not know who looks after the welfare of male sex workers. What laws protect them? Is there even any recognition given to them?
From sitting for an interview in a job to working behind the desk in an office, gender and sexuality surround us. We are all concerned about the rising crime rates against women. But we rarely speak about sexual offenses against men, transgender people, gays men, lesbian women, bisexual and other queer people. In a world of denial, we are surrounded by gender and sexuality. It is beyond the scope of any single article to discuss the issue at large. To understand the issue best is to ask in this huge spectrum – Where do I stand? And, where are you standing?