What we are taught about sex and gender

Until last year I did not know there was a difference between the terms sex and gender. I feel foolish to say so now, but I’m wondering how many others were just as shocked to learn the two words were not synonyms? I was in a class on how to write history and we dipped our toes into gender and feminist criticisms of historical practices. At the time I was angered by the entire interlude of feminist criticism. Why would I want to learn about feminism? What could feminism teach me about being a woman that I didn’t already know just from being alive? In my mind at the time, women were not oppressed.

When my teacher asked us to define gender and sex I was amazed at how many people were able to contribute to two very distinct definitions. I was even more amazed that two definitions was nothing like I had been taught. Gender as a performance of cultural norms and sex as biology was a new concept. I was raised with such a strong aversion to the word sex that until that moment, it had no other meaning than procreation. Gender was the neutral word my family could say and use comfortably. We never referred to sex to refer to sex organs.

I can’t be the only one who was raised this way. Although I know that it is up the parents to decide when and how they will teach their children sex education, why is there such an aversion to the word sex? If it is more accurate to describe one’s sex then why do we substitute gender?

I wonder if my education on sexuality would have been different had I known that sex was not procreation. If I had known and had been less afraid to explore what sex and gender were, I might not have grown up wondering why I didn’t like men, but that I didn’t like women either. I might not have struggled to find a word to identify myself. I might not have waited until tenth grade to become a comic book fan and buy shirts from the boys’ section. My gender and my sexuality would have been mine to explore earlier in life.

When gender and sex have the same meaning dialogue between parents and their children can never be exact and the crucial stage of questioning sexuality becomes more difficult to reach.

I do not pretend I would have been comfortable if my mom or my brother had used sex as a term for biology, but I would have learned to accept it. I would have grown accustomed to adult language and adult ideas. I would have grown up around feminist ideas whether anyone in the house knew so or not. There is no greater gift to identity than the right words to use and a no-fear attitude toward approaching sexual differences.

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The Gender of God

I understand I am getting into dangerous territory in bringing religion and spirituality into my post. I take full responsibility for anything that I say and I will try to be as unbiased as possible. For the purpose of this blog I am working from the established principle that God exists and I do not seek to prove or disprove any issue on this point.

Now as I introduce my question of God’s gender, I wish to point out that I am also in the middle of reading some gender criticisms. I know that the term gender is controversial and when I use the word gender in this blog I will be referring to masculine or feminine pronouns.

It has already been said, debated, and fought over that God has been portrayed as a man in art work and when speaking of God the terminology is always He or Him. This becomes a bit rocky when Christianity is involved and questions as Jesus was a man the masculine pronouns could have some legitimacy.  But if at all possible, take God out of religious context. There is no doctrine, no dogma, no congregations. There is you and there is your relationship to God. God can be whatever you believe God to be, in any shape, and in any form. The possibilities are yours to decide.

From this relationship with God it is possible you see God as a person, perhaps as a man, I know I do though I am trying to deconstruct this habit. Deconstruct with me.

God is depicted as a man because what do people know that will be recognizable except other humans? If God were depicted as a woman, God would be a new term, Goddess. We are limited to language and that is the greatest limitation. Because we do not know how to explain God universally we use the masculine word God and the masculine pronoun He. We bring the unexplainable to a level we can all understand: we use language. But here is where our language fails us.

Why do we think the earthly language we possess will be applicable to the Divine? Going off the notion that God is Divine and therefore wholly different from God’s creations then why do we fit God with the limiting ideas of masculinity? Does God have a gender? Would it make any difference in the overall belief in God if God were not enclosed in our language?

There is no reason for God to be a He. There is no reason for God to be a She. Both do an injustice to a Being that is, as far as we know, without sex. I know I am working from a lot of preconceived notions with this argument, but there is no easy way to bring about this discussion without presuppositions. I only hope they have not hindered my argument or lessened my credibility.

The Founding Myths of the West

The Rape of Europa (and other founding myths that explain a lot)

As both the title and subtitle say this blog is created to give a possible explanation as to why sexism is ingrained in Western Culture. Although sexism stems back much farther than Ancient Greece and Rome, these two civilizations are the foundation of Western society and so they myths, beliefs, and opinions of the prominent figures in these two cultures have shaped our own right down to the social mores that explain the general conceptions of thought.

This is not meant to be all encompassing of the universal western experience. As I am American I am writing solely of the American experience as far as I can gauge it. This is a compilation of my knowledge of Ancient History, European History, and modern sexism in the hopes of finding evidence that sexism pervades our world today because it rooted in the framework on which we base our ideas. Sexism is not innate; it is taught.

I’m taking a European History class this semester, and the first assignments were to read ‘The Rape of Europa’ by Ovid, understand the myth of the Sabine Women, and read  ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ by Livy.

One of many paintings, although one of few where she is fully clothed.

To start with the myth of the founding of Europe, Europa was picking flowers with the nymphs when Zeus fell in love with her. He transformed himself into a bull and when she was comfortable that the bull would not attack her, he led her into the ocean on his back and swam to Crete. Once there revealed himself as a God and  raped her, or seduced her, or had intercourse with her, depending on which translation you read and what you can surmise from Greek culture and the Greek language. She became a Queen of Crete and had multiple sons. Europa’s side of the story is barely considered. She is only described as beautiful, virginal, and afraid.

On to the Sabine Women then and the myth of the founding of the city of Rome. Unlike the story of Romulus and Remus, this is a lesser known tale. Led by Romulus, the Romans established themselves as a city, but had no wives to marry. There was a neighboring tribe called the Sabines and the Romans asked that the men give up their daughters in marriage. The men refuse. To retaliate the Romans hold a festival and when the Sabines attend, kidnap the women. The Romans defend themselves to their distraught captives: you’ll be our wives, not our whores. think of your status. think of joining our families.  The women agree to be married. Their fathers do not.

A war is started over the kidnapped women and it is up to the women to bring peace. The women of the tale act as mediators between their fathers and their now-husbands. Peace is achieved where the women are the property of their Roman spouses. This myth also focuses on violence against women and the purity they possess to control men’s wicked desires.

In the Rape of Lucretia by the Roman Livy, the story is bit different than the previous ones, but ultimately holds the same messages. Rome is still a monarchy and the noblemen of the time are unhappy with the monarchic rule. There is a beautiful, chaste woman named Lucretia,  who is of the utmost in womanly virtues and is  married to a nobleman. Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the King, lusted after her and wanted to hurt her for her perfection and loyalty.

Tarquinius comes to Lucretia’s house as a guest when her husband is away. When everyone is asleep, Tarquinius comes to her bed chambers and with a knife to her throat tells her of his intentions and his lust. She rejects him. It is only when he threatens to disgrace her by killing her and killing a slave and laying the slave’s body next to hers, that she relents.

She immediately calls upon her father and her husband. She relates her rape and calls upon them as men to act in her defense. They swear to do so and then Lucretia kills herself. In an effort to be a role model for Roman woman to be chaste in all matters she stabs herself in the chest. Her male relatives carry her body through the streets-the male sphere of Roman society. The rape of Lucretia is an attack against the honor of all the men of the city and their families. As such, they rise up and form the Roman Republic. Again we see violence against women as the major theme, the significance of men to move society forward even if it is through a woman that it is achieved.

All three stories are foundation myths, showing what the Greeks and the Romans thought of themselves and their societies. Aside from being written or told by men, the androcentricism permeates further. The basis of Europe, because western society is founded on Rome and Rome is heavily influenced by Greece, is grounded in the suppression of women and the exploitation of women’s sexuality. The men are the actors in these myths, the women are acted upon. They are passive and so since the 8th Century BCE (approximately the first mention of the Rape of Europa) and more than likely long before that as well, women have been depicted as inferior.

Is it surprising then that sexism is so prominent in western society and America specifically?

But the point can be made that no one believes in these myths anymore. No one believes in Zeus, and no one can prove the Sabine tale or the tale of Lucretia. Yes, but when Poland was entering into the EU, they had a painting commissioned of the Rape of Europa to prove that Eastern Europe was just as European. These myths hold standing today even if they are not believed word for word. In this way, sexism is not innate. Women are not born inferior; we are taught that we are inferior because the foundations of male superiority and female oppression are the very foundations of western civilization.

Rape Culture

If you haven’t heard the term before, let it shock you. I was shocked. I still am shocked. But we live in rape culture. Because as women we are constantly fearing rape or being told to fear rape or strange men we live in a society where rape is condoned. It is the woman’s fault: she was drunk. she was dressed like a slut. she was asking for it. the man couldn’t help himself.

I am always ashamed to admit it, but being raped is my biggest fear. Rape is not something I can dismiss as an implausible fear. I know it is all too real. Rape is accepted as a natural occurrence and for this reason since I learned about sex I have not been able to walk somewhere alone without fearing rape.

This is not okay.

If I am up on a soapbox for a moment I apologize, but women should not need to live in fear or even told to live in fear because it is just another form of subjugation.

I was walking to the food store talking on the phone to my mother and when I told her I what I was doing the first thing she asked was if I was alone. I said yes and that I would hopefully be back before dark. My mother told me that if it gets dark I should not walk back but call one of my friends on campus to give me a ride. I wouldn’t do this. I would rather walk back in the dark, but I would be afraid.

I hate this fear.

I do not want to fear doing every day errands just because rape is an accepted norm that cannot be stopped. I do not want to live in fear.

Please, even if you never experience what I’m saying, have empathy. Use that empathy to educate people about rape and proper sex education. Use that empathy to stop slut shaming, volunteer at a rape crisis center, participate in slut walks and be part of the movement for equality. You deserve to walk down the street without being afraid. And remember, rapists are always the cause of rape.

Fantasy and Gender Equality

I grew up on Tolkien. My mother has been a fan of Lord of the Rings since high school and I was raised on a healthy diet of Middle Earth and never really questioned the lack of female characters. It was the male characters I cared about. The friendship between Aragorn and Legolas I understood, the beauty of the moments between Frodo and Sam I loved, but I didn’t see the purpose of Arwen, and though Eowyn is a joy to read and watch I never felt I could connect to her nature. I never loved her as a character. It has always been the male characters who were the ones I related to, and generally that is still the truth.

But, as much as I would love for this blog to just be about Tolkien and the amazing world he created, I want to talk less about gender disparity in Lord of the Rings and more about a lesser known fantasy series I came across over the summer. Now, I had pretty  much given up on Fantasy. After Lord of the Rings it’s difficult to be impressed because you see imitations everywhere. I had gotten sick of the hero-on-a-magic-quest series, or worse, the strong-female-lead-on-a-magic-quest-who-stops-being-strong-when-romance-is-involved. Romance is always involved.

As such, it was a breath of fresh, though slightly disturbing, air to read Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series.

Melusine is the first novel, followed by The Virtu, The Mirador, and Corambis. For the purposes of this blog I’ll be focusing mainly on Melusine. The story is heavily character driven with the two main characters, Felix and Mildmay, sharing first person narration that alternates with each section. Surprisingly enough this is never confusing because the two speakers could not be more different in their voices. Felix is a wizard in the city of Melusine, but before he gained this status, he was a child prostitute bought by a man named Malkar who, in an abusive (to put it mildly) relationship, trains Felix to be a gentleman. Mildmay is a kept-thief and ex-assassin turned cat burglar, who lives in the Lower City of Melusine and lives off the money from his crimes.

The plot begins when Felix goes back to his former lover and master Malkar who rapes him and uses Felix’s magic to break the Virtu, the orb that holds and channels all the magic of the wizards in the city.

So what does this have to do with feminism? On the surface, nothing. The two main characters are both men and there are few female characters to be found. Yet although this might seem like a androcentric novel it does more for gender equality than I have seen in almost any fantasy series.

To start with, Felix is gay. The brilliance of this move is that his relationships are never sensationalized because he is with a man, and his sexuality is treated as being perfectly normal. This is helpful for feminism because gay men are given ‘female’ status and ‘female’ characteristics contributes to the notion that being a woman is a terrible thing. If you are a woman it means you are not a man and therefore you are less. By treating Felix and his relationships as as normal as Mildmay’s, who’s straight, Sarah Monette promotes equality between the sexes.

She continues to subvert tropes of male and female stereotypes with her use of abusive relationships and conceptions of rape. In Mildmay’s case, he grows up a kept-thief (a child owned by a Keeper who uses the children to scavenge around the city making or stealing money) under a female Keeper who sexually abuses him when he is in his teens. In Monette’s world rape is not always male on female, but is just as damaging if it female on male (Mildmay) or male on male (Felix). The trauma of these experiences follow the characters throughout the series because rape is rape no matter who the rapist or the victim is.

Perhaps the biggest stereotype that is debunked is that men cannot be emotional. The story is told from the first person point of view of two men and though they often deny what they are feeling in dialogue, there can be no mistake that they do, in fact, have emotions and these emotions are never played for laughs. Both Felix and Mildmay go through harrowing circumstances, both before the story begins and throughout their journeys. Their emotions are never ‘feminized’ even by other men in the story.

And there are a lot of men to keep track of. As I mentioned before, there are still few female characters but the ones who play a role are never stereotypes. The main female character is Mehitabel Parr, an actress with a shady past who comes into the story in The Virtu and plays a major role in The Mirador. Though she has a relationship with Mildmay it is understood that though she sleeps with him it is because she thinks he would enjoy it and that she might as well. She is the I-take-no-bullshit-from-anyone type of woman who, when she gets her own passages of first person narration in The Mirador, is shown to be just as complex as she seemed when Mildmay or Felix would describe her in The Virtu. She was well rounded, and though she had sex, it was not her defining characteristic. In fact,it is refreshing that she had sex because she wanted to and owned her sexuality.

The other female character is Corbie, introduced in Corambis. She is a prostitute who wants to be a wizard, but has no training. It does not help that the Wizarding schools in Corambis are sexist and will barely admit her once Felix becomes her teacher and she shows an aptitude. Her learning is the focus not her prostitution. This is also the only time in the series where sexism is directly addressed and though it is addressed overtly I think it is for the best. In order to position Corbie’s character so her arc was on her learning to be a wizard she had to overcome the sexist institutions that were keeping her uneducated, in poverty, and in prostitution. She fought the patriarchy to a certain extent and this did not need to be subtle.

Subtlety is when Sarah Monette creates two male characters in a world dominated by men in power, and still creates a series that promotes gender equality. If you get a chance read the series. I had a difficult time at first, because there is graphic sex and multiple graphic rape scenes. If you are interested in new ways to weave feminism into fiction though, stick with it, the characterization is great and no matter how graphic and disturbing it might be, every scene serves a  purpose. Read it for the characters and read it for what it does to promote equality.