This is part 3 of a 4 part series, see the previous two parts below.
This is part 3 of my series of posts discussing art and sexuality. The first part is mostly a prologue, or a preamble, explaining why these came about and how they’ll break down. Last time I laid out the way I view art and the terminology I’ll use to discuss that world. This time I’m going to talk about the sex side of things, and likewise establish some vocabulary so we can have a concise post after this free of the muddiness that usually darkens posts trying to talk about this stuff.
So let’s get going here.
The first thing I think is important to discuss when talking sex and sexuality is the difference between sex and gender. Both get used pretty sloppily in society as a whole, and as such it’s hard to use them in a way where the meaning you meant is the one people assume you did. Part of the confusion is that gender and sex are often treated as interchangeable, an unfortunate side-effect of a very narrow-minded history of usage. Sex is pretty straight forward, and refers to one’s primary genetic sex– traditionally male or female, although there’s also intersex and a few other rarer genetic expressions that muddy up that particular pool. Gender means “kind,” and so gets applied to sex as different genders, but the most common way it’s used in language is literally in language, to refer to the “masculinity” or “femininity” of a word, an idea tracing all the way back to Aristotle. Gender is then, actually, the way we talk about the differences between the sexes.
So, for the next article, and in my own use, this is how it breaks down:
- Sex: Is the primary genetic expression of a person. Either that, or the interaction between them, when used as a verb.
- Gender: Is the way a person identifies themselves. This is an important distinction to be able to make once issues like transgender and transvestite enter into things. Just because you’re swinging dick doesn’t mean you identify as “masculine.” Nor does it mean you should have to, because gender is, put softly, fucked up.
I’m going to make a pretty assertive set of statements now. One is that there is in fact a difference between males and females. or rather, several. And they all come down to genetic expression and hormones. If you don’t believe men and women are different, all you need to do is take off their pants.
That’s where differences should stop. It’s unfortunate that they don’t, and that’s where our use of gender steps in. Between historical, anthropological, and societal differences and expectations of people based on what sexual phenotype they exhibit, we have a set of preconceptions about what makes a person “a man” or a “woman.” But, within every society, these gender roles and expectations will exist to varying degrees, and will frequently impact any discussion about sex and its application and purpose. Sexism is the big term bandied about, but I’d say genderism is a term we should also be aware of, as the pressure to conform to narrow gender roles is probably damaging our society more than sexism itself. Speaking of sexism, though, let’s move on to the next part of this discussion.
Talking about sex in our society even beyond sex versus gender has some problems, because we use one term indiscriminately for three separate ideas. Namely, who we address our own desires and impulses regarding sexual intercourse and our comfort with those, how we are treated based on our apparent sex type, and how we as a society treat the idea of sexual attraction. For convenience, let’s break these ideas down like into these three terms:
- Sexuality is how we identify our urges, how we act upon them, and how comfortable we are acknowledging them and accepting them.
- Sexism is a type of discrimination based on preconceptions about what people with different sexual attributes roles are in society.
- Sexualism is how society pushes for and address sexual attraction as a necessary, or at least important, force.
“Untitled #38″ by Bill Hendersen
So, for example, if you’re complain about sex in relation to the work of Australian photographer Bill Hensen, you’re probably talking about sexualism. Because he’s shooting nude photographs of pubescent individuals. If you’ve read much about Hensen, how he gets permission from the custodians as well as the models, how they’re all on set together, and how what he’s exploring is that awkward transition from a non-sexual person into sexual beings, you’d know that the truth is his work speaks out about sexuality, not sexualism. I’ll go into more next post when we talk about how all three aspects of sex and their bastard cousin gender affect art, and how we should address them, but this is a pretty notorious example of where the language to adequately discuss these thoughts is typically broken down.
Before we wrap up this segment, though, I need to get a few things out of the way. Sex and gender are complicated issues, and they overlap and feed into each other a lot. And worst still, we’ve arrived where we have for a variety of reasons. Some you can almost wrap your head around (the statistical likelihood of a man being larger or stronger making them more historically preferred for combat, for example), some much less so (religiously established patriarchies come to mind). It’s not a subject you can be impartial on. I’ll try to give things a fair shake when I can, but I’m going to declare my biases here and now so you can expect them:
I think gender roles suck. I’m generally considered an effeminate guy for a variety of reasons, including my penchant for suits, how I wear rings, that I don’t trim my nails short, etc… Even intellectuals who should really know better will sometimes joke about me being “a girl,” which really helps show that the notion of gender is so ingrained in us we’re often unaware of it. That’s dangerous. And, it’s increasingly affecting both genders as more and more men want to break away from this backwards notion of being emotionally distant, liking cars and contact sports, and all the other baggage that makes a person “a man.”
I think the Women’s Flat Track Association has currently proposed the most fair definition of sex and gender I’ve heard yet when they defined what counts as a “woman” for the ladies’ roller derby. The breakdown? If you identify and live as a woman, and have hormone levels a medical provider is willing to say fall within medically acceptable for that identification, you’re a woman. Same if you’re a man. I’m going to go one step further: if you’re intersex or otherwise compelled to not identify with other, preferring to be neuter, go for it. Gender identification is a big ball of complication that just gets in the way of us all just being folk and having to decide what we think of each other based on who we actually are.
Such things are apparently dangerous.
If the only reason you think genders need to be treated differently is because a holy book told you so, I will despise you. If you claim to be Christian and still believe that, I’ll despise you twice for mixing up Old Testament ideaologies with the much more progressive teachings of the New Testament just because they serve your confirmation bias.
Also, be aware I do identify as a feminist. I also identify with and advocate men’s rights. I do this because the goal of both are to make sure that regardless of your genetic junk, everyone gets treated the same. They both have their failings. It’s not hard to find examples of hard feminism where to restore power to women men become victimized (my mom cheers for the protagonist in Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” I side with Glenn Sacks’ assessment that if you can flip the genders and become outraged, it’s not feminism.) That said, men’s rights aren’t princes either, and if I see one more poorly argued stance against raped laws because of the possibility the girl might be lying (something which should never be assumed, given the nature of that form of crime and how it affects the victims and their psyche), I’m going to scream. But, in theory, both want to create a truly level playing field, so I believe in both. Women have a worst time with sexism, but I’d both sexes are now truly under attack by genderism, especially as its wielded in commercial material.
And that’s exactly what next post is about. See you then.