Social Determinism Versus the Essentialism of “Cis Privilege” Theory

The politics of gender have always implicated the politics of sex. This is because one of two “gendered” social roles are assigned according to the genital “sex” of each individual’s body at birth. The politics of sex and gender are therefore inseparable by social design. This seems an obvious truth, but many people are still seduced by the idea that gender is somehow “programmed from within.” I will explain how the increasingly popular theory of “cisgender” and “cis privilege” takes advantage of our pluralistic ignorance to reinscribe a fundamentally conservative ideology of gender role essentialism.fausto-sterling SOCIAL DETERMINISM

I am fond of using the graphic above to illustrate the mechanics of social role determinism and its relationship to the presence (or absence) of a phallus at birth. The image itself is featured in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body. [i] She provides the following context:

As a teaching tool in their struggle to change the medical practice of infant genital surgery, members of the Intersexual Rights Movement have designed a ‘‘phall-o-meter’’ (shown in figure 3.4), a small ruler that depicts the permissible ranges of phallus size for males and females at birth. It provides a graphic summary of the reasoning behind the decision-making process for assigning gender.

Again, in Fausto-Sterling’s words:

Deciding whether to call a child a boy or a girl, then, employs social definitions of the essential components of gender. Such definitions, as the social psychologist Suzanne Kessler observes in her book Lessons from the Intersexed, are primarily cultural, not biological.

Medical diagnosis of “male” or “female” determines the individual’s social role as “boy” or “girl.” Culture imposes a complex set of values on our bodies, behaviors, moods, and relationships through the process of sex-based (aka “gender”) role socialization. This sex-based division of social labor is externally—not internally— enforced and dictates a very particular set of things about the form of our relationships to others. The picture of the bib below provides an example of the social script for how adult males are expected to relate to their female children, even before the child can feed herself without making a mess.

pink_daddys_little_princess_bib

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Socialization Matters: Why “Identity Libertarianism” is Failed Politics

[first published May 20, 2013 on the Liberation Collective blog]

IDENTITY VERSUS SOCIALIZATION

I want to explore what “woman” means when male-born persons can be “women” just the same as female-born persons.

Most significantly, the term “woman” must be disconnected from the socio-historic context that gives the term coherency in the first place. Without any material or experiential framework “woman’s” origin becomes irrelevant; she can be anything or nothing at all.

When male-born persons can be “women” just the same as female-born persons, the skin-deep veneer of social identity is being substituted for the complex, lifelong process of class-based socialization. This is neoliberal individualist choice-theory masquerading as the politics of liberation.

Identity-as-woman and socialization-as-woman describe very different social experiences. This should be an elementary distinction for anyone interested in the politics of sex and gender.

Identifying as a woman is a form of self-perception. It only requires consciousness of oneself as a social actor and the ability to articulate awareness of this. Identity as a woman can be claimed by anyone.[i]

Socialization as a woman, on the other hand, begins at birth and continues as a lifelong process. It seems to have no beginning and no end, almost as if it were organic or inevitable.[ii]  Socialization takes hold even before a young girl has social consciousness of her own and it operates without her consent. It is the day-by-day experience of learning and internalizing the gender-based norms, rituals, and behaviors that society demands of children born female. Socialization is experientially cumulative; the whole of socialization is greater than the sum of its parts. Aspects of this experience may be approximated, but they cannot be duplicated.

It is therefore inaccurate to insist that identity and socialization are equivalent or interchangeable. Further, deconstructing and eliminating oppression against women is impossible if we refuse to fully examine its origin, social determinants, and class-based operations. Continue reading