The ‘Sex' and ‘Gender' Distinction

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  • Topic: Gender, Sexual dimorphism, Gender studies
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  • Published : June 5, 2005
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This essay got an A- in a first year gender studies course

The ‘Sex' and ‘Gender' Distinction

For centuries, women have been subject to having their competence scrutinised, their mental processes challenged, their abilities questioned in western civilisation. In this essay, I will begin by giving some historical perspective to the scrutiny of women as it is important to know how it came to be that women have been seen as lower status when compared to men, eg. the ‘weaker' sex. Then discussion will focus on how grounds for and the implications of this history led to the necessary attempt at making a distinction by second wave feminists in the 1970's between the concepts of ‘sex' (or nature) and ‘gender' (or nurture) as they were known and used in the debate of human characteristics. Lastly, the focus will turn to how as influential as it was thought to be, as time passed there have been several problematic areas for this distinction.

Leading up to the line of distinction
Prior to the 18th century, women and men were not thought to be biologically different. Thomas Laquer noted that genitalia were seen to be structurally the same, just a matter of whether it was all inside or outside of the body. But, because men were the writers of historical documents, we have little knowledge of what women thought about the world. The absence of their voices may have assisted in leading to the one-sided argument, which helped form the one-sided power structure between males and females. Michael Foucault supposes it was in the late 17th century that that the beginnings of dichotomised views of the sexes were implemented. During the plague, reorganisation of cities into of sick and healthy, able and disabled, moral and nonmoral, was mandated to protect the wellbeing of the unaffected population. (General Introduction to Theories, Postfeminism p. 94) This led to science and medical arenas taking dichotomy into shape that would eventually spread into broad categorisations and generalisations of individuals according to sex and later to race and even somewhat into religious sects. Fears about class and empire were rocked when women began to question loudly the attitudes towards themselves and other victims of the ‘knowledge' of science. Values such as ‘equality, fraternity and liberty' of the enlightenment era brought about an uprising to many issues including women's rights, social class and race as well. (General Introduction to Theories) The power struggles that apply to gender are not new. Power has it's application throughout much of history as various groups in the name of ‘colonialization' have taken up most of the world leaving native people and the land on which they lived raped and forever changed. Also applied, it has been used in conjunction with badly misused science, medicine and statistics against our very own. (Sex on the Brain, p. 261, Deceptive Distinctions, p. 35, Statistics for Psychology, p. 178) By the 19th century, however, norms had continued to set in place and were consistently enforced through assigned roles and public ceremonies and a sort of peer pressure and peer monitoring. Female-bodied persons were stereotyped to be passive and male-bodied aggressive. Coupled with a long list of other characteristics, femininity and masculinity began to take their opposite corners. Settling in to become all so seemingly natural. (General Introduction to Theories) Once these sort of pervasive patterns and agendas set into society, language in the form of terminology and phrases begins to assist in perpetuating the rumours and beliefs. Stereotypes and generalisations seem easily allowed to run rampant somehow in a society. What does seem to be natural to the human race is desire to conform and be accepted by our peers…the wish to be ‘normal'. In following through with the theme of dichotomy, public and private spheres, along with normal and non-normative, were taking place. As it had already become, women worked...
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