Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gender Fluidity and the End of Gender

There are two pieces out this weekend that I found fascinating, both having to do with the concept of gender.

The USA Today headline for an article by Sharon Jayson says, Gender Loses its Impact with the Young. I have long appreciated articles by Jayson for capturing and describing current trends. She describes how beliefs of the up-and-coming generations regarding gender have changed when contrasted with past generations—in fact, even the perceived usefulness of the construct of gender is being rejected.

Jayson sites work done by a consumer analysts, The Intelligence Group, and quotes Jamie Gutfreund, the chief strategy officer for that group: “gender is less of a definer of identity today than it was for prior generations. Rather than adhering to traditional gender roles, young people are interpreting what gender means to them personally." This captures the beliefs many emerging adults have for how they wish things might be, and change in this direction are undeniable. To some large degree, people growing up now do and will have levels of flexibility and fluidity around gender and roles that were unimaginable in earlier generations. You can think that good or bad or just complicated, but it’s happening.

While not related in essential themes, there is also a piece out today by Harvey Mansfield that I think has an interesting overlap with Jayson’s piece. Mansfield’s piece is in The Weekly Standard, and entitled Feminism and Its Discontents. Whereas Jayson’s piece describes growing trends in preferences among young people, Mansfield’s piece is more deeply analytical and focuses on complex questions raised from the recent—nearly as tedious as tendentious—discussions about “rape culture.” His piece caught my eye because of one line in particular.

“The hook-up culture denounced by conservatives is the very same rape culture denounced by feminists.”

Mansfield has a history of being provocative on a range of subjects. In fact, maybe you already have a viewpoint on his work. If you do, set that aside for a moment and think about this simple statement. Is this accurate? I think it captures something that is both true and under-appreciated in the current cultural arguments.

I doubt Mansfield is arguing that all instances of hook-ups involve the ambiguous consent dynamics that, along with liberal use of alcohol, seem to define the most typical behaviors at the center of discussions about a “rape culture.” In the main, I think his statement has elegance in identifying more overlap than commonly appreciated between concerns of two ideological camps that are seemingly in constant conflict regarding causes and solutions.

Mansfield, in my view, does a particularly good job of raising thorny questions about the concept of socially constructed roles and identities, with his particular focus in the present article on the difference between what he calls the “feminine woman” and the “feminist woman” in the history and context of our sexual culture. Whatever your beliefs and stake in all this, it’s a worthwhile piece to read.

Why do I mention both Jayson’s and Mansfield’s articles in the same blog post? Because they both deal with the complex issue of roles and identities and how people are trying to navigate social upheaval. They both deal with arguments and preferences about the possibility of an “end of gender.”

Despite the wishes of some if not many, an end to gender will not compel an end to biology. As long as it remains true that some people can become pregnant and others cannot, biology will drive important differences in the social behavior of men and women when it comes to sex. Role expectations and opportunities will, doubtless, continue to change in the direction of flexibility, but aspects of gendered behavior that are pinned to more stubborn facts about biology will resist becoming irrelevant.


Postscript:  For two examples of earlier posts where I dig in on some differences between men and women with regard to commitment customs and biology, see: