On Sexual Dimorphism and Gender

*Note: I am by no means a biologist or gender theorist, the following is just about a conversation I had with a friend of mine and my reflections on it. Take everything I say with a full shaker of salt. I’m also using a lot of generalizations here. You have been warned.*

A couple weeks ago a friend of mine and I were just talking about things, and she made a really good point. Roughly, is the lack of sexual dimorphism in human beings the root of gender?

Sure, as a species we have some sexual dimorphism, but quite honestly not a whole hell of a lot. Take my personal favorite example of this, the angler fish.

haplophryne_mollis_28female2c_with_atrophied_male_attached29
Angler Fish with Atrophied Male

(It’s just an illustration, but I try to go with stuff without any potential licensing issues)

So the angler fish female is huge. Here’s a better photo of the fish itself that doesn’t look nearly as adorable as the above illustration.

humpback_anglerfish_28melanocetus_johnsonii29

She goes around luring in prey and eating the fuck out of them. The male on the other hand is this tiny little thing that looks like the size of a gold fish that attaches itself to the female and just, well, dies. The longer story is it pretty much becomes a sperm packet to fertilize her eggs and that’s it. The male is only meant to deliver sperm and atrophy. Compare this to males and females in primates and to be more specific, humans (I would certainly hope I don’t need to post any photos). Are men and women all that different? Sure, women may have smaller frames, a couple more curves and some jiggly bits, but that’s such a small difference. Not to mention that’s only taking into consideration the general belief in this culture of what “women” are “supposed” to look like as compared to “men”. Like anything in this world, our proportions and what even constitutes as a woman changes drastically on a case by case basis, and that’s where a lot of issues come in.

So what makes a “woman” and what makes a “man”? Well, we have tits, sure, but I’ve seen plenty of cis men that have them too. They may not be the same function but they’re there. “Men have broad shoulders and a stronger build.” Okay, first off, if this is your description of what a man looks like you clearly haven’t seen the inside of an engineering school or really any place anywhere. Yes, testosterone does support muscle mass and a more muscular frame (I’m definitely reminded of this as my own muscles atrophy in the wake of just not producing/absorbing it anymore) but I’ve seen plenty of cis women with impressive shoulders and builds.

naryury_pc3a9rez_rio_2016
Exhibit A: Naryury Perez from this past Olympics (2016).

“But Jess” you say as you adjust your fedora “these are professionals who trained their entire lives. Clearly they don’t count.” To which I respond, take that stupid hat off and shave that neck beard. Also, why not? Is there any doubt that that athlete is female? Why? This is only one example out of so many there. This is where those problems we mentioned earlier come in. “Woman” and “Man” are relative, even biologically there are AMAB cis men who were born intersex and because their junk looked a bit more manly than a lady’s they were sort of pushed into being assigned male. There are completely cis women with prominent Adam’s apples or androgynous features. There are women born without a uterus, or even multiple uteri. There are men born without testicles or having all of their organs, as male as they are, on the inside. Chromosomes can’t even really be counted as there are plenty of examples that break the “XX” and “XY” model. There is no definite definition of what makes any of us one thing or the other. To further the point along, I’m going to use myself as an example. I’m currently transitioning, in doing so I am taking hormones to make the outer appearance more in tune with my inner thoughts and opinions. As I progress I’m getting more curve, softer skin, tits, etc. and the ONLY thing that’s changing is this one variable. In removing that variable (testosterone) and introducing another variable (estrogen) my body is feminizing. If you think of it that’s pretty fucking nuts. With that mentality you can break this shit down into a first year Comp Sci class function.

c program
Yes, I know it’s much more complicated than this, that’s the point.

This finally gets us to the point. What’s gender then? The idea my friend (and she’s totally welcome to correct me if I’m way off) had was in our lack of sexual dimorphism, human beings created these social norms that dictated what is male and what is female. If you look at the vastness of humans as a species, and you take it from the point of view of a space alien, people look the same all over. We have average heights, builds, relatively little variation. When we see a man and a women standing together, we see that one is female and the other is male, but that’s because we’re tuned into that and society has helped along.  An example from books that I love is how Terry Pratchett describes gender in  dwarf society. In Sir Terry’s fantasy series Discworld, male and female dwarfs look the same. It’s even taboo in traditional dwarf culture to present oneself as a definite gender (read: female). This makes dwarf mating rituals, to paraphrase, a process of just trying to figure out what the other dwarf is. Looking back with the eyes of someone currently more or less living outside of gender for the time being, what is played off as a joke is actually an incredibly profound statement. This is also why Sir Terry was one of the best, but I digress.

This all leads to the position that humans created gender as a means to make the mating ritual easier. If we look at human beings from a completely objective point of view (really fucking tough, but bear with me), we’re really not that different. To think that something as asinine as what hormones the body is currently working with can change so much in appearance, emotional responsiveness, etc is something else. The differences between me being regularly perceived as  “male” and regularly perceived as “female” break down to about $30 a month and time, and that’s completely insane.

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