“Everything is sex… Except sex; which is power, and power is just sex” -Janelle Monae.
Let’s start this off with a buzzword… Gender inequality.
A report by the World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate it will take the world over 108 years to achieve gender equality economically (The Global Gender Gap Report, 2018). Lack of addressing the root cause of gender inequality has heavily influenced this reality. In order to adequately address gender inequality and accelerate the rate at which we achieve gender equality, we must understand the causes of this inequality. One overlooked aspect is that gender inequality is driven by social norms about sex. I will explore the origin of gendered norms and demonstrate how norms around sex are a primary cause for gender inequality.
But first…There is a need to cognize the concept of sex and the origin of gender norms before demonstrating how they enable gender inequality.
In 1968, Robert Stoller was among the earliest personalities scholars to bring out a distinction between sex and gender. He argued that while gender is the amount of masculinity or femininity, one expresses, sex is the biological determinant of whether one is female or male (Mikolla, 2008). Feminists supported this argument during the 1970s. The feminist movement built upon Robert’s explanation, pointing out that many differences between men and women are a social construct, not scientific variations. Gender is the social or cultural variance of traits considered male or female while Sex is the biological variation between male and female based on reproductive potential and genetic composition (Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World, 2016).
Now that we have that settled, let’s explore how gender norms came about and their consequent role in propagating gender inequality in the course of time.
(In this context, sex is referred to in two contexts: as the biological determinant of male and female and as the physical act of intercourse among consenting adults.)
Firstly, we have the evolution theory. According to evolutionary psychologists, the distribution of labour was based on biological function and ability. In other words, it was based on SEX. Then, the information at humanity’s disposal was that women were fertile beings which allowed them to bear children. It was therefore logical that women would spend their time nurturing the children after birth and naturally, they took up housekeeping activities. Through this role, they developed their nurturing and caring which are currently referred to as feminine traits. On the other hand, men were more physically endowed, and they took the role of hunters allowing them to develop more physical strength, aggression, courage, and other traits that are now considered masculine. Over time these roles naturalized into distinctions of what men and women should do. Additionally, careers were built on these lines, which made it hard to work in a career that was beyond the confines of sex. This distribution of labour based on sex is a significant cause of gender inequality in the modern world. Today many women are being kept out of the workforce due to norms and restrictions. Only about 49% of women globally are included in the global workforce, and they are often working in unsafe or underpaid conditions (Ilo.org, 2019) as many employers still don’t think they should be in the workforce and when they are, women’s contribution is underestimated which therefore reducing efforts to treat them with dignity.
Additionally, these same norms are the cause of bias against women at work. Women are involved in much unpaid domestic work as it is considered their duty. A study by UNICEF shows that worldwide girls do 40% more household chores than boys (Unicef.org, 2018). This statistic means that while boys have more time to study and play, girls are mandated to work, resulting in less time for studying, playing and interacting with peers. Consequently, boys have more opportunities academically, socially, and eventually economically. Regrettably, on a global scale, women receive less compensation than men despite working similar jobs or having higher qualifications, (Salam, 2019). A Harvard economist, Professor Claudia Gordin, observed that on average female surgeons earn 71% of what male surgeons earn in the same specialities (BOLOTNIKOVA, 2016). This difference in pay stems from institutionalized discrimination that does not allow women to progress in their careers. This career stagnation is heavily influenced by the double responsibility of women to be both the home keepers and professionals. The once ‘harmless’ distribution of labour has proven to be inefficient in the modern world. Based on this evidence and my understanding of the evolution theory I believe that distributing labour on the metric of sex was not a permanent solution and based on the core principle of evolution-change, humans need to develop better ways to distribute labour. Without these changes, we remain stuck and trapped believing in the information that is harmful and not functional.
Secondly, A significant number of religious doctrines place the male sex as superior sex and the female as subordinate sex. Religion as a social institution plays a significant role in the understanding of sex and everything between. Religious teachings and laws are often manipulated to facilitate the devaluing of women and enable injustice such as domestic violence, early marriage, and honour killings to go on without much consequences to the perpetrators. In Christianity, for example, women are portrayed as subordinate to man and are expected to ‘submit’ to their husbands Ephesians 5:22-24 (New International Version]-NIV). Such religious teachings have been a significant factor in determining the role of women and girls in a family, in the community, and professionally. It is impossible to make progress for gender equality if women are continuously presented as subordinate sex rather than partners.
“22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”Ephesians 5:22-24 (New International Version]-NIV)
It is impossible to make progress for gender equality if women are continuously presented as subordinate sex rather than partners.
Moreover, Religious understanding of the purpose of sex has resulted in the breaching of peoples sexual and reproductive health rights. Religious groups influence government leaders to enact policies which may be harmful especially to women. One of such situations is the Catholic church’s disapproval of the use of contraceptives as dictated in the human vitae by Pope Paul VI (Paul.P., Smith, J, and Hilgers, T.1993). Such doctrines have made contraceptives expensive and difficult to access. Such policies and laws are an infringement on people’s reproductive health and rights as they take away women’s control over their bodies and their reproductive health. Notably, the difficulty in accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare is among the top factors for the rising number of unsafe abortions globally (Lisa B Haddad, 2009). In 2009 abortions accounted for 13% of maternal deaths (Lisa B Haddad, 2009), a figure that has risen over the years. In 2017 it was estimated that more than 25 million women and girls have unsafe abortions annually (Who.int, 2017). Presently, putting aside the religious understanding of sex and taking women’s sexual and reproductive health as public health concern could change the dynamic of sexual and reproductive health rights, which is an indicator for gender equality.
Thirdly, as earlier mentioned, the research we get on gender issues is often flawed due to bias from the researchers. One of the extreme cases of bias is in early psychological and medical research of sex and the female orgasm. Psychologists in the 18th century concluded that women’s orgasms were not natural and that they could indicate early signs of mental health issues (Explained, Season 1 Episode 16). The existence of such flawed experiments is explained by Fausto Sterling, who states that our social beliefs on gender are what define sex and consequently the kind of knowledge scientists produce about sex (Fausto-Sterling, 2008). Woefully, the existence of such research created a situation where women had little to no power over their bodies thus intensifying their oppression. The increasing disregard for women’s humanity plays a part in the prevalence of gender issues such as rape culture, slut-shaming, and domestic violence. It also affected women’s ability to explore and embrace their sexuality as it was disregarded and considered a flaw.
After carefully thinking about who could be screwing you… What next?
We acknowledge that there is substantial proof that one of the primary sources of gender inequality is social norms that are founded on and are centre around sex. These norms seep into social institutions forming structural and institutional discrimination such as harassment, homophobia, and rape culture. While efforts are being made on a larger scale to reduce gender inequalities, it is crucial that individuals at grassroots level work towards gender equality advocacy.
Dismantling norms around sex that have existed for decades requires collaboration from social institutions as well as private entities such as the self. One of the ways in which this has happened is through sexual liberation which was triggered by thorough research. Significant research done on female orgasm as a result of more female psychologists and gynaecologists. This presented an opportunity to challenge earlier information without bias. The research explored the female orgasms and demystified the clitoris as an organ in the female body whose sole function is a pleasure (Whitlock, 2019). This game-changing research has been supported by further research including the more recent research from which you could find at OmgYes.
This discovery was a trigger for sexual liberation for women. The mere concept of women as sexual beings who can experience sexual pleasure and with an organ whose only function is pleasure was a game-changer. This research re-introduced sex as a platform for both reproduction and pleasure which was empowering to not only women but also members of the LGBTIQ+ community. The basic idea that women can feel pleasure without shame has over the years triggered more and more people to question their beliefs around sex and gender norms. It is a demonstration of just how powerful sex is and the fact that power is determined by sex. If women can have sexual experiences just for pleasure what else are they capable of? What other things about men and women could have been misunderstood over time?
The concept of sexual liberation gives one the freedom to own their bodies physically, emotionally, and socially. It is about having the power to questioning norms. Consequently, it gives us a freedom that is empowering and radical enough to bring in the type of changes we are looking for in the world.
Now that we have this precious information…
I would suggest that we as human beings, especially those in the field of advocacy, seek out sexual liberation for ourselves, our communities, and the future generations to come. It is about time we re-examine our understanding of sex and gender and respond appropriately to the changes we need to make.
- World Health Organization. (2018). Gender. [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/gender-equity-rights/understanding/gender-definition/en/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2018].
- CHAPTER 1: AN INTRODUCTION TO GENDER. (n.d.). 2nd ed. [ebook] New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.1-37. Available at: https://web.stanford.edu/~eckert/PDF/Chap1.pdf [Accessed 9 Oct. 2018].
- Fausto-Sterling, A. (2008). Sexing the Body. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books.
- West, c. and Zimmerman, D. (1987). gender and society: Doing gender. 1st ed. [ebook] Sage publication inc. Available at: https://www.gla.ac.uk/0t4/crcees/files/summerschool/readings/WestZimmerman_1987_DoingGender.pdf [Accessed 9 Oct. 2018].
- Shahvisi, A. (2019). “Men are trash”: the surprisingly philosophical story behind an internet punchline. Prospect Magazine UK. [online] Available at: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/philosophy/men-are-trash-philosophy-dating-hate-speech [Accessed 31 Jan. 2020].
- Me Too Movement. (2019). me too. Movement. [online] Available at: https://metoomvmt.org/ [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019].
- BOLOTNIKOVA, y. (2016). Reassessing the Gender Wage Gap. Havard Magazine. [online] Available at: https://harvardmagazine.com/2016/05/reassessing-the-gender-wage-gap [Accessed 4 Apr. 2019].
- Ilo.org. (2019). The gender gap in employment: What’s holding women back?. [online] Available at: https://www.ilo.org/infostories/en-GB/Stories/Employment/barriers-women#intro [Accessed 5 Jan. 2019]