The Patriarchy Attacks on All Fronts

April 13, 2010 at 9:36 PM (Uncategorized) (, )

I am a lesbian.

There is power in typing those words, and there is power in saying them. There is power in living them. Living a life without sexual and romantic dependence on men sharpens the vision of a feminist utopia in our mind’s eyes like it can for few others, and, the clearer the image, the greater our motivation to fight for it’s realization. Our energies are free to fight the feminist fight when we banish potential patriarchal oppressors from our beds, when we organize our lives so that we aren’t coming home to them everyday. Just by living our lives, we send society the messages that start revolutions: messages of individual agency, of rejection of patriarchal religious conceptualizations, of flouting sociocultural pressure, messages that shatter the illusion of universal heterosexuality, that weaken male supremacy, that embolden young and questioning lesbians, that open the eyes of potential allies.

Without question, there is great power in proclaiming one’s status as a lesbian. The patriarchy, however, is no two-bit villian. It has a clever organization, it does, and has molded the world in such a way that even the power of out-and-proud lesbianism can be transformed into a sort of weapon.

I am a lesbian, but what is a lesbian? A lesbian is a female whose sexual and/or romantic interests lie with females, and not with males. What is a female, what is a male? Here, we run into the tangled mess that is patriarchal medical science and fear/hatred/ignorance of difference.

Males and females are the two components of a binary system of biological sex that ignores and/or pathologizes (irrespective of whether or not the relevant conditions pose a legitimate physical health risk) those whom it subsequently classifies as “intersexed.” There is no inherent problem with a binary system of biological sex, insofar as “biological sex” refers to reproductive sex. There are two, and only two, human reproductive sexes. The problem arises when we begin to generalize biological characteristics that have little or no bearing on reproduction, such as clitoral length, amount of body hair, or muscle mass, as constituting a part of this binary sex system, as they do not always follow a neat pattern of sexual dimorphism. The problem arises when we take biological sex out of the realm of reproduction.

Insofar as the word “lesbian” is defined by and based on this unrealistic and oppressive sex system, it is problematic. This fact, contrasted with the undeniable anti-patriarchy power of the term, can create something of a conundrum for conscientious lesbians. As a descriptor of attraction, the very concept of a “lesbian” presumes an unequivocally female subject, whereas “female” (as well as “male”) is not a precisely-defined biological category. Are we complicit in sex-based oppression and bad science by using this term? If we are, what can we do to fix the situation?

I do not offer solutions here, only a sketch of a patriarchal double-bind and a lesson on the importance of language.

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9 Comments

  1. Sarah said,

    So happy to see you back.

  2. m Andrea said,

    Okay sorry, I’m gonna be stupid. (Whenever I start out with a question I always feel like I’m trolling, ugh.) And yet I sincerely do not understand why you would say that “female” is a term which lacks precision. Biologists assume it to mean someone who was born female at birth, with a uterus, ovaries, XY, and so on. It seems pretty clear to me, so what am I missing? That is my main question btw, and the stuff below is just me rambling.

    Since you mentioned intersexed I’d add that technically they aren’t born either female or male at birth, but somewhere in between, and are socialized one way or the other by society the way everyone else is. From a statical point of view, they fall into the category of outliers. From a perspective of analyzing gender, power dynamics, socialization, etc, they are already included and so there is no reason to single them out — which is not to trivialize the lived experience of the individuals.

    I guess what I mean is, that intersexed folks are exempt from analysis when the purpose is to analyze [biologically based oppression], because physically they were never male OR female to begin with. Instead, they were socialized from birth as either a gendered masculine person or a gendered feminine person, and as such, when the purpose is to analyze gender then they would be automatically included in and no different from, all the other born women or born men. Depends what the purpose is. I keep saying, “I’m analyzing GENDER SOCIALIZATION, so your socialization is already included” and I suspect they think I’m trivializing their experience. Yet analyzing their lived experience is most accurately analogous to analyzing the lived experience of any other sub-group of humans, and I don’t analyze those either. (It’s not my place to “analyze” women of color, and woc do a far better job of analyzing white women then I ever could.)

    I always have trouble trying to express what I mean with that one, so thanks for reminding me to think about it some more.

    • lesbianplusfeminist said,

      I have researched a fair amount and have not been able to find any official biological definition of sex, not even of human sex. I think that I was actually thinking more along the lines of how the concept of female is used in the medical field when I posted this, so perhaps I should have used the term “medical conceptualization” instead of “biological definition.” For example, there is the standard (and sloppy) method of sex determination based on genital structure, which I find rather silly in light of the arbitrary classification of “normal” penile and clitoral lengths that you can find near the beginning of this article. Is a child with a functioning set of all of the physical characteristics you mentioned (ovaries, uterus, XY chromosomes, etc.) female if she has a large clitoris? It’s not clear to me.

      Then there is the attempt at hormonal differentiation, which is complicated by the fact that, as I’m sure you know, both males and females synthesize both estrogen and testosterone, and, in contrast with the focus on the female hormonal cycle, men also experience hormonal cycles. This is a summary of part of a paper on emphasizing the similarities between the sexes in biology education that I would be happy to email to you (or anyone else reading this) if you like. Such a differentiation is further complicated by the fact that there is not a completely direct cause and effect relationship between hormones and secondary sex characteristics, as the actions of hormones are mediated by a number of other factors (another paper I have).

      I’m sure you can find more if you do some searching.

      I guess what I mean is, that intersexed folks are exempt from analysis when the purpose is to analyze [biologically based oppression], because physically they were never male OR female to begin with.

      I coudn’t disagree more. Perhaps you didn’t mean to phrase it this way, as I’m sure you know that people with intersexed conditions suffer biologically-based oppression (such as mutilating surgeries in infancy) for not conforming to a biological sexual binary. Furthermore, the invisibility and pathologization of intersexed conditions are clearly symptoms of male supremacy, as male supremacy is built on the concept of a clear-cut sexual binary, which is threatened by the mere existence of individuals who are not unambiguously male or female. I see revealing the instabilty of sex categories as a potentially useful tactic in dismantling sex-based oppression, and a focus on intersexed conditions is a first step in that direction.

      As for an analysis of gender, I agree that whether or not the gendered socialization of individuals with intersexed conditions could be included with that of everyone else depends on a number of factors, including the purpose and scope of the analysis. Any consciousness of being sexually “different” could affect how such an individual took to the socialization, or how the family administered it, since gender roles are quite obviously sex-based.

    • lesbianplusfeminist said,

      P.S., you needn’t be so self-effacing around here. ๐Ÿ™‚ The only stupid questions are questions from the menz. xD

  3. Komal said,

    What do you think about non-political lesbians?

  4. m Andrea said,

    So how stupid was I on the intersex issue?

    And of course I can’t really speak for Komal, but there was a discussion some time ago on some blogs about women who chose to be lesbians because they placed such high value on women, didn’t want to share their energy with men, etc etc. They didn’t start out having an actual sexual attraction towards other women, so some folks said these types of lesbians weren’t really lesbians, that they were only political lesbians.

    Non-political lesbians would be women who started out knowing they had a sexual attraction to other women. But the way “non-political” is used to describe actual lesbians reminds of the transgendered describing “ciswomen”, as in cislesbians, which seems insulting.

  5. Aileen Wuornos said,

    I totally agree with your description of what it means to be a lesbian. How liberating-not to have to go home to a guy-not to have to play the stupid “wife” role in the institution of marriage-to not have to have kids in fear of having a male child (yuck)-being in total control of our lives etc…I didn’t get the whole gender thang but that’s ok! Thanks for this writing!!

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