Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Updated Narration Draft


This film intends to unpeel some critical layers off of our common conceptions of gender and sex. Using philosophical tools, lets uncover layers of scientific myth and social reality; layers of projected and self-ascribed identity; layers of the cultural assignments of normal, and abnormal; layers of psychological assignments of health and dysfunction; and layers of human rights and personal autonomy.

I will use the examples of gender and sex in society, to explore questions of personal autonomy and its interplay with the cultural projection of variance as a dysfunction, and how it is perpetuated by science, and modern psychology.

For clarity’s sake ide like to share with you the two most important goals for this film…

The primary purpose is simply to stir up questions. The second goal of this film will be to provide you, the viewer, with some additional philosophical  perspectives on the concepts of gender and sex beyond your own personal experiences as a gendered individual. My hope is that you, the viewer, will feel empowered by the new questions. I hope the ides presented here will be both challenging and enlightening, while ultimately very serious and worthy of your own deep self-refection. I encourage you also to question my ideas and thought patterns, just as much as I hope that you question and consider your own.

First, I am going to start out with an overview of some key philosophical concepts and tools for analyzing the key idea of “variance as a dysfunction”, and then I will get into how these tools can be applied to two specific examples of variances in sex and gender.

#1 (Autonomy. Moral coercion as a human rights violation)

The concept of freedom is a common topic of passionate debate in many circles. It is explicitly written in Federal and State law, and often seeps into individual family politics. There is one specific kind of agency that, it seems to me, is akin to our common interpretation of “freedom”, and it perhaps holds an even stronger relevance to debates of human rights regarding personal expression.  Autonomy is the ability to act freely without the presence of (unjustified) moral coercive entities (EXAMPLES necessary here). Community recognition is a necessary element to legitimize ones expression. While the concept of freedom requires the ability to act without physical restraint, autonomy demands the ability to act without coercive moral influences. So while an obstruction of freedom is physical, an obstruction of autonomy is a social restraint of ones most basic internal thoughts or external expressions on a moral level. In a specific instance when we might legally have the freedom to express ourselves in a particular manner, our actions or expressions however might become socially coerced through the powers and influence of our social groups, and the normative rules that they enforce, which would effectively influence our agency for autonomy. An attribute of autonomy would be one that crosses cultural normative rules rather than legal ones. In order for us to act as fully autonomous agents, we must feel that we can express our deepest/ most inner-selves, even when those expressions may differ from social constructions of normal, given that those expressions will not harm or negatively effect other individuals. The problematic issue with coercion here is not merely its presence, as coercion can have many important functions. Some positive functions may be to insure that reasonable anti-violence laws are upheld, or human rights violations are discouraged. So basically you could say that a distinction can be made between beneficial coercion and harmful coercion. The latter being of focus in this essay.

            The two specific examples of moral coercion that will be addressed in this film are of special concern because they are directed to suppress statistically rare, but biologically expected human traits. Traits which are not directly harmful to the individual or society, yet individuals find themselves being coerced to conform into social norms which systematically disclude them. In many ways, our over-simplified binaries of normal as something opposite of abnormal, as well as the concept of health as an opposite of dysfunction, produce an unaccommodating environment for some basic human rights of individual autonomy.  (Variations in expressions as well as biological realities).  These are the spaces where social realities and biological realities collide.

#2 (Why We Pathologize Variance)

            Lets now take a moment to dig into our understandings of the development of our everyday sociological perspectives as well as our biological understandings of human variation. In order to do this we must first acknowledge the circular interplay between the two. Studies in the biology of human variation provide statistical evidence that genetic and social variance is common and natural. It is the social realities, not the scientific ones, which create oversimplified systems which separate normal behavior or biology from abnormal. Our scientific emphasis on categorization and simplification of the natural world often leads us into binary views of concepts that are truly infinitely complex.  These simplified schemas become second nature in social settings. Social realities can become confused with universal truths. We internalize the simplified organizations of human possibility. In regards to sex and gender for example, there are assumed to exist a set of universal truths which roughly match our social realities. Expressions that fit within the boundaries of a given dichotomy are considered normal and are encouraged, while variant expressions are attacked as abnormalities.


Lets jump into the meat of the film, lets explore 2 specific examples of variant gender and sex identities, as well as variant social expressions, that challenge society’s binary framework which has come to define our concepts of what is is to be a normal “man” or a normal “woman”.  And lets use the critical measure human rights measurement concept of autonomy to critique these systems.



It is a common assumption that scientific research has empirically led us into clear measurable definitions for sex, but in fact this is not the case. We assume that there is an empirical way to measure whether one is biologically male or female. But really, in every possible measure a spectrum of traits exist. It depends whether you are looking at primary sex characteristics such as genitalia or internal sex organs, secondary sex characteristics such as breasts or facial hear, you could look at hormone levels, muscle or cognitive development and abilities, or you could look at ones chromosomes, and within any given individual, a unique set of characteristic will exist on various points of the spectrum, for each of the given sex measurements.  Most of us fit somewhere in between the two extreme ideals of what might be considered completely male or completely female. Sex is a social decision based on scientific research, rather than a scientific or universal biological truth. To quote Anne Fausto-Sterling, prominent genetics and gender studies researcher “labeling someone as a man or a woman is a social decision. We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender, not science- can define our sex”. P3


One way to begin a deeper explanation of this concept might be by taking a closer look at chromosomes.  The two most discussed variations that we commonly hear about are the sex chromosome pairs XX and XY. These are what we learn about as kids in our biology classes, but very few of us find ourselves educated on the other possible sets, even if we do recall a vague recognition of their existence. Many of us have also learned that a certain sort of hormones come along with each of those two common chromosome sets. A basic public education in biology doesn’t tend to go into the many variations in hormone balances, nor do they go into the variances in secondary sex or primary sex characteristics that I listed a moment ago.

Possible interlude of classic chromosome lessons (found)/ intersexed inclusion

Now consider what it may be like for intersexed individuals who are left out of the seemingly simple binary of male or female, with their biology haven been given barely even a mention in the classroom, or by society at large. Most infants are categorized at birth by their doctors as either male or female based on their external genitalia. Historically, in the US, infants with mixed genitalia would be surgically altered to appear as one sex or the other. Through the efforts various intersexed advocacy groups, including the Intersexed Society of North America, doctors have slowly become less likely to make such surgical decisions ….

Although  intersexed conditions most often do not bare any negative biological health concerns, and are statistically expected (at approximately 1.4-2%), they receive strong coercive pressures to fully adopt one of the two most common sex categories. They are asked to repress or deny the parts of themselves which are unique, and adapt themselves into social norms. My question to you at this point here is in regards to these individuals’ access to personal autonomy. As defined earlier, autonomy requires the ability to act or express oneself without the pressure of social coercion against those expressions.  Our simplified social model of two sexes clearly does not leave room for the in-betweens; for those who do not fit inside the boxes.  Think about your own definition of human rights. Does it discount the right to live as ones unique biology directs them to? It there some greater social good that comes specifically out of a clear social separation between two theoretical sexes which do not even scientifically exist as clear opposites, or even as definable categories?

AUTONOMY AND GENDER (this area in progress)



1.    Constraints of GID

a.    Diagnostic criteria.  Health vs dysfunction. Assumed delusion/ experienced personal dysphoria and projected social dysphoria.

b.    Social pressure through stigmas, internalized stigmas. Disorder + less human?

2.    How the diagnosis (and existence of the disorder) effect individual autonomy – 2 simplified views explained

3.    Summary- unnecessary pain for real societal disorder/ fictional individual disorder?

Option 1: If diagnosis is pathologized, one may then gain autonomy through following the prescribed path to conformity. – one form of autonomy. To do this one may also internalize the social stigma of having a disorder- which can be argued as an unnecessary pain for a natural condition. becoming recognized within an existing (conforming)  to a socially accepted identity which is not considered a pathological disorder- one without negative stigmas.

Option 2: outside of the GID- choosing ones own gender expression path, without accepting the label of the disorder. Realizing autonomy (by reaching it) in an individual (most likely non-conforming way)

 Ideal?: self-determination as an exercise of autonomy. With the GID- self-determining ones own gender is pathologized.

Judith Butler : the GID…”assumes the language of correction, adaptation, and normalization”…”assumes that certain gender norms have not been properly embodied and that an error and a failure have taken place… it pathologizes variance”

.  to name what is accepted, and what is unacceptable/ the norm and the abnormal.

“the diagnosis (GID) can be regarded as an instrument by which to further ones self-expression and self-determination (JB pg88)”



For many of us, and perhaps even most of us, the gendered states of being a man or being a woman come fairly easy to us, and can even feel natural. Some individuals are fortunate, and find themselves to be comfortable in their prescribed gender roles, and find their biology to fit the social definitions for the corresponding sex. But does the fact that most people are comfortable with the current definitions for sex and gender outweigh the strong discomfort of individuals who do not? Is it right to pathologize the variant few for there presence in an arbitrary system? Is it right to define variant adults or children as psychologically unsound, and biologically variant infants in need of “corrective” genital or hormonal surgeries? The American Psychological Association does define individuals who fit outside the boxes of gender as having psychological disorders. And it is a common practice for doctors to suggest and carry our genital surgeries and hormone therapy on infants in effort to push them into socially acceptable sexual entities.

The well being of our society’s constructions of sex and gender here are given a higher importance than the rights of individuals to express the basic necessities for autonomy, for natural and statistically expected variations in the human form.




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