Young people and millennials are exploring the fluidity of gender in ways that have never before entered the public consciousness. The recent article in Time Magazine (March 27, 2017) describes the multitude of gender identities that are being expressed. I am not sure where this is headed but it is clear that these individuals are searching for a better fit than they have found within the traditional gender binary. I know that my husband and I have marveled over the years at the ways in which each of us “borrows” from the opposite gender. When I look into our messy fridge I just sigh and close the door. He cleans it without leaving a crumb to spare. His file drawers are immaculate while I throw my bills in a box where I hope I can find them. I have learned to pound nails in the wall so I can hang the many pictures that I like to display. (What is it about men that terrifies them when they have to pound a nail in the wall?) I was a fast runner in high school and I longed to be on the boys’ track team. It wasn’t going to happen when the only “athletics” available for girls at that time was inter-mural half-court basketball. I have long observed at close range the ways in which individual people—my husband, my four sons and myself—do not conform to our stereotyped versions of gender.
But as we discuss in our book, (www.routledge.com/9781138194960
A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy),
we know that there are aspects of human beings that are not fluid. At this time in our history women still give birth. Sadly enough, rape is still a crime of which women are most often the victims.
I write as follows:
We may martial arguments against the “sex/gender system, i.e., that set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into culturally sanctioned systems of sexual expression (Rubin, 1975, p. 159)” but the majority of women and men live within them. As theorists and clinicians we are attempting to understand the multiplicity of gender identities but the women and men who enter our consulting rooms may be struggling to consolidate any sort of cohesive identity. They may be processing heavily inflicted wounds that have resulted from living within a body that is anatomically either male or female. Females in every culture still remain the focus of oppression in the form of rape, sexual slavery, restriction of reproductive rights and ongoing societal oppression. Within the intimate context of men and women the very real anatomical differences have become the culturally sanctioned focus of male obsession, hostility and control. The male perspective, insofar as it is shaped by the culture, has been predisposed to regard women as objects either to possess, despise or discard. [Our book] will explore the lived experience of women within patriarchy insofar as it has been historically and universally circumscribed by biology and dictated by cultural norms. Using clinical examples it will address the ways in which cultural and biological imperatives are woven into the issues and concerns of individual people. Finally it will present possibilities for reimagining the prescriptions of patriarchy.
The cultural history of women confirms that while they have achieved significant progress in the economic and social world over the last 100 years, their roles as real or potential mothers and as sexual objects, partners or wives, has undergone only superficial alterations. Women are still in many circumstances as De Beauvoir has said “the victim of the species.” Kestenberg states that “from time to time there occurs a shift in emphasis from one …of these…tasks and they take on different forms as the standards for motherhood, woman’s work and her role in relation to man change. p.81” I would add that for the majority of the world’s women, maternity and sexuality are still the defining factors.
So even though our definitions of gender become ever more fluid—a silk scarf floating in the wind—we as a society are not free of the restrictions that women experience as a function of still irrefutable biology. We will never fully understand gender unless we take those undeniable distinctions into account.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.