What is natural? What is artificial? Who can even judge? It seems that transgender; intersex and transsexual individuals maintain to be hugely shamed and stigmatized in western society but why? We learn from a young age that there are two sexes: male and female and categorize others and ourselves to one side or the other side of the gender binary. Males are represented as strong and masculine, females soft and feminine. These are the norms, which we all generally comply to.
But what if a male is feminine? What if a born female later becomes a male? And what if we are provided with such knowledge when perceiving such individuals, would this change how we perceive them? Would it even be obvious to the human eye? Why can’t males be feminine and females masculine? And so, the main issue within my topic is what we as humans consider natural and unnatural, real and fake and how this impacts the way we perceive an individuals’ gender. I will explore this through three key factors: the categorization, perception and representation of gender all of which will fall under nature v nurture debates. I will now explore each factor.
Social perception is concerned with ways in which we use stimulus information to form mental representations or impressions of people and situations. Perception is the act of combining information from the stimulus (trait terms or physical features) with knowledge retrieved from memory. The act of perception is not completed until the percept is related to the perceivers pre-existing knowledge. As a result, every act of perception is an act of categorization. As Jerome Bruner (1957) said, “Perception involves an act of categorization…the use of cues in inferring the categorical [sic] identity of a perceived object… is as much a feature of perception as the sensory stuff from which percepts are made”. And so, perception is when a perceiver combines what is coming through the eyes with its pre-existing knowledge in order to categorize what is before them.
To categorize is to place in a particular class or group. Categorization is critical to perception because it enables us to infer properties of an object that we cannot perceive directly. For example, we don’t have to see a person’s genitalia to categorize their sex and gender. Once we have categorized an object on the basis of the elements we can see, we can infer the other unseen elements that it shares with other members of its class. We need to categorize in order to make sense of our world and is crucial in understanding and perceiving social persons. However, once we have done so we respond to people in terms of the norms and categories set out for us rather than their uniqueness and have a tendency to stereotype. For example, if we see a male acting feminine and soft, we often assume they are homosexual. Sad but true. These ideas I will explore in more detail later.
The most common definitions of categories are by attributes (properties or features), which are shared by all members of a particular category, hence why sex is thought and learned to be a definitive attribute of a person. However, there are three broad types of attributes relevant to category definition: perceptual or stimuli features help define natural categories such as a fish, functional attributes including the operations performed with or by objects such as a car and relational features which specify the relationship between an instance and something else such as an aunt. Of course, some categories are defined by a combination of perceptual, functional, and relational features, such as when categorizing humans. However, many of us just go by the physical attributes of an individual. As a result, sex becomes a key attribute to categorize individuals as well as us.
Biological sex is one of the first things noticed and encoded during social interaction. When a woman is pregnant for example, the first line of conversation is the sex of the baby, ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ Sometimes, people even favor one sex over the other, ‘Oh I hope it’s a boy!’ People find themselves falling into the pitfalls of stereotypical agendas; pink for a girl, blue for a boy, dolls for a girl, trains for a boy, following the rules and norms set out by society and culture seamlessly. Thus, it’s fair to assume that biological sex is a hugely influential factor in an individuals’ entire life and how they perceive themselves as well as how others perceive them.
Sex is often perceived-and expected-to be fixed, thus defining a person’s gender, self and perception others have of them from fetus to death. If you are born a boy, you shall become a man, be titled ‘Mr.’, become an engineer and vice versa. This is the norm, one of which we all tend to comply. Sex, as a category, is learned early and then reinforced throughout life, ‘as a meaningful characteristic with rich connotations and implications’ (Skitka and Maslach). We learn to put people into these categories: male and female, which impacts both people’s perceptions and one’s own self-identification and membership to one side or the other side of the gender binary. Ask yourself, would you be different if your sex changed?
Categorizing people by their sex is determined by biology: the hereditary differences in the hormones, chromosomes and external genitalia. The primary female hormone is estrogen, for males’ testosterone. A female’s sex is determined by the XX chromosome, whilst the male the XY. Females are born with vaginas and males with penises and testicles. These physical and genetic differences define a person’s sex and are assumed to be right and ‘normal’. After all, a person’s sex is the outcome of nature and genetics; something learned to be beyond our control. For many of us the sex we are born with is not something to be questioned, it’s innate. We are raised to recognize ourselves as either male or female and others recognize this too. As a result we are led to believe that we grow into the sex assigned to us as birth unconsciously and naturally.
However, if a person’s biological sex is commonly perceived as natural and normal, where does this leave intersex, transgender and transsexual individuals? As a society and as individuals alike we are raised to identify ourselves and other individuals as either male or female, which (at it’s origin) are governed by our biology and the perceptions of others. But what if an individuals’ sex does not align with their internal feelings? Can biological sex ever be ‘wrong’? Can only ‘natural’ sex be acceptable in society? What if a person’s sex is ambiguous? Is a person’s sex and gender only awoken after self-awareness? These questions all fall under the pitfalls of nature v nurture discussions, which will be the main topics I explore. This first notion suggests that biological sex is assumed to be the defining factor which impacts our gender, identity and the way we perceive ourselves as well as how others perceive us. Perhaps, it cannot be that simple. Perhaps, nature is not always the definitive factor. Perhaps, what comes in through our eyes does not reveal the persons ‘natural’ sex.
Smith, E. E and Medin, D.L. (1981), Categories and Concepts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Skitka, L. J and Maslach, C (1190), ‘Gender roles and the categorization of gender-relevant behaviour’. Sex Roles 22, (3-4). Available from <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00288187> [20 December 2013]
Berkley (2013) Social Categorisation. [online] available from <https://bspace.berkeley.edu/access/content/group/cf3d9c57-a0ab-4f22-b55f-4d8b59a1c15e/Lecture%20Supplements/SocCateg/SocCateg_Supp.htm>
Murphy, G. L, (2002) The Big Book of Concepts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT Press.