Continued from Part 1…
Except possibly for the most committed long-term breast-feeders, breasts spend the majority of their lives as secondary sexual characteristics, arguably unnecessary for reproduction, but certainly unnecessary post-reproduction. Although they may be considered necessary by some for mate attraction, they clearly have the broader role in most societies as a gender cue. And most of our human societies are obsessed with gender cues.
For example, it seems very important to most American mothers (and probably some dads too) that the gender of an infant be instantly identifiable. The problem with humans is, there are no characteristics other than genitals with which we can make this distinction before puberty. So, even moms wearing jeans, T-shirts and ball caps tend to dress their infant daughters as if they were on their way to all-pink Princess Land. At least during babyhood, blue is supposed to be reserved for boys.
Beginning during toddlerhood more cues are used; now that kids have enough to work with, hair length and style is often the primary cue. Certainly there remain girly (i.e. pink) clothes that boys aren’t allowed to wear, but notice that the babies in pink, frilly dresses often morph into jeans-wearing little kids.
Of course there is the interesting asymmetry in cultural gender cues. Women may “cross dress,” but it just doesn’t have the impact of a man wearing women’s clothing, because basically, a woman is allowed in our society to wear “men’s” clothing, while a man is not allowed to wear “women’s.”
The Atlantic’s recent piece on transgenderism in pre-adolescents is a perfect illustration of our inability to see beyond cultural constructs regarding gender. Although the article presumes to explore both sides of the issue – whether or not we should let little kids have sex changes – it actually misses the entire crux of the problem.
We should be discussing not whether people should get sex changes, but why people feel the need to get them. Anecdotally, it appears that more transgenders are men who change to women. This pattern is consistent with the idea that perhaps many transgenders do not so much want to have the genitalia of the other sex, but do have personal preferences about clothing, behavioral roles, etc. that are associated strongly with the opposite sex in their culture. Oversimplified, a man might think: I would like to wear pink frilly dresses. Men in my society are not allowed to wear pink frilly dresses. Therefore, I want to be a woman.
Because of the cultural asymmetry of our patriarchal society, women who prefer to dress or behave more like cultural norms for men are more easily socially accepted than vice versa. In the Atlantic’s story (by Hanna Rosin), the “transgenderism” among children certainly seemed biased toward boys wanting to be girls. It was clear however that the focal child of the story simply wanted to wear girls’ clothes and have girls for friends. As a prepubescent, he doesn’t yet know what his genitals are really for, so he can’t possibly understand what it means yet to swap them out.
Parents who actually use hormones to render their pre-pubescent children effectively sterile – and perhaps more to the point, less sexually sensitive – should be open to charges of abuse. It’s appalling that a society would find this action more acceptable than the idea of a boy wearing a dress to school, but apparently that’s where we are.
What no “expert” in the story questioned was American society’s (and probably most others’) need to pigeonhole individuals into a fairly arbitrary idea of “gender.” Why cannot even those who think about these gender issues all the time question the assumed vital necessity that a boy’s favorite color can under no circumstances be pink? One step back is all that is needed to see the patent absurdity of this rule. And yet it is absolute, never questioned.
It was clear that Rosin misses the point completely, given this statement about the transgender boy’s mother: “Tina had no easy explanation for where Brandon’s behavior came from. Gender roles are not very fluid in their no-stoplight town, where Confederate flags line the main street.” It is exactly in a society with stricter gender roles that you would expect to find more “transgender” individuals, because the acceptable behavioral and fashion preferences by each gender are more narrowly defined. If the kid were growing up in Greenwich Village, there’s a better than even chance he would not feel the need to become a girl in order to act “like” one.
Which is probably the biggest reason why the idea of losing one’s breasts is abhorrent to women who are in a long-term relationship and intend to have no more children, who make an effort to save their breasts, or reconstruct if they cannot. It is the reason why male-to-female transgenders have them made. Breasts are a major cue for gender, and most people want to be easily identified as their gender. There’s nothing strange about this. Clear identification of everybody’s gender is a hugely important cue for social interactions. But imagine for a moment if it were not – that as a cultural species, we recognized that the pigeonholing of gender is not actually necessary for a functional modern society that claims to believe in gender equality, and is perhaps even counterproductive. Imagine if we acknowledged that by immediately labeling someone’s gender (as with race), we tend to see a trait first, rather than an individual, and so we just decided not to worry about the stereotypes anymore. Wouldn’t that be nice?