Average reading time: 8-9 minutes.
As to now, I have identified 5 main areas where “gender dimorphism” is expected (differences between men and women), and in them, many sub-topics that constitute gender. For each of these items, we can see stereotypical poles, and a scale in which individuals can vary - often much more than we can imagine.
The 5 major categories of characteristics (according to my perception) are:
- Genital anatomy (penis / vulva)
- Hormone balance
- General physical aspects: proportions, muscles structure, bone structure, chest, hair implantation (facial, cranial & body)
Note that, even though most people can be identified in one of two categories (male or female), there are infinite variations (no two people are the same); plus, there are degrees (sometimes we may have doubts), and there are people who are “intersex”: neither physically male nor female.
Intrinsically, we are all made of the same parts.
Social perception (gender as perceived by others)
This is the “superficial level”, the one most of us see, and the one on which most people focus... but in fact, it’s barely scratching the surface.
- Civility and legal status (usually bound to category #1)
- Natural physical appearance (physical, unadorned body aspect, i.e. category #1)
- Preferences & choices in grooming and appearance (hair, makeup, clothing, accessories...). (Some may be associated with a gender and chosen as such, or be the result of social pressure, or a preference that is considered gendered by outsiders.)
- Specific grooming to enhance or modify physical gender appearance (waxing, shaving, transformative makeup, figure-altering clothes...)
- The way one is usually perceived (treated as man / woman / queer, usually a result from the previous)
- Mannerisms & usual body language (e.g. “he is very effeminate”)
- Learned habits about domestic roles (domestic chores & skills, including mental burden...)
- Skills and profession and their social gender (e.g. technical / care)
- Tastes and choices in hobbies and pleasure (football / spa; beer / wine; rock / jazz...)
Personal experience with gendered power roles (privilege & oppression)
This seems to me like the core of gender as a political subject, the roles in which we are somehow “forced” by our education, and the root of gender violence, misunderstanding, and a lot of suffering.
- Tendency to behave submissive / dominant in social context and relations (not kink) (there might be a feeling of acceptance or revolt towards said tendency)
- Habit of stating your opinion with certainty / habit of understating your opinion and doubting your certainty
- Body image & desire : objectified as an object of desire / feared as a predator
- Experience of being pressured towards sexuality with men/women (e.g. "feminine" boys assumed to be gay, "feminine" girls assumed to be straight...)
- Devoted to others' emotional needs in general / focused towards your individual accomplishments and success
- Experience of street harassment and sexual innuendo / Experience of being ignored or denied in your desires
- Experience of compliments based on appearance, good manners and "being nice" / experience of compliments based on action, success, courage, strength.
- Experience of being pressured to conform to a "pretty" image as an object of desire for the external eye/ Experience of being pressured to conform to a "strong" archetype.
- Pressured to defend oneself in case of aggression / experience of feeling vulnerable if unprotected.
- Body language: actively taking space or withdrawing (and being ignored if withdrawn) / experience of feeling invaded and “forced” to withdraw.
- Experience with touch: M: touch is associated with either sexuality or violence (or both), and associated with high stakes / F: touch is associated with intimacy (either chosen or invaded),
- Experience with gentle touch: M: gentle touch is scarce, usually associated with sexual attraction / F: gentle touch is part of everyday life
- Experience with unwanted touch: M: receiving unwanted touch is not usual, and does not seem invasive or traumatic / invasive unwanted touch is a constant risk in public and social context.
- Experience with touching others: F: touching others is usually perceived as harmless or welcome / M: touching others runs the risk of being invasive, and perceived as coming from a sexual intent (or “gay”).
- Fear and aggression: Experience with the fear of rape (someone else making you a potential target of sexual violence) / Experience with the fear of being perceived as a potential aggressor (misunderstanding of one’s trying to initiate conversation, or even false accusations); fear of not knowing how to make positive contact.
- Sexual roles: tendency to take the lead and go for one's desire / to let the other decide and conform to their desire
- Sexual “risk”: experience of the risk of physical pain during sex / experience of the risk of frustration and a feeling of rejection if denied "satisfaction"
- Sexual humiliation: fear of humiliation by things being done to you that you don't want (being "soiled" by degrading behaviour) - sexual humiliation is feeling used, soiled, breached in of one’s integrity and dignity / fear of humiliation by not being able to "perform" according to self or partner’s standards (e.g. erection, endurance...) - sexual humiliation is feeling inadequate, rejected, "not enough"
- Bad sex: "bad sex" is when the partner is boring, my desire is low, I feel useless or rejected / "bad sex" is when I feel physical pain, or feel abused and soiled.
- Sexual organs representation: fear of being “dirty”, “ugly”, “abnormal” / fear of being “not enough” (size, endurance, etc.)
- Pressure towards having children (present for both, stronger for women)
There is also something about social “friendship patterns - however, it seems that our intuitions on the subject are erroneous, according to people who have lived on “both sides”. According to people with a transgender experience (including as an experiment, e.g. “self-made man”) “Women” in social context experience more emotional support, warmth and comfort than “Men”; whereas “Men” in social context tend to experience some points of competition intermixed with their friendships, which therefore are less emotionally relaxing. However, women usually have the feeling of underlying rivalry in the company of women, whereas men report experiencing a form of loyalty. The subjective perception of gender difference in the matter of socialization is apparently reversed from the actual difference according to “both sides’ experiences”. This is probably due to learned expectations. Anyway, an individual perception of their social network is not a good measure of their positioning in the experience of gender.
Emotional tendencies and personality (gendered personality / behaviour)
Those are “personality traits” that make us think someone is “more feminine” / “more masculine” – and they impact our feelings of being “adequate”... Those seem to me like the consequence of socialization, pressure to conform to stereotypes and experience with fear and violence. They are deeply rooted in our personalities.... and expectations from others! They also cause us to interpret someone’s motivation: "when a man does this, it means he feels this way and desires that..." "women often like this, so I should tell this"... Those stereotypes and default interpretations can cause many misunderstandings. In my perception, those can be a strong cause for gender dysphoria: having one’s intentions frequently misinterpreted has to be a source of suffering.
- Default patterns of Competition (M) / Cooperation (F)
- Fear of being perceived as "weak" (M) / Fear of being perceived as "aggressive" (F)
- External validation comes from being admired (M) / from being pleasant (F)
- Importance / perception of "love" in your own life (esp. Penelope / Odysseus: as the main source of meaning / as a reward for other success)
- Reluctance to express anger or aggression (F) / Reluctance to express sadness or vulnerability (M)
- Roles in a romantic companionship (e.g. "provider" / "supporter")
- Anger is a natural, necessary part of relationships and their evolution (M) / A burst of anger or an open conflict is the sign of "the last straw", a threat to the continuation of a relationship (F).
- Sharing emotions is a building block of relationships (F) / Sadness & needing support is shameful (at least with strangers), or a risk of losing status (M)
- Valuing Conquest (M) / Community (F)
- Active aggression, open conflict, physical violence (M) / Passive aggression, self-harm, guilt-trip (F)
- Being more solution-focused (M) / emotion-sharing (F) in general conversation
- Being “straight to the point” (M) / descriptive and context (F)
- Being more "emotional" and empathetic (F) / "rational" and "tough" (M)
- When evaluating life items (job, finance, marriage...), focusing on "objective" elements, figures, quantifiable aspects, absence or presence of items or relationships (e.g. married/nor married) (M) / focusing on nuances, quality & relationships (comfort, worries, level of communication) (F)...
- Seduction patterns ("active"/"passive"; "predator"/"prey"...)
- Seduction: Desire for another is first tied to their physical appearance (M) / Desire for another is first tied to the strength and confidence they exude (F)
- Seduction is more likely if you feel low in confidence (surrender) (F) / Seduction is more likely you feel high in confidence (conquest) (M)
- Sexual and intimate needs and behaviours (stereotypes; need for slow and gentle, need for sexual availability)
- Physical touch is usually sexually charged / Physical touch is a sign of caring
- Sexuality: Feeling desire is often tied to feeling desirable (F) / Feeling desire is often tied to your partner appearing desirable (M).
Intimate feeling (intimate gender)
- Feeling / wanting to be considered "man" / "woman"
- Spontaneous solidarity with a gender (identification with their experience of life)
- Spontaneous empathy towards certain gender-specific social role models and ordeals (e.g. nurses / soldiers; or street harassment / friendzone)
- Identification / solidarity with M/F characters of fiction
- Identification with the role of mother/father
- Aversion towards being perceived as "masculine"/"feminine" (or aversion towards binary gender roles)
- Experience of relationship with one’s body, and especially sexually charged features (feelings of shame, pride, feeling desired, feeling pressured towards certain behaviours, feeling overwhelmed by some aspects of one's libido...)
- A wish/disgust for having certain body characteristics
- A wish/disgust for certain identity markers
Of course, there is hardly any one individual who is 100% on one gender on all those items. In fact, I don’t think anyone is a 100% on one side of any one of those. It is more a matter of degrees.
However, I m surprised at the number of aspects of life in which gender has an impact, and how much it influences our whole life experience. I am also amazed at how we tend to focus on superficial aspects (especially category #2, social appearance), which are so much less important than personal fears and experience! And I am amazed at how oppressive the whole bunch is: all those pressures to conform, all those fears of not being adequate, and all those fears of being rejected or mistreated...!
And, of course, there is no “one” masculinity or femininity! For limiting that they are, those major categories and stereotypes include many sub-stereotypes. There are many different images and stereotypes of “masculinity”, for instance, the image of a daring, confident businessman, the figure of a violent, ruthless gang member, the ideal of a focused, competitive athlete, or the standard of a nerdy, introvert scientist are all “masculine” stereotypes.
And, seeing how many aspects there are to gender identity, it seems to me that what we can perceive about transgender people is barely the surface of what is really happening inside a person.
Anyhow, looking at this list seems like it can help making a bridge of understanding between genders. Studying these aspects of gender, and seeing how reciprocal each of those are, gave me inkling that “those on the other side” experience a similar pressure. Seeing how this pressure and suffering and aspiration are universal seems to me a very good incentive for empathy and dialogue.
To quote Emily Nagoski, “we are all made of the same parts, organized in different ways”.
I don’t think anyone can have a complete view of those realities, and my list is probably far from exhaustive.
Is there anything, related to gender, that you have identified and that I have not mentioned here? Please let me know.