Sunday, 7 September 2008

Biology = Destiny?

There is a very interesting piece on Gorgon Resurfaces about the female hero and it has got my thinking away from the US elections - I am glad to say.

For a long time now - well, as far back as I can remember - I have been fascinated by sex. It started as doctors and nurses when I was very young and continues to this day. This fascination, however, is not just genital but about the very nature of all difference between women and men - including all that cultural baggage that surrounds gender and sexualities. And the issue that keeps coming up is that above and beyond, and even perhaps underlying, cultural constructions there is an essential difference. A few days ago, I posted a poem by Louis MacNeice and received an emailed comment to the effect that the last long stanza described two different ways of being a man within patriarchy but that women were more grounded by virtue of the different nature (I hope I have paraphrased correctly).

This statement is, of course, essentialist, and as such is heresy in some circles. But I honestly do not see how we can evade the question of biology. Much of what divides men and women is indeed culturally determined but the division remains nevertheless. And this division is, as far as I know, something that is recognised in every culture on this planet. The ways that different cultures construct gender are many and various but they are all fundamentally based on biological difference. A degree of essentialism is therefore unavoidable.

As a man, working as a priest in goddess ceremony, I know that there are ceremonies and other occasions when my presence is not appropriate because the nature of my biology means that I could not be other than observer – or even worse, voyeur.. A young woman’s menarche springs instantly to mind but there are others. I will stay with the first blood because that seems to me to be a very good example of how biology determines behaviour.

It is often said that something or other, usually military service. “makes a man” of boys. What does this mean? Do men have to be made? We do not speak of anything external “making a woman” of a girl – that happens. There is an identifiable moment at which a girl’s condition changes – and this is often long before the end of physical growth. There is no such moment for a boy. The man therefore has to be “made”. The first Rambo movie makes explicit mention of the difference between male and female blood mysteries in its very title, "First Blood".

I think this is what MacNeice is referring to. I will reproduce the stanza here but would recommend any who have not done so to scroll back and read the entire poem.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

As males we can either be made into men - stones - or we can be cast adrift without cultural support or validation.

A woman knows she is a woman – her body will not let her forget. This, I think, is what lies at the root of patriarchy- the male knowledge that the very concept of “ a man” is artificial and consequently fragile whereas that of a woman is grounded in physicality and entire systems of thought have been propagated to try to deny this fact They are called religions.


sometimesfaithsometimesnot said...

Most excellent post, Brian. I think you are onto something there. My first thought about the physicality of boys to men and girls to women always makes me think of puberty. Are there such moments perhaps in which boys become men physically (perhaps testicular in origin?) I would think there is, but the artificiality of manhood that patriarchy has enjoined upon you blurs the physical differences not related to muscle mass, strength, sexual potency, etc.

And you are right. There is something essential that cannot be denied. It's hormones and no matter how much we believe gender is constructed, sexuality is reliant on the physical.

And I think we but explore it further and not be afraid of compartmentalizing men and women again back into sexual roles, we've got a shot at destroying the artificial structures which attempt to do just that. Again, loved it!

Brian Charles said...

I am not sure if there is such a moment for a man. I can certainly not remember one. First ejaculation could perhaps be somewhere close but I know in my own case that that was something that i deliberately sought - having heard about it from my peers. It did not simply happen to me.

I will return to this subject often - and i agree that we should not be put off by the fear that such research could simply create another set of boxes.