[Adapted and extracted from a post to the Landmark Graduates' list, 5 November 2000]

Ontology of gender

Introductory note: Because this was written as part of a conversation on the Landmark graduates' discussion list, it's peppered with Landmark jargon.

One of the things I like about Landmark jargon is it's absolutely brilliant i.m.n.s.h.o. for discussing identity politics.

Unfortunately I'd have had to completely rewrite lots of what I'd written if I wanted to turn it into ordinary English, and I haven't got time now, and I do think it's worth putting it up as it is, for the benefit of the thousands of Landmark graduates and for anyone else who's willing to make the effort of grappling with the strange wording. I'll throw in a few explanations as I go, but I've also put in squigglies (tildes) to indicate jargon, so that it can be recognised as such.

Probably the most commonly used bit of jargon in this particular essay is ~conversation~. In the Landmark sense this doesn't necessarily mean people talking. It's a wider term for the way language describes life and influences or limits our perceptions.

The next most common is probably ~occur~. In the Landmark sense this refers to a subjective perception/experience of something. It's used specifically to indicate the subjective experience as opposed to something "real".


[I had used the expression "inherited unquestionedness" in an earlier post and this had been challenged.]

What I mean is,
(a) Mainstream culture conflates
on the one hand,
the biological aspects of gender (e.g. that what-we-usually-call-men don't have wombs so they can't have babies growing in their bodies [at least not given current medical technology] and they never menstruate; men and women have a different hormonal balance; there are evidently some differences in brain function although these aren't well understood;)...
with, on the other hand,
the (i.m.o. myriad) aspects of gender that are a function of cultural custom (e.g. specific clothing that's customary for females or males in a particular culture, particular skills that parents traditionally encourage either girls or boys to develop, or specific customs, such as jobs that are traditionally done by either women or men, or the idea that "it's for the man to make the first move");
i.e. i.m.o. there is a collapse going on between "what it is to be a man/woman" and "what it is to be a man/woman in mainstream western culture in 2000".

and,
(b) an obliviousness to that conflation is an aspect of the inherited ~conversation~.

I mean that mainstream culture doesn't have us all automatically going round thinking "I wonder how alike men and women could be if you took the cultural stuff out of the equation". (although that is gradually getting to be a more common enquiry.)


so, something that goes unquestioned is which things are expressions of "being a man" such that they could only apply to men and not to women, and which things could equally be considered expressions of "being a human being". and only inside a particular cultural tradition would they be considered expressions of "being a man".

& I'm asserting that that not-questioning-which-is-which is part of what's inherited in the mainstream of our culture. that we mostly inherit not dwelling in that enquiry.

hence the expression "inherited unquestionedness".


[I then referred to "aspects of gender which are a function of ~agreement~ and not a function of anything inherent about men and women". ~Agreement~ is Landmark jargon meaning the kind of "reality" that is only "real" because everyone agrees on it. E.g. the value of money. The response questioned whether there were some aspects of gender that weren't purely ~agreement~.]

well, we perceive the world through our filters, so ultimately even the most basic things like "men don't have wombs" are only "true" by virtue of our ~agreement~ that there are such entities as men and there are such entities as wombs.

but I think you might be able to agree with me that even if we all agreed that men don't have willies, there would still be a particular bit of flesh between most male humans' legs, whether you ~distinguish~ it as "something" or not and whatever you label it.

whereas if all of us (meaning all human beings in the world) agree that "it's for the woman to make the first move", it's a done deal, and the world will not contradict us.

that's what I'm referring to. so I would say that the existence of willies is, while still a function of agreement, differently so from the "truth" of "it's for the man to make the first move".


[Challenging the idea of male/female "essences" etc.:]

I'm quite willing to agree that there is a workability, in terms of perpetuating the human race, of a womb and a penis and testicles and ovaries and a vagina interacting in the way they often do. to bring together 2 sets of genes in an environment where they can recombine and then develop into another unique human. Looking from an evolutionary perspective I would say it's no surprise that something like that evolved. with a protected space for the new life to develop (where nutrients are available to it, and so it doesn't accidentally get squashed or dried out before it's viable on its own) and an "outy" that can get near the protected space and send half the genes in the right direction to meet the other half...

and then we create a lot of meaning around that...  ;-)


one of the most prevalent meanings seems to be that women and men are "for" reproduction...

and of course from the genes' point of view that's an entirely valid interpretation (hence Dawkins' "The extended phenotype" etc.)... but from the human point of view it's not one I'm particularly enrolled in...


[re things happening on a spectrum]

you've just said that at the binary level it's all 1s and 0s, and that that doesn't preclude endless possibility at the higher level. which I'm not arguing about.

so if (as you assert) it's all spectra at the basic level, why should that preclude endless possibility at the higher level either? why should the higher level have to look like spectra, any more than the higher level of digital has to look like 1s and 0s?

true, sometimes you can use a simple linear spectrum to describe something on the more complex level. and then again sometimes that doesn't really fit. (examples shortly...)


[I had quoted myself from the "Gender Questions" article:]
>>Genetically it's clearly false: XX and XY aren't the only genetic
>>combinations. Biologically it's clearly false: all human genitals grow
>>from the same cells of the embryo, and there's a spectrum of possible
>>development between what we call "male" and what we call "female".

(b.t.w. when I used the word spectrum there, it's an example of using it as metaphor/summary - not a strictly accurate description - since in between the two ends of the "spectrum" isn't a linear continuum. E.g. another variation, independent of ("orthogonal to") "male/female", is degree of development of the relevant cells from none to as-much-as-"normal".

Another e.g.: there could be different combinations of "male" and "female" characteristics.

although I'm not an expert on all the varieties of this. (I think I've been told there are about 9 or 11 distinct versions, or something like that, although I haven't seen the research to know whether I'd agree with their categorisation.))


[in answer to: XX and XY are the rule and the rest are exceptions]

and "rule" and "exception" is a conversation too... one way of filtering/interpreting "all that is"...


basically - and this may be the key difference in where we're coming from (or then again it may not) - in this domain I am present to the "all that is" and I'm not currently ~enrolled in~ what's available out of ~creating a listening~ for that "all that is" as "rule and exception".

I think a ~listening~ of "rules and exceptions" in the domain of gender buys an experience of limiting (albeit reassuring) simplicity at the expense of an experience of richness, diversity and freedom, and I don't think that serves people.


[Werner Erhardt, original inventor of what later became the Landmark Forum, was quoted in the discussion as having said...]
"women give men" & "men give women" & "together they give life."

I really dwelt in that for a while like: how did he mean that and how do I hear it and can I "get it"?

and what was he out to create in ~enrolling people in~ that interpretation?


There is a sense in which I could interpret what Werner said as kind of true (although I'm not saying it's necessarily what he meant).

in that there's a conversation a lot of people are brought up to believe in (/be ~used by~) to some degree, where the fundamental essence of being a man is about NOT being a woman. e.g. Real men don't cry, real men don't admit weakness, and they most certainly don't receive penetrative sex of any kind, especially not from a man: those are what women do, and turning into a woman is a fate worse than death (literally - some men brought up in that belief would literally rather die than be perceived as a woman. or kill.)


but I don't think that's necessarily healthy and empowering for those men or for anyone.

(though it is useful to any organisational structure that has an investment in limiting men's behaviour, e.g. the armed forces - just create the behaviour you want as "manly" and the behaviour you don't want as "womanly")


so in that model, there is no "being a man" that is sufficient unto itself. being a man takes proving that you're a man, which is equivalent to proving that you're not a woman. and men in that model who lose the circumstancial proofs of masculinity also lose their sense of their own masculinity.

(e.g. if a proof of masculinity is to earn money for the household, then if the man loses his job, he may be ~used by~ a conversation where he feels like "less of a man")

it's a kind of ontological insecurity.


(This is one of the places where sexual preference/activity and gender identity get conflated. E.g. the idea that being gay is about being "less of a proper" man or "less of a proper" woman... or the idea that for a man to have sex with a woman "proves" his "manhood"...)


I think there are similar cultural things for women too. Most of the equivalent stuff for women seems to be about physical attractiveness or fertility. For some women their sense of being a woman is a lot about being attractive to men. the concept of "he made me feel like a woman"
! d'you know what I mean?

<cue soul divas
"you make me feel
you make me fee-ee-eel
you make me feel like a na- tu- ral
womaaahhhhhn">

as opposed to "~I am that I am~ a woman and no matter what happens or what I look like, I ~occur~ for myself inside the ~distinction~ {woman}"
which is another way of being in the ~conversation~...


I also think that culturally, this area is skewed between men and women - the way this society has it put together ~conversationally~, what's implied is that being a man is something to aspire to.

so that for a man, (~conversationally~,) being a woman is what you default to if you can't manage to "be a man", or if you're "not much of a man"; and for a woman, there's a concept of "trying to be a man" which is culturally constructed as both laughable and arrogant. (there's no ~conversational~ equivalent for men "trying to be a woman" - that would have entirely different resonances. and no injunction "be a woman" equivalent to "be a man")

(b.t.w. I think this is one of the areas where people vary (~conversationally~ and hence experientially) immensely, so you can't assume that every person has every typical cultural ~conversation~ in this area - it's just that there are some ~conversations~ that men, or women as the case may be, are more likely to experience as relevant to themselves.)


There is (or was) a bit in the IFLP/ILP which is about ~managing the existence of yourself as~ X, where they use the example "~managing the existence of yourself as~ a woman", and the examples of things you might do to ~manage the existence~ of that are things like put on lipstick or wear a skirt.

Actually, I've always thought it was a bad example of "~managing existence~", inasmuch as, to the degree that I exist inside of a ~conversation~ about myself as a woman, it doesn't ~occur~ like I'm doing anything to maintain it. (As a contrasting example, I do experience myself as needing to ~manage the existence of myself as~ a powerful person - that can easily disappear and I can ~occur~ for myself as feeble.)
And from the sharing I've heard from transgender people, it's quite possible to experience oneself as a particular gender even when everything in the rest of your life is aligned on you supposedly being another one. even your body and everyone else's listening, let alone your clothes!

But part of what's interesting to me about that example is that it implies that masculinity and femininity are constructions that need maintenance. as opposed to functions of biology.


Mind you a lot of the time I'm not particularly present to "being a woman". A lot of the things I do, like writing or programming or playing music, don't seem to ~occur~ inside of that. So maybe if I wanted to be present to it all the time I would have to do something more to put it ~into existence~.

although that would seem to imply that I need to ~occur~ for myself as some particular gender. and I can't really see the point of that.

(although, since I do sometimes ~occur~ for myself as gendered, maybe it's just that I'm getting as much of that ~occurring~ as I need, as opposed to not needing it at all. But I certainly don't seem to need to ~occur~ any more gendered than I already do. If anything, it seems to be mattering less and less as I get more and more comfortable with being ~outside the agreement~ of prescribed gender roles.)

(Went to BiCon in September - the UK national bisexual conference, this year combined with the international one - a long weekend of discussions and partying. that's the least gender-prejudiced environment I ever get to be in. it's fab!)


Anyway, other than that, how it looks to me right now is not like Werner spoke it.

Of course it's possible that he meant something that I just haven't seen yet. But how it looks to me is like:

the ~distinction~ {gender} is to male and female and all the other varieties (even if we don't have names for them all)

as the ~distinction~ {colour} is to red and green and blue and orange and brown and lime and pink and all the colours (even if we don't have names for them all)

as the ~distinction~ {direction} is to up and down and sideways and backwards and forwards and diagonal and all the directions (even if we don't have names for them all).

that's what I think of when I think of "giving" a reality. colour "gives" colours. direction "gives" directions. gender "gives" genders.


(To go back to spectra using those examples:
you could say all the colours come in the rainbow between infrared and ultraviolet and that's a spectrum. but where is brown in the rainbow? where is khaki? it turns out not all the visible colours come into that particular spectrum.

and forwards and backwards aren't the only 2 directions. directions go all around you from wherever you are.)


In another sense,
the ~listening~ of all of us gives {men} and the ~listening~ of all of us gives {women}.
~The agreement~ gives {men} and ~the agreement~ gives {women}.

(though I wouldn't assume even that the ~distinction~ {man} or the ~distinction~ {woman} are the same everywhere - I'm certainly very sure that the experience of what-we-call-"being-a-man" and the experience of what-we-call-"being-a-woman" aren't the same everywhere.)


as for "gives life" - not for amoebas it doesn't!
and not for clones...
and not for every combination of man and woman that tries it either (much to some people's sorrow)...

that whole bit occurs for me like "romantic myth". reality is more complex and more beautiful to me than romantic myth.


so... like I say, maybe Werner meant something really profound there that I don't get.

but then again maybe in this particular area Werner got ~enrolled in~ something that was less fundamental than cultural. after all he's a straight bloke too as far as I know - and the US mainstream is a pretty sexist and homophobic culture even compared to here which is not exactly unprejudiced. why should he be entirely immune to the cultural conversation about how it's "supposed to be"?

who knows, and he isn't here to ask.

however it is my observation that many people are happy to keep endorsing their favourite ~conversations~ about the nature of men and women unchanged even when almost every other area of their life has been thoroughly questioned  :-)


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Copyright Jennifer Moore 2000 & 2001
Email: jennifer@uncharted-worlds.org


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