On the social construction of gender

Submitted by SJW on 10 March, 2020 - 5:25 Author: Natalia Cassidy

In the lead up to Workers’ Liberty 2018 conference a debate took place in relation to the trans document on the social construction of gender. The comrade who raised this debate withdrew reference to opposing the social construction of gender on the understanding that further debate on the question would follow. Thus far, this debate has not materialised. This article is an attempt to rekindle that debate. For our trans document see: bit.ly/38eGaYZ

The principle question raised in the 2018 debate was whether or not we, as revolutionary socialists should be opposed to the social construction of gender. That is to say, the ways in which society constructs differences between men and women in terms of expected behaviour, presentation and expected social roles.

Many things in society are coded as either masculine or feminine and we are all expected to conform. These norms are enforced by extremely high levels of social pressure and, as we know, when people break from their assigned gender they are often met with violence. There is, in short, a widespread culture of homophobia and transphobia and in many ways the struggles against these oppressions, as well as the fight against sexism, imply an opposition to gender as a social construct.

In my view, opposing the social construction of gender serves two purposes: firstly, it clarifies our understanding of the negative impacts of the imposition of gender on all of us in society. Secondly, it is serves to agitate. This is not to say we are expecting the social construction of gender, something so deeply rooted in our social existence, to simply disappear at will, just as we don’t have that expectation of people’s relationship to nationality or cultural identity.

People’s own identification with their gender is not realistically something that will disappear in the short or medium term. It is only something that might fade over a long time, even in a socialist society in which class has been eradicated. What then, should we identify as what we might call a transitional demand on this issue? In the medium term our goal should be, on a societal level, to have one’s outwardly-perceived sex differences have as little bearing on our lives as possible. I think that would be an opposition to the social construction of gender.

The gendering of certain behaviours and traits has a negative impact on everyone in our society. Generally speaking, feminine traits serve to place women in a position subservient to men, although men also stand to lose from gendered behaviour.

There is a crisis of mental health in the UK, this is exacerbated in men by the social pressure and expectation of fulfilling masculine ideals of strength and resilience. The gendered perceptions of men takes on a particularly insidious manifestation when it comes to black men and boys. The perception of black men as fulfilling a heightened masculinity is in part what leads to such high levels of discrimination in terms of police violence, stop and search and media portrayal. It is hardly uncommon to see black teenagers reported as “black males” whilst their white counterparts would be referred to as children, this serves to decontextualise the situation of black boys who get into trouble whilst stressing the context of their white counterparts in the same situation.

The social construction of gender affects us all and exacerbates other forms of oppression and discrimination in our society. We should certainly be opposed to it as a point of propaganda to highlight its damaging impacts, whilst understanding the clear constraints in terms of how we might express the demand programmatically. Despite the worthiness of opposing the social construction of gender, the practical implications of this opposition remain somewhat unclear.

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