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Basic Representation of Concepts of Sex and Gender

One of the concessions to introducing a gender perspective to medicine has been the necessity, in gender studies terms, to adopt the reductionist approach of representing sex and gender to binary concepts. Binary (usually oppositional) concepts imply that things are only one or the other; black or white for example. In medicine we like things to be as black or white as possible. Many of the social sciences however, embrace the concept of an infinite range of grey. In terms of sex and gender the binary concepts are male/female and masculine/feminine.

Sex is not always male or female

Most doctors and medical students can tell that sex is not always male or female. Occasionally babies are born with indeterminate genitalia which means that from the outside you can’t tell whether they are male of female babies. This happens for a variety of genetic and hormonal reasons but the point is that, though sex is usually a binary concept, it is not always the case.

Gender is not fixed

In our discussion of gender we have tended to imply that the social roles associated with masculine and feminine within a culture are constant, but clearly that is not the case. Ideas about gender and gender roles within a society are numerous and contextually dependent. This is one of the reasons why it is so hard to identify gender as a variable in many contexts; people’s interpretation of what it means is so variable.

We have chosen to focus on the normative or dominant ‘discourse’ or perspective on what is masculine and what is feminine within a society. In sociological terms this is usually represented by the opinion of the dominant social group within any society. Discourses are therefore tools of exercising social power, which goes part of the way to explaining why some people find the challenge to the assumptions associated with the dominant social perspective, or discourse on gender, so provocative.

We recognise the simplistic nature of this representation we have chosen but from experience have found that it is necessary to start with basic concepts and build up. We also recognise that other institutions and authors talk about these concepts with far greater authority then we can. So in the interest of NOT ‘reinventing the wheel’ here are some links and resources:

Books on gender roles and their socially constructed nature:

Butler, Judith. 1990 Gender Trouble Routledge, London .

Gilmore, David 1990. Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity Yale University Press, New Haven

Gender Studies Hub that lists courses and information about gender worldwide

xyonline, a website focused on men, masculinities and gender politics

Content by Ann-Maree Nobelius, 23 June 2004