Sex, gender and confusion

Yesterday the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK can no longer charge men and women different rates  for car insurance on the grounds that it could lead to sex discrimination. I’m not bothered by car insurance premiums. I don’t drive nor do I have any intention of learning to do so. I live in a city. I prefer to cycle or use public transport.

What amuses me about this is the tangle that people get into when referring to sex. I was watching the BBC 10 o’clock news last night when I heard Huw Edwards say “Insurance companies can no longer offer different contracts to men and women on the basis of gender because it amounts to sex discrimination”.

Did you spot the problem with that statement? No?

Sex is biological. Gender is socially constructed. The main problem of defining this as a ‘gender’ issue is the fact that the ruling is, in fact, about sex discrimination as opposed to gender discrimination. Anyone can play with gender; it was popular in the 1980’s. The New Romantics and glamsters of the 1970’s knew all about gender and particularly androgyny: which is an genderless space between male and female social constructions.

We can do little about the sex we are, unless we opt for something called reassignment surgery; in which case, we become transsexual: a third sex, itself an entirely different space that is mediated by medical science and exists between the heterogeneous biological zones of male and female and is completely distinct from hermaphroditism, which is a naturally occurring biological phenomenon. Celtic society, for instance, was well aware of  the third sex and accommodated it. The same cannot be said for the post-Roman societies in which we live. We know little of the role of women in Roman society, but the absence of any female names in Roman history speaks volumes. There were no women senators and women were not permitted to hold high office.  Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the third sex was dismissed or ignored in the Roman world.  In this country, women were only granted the right to vote in 1918, provided they were over the age of 30. Universal suffrage was only achieved in 1928.

There seems to be a problem for some people when it comes to using the word “sex”. I’ve noticed that this has only been the case in the last 10 years or so and it appears to stem from two things: the fact that people would often write the words “yes please” in the box that asked for “sex” on application forms  and the  way in which the word “sex” is seen as dirty by some. Yet without sex, none of us would be here. Some people, and the media, especially,who have been most guilty of this, see the word “sex” as inconvenient and sought to use the safer word “gender” as a substitute. The problem with that line of thinking is that it is plain wrong. So what happens when these people want to refer to “gender” rather than sex? It is likely that these people really don’t know the difference or don’t really care and will continue to use the word “gender”, when they really mean “sex”. Masculinity and femininity are words that relate to gender. Male and female are words that relate to sex. Caster Semenya, the South African runner was allegedly going to have a gender test rather than a sex test. Nothing can be proven by having a gender test.

But what would a gender test involve? Would it ask questions like “Do you wear make up”? “Do you like wearing mens/womens clothing”? “Do you prefer needlepoint to car maintenance”?

I’m now going to play with my gender by putting on some eye-liner. Though I won’t be changing my sex as I do it.

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Filed under Language, Society & culture

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