Not Satisfied? Exchange your Gender for Free! (or Your Money Back!)

Teenagers are new to gender roles and norms, and to the urgency of post-pubertal sexuality. It’s a profoundly difficult and complex business and it can become a dominant preoccupation. I thought of little else but girls, at this age; my 16-year-old daughter won’t leave the house until her make-up is perfect.

Self-presentation – conforming to the group’s look, proclaiming their interests and values – is a deeply important aspect of group identity with profound implications over the degree to which you will be accepted. Our 6th formers, who do not wear uniforms, spend anxious hours making sure they don’t “look weird”, or even say anything weird. Lower school girls automatically roll up their uniform kilts, as they leave their houses in the morning, because anything longer than a mini-skirt is Social Death!

In western youth culture, fashion is distinctly gendered, and women’s fashion tends to be sexualised. Every season, a new body part must be exposed, or accentuated with make-up. At the moment, it is midriffs; a while ago it was bare legs and a hint of buttock peeping out of very short shorts. Cleavage makes perennial comebacks. 

Modern online culture exposes even pre-pubescent children to gender and sexuality. Its memes and marketing are highly gendered and thus polarising. Its world-weary humour and furious outcries, even its pornography: all reinforce stereotypes and expectations. Children are encouraged to “take sides” before they have any real sense of what is going on, or have become properly aware, and comfortable with who they are in either gender or sexual terms. If they find the choice difficult, they are encouraged to see themselves as having a problem, or at least as being different. 

Some teenagers are still finding it difficult to fit in. They might be too shy to carry off the fashion; they might be late developers; they might be bored by football or conversations about boys; they might be inept at picking up social cues and signals; they might not be attracted to members of the opposite sex; they might be plagued by strange thoughts. Yet they still long for inclusion and acceptance. This can lead to a profound sense of alienation and distress and, without the recognition of peers, deep crises of identity. 

However, help is at hand. If they don’t find it easy to conform to the gender norms of their social group, young people are now encouraged to see their problems as stemming from the fact that they are the “wrong” gender, as if gender was a free-floating spiritual truth, independent of, and more real than, the body and its DNA and hormones and just happening to settle in a male or female body at random. And the internet offers support. By connecting billions of people across continents, even small minorities can find enough allies to create an online ersatz community. The “wrongly gendered” has become a thing. 

“Safety in Numbers”:The Golden Rule of theTeenage Years

Teenagers are not only anxious and uncertain, they are also ready to explore and experiment, to forge their own identities, independently of their parents and teachers, to define themselves in opposition to those over-bearing adults.

That’s why secondary school students are much more difficult to manage than primary school kids. They’ve had enough of being bossed around; they are testing out forms of rebellion, to see how dangerous they are. 

They are compelled to step out into the unknown (it probably makes evolutionary sense, making it easier to mix up their genes), but they do so nervously. Humans are social beings who run in packs, so teenagers cling to each other for security. Their friends become their tribe. They are desperate to belong, taking their cues on how to behave or dress or talk, from each other, terrified of being excluded.  

They are conflicted little puddings: rebellious and contrary in the company of their parents, conformist and risk-averse in the company of their peers.

Teenagers and Gender (Don’t Ask!)

In my experience, students often start to exhibit signs of gender dysphoria at puberty, at an age when they’ve become capable of reflecting on the subject, but before they’ve fully developed as sexual beings. 

The teenage years are a period of transitional unease and uncertainty for everyone, as our bodies and brains experience profound changes in both personality and sexuality. We start to become different people from those we were as children. New and intoxicating hormones and over-production of neurotransmitters buzz up our brains. Imbalances trigger storms of emotion that we seem to have no control of. The calmest of children become volatile to the point of hysteria. 

This will cause existential angst in the calmest most grounded of us, and we become obsessed with self-definition: pinning ourselves down, firming up our identities. It’s an anxiety-inducing turmoil. 

Gender = X & Y; Sex = Getting Fruity!

Your gender is something you recognise in yourself, partly because it is recognised in you by others. So, gender is held in place by a combination of biology, recognised relationships and then, I guess, habit. 

Sexuality also plays a key role in gender identity: who you are expected to want to shag. Children start to play-act these relationships before puberty. I’m sure we all remember when we were about 10 or 11 and the playground alpha males started to “go with” the playground alpha females, but (rather sweetly) they had no idea what to do with each other, so that the relationship would last a week and they wouldn’t spend any time together. 

For most people, even traditionally minded patriarchs, sexual acts, even the most exploitative, are relationships between two breathing, thinking individuals. You may be too selfish to bother with your partner’s thoughts or needs, but you have the capacity: the concept of self and mind. In all my sexual fantasies, for example, I used to be in a relationship with the desired person, which is why they were so willing to fuck my brains out. 

I’m acutely aware of this immediate and automatic conception of other selves, because it was that profound sense of depth and significance to others that I lost when I was acutely underweight. I might tell you exactly how somebody might react to something, what they might say or think, but it held no fundamental importance. It felt like reading out the temperature on a thermometer or the numbers on a spreadsheet. (I didn’t see any greater importance to my own thoughts or feelings, either.)

I realised then that this was perhaps the greatest and most precious gift of human sentience.

The lack of it damages the sense of self, including conceptions of gender identity and sexuality.

“Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”

There has been a small increase, in the school where I work, of students adopting a gender-neutral garb. It is almost always girls. I think it is significantly easier for them to make this choice, than it is for the boys to travel in the other direction. Patriarchy has always judged women by sexualised appearance, encouraging them to enhance their looks and adopt eye-catching fashions. Men haven’t needed to do that, so girls who want to be more like boys can dress down, while boys who want to be more like girls have to dress up, making a far more noticeable declaration and, unless they are very skilled, risking becoming a laughable caricature of what they want to become. 

This trend towards gender neutrality ought to be encouraging: these girls have cast off the patriarchal shackles of objectifying, sexualising fashion, right? Some students are clearly liberated by it. They can throw on their uniform, in the mornings, and bound into school with no (or minimal) make-up, a shaggy mop of hair and a happy smile. They are not necessarily denying that they are women, but they can concentrate on more important things than reinforcing their femininity to gain status.

But others are profoundly troubled by their inability or unwillingness to enact the stereotypes. They are overly anxious and prone to depression and, ironically, more pre-occupied with gender than their more confident classmates. Their lack of care over their appearance can seem more like defeated self-neglect than an achievement, a failure not a heroic resistance to social pressure. 

Living in Your Body

In summary, we are not disembodied minds, but touchable bodies, and who we are is inextricably tangled up with our physicality. We should ditch our phones and learn to live in our skins, again. These are our biological communication systems, highly attuned to the semiotics of intonation and accent, of facial expression and body-language; alert to the implications of eye-line and eye contact, of touch and smell, of clothes – their cut and fashion (Are they new? Stained? Ironed?); our companions’ social context: how they act and talk in groups (are they confident, shy, attentive, domineering?); how and where somebody sits or moves around a room; how they approach you; the things they own; how generous they are; the sort of tea or coffee they offer you, or the food – how they make it: how skilfully prepared and what it tastes like; how they laugh; how they hug you; how they kiss…

Online we are nothing but insubstantial ghosts, wailing and gibbering on the wind. Look at me, on this blog! 

Is it any wonder that, in this miasma of incorporeal, source-less voices and images, that truth, honesty and sincerity should wither away? Nothing is more, or less, true than anything else in a world made up entirely of voices, of unverifiable assertions and verbal inventions. You are the words that you say you are. Is it surprising that colonies of falsehoods, conspiracy theories and weird, nonsensical, self-contradictory beliefs (that your gender is optional but you are compelled to choose it; that only white people can make racist generalisations) should settle and thrive, should spread vigorously through the net like mould through bread? 

And should we be surprised if this protean, morphing, uncertain medium should breed unease, uncertainty and suspicion, that it should hide and protect marauding bands of bigots; that it should foster schism, conflict, hatred?  

Escaping the Bunker, or When Your Bubble Turns Toxic

Aside from “White Privilege”, the most obvious example of activists reinforcing the prejudicial structures they condemn is the creation of the category suffix “Cis-” This is used to refer to people who are heterosexual, or “heteronormative”, and is used as dismissively and derisively as any homophobic slur, or as the term “white privilege.” Cisgender people are normies, the beige majority, people too conservative and conformist to have much character of their own. 

Rather than condemning intolerance, and resisting it by being more tolerant, activists have created another category to be intolerant of. They have further segregated society and alienated us from each other. They are colluding in the structures they condemn, out of a desire for revenge, and enthusiastically policing them, using anger, confrontation, and digital lynch mobs to drive everyone into their separate ghettoes.

These ideas have found traction only with the birth of social media. We are so vulnerable to their poison because we have become existentially and socially dependent on social media. If we lose the approval of our online friends, we become profoundly alone and isolated. The internet instruments designed to bring us together, are driving us further apart. 

And it is people with the courage to explore relationships beyond their own tribe or internet pod that are condemned as “Cis.”

We have retreated into our own cells, unable to cope with so much connectivity. We are like survivalists who, having fallen prey to some mass hysteria about the end of the world, have retreated underground with enough supplies to last a generation. Now we cower in the dismal, artificial half-light of our damp bunkers, in rage and fear, and only a very few have realised that the world isn’t a toxic, hostile wasteland, ravaged by packs of cannibalistic savages. And we don’t need the bunker with its miserable approximation of life.

And even fewer have lifted the hatch and emerged into a wide, peaceful, strangely quiet world, after all the manic, paranoid chatter of the bunkers, where they can feel breezes on their skin, hear them in the leaves of trees, hear birdsong, larks, under a high, cool sky.

Sex and Gender

So biology and social construct are indivisible, when defining gender (or sex). Relatively formless biological urges are shaped and channelled by social forces, but the biology must exist first. The socially determined elements can be resisted or interrogated or altered, but they grow out of the incontrovertible, predetermined fact of the biological sex/gender. Cut off from its roots, the social construct becomes a free-floating, morphing tissue of nothing: the shape without the substance. It ought to cease to exist, be reabsorbed into the simple fact of biological sex. That, surely, would be the sign of a free and fair society, where it was no longer significant which gender you were. 

Yet this is not what is happening. The social constructs of gender are being cultivated and sustained by those claiming to reject them most, presumably so they can have something to fight against. Codes of dress, behaviour and expectation are said to be artificially imposed, but insurmountable. Activists describe a world of rigidly and obsessively segregated gender or racial stereotypes, and by doing so, by denying that there is any flexibility or tolerance in society, they reinforce gender and racial segregation. Then they can enjoy themselves condemning it, calling everyone else to account, without working towards effective, inclusive solutions. 

They are flailing at shadows and, in the process, wounding those around them, those closest to them, those willing to listen.

Who Polices the Thought Police?

QAnon ideas are so extreme that they are still rejected by most people, although The Observer, last week, reported on how browsing for wellness content leads some people straight to conspiracy theory, a phenomenon they call “Conspirituality.” It appears to seriously degrades its followers’ mental health. (The Observer, 17/10/21, “The Dark Side of Wellness”.)

Other implausible theories have gained widespread acceptance, however. There’s the confused attempt to make a distinction between sex and gender, for example. People are always solemnly explaining to me that sex and gender are different. They say, “Sex is biological and gender is a social construct. No, no – gender is biological and sex is a social construct. No, hang on, maybe it is sex is biological…”(etc.) This is always stated as a universally accepted scientific fact, yet my conversationalist’s assumption that I need to be told, demonstrates how new this concept is for both of us. Their hesitancy and confusion show how counter-intuitive and externally imposed it is.

Until a couple of years ago, the words “sex” and “gender” had always been interchangeable. A person’s sex or gender is determined biologically. It is encoded in their DNA, replicated in every cell in their body (to paraphrase Robert Winston’s courageous defence on Any Questions.) We can’t avoid it. Every human society on Earth makes the distinction between men and women, presumably because they look markedly different (and have different roles and experiences in reproduction.) 

Of course, all of our psychology is, ultimately, biologically coded, including the desire to renounce our biological gender. Behaviours and desires may also be conditioned before we are old enough to make conscious decisions. And much of how maleness and femaleness presents in society is socially constructed. 

These norms are restrictive and will be repressive if you do not conform to them easily, but they are rooted in our genetically dictated biology. They build up from, or resist, those foundations. We have no control over this. It is not our decision to make. These are the cards you have been dealt. Life is unfair and naturally unequal. Not everyone gets dealt a royal flush. 

But everyone should be free to play those cards in whatever way they wish. We must build an equal and tolerant society where everyone is free to express their gender and sexuality in whatever way they want. If you are a man who wishes to live as a woman, under a woman’s name, you should be free to do so, with the respect and support of your wider community. 

Wilful Madness Begets Wilful Madness

It takes enormous, almost impossible strength to challenge such a theory-identity construct. Only people with the strongest possible alternative identities (perhaps as world class sportsmen or Nobel Laureates) can stand against the orthodoxies of their tribe. The need to belong is a form of conscription that suppresses dissent. You can’t robustly challenge Critical Race theory, at the moment, if you’re a person of colour, because that would deny your essential identity. People wouldn’t see you as “properly” black/Asian/whatever. And you would lose the community that supports and sustains you.  

I don’t think this is a new thing. The same tribal identity has always kept voters loyal to their party, no matter how disappointing their politicians have proved to be. Back in 2005, Sam Harris was complaining about just this psycho-social dynamic keeping religious believers devout and unquestioning despite (in Mr Harris’s opinion) having no evidence whatsoever (The End of Faith, London: Simon and Schuster, chapter 2)

However, the digital-media age seems to have supercharged this phenomenon. What’s new, I think, is the internet’s ability to spawn new belief systems and, at the same time, to undermine the very concept of truth and proof because everything online has an equal, unproved superficiality – from flying teapots to germ theory to the holocaust – they are all just images and ideas that form particles in the blizzard of the internet’s phenomenology. (Phew! What a word!)

Mad ideas find corroboration in other mad ideas that algorithms lead viewers to, exactly because those ideas are similarly insane. Both are probably rooted in a third, ancestor mad idea, which takes you on to another, leading the digital wanderer down the infamous internet rabbit hole. Online explorers, believing they are keeping an open mind, add one flawed investigation to another and think that, because they both push a similar argument, they substantiate each other. In truth, they may both be inspired by, and reinforce, the same mass delusion or false consciousness.

What makes this worse is that, because of the internet’s phenomenological unreality, theories do not need to be plausible, let alone provable, and, most crucially of all, belief in them doesn’t need to be sincere, at least at first.

I don’t believe QAnon supporters can possibly believe that a Democrat cult, led by Hilary Clinton, sacrifices children and drinks their blood. I suspect that, at first, it is an attempt to be as difficult and contrary as possible: tricksy and challenging: exasperating their enemies by refusing to admit that the most ludicrous ideas are false. 

But then they seem to become pre-occupied with their game. They disappear down their own rabbit hole. Entertaining thoughts become habits of thought; habits of thought become assumptions, ideas that are taken for granted as the a-priori starting point of hypotheses,  and form the foundations of towering but unstable cathedrals of delusion. In other words, beliefs.