The brain is the biggest sex organ in humans. Our neural circuitry determines how we react (or not react) to stimuli; it also determines our sense of self. The feelings we have and the ways we see ourselves sexually emanate from the brain.
Our bodies also contain a timer mechanism. At a certain stage, a baby begins to babble, followed quickly by a few years in which he acquires language with remarkable ease. Milk teeth sprout, only to be replaced by permanent teeth when a certain timer rings.
Perhaps the most profound change triggered by our body timer is puberty. Quite suddenly — scientists believe it is closely linked to body weight reaching a threshold — our bodies start to produce certain hormones in unparalleled quantities, which alter the course of our physical development. For girls, breasts develop, and the menstrual cycle begins. For boys, the voice box changes and the voice breaks, the genitals increase in size and semen is produced by the testicles and prostate gland. For both, hair growth at certain places commences. Oily skin, pimples and mood swings are other effects.
The last indicates that puberty is not just a phenomenon of the physical body. Enormous changes are taking place in the brain too. Either new neural circuits are being laid down, or dormant ones now become active. Thoughts and feelings we have not experienced before, we begin to experience now. Interests that we have never had before now come alive. It’s like an awakening. But no two brains are wired in exactly the same way. Our expression of our sexuality and our romantic and erotic interests are unique to us. We cannot universalise our feelings and desires — just because I feel this way does not mean others feel the same way. Just because I desire this person, does not mean others would desire him or her too.
But I am jumping too far ahead. Let’s go back to childhood.
With respect to sex and gender, how much of our brains is already wired by birth is not clear; research continues. But there has been a trend in the results coming forth: we seem to be pre-wired a lot more than we expected to be the case. Learning (mostly unconscious) re-wires the brain and we used to believe that much of sex and gender is “acquired” in the sense that the baby is a blank slate, and “learns” to be male or female during a person’s formative years. The present picture from research is that the brain is not a blank slate at birth, it’s already wired to think and feel in certain ways.
There was a case of a newborn male whose surgery (I think it was a circumcision) was so badly botched that the parents decided to do more plastic surgery to remake the external sex organs into a female. Thereafter the child was dressed in girls’ clothes, given girls’ toys and treated always as a female, by parents, teachers, etc. Her surgical history was also kept a secret by the parents. Later, this person would remember that while growing up, she somehow never felt quite right, but it was only in her teens when, wham bang, she realised what the strangeness was. She felt she was a boy. She felt male. It was only later that she discovered she was in fact born male.
There are quite a number of cases like this by now, suggesting that our sense of what we are is very deeply embedded. There are also plenty more examples of other kinds of disconnect between one aspect of sexuality and another.
I am going to introduce four different dimensions. Three of them have to do with the self.
We think we know, by looking at others, who is male and who is female. We think we can tell the other person’s sex from a distance. Actually, we cannot. Even if that person is not deliberately acting a role, it can be hard, because what we’re seeing is not the person’s sex, but his or her Gender Expression. The term represents the sum total of the manner in which the person presents himself or herself: dress, style of speech, mannerisms, deportment, gait. Almost all cultures distinguish between a masculine and a feminine expression, and every child by age 3 or 4 is able to plug people he sees into one or the other of these categories — most of the time.
There is no sharp distinction between being masculine and being feminine. It’s a continuum of sorts. We’re familiar, for example, with the otherwise masculine guy who is a bit “soft” or “sissy” at times and can kick your ass other times. We’re familiar too with the “butch”- or “tomboy”-looking female, who hates wearing skirts but uses up a box of tissues watching a TV drama. To complicate the picture, certain features are considered masculine in one culture and feminine in another, e.g. keeping hair long.
Gender expression appears connected to Gender Identity which refers to whether we feel, inside ourselves, male or female. Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that, because there are different kinds of maleness and different kinds of femaleness — it’s not a pure binary. Overall, the connection between gender expression and gender identity makes sense, because if you feel yourself as male, you would be a lot more comfortable psychologically expressing your gender in a masculine way. Vice versa if you feel yourself as female.
Physical or anatomical sex
Gender identity in turn correlates with physical or anatomical sex. Most people who feel male, when they look inside their pants, will find a penis. But correlation is not causation. The penis didn’t make him male and that is why exceptions can be found. They surely share a root cause which wires the brain into a male brain and shapes the body into a male body. There is a very high rate of concordance in physical and psychological outcomes, but there is a fraction of people where discordant outcomes result: A person who feels male in a body that is female, or a person who feels female in a body that looks male.
The term for this tiny minority is “transgender”.
All three characteristics — gender expression, gender identity and physical sex — are exhibited in pre-pubertal children (though of course they will not have the words to articulate it). This suggests that these characteristics are largely hardwired at birth, with minor tweaks from cultural learning as they grow up, e.g. learning that high-heeled shoes and painted nails in our present culture are marks of femininity, or learning that “boys don’t cry”.
This diagram shows how persons A to H can each have slightly different combinations of gender expression, identity and physical sex:
With puberty, one big change arrives: a sexual interest in the other person, from the emotional (crushes) to romantically imaginative (daydreaming), to the physical (arousal). As mentioned earlier, this is caused by a surge in various hormones now produced by the growing body. On cue, our brains are re-wired, or more likely, long-dormant neural pathways now open to traffic. We think thoughts that we have never thought before. We respond to stimuli in ways we never experienced before.
But also, as mentioned earlier, our thoughts and responses are unique. We don’t fall in love with everybody we meet on the street, but only a handful of persons from among the many you see around you. And then the ones you think are attractive, your friend thinks are not worth the time of day. Famous words: “What do you see in him/her?”
For example, from a vast pool of friends and acquaintances, Jin has a sexual interest in only four persons:
Tasu also has an interest in only four persons, but they’re not as the same four as Jin’s:
Wen’s interest centres on a different four again:
From the above clues, can you tell me with certainty what is Jin’s (a) gender expression? (b) gender identity? (c) physical sex? What about Tasu’s? Or Wen’s?
You cannot. That’s because sexual interest in the other person is another independent variable again, stemming from a different part of the brain.
The direction of a person’s sexual interest is termed Sexual Orientation. If a person’s gender identity (not physical sex) is opposite to the gender of the persons he or she has an interest in, he or she is termed heterosexual.
If a person’s gender identity (not physical sex) is the same as the gender of the persons he or she has an interest in, he or she is termed homosexual.
But in Tasu’s case, two for the four persons Tasu was interested in were male and two were female. Tasu is termed bisexual.
All three sexual orientations emerge at about the same time, coincident with puberty. All three terms are passive descriptions of a given reality, just like one’s gender identity or physical sex are also passive descriptions of given realities. None of these characteristics are chosen; they first exist, then at some point discovered by the subject person during puberty or after, and then we put a name to it. It’s like how some people have an innate musical talent; it’s there in him or her and at some point in the person’s life, it is expressed when an opportunity comes. It’s totally different from descriptors like “well-dressed”, “chemist” or “chain-smoker”, which describe characteristics that are not there initially, but which the person makes himself into.
Yet, “heterosexual”, “homosexual”, and “bisexual” are given very different social meanings. All societies confer privilege onto certain groups and deny it to other groups. Historically, distinctions have been made along the lines of caste and descent, skin colour and other aspects of appearance, and most certainly gender.
A society like Singapore today privileges persons who gender-express in a masculine way, identify as male, are physically male and have a heterosexual orientation. Below them in the pecking order are persons who gender-express in a stereotypically feminine way, identify as female, are physically female and have a heterosexual orientation.
Females used to be much, much lower in the privilege ranking, but after about 150 years of feminism and the women’s rights movement, the heterosexual female is now accorded near-parity. We now tend to see inequality as wrong, even if it still persists to a degree.
All other permutations (of gender expression, gender identity, physical sex and orientation) suffer social exclusion and taboos. Subject individuals are strongly driven to invisibilise themselves in order to minimise the consequences that they would suffer. Thus, many individuals try not to draw attention to their differences but instead try to “fit in”. But fitting in is never more than a lifetime of acting and denial — it does not imply that anything has changed about their gender or orientation — with often severely damaging effects on their emotional and psychological wellbeing. Studies have shown abnormally high rates of depression, suicide and substance abuse in these target populations.
The battle to eradicate social exclusions and demolish taboos, including discriminatory laws, is called a gay rights movement.
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This post is the last in the series.