On October 15 of last year, Alyssa Milano took to Twitter and encouraged her followers to raise awareness of sexual abuse and harassment by using the hashtag #MeToo. The phrase had previously been popularized in 2006 by abuse survivor Tarana Burke. This time around, it developed more traction because it coincided with a series of revelations about famous men guilty of abusing their power for sexual gain.
A week before Milano’s tweet, Harvey Weinstein was the subject of a revelatory New York Times article, and in quick succession, a light was shined on Lawrence G. Nassar, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, and Russell Simmons. In December, Time magazine named the “Silence Breakers” its 2017 Persons of the Year.
The momentum continued to build. For men who were watching from the sidelines, there were mixed emotions. Certainly, no one was defending Weinstein, but for some, the situations surrounding Aziz Ansari and James Franco fell into a confusing gray area. And it was hard to have a conversation about having mixed feelings without being shouted down for failing women or being a supporter of assault and harassment. The movement needed time to breathe without a bunch of dudes poking holes in it.
Still, when people are reprimanded for asking questions, all it teaches them is to stop asking. It doesn’t get them on your side or help them on the road to an epiphany. Considering this, we wanted to offer a place to start these discussions. In February, we asked readers to submit questions they had in light of the #MeToo movement and the harassment revelations, and we submitted them to a group of smart women with a comprehensive understanding of gender, consent, and the critical issues at the center of the movement.
Please read through their answers and jump into the comments with your thoughtful, balanced reactions. We think this is a discussion that is important and ongoing.
When I ask my guy friends, I haven’t found anyone who understands that they have a “gender.” They all think that the only thing that makes them a man is their junk, but I’m trying to understand the idea of gender outside of genitalia.
Any chance you can help me with that — in straightforward terms?
Dr. Casey Brienza, sociologist and author: Sex is determined by biology, whereas gender is determined by society and culture. Does a man have to show you his “junk” to assert his gender identity? Probably not. Other cues, such as dress, hairstyle, body language, speech patterns, etc. are usually sufficient, and the very fact that these may differ in different parts the world tells us that they are not inherent. Or, for that matter, immutable.
Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author: In sociology and social-psychology circles, this is often discussed as a (problematic, obvs) dimension of the “default person.” The default person is male, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, etc. As a society, we spent a lot of time using that default person/experience as the neutral guide for structuring society.
So, to your question, we are talking “males don’t have a gender because they are conceptualized as the social default/generic”-type of thing. A gender is something that’s added in as an extra to move a human away from the “default” experience – and within this system and process, the penis has become a sort of symbolic embodiment of that default entity.
It’s interesting to me too how this taps into interlocking systems of privileges and oppression. Like, a man may have none of those other “default” characteristics, but if he’s got that dick he’s somehow still plugged into the hierarchy in a socially advantageous way.