top of page
  • Writer's pictureAjith Thiyagalingam

Sex and Gender in Society

Article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR) requires states to “ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights.” Similarly, Article 3 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) obliges states “to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights.” Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies all rights and freedoms equally to men and women and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The UN Charter sets out as one of its purposes, “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women.” Article 1 of the Charter stipulates that one of the purposes of the UN is to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms “without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. This is repeated in Article 13 and 55.


UN Women defines gender as: “the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys...These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/ time-specific and changeable...Gender is part of the broader socio-cultural context.”

One of the first things we do when a child is born is declare whether they are male or female. This declaration is required by law to be reported on the birth certificate. I saw an Argentine film recently called XXY, which tells the story of a 15-year-old intersex person named Alex. The film’s title, XXY, depicts the sex of the main character’s chromosomal makeup. However, it is not a correct title to depict the main character because not all intersex individuals have an XXY chromosomal make-up. Alex’s biological sex is a rare one, as they were born with both ovaries and testicles—commonly referred to as intersex or hermaphrodite individuals.

The “fear of social stigma” is a strong theme that acts as the primary motivator for the actions, emotions and internal struggles of all the characters in the film. The fear of becoming visible and prone to questions, attacks, and embarrassment forces Alex’s family to move to an isolated location to raise them. The fear of social stigma forces Alex’s mother to call upon a surgeon to conduct surgery on Alex without their permission. If more people were to find out that Alex was an intersex individual, then the family would face more problems and their social worlds would become further disrupted. This was the main reason why Alex’s father restrains himself from going to the police after Alex is attacked by a group of boys at the beach.

Another theme that is explored in the film is Alex’s coming of age. Alex is an adolescent child who is going through the process of learning about their gender-identity and exploring their changing body. Alex experiences a great deal of confusion over how to identify their gender and biological sex, and is unable to understand whether they should be a boy or a girl. Alex’s experience of sexual desire does not conform to dominant heterosexuality either. In one scene in the film, Alex takes on a dominant masculine role and has anal intercourse with a male friend. This scene depicts the natural/unnatural binary categories we have created as a society to explain what sexual beings are supposed to look and act like, and how sex is supposed to be performed. The definition of natural versus unnatural is defined by the medical community, which fixes “deformities” such as intersex to create a “natural being”. The confusion over gender and biological sex creates an internal conflict between freedom of body and personal choice, which is regulated by this underlying logic of nature, where natural bodies and practices are legitimated.

Another theme in the film is the ubiquitous patriarchal system that fails to acknowledge differences and regulates conformity. “Alex is a dying species” is a line in the film that is spoken by an older male character who looks at Alex with disdain for having acted out aggressively against his grandson. Everywhere Alex turns, they are expected to conform. They have switched out of many schools for not being able to conform to the mainstream education system’s rules and regulations. Alex is expected and almost forced upon to be and act like a female. Their failure to conform to the expectations forced upon them alienates them to nearly every other character in the film. Although we see that Alex is always around people, they are lonely and self-absorbed.

There have been two major shifts in how we understand the role of gender and sex in society—the first is gender as a site of power, and the second is gender as restrictive. Traditionally, being a man or woman has been understood in essentialist terms as a natural process rooted in biology. The role that culture played in gender was to protect and enforce these biological values of gender norms. This created restrictions or limitations on how we thought about the male and female biological sexes. These restrictions represent a struggle of power relations within the body. Mainstream society operates under a heteronormative model, where gender norms are culturally enforced by what is considered to be appropriate masculine and feminine behaviour. These enforced social expectations on male and female genders, which delineate the gender binary categories, are the primary source of gender restrictions on the body. The binaries of heterosexual and homosexual are opposites where one cannot be the other. Therefore, masculinity is proven through performance. It is defined in opposition to femininity and homosexuality.

Men exert power over women and the socially derived expectations of masculinity and femininity reproduce these power relations. Men’s body must exert what is culturally expected of them as depicting masculine imagery and performance. A large part of this is due to men’s fear of humiliation. Men fear the consequences of going against the heteronormative boundaries that are labelled as masculine by society. To quell this fear, they reproduce this notion of masculinity which gives them a “false” sense of security and accomplishment that hides their “feminine” qualities. In locker rooms, men and boys would often talk about domination and penetration over other women and girls. Conversely, women and girls would have these conversations with their close group of friends in confined spaces. Therefore, homophobia arises because of men’s fear of humiliation and fear of being unmasked and shown not to be a real man. Violence against homosexuality is a way for men to assert their masculine characteristics that is defined for them by others. We rely on heteronormative norms and cultural expectations to shape our understanding of what it means to be masculine. A solution against homophobia is to be inclusive and for men to become more broad-minded in terms of their own masculinity.

Feminists do not accept this model of gender where masculine ideology is seen to oppress the feminine body. During the feminist movements in the late 1900s, women sought to re-examine the power of femininity as it is culturally enforced on the female body. This was also a period where people began to more clearly see that the human body was a site of power and one that is made up of cultural expectations and social interactions. Restrictions that are put on the male and female bodies are still part of the larger power relations that operate within the body and mind. Unfortunately, these restrictions still exist in a patriarchal society, even though women are attempting to remove these obstacles through their independence and empowerment.

Gender is constructed in relation to race, as to be anything other than a heterosexual male is to be an “other.” This includes racialized men and women and LGBTQI+ individuals. This includes heterosexual women as they are the opposite of what is perceived to be masculine in a patriarchal society. Similar to how masculinity is constructed as the dominant trait in opposite to homosexuality and femininity, black female sexuality is formed in opposition to that of a white woman. Sarah Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe. Oriental women are often portrayed opposite to white women in the media. Oriental women and black female sexuality are both constructed to be hypersexual and antithetical to the traditional norms and values that women are expected to embody in society. A path forward from this stereotypical depiction, and one we already see happening with many Black-led films like Black Panther, is for black women to become more empowered and reconstruct their sexuality from within. Historically, black female sexuality has been defined by white males and white females, who perceive them from the outside and from a distance. This repeated silence is a form of “invisibility” that describes how black women and their sexuality are constructed for them and not by them.


bottom of page