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I taught some selections from Anne Fausto Sterling‘s Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality to my Gender in the Media class this past week, and it was an interesting experience.

The students were predictably horrified at cutting up infants to make them conform to normative genital configurations, especially within 24 hours of birth and without giving parents enough information or time to make a reasoned decision.Some wondered if it was feasible to wait and let the child decide for her- or himself.

They were (perhaps, in hindsight, also predictably, though I didn’t see it coming) not sure that deciding not to correct intersex babies was ethical either, worrying that this might lead to social or psychological distress.

That is, when I asked them to think about the quote from a surgeon calling ambiguous genitals “a medical and social emergency” (p. 45), they were certain that it wasn’t a medical emergency, but they thought it might be a social one.

But what I didn’t expect at all was their reaction to the discussion of sex testing in sports. They were pretty adamant—the women as much as or more than the men—that sports had to be-sex segregated. Men are stronger, they said, and it’s not fair to women, end of story.

I reminded them of Hermann Ratjen, who competed as the woman Dora Ratjen in the 1936 Olympics despite being a man . . .

Hermann “Dora” Ratjen

and didn’t win. Surely here was evidence that women can beat men at sports. But no, they didn’t find that compelling.

(Incidentally, there are a number of conflicting stories about this athlete. Wikipedia says Ratjen was named Heinrich, raised as Dora, and only found out about hir biological maleness much later and competed innocently as a woman. But elsewhere in the article, it says the Nazis put him up to it deliberately, which Fausto-Sterling also says. Except that, if you believe Halberstam [who I often cal J-Hal just to refuse/mock the Judith/Jack hipsterfest] the Nazis would have been totally opposed to men behaving in any way feminine. So, this is a bit of a mystery and possibly not the best example.)

I tried again. Okay, so men might on average be stronger (though, I pointed out, averages mean that sometimes they aren’t), but not all sports are won by strength. Women might be more agile. Or they might have superior endurance. What about sports that are won on those criteria?

They really weren’t having any of it. The idea that women can’t compete with men was just too much the truth for them to be able to think anything else. And it was a little disappointing. I was a little frustrated by how far gender politics had not come. Or maybe I had stumbled into a time machine and not noticed. Something.

One male student told a story of the one girl in his football league (whether high school or youth it wasn’t clear) and how “she had a target on her back” as all the boys went after her because “if you’re going to play you have to take the consequences.” And he was totally unabashed about it, probably seeing it more as “this is a rough game and we’re not going to take it easy on you” even if the reality was more like “this is our game and we’re going to hurt you to show you you’re not welcome.”

But right alongside finding it sad, I found this fascinating. People dismiss or dislike feminism because they feel like it makes women into victims. That was the reason for the anti- or post-feminist sentiment at the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.The panelists wanted to feel empowered, not like if they chose to be sexy they were being objectified by men or pandering or anything but owning their own bodies.

But here were a group of young adults who probably don’t identify as feminists, who chuckled (as intended) when I showed them a “OMG women are victims” YouTube video and then told them I wasn’t teaching that class, reproducing the exact “women are weaker” party line all by themselves.

And I guess that’s why classes like mine are important (which I say with no self-aggrandizement). That’s why paying attention to gender is important, either in day-to-day life with one’s friends or for part of a class session or the whole semester. I have to hope that by the end of the semester my students at least will be able to start questioning the obviousness of this kind of thing.

So, despite the dis-ease with feminism I expressed in the Sexy Geek post, maybe we do still need it—at least, in the non-victim flavor. This incident would seem to call for feminism (or something like it) to continue to point out

a) the pervasiveness of these assumptions about what it means to belong to gender categories and

b) the fact that they’re only socially real and it could actually be another way if we worked to change them.

Because, as much as I thought it would be obvious to a group of relatively bright people once it was pointed out, it apparently still isn’t.


  1. i love your blog! 🙂 really insightful stuff.

  2. Thanks!

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  1. […] But of course, that behavior = body sentiment is exactly what we all hear all the time, though usually as body = behavior. “You’re a girl (body) so you should act like it (behavior).” The idea that your body is your destiny is so completely ingrained in us that we can’t think anything else. My students argued this about athletics even after reading and hearing that bodies are socially cons…. […]

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