December 11th – Advent

Simon Blish

Day 11 – Vada Advent Calendar

Neurotic about Neurons – Questioning the need to justify gender and sexuality

In early December news stories started popping up describing a new study where the neurological differences between men and women’s brains had been scientifically established. My initial reaction was an audible sigh – this is sure to justify poorly constructed pop psychology arguments about the alleged differences between masculinity and femininity that are used to further an illusionary gap between the sexes.

The study was conducted by Ragini Verma at the University of Pennsylvania and concluded significant differences between the sexes in relation to neural connectivity. I’m willing to admit that I’m not particularly experienced in the realms of neuroscience (something with brains right?) – but what I’m more concerned about are the social implications of this piece of research.

The press release specifically contextualises the research by exemplifying how either sex performs certain types of tasks better. Focusing on the differences between ‘men and women’ it furthermore highlights how the study did in fact ascertain certain stereotypical gendered traits, such as the idea that multitasking is easier for women. It also highlights how, despite being different, men and women’s brains complement each other.  I don’t think it was the intention of the researchers, but I’m afraid such phrasing will inevitably strengthen heteronormative ideas of relationships already omnipresent in our society.

The problem I have with this is not the research itself – rather, I’m concerned at how it was delivered to the public. Only in an opinion piece by Oscar Rickett on the Guardian was it clarified in straightforward terms that the intention of the study had been relating to mental health research.

I really wished this would have been stressed more in the wider coverage as I now fear that this will just contribute to the ludicrous idea that there’s a major divide between men and women – and that such polarisation is neurologically and biologically justified. I think an audible sigh can now be heard, not only from me, but also from most postfeminist or poststructuralist thinkers out there. Great, we really needed this on order to turn the clocks back another ten years. Just as we were making some progress, damn!

I doubt I was the only one introduced to queer theory, Judith Butler and general Foucaultian theory during my time at university – and I’m sure many of you discursively adhere to those ideas. They’ve been discussed to infinity within the privileged realm of academia, almost to the point where they are generally assumed. Of course gender is a performance, and of course identities are only socially constructed binaries ready to be dissected by a group humanities students using their local drag queens as case studies.

I’m not going to delve into the realm of gender theory – that’s a discussion for another forum. However, something that’s always been on my mind, and highlighted by the aforementioned neurological research, is the idea that men and women, gay or straight, black or white, are supposedly ‘ biologically wired’ differently – or perhaps phrased more recognisably as ‘being born in a certain way’.

I believe this exposes an inherent flaw in identity politics such as the LGBT agenda – and before you throw rotten tomatoes at me, I mean this in the most benevolent way possible. If it’s generally agreed that gender is a cultural performance, a behavioural pattern learned and passed on through societal norms – why is the LGBT agenda and the Lady Gaga queers so proud to say they are ‘Born this way’?

Did I miss a memo? And if I have, please correct me – but I find it contradictory how in our community we find it easy to accept that biology doesn’t necessarily have to play a part in gender construction, whereas with sexuality such biological determinism is almost praised. Do we really need another neurological study showing how gay people’s brains are ‘wired differently’ – and where do we draw the line?

We certainly have to acknowledge the intention of the study – if it’s to create a better understanding of mental health disorders of course I am supporting such interventions. But if a similar study would be published tomorrow on how gay people are wired differently, I’m not sure where either side would stand. On the one hand, LGBT activists would be able to use it as a way of justifying sexuality as genetic destiny – but on the other hand, it would also justify division and segregation from those opposing LGBT rights.

I know what I’m saying might not be digested well by some, so please hold on to your rotten tomatoes – even some of my closest friends have trouble getting their heads around how we could be anything other than ‘born this way’.

There will always be biological differences between us, this is unavoidable – we all look completely different! I’m just hoping that such ideas and subsequent research is put into good practice. We all know of historical and contemporary instances, particularly in relation to race and ethnicity, where alleged biological differences feeds into a culture of hate and intolerance.

Will the LGBT agenda focusing on biological determinism ever acknowledge the inherent flaw in its argument? If we can accept that gender is a culturally constructed performance, why is it so difficult for us to accept sexuality as such? Of course, I’m aware of the queer agenda as well – and this does have the potential of providing an alternative forum. But I fear it will always remain an ‘alternative forum’ occupied only by those fortunate enough to have had their education reach the levels where postmodern values are addressed.

Let’s not try and justify our differences through neurons, genetics and DNA – but lets stop the justification altogether. Saying we are born this way only suggests we feel the need to explain our non-heterosexuality. To be frank I don’t really care why people are gay, I just care about gay people.

About Simon Blish

Writing, drawing, editing - Simon loves it all.

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