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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Sex changes and changing rooms

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A few months ago, I was about to walk into the women's changing rooms at the local swimming pool with my young son when a new notice caught my eye. Translated from the Portuguese original, the text read as follows: "Children who need help to get dressed may only be accompanied by one person. Children who are over eight years old must go to the changing room that corresponds to their gender."

I stood in the doorway and chuckled to myself, "Surely," I thought "it should read sex" and then hurried my son inside — he was already late for class and still only eight years old.

A few weeks later, I was having breakfast listening to the news on a nationwide radio and my ears popped up (or at least they would have, if I were a rabbit) when I heard a journalist introduce a piece on "gender changes." A doctor was interviewed who stated that it was not possible to change minds but it was possible to change bodies.

"Surely," I thought aloud once more, "the journalist should have said sex changes." Only a few days ago I also heard another reporter on the national radio refer to same-sex marriage as marriage between people of the same gender.

Gender has, in my opinion, become such a mainstream word that in some contexts, at least here in Portugal, it has become a misplaced substitute for sex. It as if people feel that it is no longer safe or politically correct to say the word sex unless they are referring to the sexual act, which isn't usually spoken much about in public anyway.

So what is the difference between sex and gender? We could say that sex refers to the biological body and that gender refers to cultural interpretations of biological differences which produce differentiated social roles and attributes for the sexes.

Sounds easy enough, or does it? Consider the following example from my experience in Cape Verde with students who were affiliated to a research centre on gender and family. We were a small group of about ten people sitting around a table and I wanted the group to split into two, to discuss the difference between sex and gender.

The group was comprised of around eight women and two men who happened to be sitting together. So the issue was raised by one of the female students: do we separate the men in order to have a more balanced distribution of… (I think both the words sex and gender were cautiously avoided) or is it alright for both of them to be in the same group? We came to a group decision that it was okay for the men to stay together.

What do you think?

I think that part of the difficulty is the presumption that cultural constructions of biological difference still have to fall under two categories: male or female.

This was brought home to me when I travelled to the States and had to fill in a form in which apart from the option of ticking the gender box "male" or "female" there was also the option of ticking another box entitled "other."

For those who haven't read it, it is worth quoting from Agustín Fuentes' piece on PopAnth, Busting Myths of Human Nature, in which he argues:

The core belief underlying the myth of Sex is that men and women are different by design, that our very natures are opposite, or at least distinct, ways of being. This view holds that our innate difference is visible in our behaviour, desires and internal wiring. The relationships between, and within, the sexes and genders are constrained if we accept the natural opposites view. The possible range of ways to be and become human and express our sexual and social selves is extremely limited by such a perspective.

The World Health Organization makes a distinction between "sex characteristics" — such as women menstruate and men do not and "gender characteristics" — such as women in many parts of the world earn less than men for the same work.

I find the "sex characteristic" example given above particularly interesting — not because I didn't know that women menstruate but because it often appears that architects fail to consider the biological differences between male and female bodies when designing public buildings.

What often happens during the coffee breaks of public events? There are always long queues outside the "ladies" which in many places have exactly the same number of toilets as those provided for men. So it is not surprising if women take their chances and change rooms by sneaking inside the men's when they think that they are empty…And there is something else about that queue that irritates me beyond never having much time during the (coffee) breaks.

I feel that this long queue of waiting women has the potential for conjuring up stereotyped images of girly gossiping, lipstick smacking as essentially feminine behaviour rather than highlighting the shortcomings of the architects' designs which may be accounted for by returning to the issue of "gender characteristics" raised above.

That women earn less than men for the same work is an example of gender inequality which we could describe as "discrimination based upon a person's sex." And it is precisely because sex has become associated with discrimination that people may avoid referring to differences between the sexes and as gender becomes associated with equality, equity gets thrown out with the dirty bath water.

Equity — addressing difference to achieve equality — in architects' designs need not necessarily translate into more toilets for women; some small buildings have unisex toilets. The signs to distinguish the ladies from the gents have also become more abstract and artistic and in some cases so sophisticated that they leave people hovering insecurely outside the doors or cause them to stroll boldly into the "wrong" rooms and stop short once they are inside.

This is where gender and sex overlap and leaves me musing over the idea of toilets and changing rooms for the "other!"

We could say that sex refers to the biological body and that gender refers to cultural interpretations of biological differences

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Changing attitudes or just a practical measure? Unisex toilets are becoming more common in many countries
Changing attitudes or just a practical measure? Unisex toilets are becoming more common in many countries