A journalist and cultural critic investigates the “shifting terrain of gender.”
Former NPR science reporter Browning (The Monk and the Skeptic: Dialogues on Sex, Faith, and Religion, 2013, etc.) offers a probing, wide-ranging, and illuminating look at society’s current “gender conundrum.” How, he asks, are masculinity and femininity defined, biologically determined, and socially conditioned? He believes that Margaret Sanger’s early-20th-century “crusade to separate sex from reproduction” changed both behavior and attitudes. Once sex was not tied to making babies, “the terms of what constituted sex were turned upside down, left to the torpor of the erotic imagination.” Browning explores that erotic imagination, asking “whether activities of tongues, fingers…sundry inanimate toys,” and twerking qualify as “sex.” To research sex and gender, the author draws on interviews with and published research by biologists, neurologists, psychologists, physicians, parents, teachers, counselors, therapists, and many individuals who define themselves as “gender variant.” The nurture vs. nature debate, he finds, has not been settled; nor have assumptions about comparative intellectual ability among males and females. In the tech world, Browning finds gender imbalance caused partly by the “male buddy culture” and partly, one researcher concludes, because of “ingrained cultural teaching and training.” In Norway, kindergarten teachers look at differences in the ways they reinforce stereotypes in their responses to boys and girls. The author profiles gay couples who use surrogates to bear their children; transsexuals who undergo hormone treatment or surgery; and transvestites. Gendered stereotypes, he was told repeatedly, prevail in the culture, but attention to “trans issues,” he believes, has the potential to inspire acknowledgment of “masculine and feminine fluidities” rather than sharply defined categories. “We all exist on what is called a gender spectrum,” writes the author, “carrying both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits whether we lust for the opposite sex, our own sex—or no sex.”
A timely, thoughtful contribution to a much-debated issue.